The Art of Palatable Illusions

There’s a weird type of capitalism in our midst; one that likes to brand itself as somehow ‘ethical,’ benign,’ and/or ‘altruistic.’

It’s the sort of capitalism championed by liberals, erroneously referred to as ‘the Left,’ and hence is most likely to be found in the more bourgeois professions such as the arts, media and academia.

Benign capitalism loves to brand the mundane as something edgy, e.g., the trend of ‘wild swimming’ which, when I was a kid growing up on East Dartmoor, where we’d often ride our bikes to the river, used to be just swimming.

It is a vapidly middle-class industry.

I read an article about an artist couple in Walthamstow, London who are using ‘art’ to turn their road into its own solar power grid.  They’re even sleeping on the roof of their house as part of a crowd-funder.

Previously, they managed to raise money and clear a bunch of high-interest debts for others in their local community, after which they filmed blowing up a van full of the paperwork.  Coincidentally, said van (or the remains thereof) wound up in a gallery and there’s a cutesy photo of the couple posing in front of it.

Some might consider this a new type of avant-garde aesthetic.

I think what they did for their community was a kind gesture, and what they are attempting to organise with solar power is little more than what would have been deemed ‘neighbourly’ in previous times.

Still, it got me wondering, how do they afford to pay for their house, two kids and two dogs not least in a cost of living crisis (in London of all places)?

The artists are selling their own brand of bank notes while receiving funding from the London Community Energy Fund.  It is all shrewdly promoted as a ‘grass roots movement,’ which has basically latched itself onto an establishment initiative that already exists.

I find the ‘art’ tag to be superfluously hubristic (there are innumerable community-led projects that avoid such labels), but then it’s an important factor in the branding process of benign capitalism, which is basically neo-liberal, disaster capitalism on a micro-scale.

Being a successful artist these days pretty much boils down to knowing where the money is and, more importantly, how to successfully apply for grants.  It reminds me of the old joke, ‘What’s the difference between art and porn?  A government grant!’

On initial glance, it seems their art-come-activism is simply a means to make a living off of inequality, for if there was no inequality, what art would they make?  It’s a curious symbiotic relationship.

When I was doing my MA in London I learned that the rich often bought art simply as a tax break.

Not to mention the fact that the art world itself has a bigger carbon footprint than the entire country of Austria.  Indeed, the London Community Energy Fund includes private investors such as Lloyds, Natwest, Santander, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking and Triodos Bank – the very entities at the heart of fuelling inequality and climate collapse.

Not to mention the environmentally-destructive practices that go into sourcing wood and metals to make solar panels (sort of like the irony regarding the amount of wild animals killed just so avocado farmers can be competitive in the ever-expanding vegan market).

Benign capitalism can be summed up in the difference between buying an Innocent Smoothie over Coca Cola; the former seems better for you and somehow more authentic because it presents itself as ‘ethical,’ in contrast to the unashamedly corporate, sugar-laden, fizzy pop.  It’s like voting for Rage Against the Machine to beat X-Factor to Christmas Number 1 – it all seems a bit rebellious until you realise Rage Against the Machine are likewise on a label owned by Sony Music (and Coca Cola owns Innocent!).

It makes me think of all those gullible fools who genuinely believe Harry and Meghan to represent something different to the likes of Donald Trump; unable to see that they’re really two sides of the same coin, they just come packaged with the appropriate logo promoted in one’s echo chamber.

The worst thing about capitalism is not just the ecocide, the materialism, the mind-numbing conformity, the incessant banality, the societal polarisation, the rising inequality, the Americanisation of everything and endless war; it’s the indifference towards beauty, the disconnection from the numinous and the destruction of the imagination – both of the individual and the collective.  Nowhere is this tragedy demonstrated more so than in the arts, media and academia.

Going back to the arty couple, what they are doing seems very progressive … but is technocratic capitalism with an ethical veneer to be all that art represents?

Is the ‘new ethics’ tantamount to drinking an Innocent Smoothie?

Has it all come down to the art of palatable illusions?

December 2022

© Percival Alexander