The one option no longer available is a return to an earlier order. Although there may be moments of calm there will never be peace again in our lifetimes, caught as we are between the ongoing crises of climate change and the social collapse of a disintegrating neoliberal economic order. Our contemporary culture is in transition as a new culture builds itself within it, each bit ferociously contested not by the left or right so much as the faction of compassion and mutual aid versus the faction of dominance and individualism.
These factions are deep in our existing culture. Our official high-culture values of compassion, beauty, tolerance, and freedom are portrayed in innumerable entertaining forms but those are not at all the lived values of our society. The lived values are smaller and meaner, hidden behind the public facade of the official culture is a private squalor of individualism and competition, personal greed, and partisan empathy. Compassion in particular is valued as an ideal that in practice is regarded as a weakness of despised do-gooders and “social justice warriors,” subtly smeared as sentimental pseudo morality.
Over the last few months we have seen how this cannot sustain a functioning society. Faced with a major crisis the markets immediately crumbled. It was obvious that consumer-driven markets that had survived for years only by aggravating our sense of insecurity had no place in a time of real insecurity. Only large scale government intervention and direct community management has held things together. During the bushfires, the heroes were not disruptive innovative entrepreneurs, they were the well-trained groups of community volunteers who knew how to collaborate. Then, when the pandemic lockdown hit, the real heroes of the apocalypse turned out to be the stay-at-home carers and cleaners who could stretch a budget and whip up a meal from nothing. The heroic posturing of toxic masculinity so beloved of Hollywood blockbusters had no place in a different apocalypse to the one they fantasised they would heroically abuse, bash, or shoot into submission.
Where do those experiences leave us now? There is a sense in which the invisible hand has actually worked insofar as the dominance of neoliberalism has unintentionally generated a countervailing process of survival through mutual aid and empathy. These forces will ultimately replace the collapsing neoliberalism simply because they provide the only viable solutions to the crises we now face. Unmanageable weather, firestorms, pandemics, crippling inequality, and foreseeable food shortages can only be dealt with by recognising “we are all in this together,” annoying as that trite chant has become. All must be treated equally and with compassion, as must all life on the planet.
But to do that we must change our culture even further, nurturing the positive adaptive tendencies while clearing the neoliberal jungle. I will attempt a sort of mud map of our culture, not very rigorous but hopefully offering some practical guidance. There are three main strands to our culture. The first strand is the official institutional “high” culture which, while enshrining positive values, has functioned as an ideological mask for European colonialism and exploitation. While it is no longer the dominant influence it retains its power to validate cultural forms, and it still functions as an anachronistic class marker, a form of entertainment for the very wealthy fortuitously subsidised with shrinking public money.
The cultural values most of us are forced to live by come from the second strand, the corporate culture that is disingenuously described as popular culture. It is overt or covert propaganda in the form of advertising and mass media entertainment that focuses on dominance and individualism, notions of freedom that mean lack of care and responsibility for others, the values summarised by the term homo economicus. Homo economicus, initially introduced by John Stuart Mill to define the isolated human driven to maximise their own wealth and convenience with the least effort and least concern for others, describes the optimum actor in capitalist society, best suited to succeed in the short term but also most amenable to exploitation by those more powerful. Robbed of an alternative, these values become embedded in our heads if not in our hearts.
But if corporate culture enshrines natural immorality, the stronger force of natural morality has reasserted itself through social media and the new cultural forms it has enabled: the open sourced culture making up the third major stream of our fusion culture. In its early forms social media shocked by its ability to bring together abusive racist and sexist groupings, but in the longer term the exposed abuse has created a groundswell for reform seen in multiple groups from Extinction Rebellion to Black Lives Matter. The do-it-yourself culture that dominates social media is far livelier than either institutional or corporate culture; a tsunami of commentary, memes, performance, and video dwarfs mainstream media and is a truer reflection, for better and worse, of genuine popular attitudes.
What would cultural work look like if its main subject, its main driving force even, were compassion? Are we seeing a cultural shift that is beginning to value the group over the individual, compassion and empathy over aggression and strength? Each of these three cultural streams are as they are because we who work within them choose to make them so and, if change is to happen, we must choose differently. As members of the artworld the first stream, the institutional culture, is to some extent within our control. It is time to start re-examining histories whose bias has gone unseen or at least accepted with resignation. The recent attacks on monuments that glorified slave traders or genocidal colonial “settlers” is a good start.
History matters, and, although the fallacy of presentism warns us to be careful of expecting the past to conform to our contemporary attitudes, it doesn’t mean we cannot benefit from additional information. Does the fact that Heide Museum of Modern Art was funded by a colonial fortune built by John Reed’s grandfather who financed John Batman (notorious for his treatment of Aboriginal people), help explain why Heide now seems more like the last gasp of Anglo-colonial Australia rather than the beginning of modernism, as is claimed? There are any number of skeletons such as that in our institutional closets, but hauling them out is only part of the process.
More important are the future decisions of what is accessioned and exhibited. The rise of social practice and its necessary focus on relationships linked to slow institutional moves towards greater diversity and accessibility, but there is little sign of rethinking the entire institutional model. That model is currently driven by partnership with a tourist industry that is itself entering a death spiral caused by limited travel during ongoing pandemics and climate crisis.
As the model fails, the purchase of work that has little cultural significance beyond its potential for iconic status to generate sensationalist publicity – the case of the National Gallery of Australia’s astonishing decision to spend $6.8 million on Jordan Wolfson’s Cube promoting abusive white boy culture – appears particularly tone deaf. Given that compassion, based on seeing things from another’s point of view, is not a sentimental moral issue but rather a tough pragmatic tool for survival, institutions are more likely to be saved by employing new eyes from outside the pool of young, white middle class fine arts graduates. The 2020 Sydney Biennale is a start.
The Turner Prize, the most elite level of institutional endorsement, was awarded in 2015 to Assemble, an architectural collective, for its transformation of run down housing in Liverpool. The project neatly illustrated the organic process of cultural change. The area of mostly boarded up and derelict housing had a remnant of residents who adopted an approach that had developed over decades in squatting communities of cleaning up the area, planting gardens, painting murals, and reusing materials from the abandoned buildings. Assemble, a group of eighteen architecture students, were brought in by the local housing trust to help the residents, culminating in the institutional recognition that opened pathways to further support.
There has been a history of artists’ and architects’ projects in poor communities, such as Theaster Gates’ work in Chicago and Rural Studio’s work in impoverished rural black communities in southern USA. What sets Assemble apart was that they were a large scale collaborative group that had never bothered to claim they were artists and, when nominated, they knowingly used the artworld to promote the community rather than using the community to promote themselves, demonstrating an exemplary awareness of how artists should work in communities. It is a model that eschews artworld glamour, that values effective community relationships more than high impact visuals, and insists that it must be judged by practical social outcomes rather than aesthetics. One member, Maria Lisogorskaya, commented that they weren’t very interested in whether they were artists or not, they were just interested in doing good projects and “Sometimes that’s about doing really good plumbing.”
But social practice in its entirety can be seen at least in part as a movement away from the individualistic self-marketing of neoliberalism towards prioritising community. Unsurprisingly most of this work has not been welcomed by the institutions unless it was effectively depoliticised. It is telling that in 2019 Mierle Laderman Ukeles received the Francis J. Greenburger Award for artists who the artworld knows to be of extraordinary merit but who have not been fully recognised by the public, a situation common to many of the best social practice artists. This acknowledged her decades of work as the New York City Department of Sanitation’s unpaid artist‑in‑residence since the late 1970s. Among the many works she has produced is Touch Sanitation, a 1979 public performance artwork in which she visited all fifty‑nine sanitation districts to face, shake hands with and thank every sanitation worker for “keeping New York City alive.” According to her gallery “For eleven months she worked entire day and/or night shifts, following in the footsteps of sanitation workers, walking with them on their collection routes while talking, listening, often videotaping and recording.”
Ukeles’ insight that the maintenance of a functioning society is cultural work defines maintenance of every sort as art. For over a century the idea of an art indistinguishable from daily life has been raised as an ideal but it has been an ideal honoured more in rhetoric than in artistic practice. My similar insights in the early 1970s led me to argue for the value of many forms of innovation as cultural work essential to ongoing human evolutionary adaptation. It is sobering to recognise that my position now seems only half true when countered by Ukeles argument that cultural change and innovation is an essentially masculine pursuit that ignores the equally important role of maintenance, work that at the domestic level at least falls mostly to women. On the industrial scale many of the workers are men but their work is under-valued and under-paid in the same way as other occupations with predominantly female workforces.
In the course of her work Ukeles was made Honorary Teamster Member of Local 831, Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, a reminder of the well‑researched fact that the poor are more empathetic and their organisations such as trade unions are based on mutual aid. I have argued that the early 1970s green bans of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in support of communities threatened by developers and corrupt planning processes constituted some of the most radical cultural activity of the time. In those terms the BLF as an organisation can be described as an artist, but Ukeles analysis broadens that, allowing us to see their work also as a form of cultural maintenance, the defence of both communities and the historical built environment created by the labour and skills of earlier workers.
But the fact that institutional culture is belatedly acknowledging a culture of relationships rather than artifacts is only a small part of the picture. The second element of our transitional culture, the overweening corporate culture, has been in disarray since the internet began to undermine it, but it needs to be destroyed rather than changed. There can be no good form of consumer advertising given that it exists mostly to generate hyper consumption and a market for unnecessary products. The pandemic lockdown served to demonstrate that it is easy to survive without many products we have been trained to need, but extremely difficult to survive without the closeness of our friends and loved ones.
A simple legislative change that made all advertising opt in, only ever to be seen by choice, would have dramatic cultural and social effects that would range from lowering social stress, forcing unnecessary products out of existence, and also eventually lowering inequality. But above all it would remove the largest promoter of greed and alienation, the endless self‑centred insistence that “you are the most important person in the world,” the message that made the sudden switch to “we’re all in this together” so risible during the pandemic.
The post-WWII consensus that generated several decades of an affluent welfare state was created not by the supposedly enlightened self‑interest of homo economicus but by a combination of the capitalist fear of a communist alternative and organised group action through trade unions. Corporate media slowly but surely turned this around. An unrelenting bombardment of advertising, distorted news and corporate entertainment has promoted anti-government rhetoric, sociopathy as a virtue and consumerist individualism as a product. This has been the cultural groundwork enabling neoliberalism since 1980 to engineer social structures that allow no escape from its diktats demanding monetisation of every human activity that could be monetised, and the suppression of those that couldn’t.
Social media, the third cultural stream, has become the strongest opposition to that corporate culture, not by countering its propaganda but by cannibalising its business model. Social media turns information scarcity into abundance through a low entry cost and lack of gatekeepers that allows general participation, but also because it freely recirculates material generated by the corporate media. Despite the corporate screams of indignation nothing can keep that information imprisoned.
There is an interesting parallel to other forms of policing here. The so called “intellectual property” in most data is not created by the corporations. It is harvested from the voluntary activities of people in general and therefore the wealth it brings is socially generated. If that wealth were then equitably shared to reimburse the real creators of the data and other content like journalism and entertainment, it would be unnecessary to create the fake scarcity of intellectual property and the policing issues would mostly disappear. At the heart of these problems is the extractive principle of production, common to both right wing and left wing economic models, that sees other people and nature as a whole as only raw material for exploitation.
The internet, and social media more specifically, have been the perfect platform for widespread adoption and distribution of open sourced cultural forms. Social media’s volume of writing, video, photography, memes, and image creation in general now dwarfs both the mainstream media and the production of institutional culture. It is art that finally is indistinguishable from life, art without artists, dealers, or institutions, although critics have proliferated. Having spent my life arguing for a different understanding of art I have naturally welcomed these developments, but two things have modified my understanding of the implications, both related to Ukeles claim that maintenance is as much cultural work as innovation. Both have involved compassion as a tool for rethinking the world from a different point of view. The first has been the work of researchers Bruce Pascoe, Bill Gammage et al., who have begun to revive Aboriginal agriculture. An agriculture that has as its core value the notion of care for the landscape so that it will in turn care for you epitomises practical compassion and is yet another area where white people should just shut up and listen to those who have been here for aeons.
The other thought has resulted from the pandemic lockdown. My argument for cultural innovation has been about the urgency of cultural change needed to survive climate change. The lockdown functioned as a rehearsal that made it clear that many of the necessary changes like decreased consumption and the need for immediate global action were easily accomplished, but also that many key activities were of necessity small scale and involved maintenance. They are the domestic skills of housework and renovation, not the violent subduing of imaginary zombie hordes. This is traditionally women’s work, the skills of caring and compassion that are undervalued, underpaid, even their very existence denied. Anthropologist Dave Graeber talks of this in his argument for universal basic income (UBI), that women involved in compassionate work and emotional labour in general go almost completely unpaid yet, as we now see, they are many of the so called “essential workers” that must be socially supported by a UBI.
The next ten years are crucial, by 2030 it will all be over. Even immediate extreme action cannot prevent the overwhelming climate problems headed our way. The most hopeful scenario is that we deal with the causes, then somehow survive the coming centuries of consequences, by remaking our society into one of mutual aid and compassion rather than a predatory hellhole of thanatocratic capitalism. It is clear that capitalism is completely inadequate for dealing with the problems we face. As in wartime, only direct government control can ensure resources are directed where they are needed, and the socially generated wealth is distributed equally to all, not hijacked by billionaires whose only ability has been opportunism. It is depressing that we will need to fight our governments to make that happen.
And the work that must be done ranges all the way from the micro to the macro, from the most sub-heroic, like making roof tiles that incorporate nesting places for birds, or designing tools for opening doors without touching them, to the most large scale urban and international projects. In other words, as Judith Butler described it in a recent interview, we must be “trying at the same time to keep the opposite of the present alive. By which I mean the full range of human possibilities that the present is dedicated to destroying—the kinds of recognitions and sympathies that make up the human, as far as I’m concerned. Recognitions and sympathies, but also losses and horrors and failures of understanding.”
Ian Milliss is an artist, writer and activist, a member of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation and a proud former National Research Officer for The Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union (now the United Workers Union), the trade union that represents cleaners and other groups of low‑paid service workers.
Card: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation, 1979, Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. © the artist. In the course of this project the artist shook the hand of every New York Sanitation Department worker and thanked them. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. © the artist