black and white book 'Philiosophy of Care' cover and one 'Care, Ethics and Art' colourful book cover
LEFT: Philosophy of Care, Boris Groys (Verso, 2022) 
RIGHT: Care Ethics and Art, Jacqueline Millner, Gretchen Coombs, eds., ​​ (Routledge, 2022).

A recent essay in the Sydney Review of Books centred care as a “radical” politics in the arts. ‘Relationships are what stay with us’, claims the author, ‘I don’t believe that we are alive to make stuff. I think we’re here to form bonds.’[1] What is art without “stuff?” And what does it mean to centre care? Two books released in 2022 address these queries: Care Ethics and Art, a collection of essays edited by Melbourne-based academics Jacqueline Millner and Gretchen Coombs, and Philosophy of Care by renowned art critic and philosopher Boris Groys. 

In some regards, Philosophy of Care is a continuation of Groys’ earlier edited collection Russian Cosmism (2018) which considered the devaluation of the soul as the essence of the self, and its replacement with an investment in the corporeal. Indeed, the body is all that is left after God is dead, and so, ‘the body rather than the soul is the privileged object of institutionalized care’. The hospital replaces the church. Today, institutions of care objectify us as if to maintain functional neoliberal subjects/workers. We find empowerment and a sense of control through practicing self-care while involuntarily creating symbolic bodies through medical records and digital footprints, but also in self-authored online identities. The latter simultaneously act, Groys notes, as another method of self-care: a measure of self-preservation through which we signal alignment with the correct politics, people, and cultural tendencies, as dictated by our milieu.  

At one hundred pages, Philosophy of Care is short. In twelve chapters, Groys provides an overview of the philosophical tradition, incorporating Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, Alexandre Kojève, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. No doubt, dedicated scholars of the great philosophers may find fault in these pithy summaries. But, though succinct, his interweaving of philosophical theories—concerning care, creativity, populism, and art—provide a robust and convincing history that testifies to their relevance and utility in thinking through contemporary problems. This makes the book a necessary resource for the new art historians and contemporary theorists who are well-versed in poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory, but who possess little grasp of anything predating the cultural turn partly fostered by May 1968.

Though not explicitly acknowledged, Philosophy of Care provides a probing critique of elite creatives. This is most pointed in chapter four, which considers Kojève’s theory of the Sage. In modern times, Groys explains, the philosopher ‘ceases to fight’, becoming a ‘caretaker of the post historical population’ who have lost the capacity ‘for critique or reflection’. The Sage/caretaker only works to differentiate themselves from the common people and is infinitely replaceable as they all ‘embody the same wisdom’. This description is damningly applicable to much of the upper rung of the professional managerial class, a homogeneous set of smug though cowardly creative elites who perpetuate dogmatic rhetoric—curating exhibitions, editing books, and writing reviews that all follow a formula and promote a tactically vague liberal worldview. Like the Sage/caretaker, they are expendable and replaceable, serving the same function as those that have come before them and leaving little trace on culture in their wake. 

Both Philosophy of Care and Care Ethics and Art note that curating comes from the Latin cura, though Groys emphasises that this is about caring for artworks. Millner and Coombs assert that ‘care should be at the centre of our politics’ and summarise their project as a consideration of ‘how creative practitioners are currently imagining this values revolution.’ Including 28 (primarily Australian) contributors and practitioners, the collection is arranged in five parts, with sections on parenting in the arts (an alarmingly overlooked issue), craft and collaboration, institutional care and service work, artist’s pages, and activism. Of note is Andrew Goodman’s contribution, “Care-full Reading”. Goodman provides a pertinent reflection on close reading as facilitated by reading groups—a valuable tradition threatened by the corporatised university system in which academics and students are time-poor and disincentivised.  

Incidentally, the cover designs of these publications are both anodyne geometric patterns adhering to a corporate aesthetic derivative of modern painting but now serviced by design. Care Ethics features intersecting spherical shapes in muted colours. Groys’ displays a grid of black dots designed by Everything Studios (who describe their aesthetic as ‘uplifting Modernist optimism’). As Groys notes within, from cubism onwards, modern art in its turn away from representation and toward deskilling and outsourcing, transformed art into mere objects in the world, flaunting their thingness. The relationship between these publications could be summarised as follows: Groys provides a critique of the ideologies of care and an explanation of how they operate in contemporary neoliberal culture, while Care Ethics and Art offers a manifestation of these ideologies, and—occasionally—subverts them. Alternatively, we might say that Groys’ laments the death of creativity and the impoverishment of the arts, while Care Ethics and Art accepts without question the contemporary definition of art—as deskilled, performance based, and relational—while attempting to find ways of operating ethically within this contested space.

It’s worth noting that almost all the writers featured in Care Ethics and Art are ‘woman-identifying’, (as the editors describe). This is perhaps a reflection of the feminisation of academia and the arts, though it may inadvertently reinforce that care is gendered, even in the climate of the tertiary sector where distinct (if not “sexy”) “research clusters” vie for attention linked to academic careerism, and the necessity of securing funding and grant opportunities. Care ethics, as it was conceived in the 1970s by leading figures such as Carol Gilligan, aimed to counter the liberal individualist view of ethics. Gilligan cited the latter as a rigid ethical framework forged primarily by men who saw themselves as autonomous units—unlike women who are, in essentialist terms at least, more inclined to see themselves as part of a complex set of relationships and communities.[2]

In one of Care Ethics and Art’s most compelling inclusions, Benison Kilby reflects on the kinds of traditionally feminised work that are ubiquitous today by centring sex work. Kilby emphasises ‘the complexities of outsourced intimacy’ raised by ‘caring attitudes ... generated within and through capitalist relations’—a phenomenon that has occurred simultaneous with the entry of middle-class women into sex-work and the rise in emotionally involved sex work/client relationships. Sex work, as Angela Dimitrakaki has similarly noted, is an illuminating model through which to interpret contemporary work culture where we often encounter, or are incentivised to participate in, acts of care work and emotional labour as part of our employment or commercial exchanges. Indeed, these relationships often constitute meaningful or conflicted everyday encounters in an increasingly atomised society. 

This culture is representative of broader trends and is reflected in the ideology of Care Ethics and Art which collapses the distinction between art and work, and work and relationships. Care Ethics and Art traces numerous practices and endeavours that might counter the toxic individualism of neoliberal culture, as is claimed in Millner and Coombs’ introduction, and is exemplified in The Care Project, which culminated in a symposium organised by Millner and documented in the book. Indeed, a true implementation of care ethics could offer a much-needed alternative to corporatised diversity politics, which reduce people to rigid identity categories and hierarchises perceived needs accordingly. However, the mission statement behind the collection eschews acknowledgment of the well-established harmony between what we might call “relationship based” art and neoliberalism—a nexus that has been interrogated by thinkers including Groys, Dimitrakaki, Claire Bishop, Sven Lütticken, Catherine Liu, and Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei.

Indeed, care rhetoric often conceals systems of authority and dubious delegations of labour via emotional manipulation and covert coercion framed as collaboration or teamwork. And talk of care in the arts—like earlier theories buttressing relational aesthetics—echo the benevolent language that similarly glosses tyrannical HR bureaucracy, lubricating nepotistic networking with fuzzy talk of relationships, bonds, and community.

Counter to accepted knowledge, we don’t need to “care about”—or even respect—other people to understand that they justify equal rights, opportunities, and protections. Imagining that we should seems dangerous to me. It burdens us with a lot of undue emotional labour and incentivises cynical and performative behaviour in professional settings. Indeed, investment in “care” and “caring” is not the same as a commitment to fighting for material equality. To quote Christopher Lasch’s critique of the therapeutic mindset, ‘“Caring” is no substitute for candour.[3]  Moreover, what is the point of art if we’re not making “stuff?” Friendships aren’t artwork. At least, they probably shouldn’t be. 


  1. ^ Tian Zhang, “A Manifesto for Radical Care or how to be Human in the Arts”, Sydney Review of Books, July 2022. URL:
  2. ^ Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1982).
  3. ^ Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996), 210.