Arts and Popular Culture Opinion

A revolution in The Arts: neoliberal, out – free expression, in

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In these gloomy times of uncertainty, as we approach the endgame of neoliberalism, alternative creative movements are more crucial now than ever before. Over the last five years or so we have seen a boom in DIY journalism while a significant chunk of traditional media dies a slow, painful death.

The internet has empowered previously marginalised people by allowing them to realise that we’re all journalists; it’s no longer the preserve of a privileged few who get to shape the way we see the world. If you have an internet connection and some spare time, you can now share information with the wider world. Better still you can use a lens which is entirely at odds with the lens used by the establishment.

The upside is that the new wave of journalism is creating narratives about who our real enemies are and how we should organise against them. It’s no longer dominated by bitter conservatism and the moderate arm of social democracy.

And such is the effectiveness of the DIY ethic that many people are now turning to those journalists, commentators and media outlets which are rallying against the corporate machine and discussing the possibility of a ‘new day’. Power is no longer solely in the hands of those who want society turning against each other. People are taking the power back and turning negatives into positives, collectively working on a roadmap out of the abyss in which we find ourselves.

Move over, establishment gatekeepers!

Until now we’ve had a similar top-down problem in the creative arts. Prior to the rise of the internet, artists of all stripes have previously been locked out of a nepotic creative industry, unable to reach their intended audience. The barrier is rooted in neoliberalism where a handful of businesspeople decided what the rest of us should read, watch, listen to and generally consume as entertainment. Everything else wasn’t permitted to enter the creative landscape.

This antidemocratic model would encourage creatives to follow market trends in order to increase their profitability and in turn their likelihood of getting corporate backing. Meanwhile originality would be pushed to the fringes where people rarely look.

Yet we don’t have to be art critics to know that being profitable and creating good art aren’t necessarily the same thing. Neither is the amount of sales a yardstick for authenticity. Let’s take the publishing industry for one example. While I don’t doubt their integrity and their love of books, literary agents have been the gatekeepers of the literary world since the year dot. But a look at today’s numerous bestsellers lists indicates that in order to get a foot in the door, an author has to be writing apolitical or politically inoffensive works.

Giant publishing houses such as HarperCollins (a lovechild of the Rupert Murdoch empire) predominantly publish books which are politically neutral or which actively promote neoliberal values. There are exceptions, but dissident works of fiction are rare unless there is money to be made. Even outside of the mainstream you’ll be hard pressed to find contemporary mainstream fiction which challenges the present system. Sex, drugs and mindless violence are all fair game, but mouthing off about a political system that doesn’t serve us is pretty much invisible in traditionally published literature. Yet there has always been a readership for this type of work.

The mainstream—both in journalism and the cultural landscape generally—isn’t all bad. There are many decent people who operate within it and we should continue to support them. But if we’re serious about creating a ‘new day’ then we also need a cultural shift away from the mainstream which has concerned itself with churning out art for profit, thus narrowing the scope for diversity and inclusivity.

Safeguarding free expression

At the same time we have to be careful that we don’t replace one form of oppression (the free markets) with another (our expectations). We should instead create the conditions which allow for free expression to flourish because this will undoubtedly bring about the most exciting creative works. This is why it’s important to make the distinction that we should create and support alternatives rather than solely supporting those works which exist to challenge existing power structures. While both are to be welcomed, art doesn’t have to conform to anything in order to be meaningful or relevant. Our goal is to safeguard free expression for all people so we can create whatever we want, exactly how we want, and still find an audience.

Fortunately there’s a lot we can do for ourselves now that we have the internet. We no longer have to have our culture shaped by the usual top-down structures which keep artists obedient to the free markets. We no longer have to aspire to those cultural idols who tell us fake tans and hair care products are crucial to a meaningful life. We can go against all this and create our own culture, celebrating those writers, artists and musicians who are providing a much needed alternative.

As it goes I’m very positive about the future. I’m surrounded by many people who are already using their craft in exciting ways and there is clearly the support out there to make it all worthwhile. From where I’m standing the two are yet to properly meet, but I’m confident that in time there will be a new galvanised movement of artists who play a crucial role in defining these times we’re living in and who provide an alternative to what routinely gets pushed down our throats by the neoliberal cheerleaders.

As with what has happened with journalism, people will realise that the cultural establishment is a stitch up and that the independent alternative provides something that is closer to what they’re looking for.

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Rupert Dreyfus is a grassroots author who lives and works in the far north of England. He's been causing mischief in the literary world since 2014 by taking swipes at the establishment, those nightmarish corporations which seem hell-bent on turning our world into one giant supermarket and the arse end of the status quo. Spark is his first novel and The Rebel's Sketchbook is his first collection of short stories; both books have been reviewed favourably in the national and international press. Rupert also writes for the arts and culture section of Scisco Media as well as the occasional polemic for Consented.

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