Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism by Jen Harvie
Fair Play is a bold and confident book, its argument incisive yet hopeful. As author Jen Harvie explains, her project seeks to contextualize “socially engaged art and performance practices in broader social and material contexts in order to consider not only what kinds of opportunities for what qualitative experiences of participation the art practices ‘themselves’ offer audiences, but also, importantly, how those opportunities are affected by the practices’ social and material contexts” (10). The rich range of examples that the chapters explore—organized as interrogations of labor, entrepreneurialism, location, and economics—are drawn chiefly from London, but her concerns about the incursions of neoliberal capitalism speak to us all.
The introduction provides an ably argued and useful account of specific UK government philosophies and practices that affect the availability of, and access to, “social engagement in contemporary culture, including in participatory art and performance but also apparently ‘beyond’ it, in cultural policy, social policy and economic conditions” (17). Harvie’s analysis of how these British policies inhibit art and sociability sets a depressingly bleak scene. Her willingness, however, to find in many of her case studies “subtle, partial and effective responses to neoliberal capitalism’s support for self-interested individualism” that have the capacity to show us “models of fairness and constructive social engagement” (25) gives this book a more auspicious perspective.
The first chapter explores participatory art and performance in the context of the ubiquitous deregulation of labor in global markets. As her account implies, spectator-participants for this kind of work often find themselves in something of the same jam as the unpaid intern whose conditions of employment are always already inequitable. A remarkable variety of examples undergird Harvie’s argument and range from immersive theatre darlings Punchdrunk to globally recognized installation artists Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson. Through these case studies, she explores the kinds of experience that participatory involvement both encourages and instates.
A subsequent discussion of the “artrepreneur” outlines the constraints imposed by the pressures of a neoliberal marketplace that requires contemporary artists to see themselves as laborers in the creative industries, designated primarily to produce “growth, productivity and profit” (64). At least since the 1990s, as Fair Play amply illustrates, UK politicians have fantasized about the potential benefits of an entrepreneurial arts sector that would bring innovation and additional capacity to the country’s productivity. As scholars of theatre and performance, we need—and urgently, I think—to pay far more attention to “how artists, arts and culture are currently being instrumentalized as economically important” (ibid.), if only to provide, as Harvie does, other ways of seeing the social potentials of contemporary arts practices that develop effective strategies to resist the demands of the market model.
Her third chapter turns to the social construction of space, especially “the privatization of space and its collusions in preserving inequalities of wealth and opportunity” (109). Inevitably, this discussion examines the pervasive “creative cities” rhetoric that has dominated not just London’s politics, but those of most urban locations in the developed world. Particularly, I appreciated Harvie’s critical unpacking of Richard Florida’s privileging of “comparatively advantaged consumer desires … over basic human needs” (118). To reinvigorate the potentials of urban space, she examines “pop-up” performances that both challenge the public’s perception of a particular [End Page 481] locale and expose the risks inherent in Florida-style neighborhood gentrification.
The last chapter in Fair Play turns to matters of funding. Historically, of course, the UK has been a relatively generous state supporter of the arts, but the current conservative government took some pride, in 2010, in slashing 30 percent from that part of its budget. How better, after all, to “encourage” the entrepreneurialism of the artist and to promote collaborative ventures with corporate and philanthropic partners! For large-scale arts producers like London’s National Theatre, for example, this has accelerated a dependency on crossover commercial success and international impact: War Horse is exemplary here, following a model that has sustained Disney’s The Lion King for close to twenty years. Harvie’s comprehensive analysis considers the emergence of crowdfunding in support of cultural production, as well as the effects of corporate collaboration and other forms of sponsorship. This is a chapter that is emphatically honest about the perils that these new economic models produce for artists and audiences alike, but Harvie notes, too, that these same models, deployed effectively, “can help forge resilient, inventive new models of networked artistic, economic and social support that can at least temporarily take up the baton of social welfare and help us envision better futures” (191).
The sophisticated multidisciplinary contexts of Fair Play emphasize that this book deserves to be at the top of every theatre and performance scholar’s “must-read” list; it will most certainly contribute to a growing library of progressive and timely critique that includes Judith Butler’s work on precarity, as well as recent books by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (Arts of the Political, 2013) and Jodi Dean (The Communist Horizon, 2012). Readers of Theatre Journal will understand it as a vital complement to Shannon Jackson’s Social Works (2011) and every bit as brilliant in making us think about the stakes involved in performance and participation in the wake of a neoliberal capitalism that often seems to register contempt for any artistic endeavors that do not have financial success as a goal. Harvie insists that there is the evidence, still, that “contemporary arts practices resist and critically respond to the pressures of neoliberal capitalism,” finding “alternative ways of being which preserve principles of social collaboration and interdependence” (193). If we are to continue to support and nourish these kinds of practices, then Fair Play provides exactly the critical framework in which to conceive of our work.