The 7 Neoliberal Arts

Edited by Lee Konstantinou

The 7 Neoliberal Arts, or: Art in the Age of Mass High Culture

Lee Konstantinou

Quality Is Just Another Word

Madeline Ullrich

The Cartoonist as Entrepreneur: Rob Liefeld, Image Comics, and the Art of the Creator-Owner

Lee Konstantinou

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: An Ode to the Audiobook

Sheri-Marie Harrison

Human Capital After All: Business Techno, Conceptronica, and the Neoliberal Rescripting of High/Low Hierarchies

Robin James

Playing Through a Serious Crisis: On the Neoliberal Art of Video Games

Patrick Jagoda

Neoliberal Gaslighting, Quality Journalism, and Podcasting

Michelle Chihara

Enrique Olvera and the Sociopolitical Aesthetics of Neoliberal Culinary Art

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado


The neoliberal period has seen myriad new and formerly marginalized cultural forms aspire to the status of art. Over the last half century, quality television, graphic novels, avant-garde video games, literary podcasts, and many others have been elevated. These upwardly mobile forms have, each in their own way, made a claim to the status of art and achieved critical recognition. Specifically, advocates for these forms have sought to justify them not as popular culture but as forms capable of hosting works that can sustain the sort of scrutiny formerly reserved for the fine arts. These newly risen cultural forms are therefore not part of middlebrow culture, if such a thing can be said to exist anymore in an era of widespread downward mobility. These newly established forms are, instead, examples of what I call Mass High Culture, in which ever more cultural practices reconfigure themselves as, or imagine themselves to be, arts. In this era, the relation between high and low has not dissolved but been newly revised.

The fate of these new arts has been analyzed individually in a substantial scholarly literature. And the relationship between established arts and neoliberalism has received significant attention, especially in literary studies.1 But the hypothesis of this cluster is that these recent artistic elevations are part of a unified phenomenon, and that they are best understood as part of a specifically neoliberal culture; they must be studied together. Focusing largely but not exclusively on the US, scholars included here discuss the relation of various new arts to the logic and defining institutions of neoliberalism since the 1970s.

Our title is an allusion to Gilbert Seldes's study, The 7 Lively Arts (1924). In that classic book, Seldes defended popular art and democratic culture practices such as slapstick, early comic strips, jazz, and vaudeville as worthy of critical study, contrasting those arts with the ossified high culture of the period. He argued for the value of these lively arts, suggesting they should be judged on their own terms, and helping inaugurate a critical tradition of celebrating American popular culture as a product of a uniquely American genius. Edmund Wilson suggested Seldes played a pivotal role in the "liquidation of genteel culture in America."2 Seldes's own title was itself a playful allusion to a long liberal tradition that can be traced back to medieval Europe.

Emerging in the fourth century, the seven liberal arts formed a medieval educational curriculum, based on a reimagining of classical education, which was divided into the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) was taught first, followed by the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fine arts were established on the model of the liberal arts. Just as the liberal arts were contrasted with the mechanical arts, the new fine arts were opposed to handicraft. There were, Paul O. Kristeller has argued, traditionally five major fine arts that were considered core to the system: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry; sometimes to these were added dance, drama, and other arts.3

What was said to define the fine arts, and to differentiate them from handicraft, was their relationship to the freedom of the artist. "[B]eautiful art must be free in a double sense," wrote Immanuel Kant in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, "it must not be a matter of remuneration, a labor whose magnitude can be judged, enforced, or paid for in accordance with a determinate standard; but also, while the mind is certainly occupied, it must feel itself to be satisfied and stimulated (independently of remuneration) without looking beyond to another end."4 The fine arts, properly, were unpaid and performed as ends in themselves.

The division between the liberal arts and the mechanical arts, as well as between the fine arts and handicraft, as Dave Beech and others have argued, was therefore also a mediation of the division between different qualities of work. The Spanish humanist painter Antonio Palomino, for example, suggested that "in liberal arts there is more contemplation than toil, and in mechanical art there is more toil than contemplation."5 The division between the arts encoded assumptions about what constituted spiritually uplifting, dignified, and human activity over and against degrading, undignified, and sub-human toil.

Under capitalism, these assumptions got roped to technical debates about the relation of the arts to the production of surplus value, the valorization of commodities, and the subordination of concrete labor to abstract labor. In the neoliberal period, these debates about work, labor, and value-production have been associated with debates about whether this or that artist is critical or co-opted (a sellout), whether some form of artistic production is actually a kind of labor or, contrarily, not productive of value (as value is accounted by capital), and feminist critiques that draw attention to social reproduction, affective labor, and the infrastructural dimensions of artistic production. I'm not able to rehearse these debates here, but this brief recap suggests why our most urgent critical task is no longer, as it was for Seldes a century ago, to defend popular culture but to analyze a specifically neoliberal configuration of capital and art that, at the least, complicates our understanding of the arts as free practices. The terms that once were assumed to set apart the arts that they were, properly, unpaid, and ends in themselves have become harder to imagine as possible under neoliberalism.

This cluster features seven essays on television, comics, audiobooks, electronic dance music, podcasts, video games, and globalized haute cuisine. In choosing to analyze these seven in terms of neoliberalism, these essays give evidence of what Joseph North and others have observed, that the concept has displaced postmodernism as a way of periodizing the recent cultural past.6 The disappearance of postmodernism as a category is, importantly, not only a matter of critical fashion. What has also failed, I would argue, is the postmodern project of undermining the distinction between high and low culture. In 1991, Fredric Jameson could write that postmodernism was committed to the "effacement" of "the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture."7 Thirty years later, such a claim seems dubious, either because you believe that all culture is today commercial culture or because you believe that modernism somehow persists (that art somehow remains exceptional) in the twenty-first century. At the very least, we should note that many working artists, especially of new and up-and-coming art forms, continue to subscribe to modernist ideals of aesthetic value even as acknowledgment of complicity with oppressive systems has become increasingly characteristic, almost required for serious artists.8

Among critics, one prominent strain of thinking, inspired by the work of Michael Fried, has continued to doggedly hold on to modernist notions of autonomy. Fried famously resisted Minimalism's (what he called literalism's) claim to furnish experiences to a beholder that transcended the limitations of modernist painting and modernist sculpture. Distinguishing between art and objecthood, Fried defended the idea that art produces meaning. The art-like objects of the literalists, meanwhile, furnished merely interesting (or uninteresting) experiences. For Fried, the arts as such were fundamentally defined by their conventional, historical forms. What failed to be art was mere culture, which was obsessed with the situation of the viewer or the consumer. Mere culture's concern for the experience of the audience is what Fried described as its "theatricality."

Following Fried, Walter Benn Michaels has defended the artwork's autonomy against what he characterizes as postmodern culture's focus on the experience of the reader or viewer. In a Marxist elaboration of the same themes, Nicholas Brown maps Fried's categories of art and objecthood onto the difference between (i) works defined by their ineradicable normativity (an interpretation of the work is, necessarily, either correct or incorrect) and (ii) the art-commodity, which, in being produced for the market or the beholder, can be taken any way you like. On this view, art is a historical construction, coextensive with capitalism. Art is capitalism's "determinate other."9 When capitalism ends, the institution of art will, necessarily, end with it. In Brown's account, there was a time under capitalism (the time of "formal subsumption") when an artist working in a restricted field of production could produce art much as, in Marx's terms, a silkworm produces silk by her nature then sell the art as surplus without compromising autonomy. But in the contemporary period (the time of "real subsumption"), all producers, including artists, labor under a condition in which "the whole production process is oriented towards exchange," making autonomy harder to achieve.10 But, despite the ubiquity of real subsumption today, art still finds a way.

These neo-modernist defenses of art are different from the account of the fine arts that Kant and others developed in the eighteenth century, but they similarly define art relationally, in contrast to an abject other. Art's opponent is merely refurbished. Now, true art would be that which escapes real subsumption, postmodernism, theatricality. Key to this argument is the notion that art-commodities (produced under the assumption of capitalist circulation), unlike art (produced for its own sake), cannot, in categorical terms, produce normative meanings. There is no right or wrong way to interpret an art-commodity; the consumer decides. This is an error. Art produced under the assumption of neoliberal circulation often demands normativity the constitutive entailment of right and wrong judgment.11

Art has indeed been historically hostile to the market and often to capitalism. Art has sought to pass itself off as "unteachable, immeasurable, spontaneous and free from rules."12 It sought, in a utopian fashion, to secure "an island of worklessness within seven seas of drudgery."13 Courtly hostility to capitalism morphed into Romantic anticapitalism, which held that art was qualitatively different from labor, a kind of workless work. The neo-modernists translate Romantic attitudinal hostility into structural hostility (though some have argued that their structural account retains the trace of personal taste).14 It is the form of art itself that stands by definition against capitalism. But if normativity is compatible with capitalism, if commodities in fact have wrong and right uses, the argument that art and capitalism are necessarily historical foes breaks down. What has happened under neoliberalism is that art as opposed to non-art has become increasingly attuned to its reception in the realm of circulation and has sought to reconfigure the terms of judgment.

The flip side of the arts' accommodation to neoliberalism is revealed in how neoliberal thought leaders have enthusiastically celebrated art. One of the defining characteristics of the neoliberal period is the surprising elevation of the artist. There is a vast management literature earnestly concerned with the question of how workers might develop intrinsic motivation, achieve flow states, undertake deep work, and discover their inner artist. As Sarah Brouillette has discussed, an idealized version of the artist-author has become, if anything, central to neoliberal discourse and management theory.15 Such an idealized artist-author has, in many quarters, become the very model of the satisfied worker. And why not? If we do what we love (or are persuaded to love what we do), allowing an intensified form of satisfying labor to consume our every waking hour, might we not also enrich our employers?16

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello's magisterial study, The New Spirit of Capitalism, furnishes evidence for why art has achieved this new status. Discussing the labor history of France since the 1960s, Boltanski and Chiapello distinguish between two long-standing and qualitatively different critiques of capitalism. What they call the social critique focuses on wages and job security; this critique's great enemy is exploitation. What they call the artistic critique, meanwhile, is centrally concerned with questions of autonomy and creative expression; the enemy from the perspective of this critique is alienation. What The New Spirit of Capitalism documents is how the artistic critique triumphed in the wake of the 1960s, providing a new, hegemonic normative framework for capitalist accumulation. "Is not the neo-manager," they ask, "like the artist, a creative figure, a person of intuition, invention, contacts, chance encounters, someone who is always on the move, passing from one project to the next, one world to another?"17 Under these circumstances, we can see why Jasper Bernes has characterized American experimental poetry of the 1960s as a sort of adjunct to the midcentury reconfiguration of labor. These poets perhaps gave workers a "new conceptual vocabulary" for understanding their shared condition, helping set the terms for the rise of the new period variously called post-Fordism, postindustrialism, or neoliberalism.18

One should regard this sort of corporate art-talk with a healthy dose of skepticism. Surely, in many cases, management theorists who celebrate the artist are often cynically redescribing exploitation and alienation in more prestigious terms. You're not a line cook anymore; now, you're a burger-artist! You don't serve customers; you host guests! And from the perspective of a philosopher like Martin Hägglund, who argues for the identity of the critique of exploitation and the critique of alienation, doing work you love in a social system that is founded on the theft of labor-time is, definitionally, not a form of freedom.19

Still, we should not so easily dismiss the notion that the figure of the artist and art's claim to autonomy enjoy a newly prestigious place in the overdeveloped world. Such an eventuality may seem to have been well-described already by Fredric Jameson: "What has happened," Jameson once suggested, "is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally."20 Innovation and experimentation have transformed from modernist watchwords into structural features of the economy. This claim is not wrong, but it strikes me that the new managerial celebrations of art are not quite the same as the transgressive combinatorics of accelerated production. Neoliberal thought leaders seem, if anything, to want to invert Jameson's claim  to imagine not that aesthetic production is commodity production, but that commodity production might become a kind of aesthetic production.

At the least, neoliberalism's elevation of art is a novel historical development that requires analysis. The essays here undertake such an analysis by offering an account of the fate of specific arts over the last five decades. When the neoliberal world of work adopts artistic pretensions, what happens to the people who make music, write novels, and create culture? When some artists are, like other workers, charged with becoming managers of their own portfolio of human capital, what happens to the normative idealization of the artist? Why have so many formerly disparaged and marginalized art forms embraced the terms of modernist prestige? What do we make of corporate firms that arrogate to themselves the meaning-making powers typically ascribed to individuals?

Madeline Ullrich discusses how the discourse of Quality Television originated in the early 1980s with the widely celebrated release of Hill Street Blues, a formally innovative program whose unexpected success was connected to rising income inequality, market segmentation, and transformations in the family. In my essay on the cartoonist Rob Liefeld, I explore the connections between art and commerce in the comics world in the 1990s, a time when the rise of the celebrity cartoonist collided with a speculative bubble in comics and a discourse of "creator rights." Writing about the increasing autonomization of the audiobook, Sheri-Marie Harrison discusses the pleasures and perils of the audiobook and shows how a medium-specific engagement with the format might change how we read (or rather listen to) Toni Morrison's remediated oeuvre.

Robin James shows how discourses of high art and populism have been changed in critical discussions of recent mutations in Electronic Dance Music, and she specifically outlines the relation between two EDM tendencies, one that has been called business techno and another that the critic Simon Reynolds has called conceptronica. Patrick Jagoda discusses the pharmakon of video games the form's ability to, in the same breath, give players a rapt sense of purpose and utterly remove players from reality that culminates in a reading of Hideo Kojima's much-celebrated art-game Death Stranding (2019).  In her essay on the podcast, Michelle Chihara discusses the effort to make the narrative podcast company, Gimlet Media, into the "HBO of Podcasts," and she shows how that ploy depended on a deft and disturbing metafictional gaslighting of audiences. Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, finally, shows in his essay on the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera how the figure of the artist occupies an ambivalent role in the development of the neoliberal culinary arts. At the same time that Olvera's practice might be taken as valorizing an elite palate, it also offers a strategy for resisting aspects of globalized food production.

Taken together, these essays provide a theory of the neoliberal arts. Artists, now, assert their autonomy, but in doing so they change the terms. They continue to insist that there are right and wrong ways to interpret their work they are committed to intentional form, to normativity but the boundaries of their work expand beyond the form of aesthetic objects to the infrastructures that sustain their work. They do not just make comics but comic-book companies. They don't just create video games but game studios. They are makers not only of aesthetic forms but of aesthetic fields. These neoliberal artists have thus internalized the notion that the artist is also, necessarily, an entrepreneur or economic player. As artists who see their business practices as part of their artistic production, proponents of these new neoliberal arts cannot make art without regard to reception.

They are, however, discerning in the reception they pursue. They hope actively to produce the right kind of audience. Indeed, one might say these neoliberal artists see the management of their audiences, their development of such audiences or what the marketing guru Seth Godin calls "tribes," as constitutive of their art.21 They pursue quality demographics, maintain heritage grains for the right sort of palate, navigate the gendered implications of selling out for the right kind of keen listener, hope to make their shitty comics, without management looking over their shoulders, for the right kind of discerning teenage consumers. They make art in the age of market segmentation, and they see their task as finding their segment. What makes art different from non-art under neoliberalism, then, is not just the elevation of this or that practice as art, but its pursuit of aesthetic excellence that builds the right kind of community of consumption. The artist owns her own company; the non-artist works for someone else. The artist has found her 1,000 True Fans, all of whom happen to all be signed up to her email list; the non-artist wails and gnashes her teeth into a void on Twitter.22

Though different in their arguments and focuses, these essays do not engage in simple celebrations or dismissals of individual artists, artworks, or art forms. The neoliberal arts afford a wide latitude for different critical judgments. But these essays all show that the art forms under scrutiny, in their claim to the status of art, depend on powerful political and economic transformations. They show that neoliberalism has not only invoked the model of the artist but has changed the historical category of art. That neoliberalism would profoundly reconfigure the system of the arts should not come as a surprise. My hope is that these essays, when taken together, might clear the ground for future study of these unsettling changes in newly systematic terms.


  1. See Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald Smith, eds., Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); Emily Johansen and Alissa Karl, eds., Neoliberalism and the Novel (London: Routledge, 2016). For a critique of current approaches to neoliberalism in literary studies, see Leigh Claire La Berge and Quinn Slobodian, "Reading for Neoliberalism, Reading like Neoliberals," American Literary History 29, no. 3 (2017): 602-14.[]
  2. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, eds., Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 2.[]
  3. Paul Oskar Kristeller, "The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics Part I," Journal of the History of Ideas 12, no. 4 (1951): 506. For a critique of Kristeller's classic discussion of the fine arts and their relation to aesthetic theory, see James I. Porter, "Is Art Modern? Kristeller's 'Modern System of the Arts' Reconsidered," The British Journal of Aesthetics 49, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 1-24.[]
  4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 198-199.[]
  5. Dave Beech, Art and Postcapitalism: Aesthetic Labour, Automation and Value Production (Pluto Press, 2019), 86.[]
  6. Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 12.[]
  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 2.[]
  8. See Jay David Bolter, "Foreword," in Brian Schrank, Avant-Garde Videogames: Playing with Technoculture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014), x.[]
  9. Nicholas Brown, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 89.[]
  10. Nicholas Brown, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Real Subsumption under Capital,", March 13, 2012.[]
  11. I discuss these debates at greater length in Lee Konstantinou, "Lewis Hyde's Double Economy," ASAP/Journal 1, no. 1 (February 3, 2016): 123-149.[]
  12. Beech, Art and Postcapitalism, 41.[]
  13. Ibid., 42.[]
  14. For a critique of Brown, see Christian Thorne, "Immanuel Kant's Manifesto for Dad Rock," B2o: An Online Journal, June 19, 2020.[]
  15. Sarah Brouillette, Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).[]
  16. Kassandra Vee, "Work Sucks," The New Inquiry (blog), October 28, 2019.[]
  17. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Gregory Elliott, Reprint edition (London: Verso, 2018), 312.[]
  18. Jasper Bernes, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, 1st ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017), 16.[]
  19. Martin Hägglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York: Pantheon, 2020).[]
  20. Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 4.[]
  21. Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (New York: Portfolio, 2008).[]
  22. Kevin Kelly, "1,000 True Fans," The Technium (blog), accessed August 28, 2020.[]

Past clusters