This essay considers the possibilities of contemporary art as a viable medium of socio-political critique within a cultural terrain dominated by naturalised neoliberal economics. It begins by considering the centrality of negativity to the historical project of critical theory most forcefully pursued by Adorno as ‘negative dialectics.’ Subsequent varieties of postmodern critique fairly dispensed with dialectics variously favouring complexity and an overriding emphasis on textuality. With the birth of neoliberalism and its burgeoning emphasis on ‘the contemporary’, economic values begin to penetrate every aspect of contemporary life and experience, including art and culture. Contemporary capitalism dematerialised as financialisation now comprises a naturalised ambience that is both everywhere and nowhere. Capitalist ambience is echoed in contemporary art that suggests criticality and yet seems to side with the imagery, values and logics of the prevailing financial order. The naturalisation of the neoliberal order is further internalised by artists online. Exacerbated contemporary emphasis on the ‘self as entrepreneur’ coincides with the biopolitical transformation of the contemporary artist into an individual ‘enterprise unit’. This is particularly observable online on social media where an artist’s whole life is simultaneously the subject and object of art. Criticality in art does not disappear but becomes ‘self-annulling’: it acts as a conduit questioning the commodity-identity of art while pointing to phenomena and affects outside the art world. With the recent appearance of the COVID-19 virus, added to the unignorable impact of global climate change, ‘real nature’ assumes a critical role, undermining neoliberalism’s ideological naturalisation while laying-bare the extent of its structural contradictions. Art criticality is revivified by divesting from art contexts saturated with neoliberal imperatives. Criticality is negatively practiced as an ‘un-’ or ‘not-doing’, defining modes of exodus while, crucially, not abandoning art’s institutional definition altogether.
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