Book review: Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs. Dissident Art

In recent decades cities and regions have used culture to drive economic growth but is this process anything other than another form of exploitation? wonders Peter Murray.

Malcolm Miles

Pluto Press, €29.50; ebook, €35.04

WRITTEN by Malcolm Miles, Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Plymouth, Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs. Dissident Art takes a critical look at how in recent decades contemporary art museums and galleries have been harnessed in the service of economic growth.

From Bilbao to Barcelona, and from London to Belfast, culture and tourism have come to replace traditional industries as the engines of a new urban prosperity.

However, Miles is sceptical of the claims made by planners, governments and private developers regarding the value of culture in these programmes of regeneration. 

Unconvinced by press releases and optimistic forecasts, he instead identifies a pattern where, far from being helped by such developments, local people are marginalised and eventually forced to move out, as property prices rise in the wake of urban makeovers. 

Houses are replaced by apartment complexes, local shops close, while settled families give way to transient workers and tourists. In London boroughs, owners of council flats are evicted to make way for high-rise, high-profit, developments.

“If the project of capital is the total containment of all elements of life in profit mechanisms, culture is its soft policing” writes Miles, nailing his socialist colours to the mast.

Over the course of eight chapters, Miles skillfully assembles his arguments. 

After examining different aspects of how culture is compromised through being used in the service of capitalism, he moves on to cite examples of resistance and dissent that counterbalance the world-view of developers and financiers. The examples cited are largely in England, although he does refer to developments worldwide. 

Miles’s view on the marriage of culture and business is straightforward and doctrinaire: “This is a book about how culture has become a mask of social ordering under neo-liberalism.”

He charts the founding of new museums and galleries in post-industrial areas such as Salford and Middlesborough, and looks at how cultural buildings and projects have been used to spearhead the emergence of ‘creative cities’. 

Identifying transnational corporations, remote from popular accountability, as the drivers behind many of these developments, he highlights how public art can become a lightning rod, provoking controversy, but equally exposing democratic deficits in society. 

In the last two chapters, Miles, who is clearly nostalgic for the heady days of 1968, chronicles recent protests, such as the Occupy Wall Street and anti-globalisation campaigns.

Banksy, one of the cleverest of political activists, makes an appearance, as do sundry other artists, chosen more or less randomly to make pertinent points about the way in which culture actually functions, rather than how interest groups portray that functioning.

However, even in its title, Limits to Culture reveals a hesitancy on the part of the author. Miles’s approach is rooted in Critical Theory, a system developed in Frankfurt in the 1920’s, one that analyses art and culture from a Marxist viewpoint. 

In his previous book, Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation (2011), he documented one of the central figures in that movement. 

With the rise of Nazism, the main advocates of the Frankfurt School, as it came to be known, fled Germany, settling in the United States. As with the German artist Josef Albers, and architect Walter Gropius, the influence of these refugees on their adopted country was profound. 

In Washington in the post-war years, Herbert Marcuse was employed by the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, and helped to forge America’s foreign policy, and its relationship with Europe. 

Nowadays, within the university system, a majority of cultural historians write from a broadly Marxist point of view, even where the authors are themselves in no way politically motivated. 

Critical Theory has become a standardised and somewhat empty rhetoric, a formulaic component of university intellectual life, inextricably linked to, and dependent upon, the free-enterprise system it pretends to excoriate. 

This is a free-enterprise system that sees culture as something to be bought, sold and exploited, rather than as something that is an intrinsic right for all members of society.

In truth, Miles is inclined to be nostalgic. His thinking is based on the same Socialist optimism that in the UK brought the Labour Party to power in a landslide election of 1946, saw the creation of a national health service and an ambitious programme of social housing. 

However the inner-city communities he defends as being a somehow immutable element of civic society were in fact themselves the result of mass migrations of rural workers to urban areas during the industrial revolution. 

Cities in England expanded rapidly in the 19th century, and the people who flocked to Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham were drawn by the prospect of high wages and full employment, no less so than the transient workers from France, Italy and Poland who now enliven the streets of Ireland. Miles criticises today’s cities, harking back to times when culture was supposed to improve civic values and society. 

He remembers when museums had a primary duty to educate, rather than to entertain. However, as evidenced by the contrast between the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the dismal failure of the Millennium Dome a century and a half later, it is the popular thirst for education, and confidence in knowing what to teach, that has dwindled.

Miles devotes a chapter to the 1951 Festival of Britain, perhaps the last time when civic virtues were celebrated by the entire populace. 

A quarter of a century later, the trade unions that had grown powerful through protecting the interests of their members, had become agents in the destruction of those same interests, through intransigence and excessive demands. 

The winter of discontent of 1978 exposed deep divisions in society, and the optimism of earlier years was forgotten. However, idealising (even implicitly) the past and criticising the present is risky territory. 

In the mid-18th century, the East India Company and the VOC were fully transnational corporations, while in the 1850’s, cotton from Lancashire was exported worldwide. 

Today, Google is rated as being one of the best companies to work for, while the profitability of Apple and others, where growth is based on high-quality industrial design, has paradoxically been more successful in rekindling memories of how, nearly two centuries ago, art education came to regarded as vital to the economic well-being of society.

As a Marxist writer, it doesn’t suit Miles to acknowledge the resilience and success of capitalism; instead he derives grim satisfaction from witnessing the recent financial turmoils of the free market. 

For many years, amongst social theoreticians, it was a given that art was irrational, unlike the commercial world, where decisions were made on the basis of reason and self-interest. Analysis of consumer trends evolved into an exact science, while art appeared to stray into ever more weird and arcane realms. 

That this was a fundamental misreading became evident in the first decade of the 21st century, when the underlying irrationality of how people manage money was once again exposed. As banks failed, or were bailed out, art proved surprisingly resilient and indeed became a refuge for people fleeing volatile markets. 

However, Miles’s attempts to write off capitalism as a spent force are unconvincing. Free markets quickly change and adapt, attention shifts to the East, and the doom and gloom of 2008 fades from public consciousness as opportunities arise.

Engaging and informative, Limits to Culture is written in a conversational, almost colloquial way. Miles takes the reader on an odyssey through blighted post-industrial landscapes, up-market developments, corporate events and anti-capitalist street protests. 

He is transparent and honest in his narrative, stating clearly when he is avoiding a topic, or covering a subject about which he does not have first-hand knowledge. To some, it might seem that he is an armchair warrior, praising those who partake in protests but not taking to the streets himself. 

However, as Edward Said acknowledged in the introduction to his classic Orientalism, universities have long been a haven for social and political theorists, and without these voices, society might well be quite different. A timely book, Miles’s Limits to Culture, contains important observations about today’s world, and deserves to be read.

  • Peter Murray is director of the Crawford Gallery in Cork


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