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Beauty and the Beast: capital forces and cultural production

Profit-making and spatial justice in the contemporary world-class city

The integration of urban culture and global capital is at a high point, packaged in the idea of ‘attractiveness’ central to the ‘world-class’ city concept. As a result of these synergies of place marketing, we can observe the production of typologies of urban space where cultural consumption (an essentially aesthetic dividend) is central to its financial value. The intangible currencies of ‘uniqueness’ and ‘authenticity’ multiply the overall brand value of places in the mind of those engineering them.

The intensity of these planning efforts is drastically reducing the time and space between emergence and recuperation of any urban phenomena, so much that nothing can really ‘incubate’ in the sense of its social value. What is produced instead, is a false hierarchy of merit based on how quickly urban entities can go from inception to mainstream monetisation.

The objective is to go from pop-up to pop-up mall in the fastest way possible in a constantly recombinant urbanism that reproduces the investment model of globalised competitive markets at a local scale.

At the same time, the logic of capital investment is increasing inequalities both in the arts and the housing market. While the auction houses constantly break new records pushing further and further the uniqueness of the art object as a commodity, those wishing to enter the industry are asked to pay hefty yearly fees just in order to get a BA, which in the constant demands of professionalisation in the artworld competitiveness is of less and less value.

‘While the auction houses constrantly break new records, those wishing to enter the industry are asked to pay hefty fees to gain qualifications which are of declining value within the artworld.’

In London, the presence of a hyper-rich housing market of unnatural value – a phenomenon which even some estate agents are starting to be wary of – is mirrored by a steady decline in social housing and the progressive evacuation of its presence from the spectrum of urbanism.

Indeed, both the production of contemporary art and contemporary urbanity in London at present are largely affected by the same problem. Their aggressive conceptualisation as commodities, ushered by the neoliberal doctrine of monetisation of entities as assets, has flattened their complexities into totalising profit-making narratives. Each is rendered artificially distinct by preying upon aesthetic criteria as cultural evidence of their uniqueness.

Some call it ‘creative economy’, others ‘the spectacle of capital’. Such relentless production of urban narratives centred on manufactured atmospheres of ‘urban vitality’ can lead to the bankruptcy of the very economy that underwrites the much-promoted alliance between culture and capital in its current state.

‘The social reality of the city becomes a mass ornament at an urban scale whose language assumes vacuous and sinister tones.’

This incessant production and reproduction of the same model of urbanism eventually blurs entirely the lines of distinction between culture and commodity. If culture is understood as business, the very nature of the exchange is devalued. If in the city everything is culture and all culture is potentially a business, where is the place for the social dimension of culture? Rewritten as marketing material, the social reality of the city becomes a mass ornament at an urban scale whose language assumes vacuous and sinister tones.

In this atmosphere, crucial urban questions that art and architecture have to offer from their rich history are bypassed, fragmented in the stakeholder’s separation of roles. Through these gaps, the fragile but utterly precious ordinariness of urban culture at its cosmopolitan best, falls out of the picture, squeezed between profit-making and aesthetic dividends and their mutually exploitative relationship.

‘Revived and vibrant communities’ stands for decanted social tenants, ‘internationally inspired eateries’ stands for cafés, ‘the latest gem on the city fringes’ stands for volume-built, over-priced average housing and ‘changify’ is the latest wordplay on gentrify.


UCL’s proposal to develop a Stratford Campus led to protests from residents

When culture and art materialises into the contemporary city we must not just ask ‘what art?’ or ‘what culture?’, but also ‘what city?’ and crucially ‘for whom?’.

The city conceived as a world-class attractive product transforms all of its objects, processes and people into a living portfolio of assets for investors in a global market. Once intensely engaged in this activity, the market has no containment tools for the flattening consequences produced by its own drive, and can only resort to artificial means of differentiation to mask its profit-driven homogenisation. It is only in occasional moments of de-differentiation of identities that the real city and its real culture come into view, revealing the presence of the urban space and its non-compliance. Out of these openings, visible gaps have recently appeared in east London.

The Hackney Fashion Hub

The Hackney Council’s planning committee approved David Adjaye’s 100m plans for the Hackney Fashion Hub

In Hackney, the case of the privately developed Fashion Hub, sanctioned by the local authority through the underwriting of £1.5 million allocated from a fund designer to support communities following widespread riots in 2011, has revealed how the term ‘regeneration’ can be blatantly reconfigured as investment through the central role given to the creative industry. ‘Fashion’ is here the cultural front-end label of a speculative capital development by Manhattan Loft Corporation, couching the sequestration of public funds under the benevolent rhetoric of ‘creative economy’.

Still in east London, last year there were proposals by University College London to expand their status as ‘London’s Global University’ by creating a large new campus in Stratford on the site of the Carpenters Estate. The scheme was eventually shelved, but only after clearly outlining the spiteful scenario of ‘public good’ vs ‘public housing’ enacted by the University as developer and the local authority as broker. Emerging in this instance was another breakdown in the creative capital narrative. The UCL/Newham intended partnership showed a cultural institution as a legitimising vehicle for spatial injustice, driven by land values at the expense of a housing estate too close to the Olympic Village to be allowed to be part of its legacy.

In these and many other ‘déjà vu’ moments, culture and capital are mutually assimilated into a disturbing image, in which the diversity of their identities is dissolved and blended. The urban love story of capital with the arts and culture turns into a crass prenuptial agreement that will never be consummated, a post-production wedding shot with the city as a virtual background.

Culture and aesthetics have a central function in urban life. Their perception is the core of our individual experience and the development of social identity, but in the heavily scripted terms of utilitarian endearment typical of marketing urbanism, they point to the problem of authenticity that troubles capital’s search for urban cosmopolitanism as a source of re-enchantment for its hollow core.

Even the many ‘meanwhile uses’, that burgeoned in the post-crisis uncertainty of the previously propelled mantra of ‘cultural quarter’, have grown into an arsenal of chic squatting aesthetic, temporary occupations sanctioned by public-private partnerships whose rationale is to percolate land value and act as empirical incubators of audiences for what is to come.

naked city

‘The naked city’ by Guy Debord depicts a psychogeographical map of paris while reacts on the rational city models embraced by Parisian postwar planners.

Business and Art might be booming on the stock exchange and the auction house, but the frayed edges of their mutually instrumental relationship are stared at from the naked city, the city from below which does not participate in the ‘creative masterplanning’ with the degree of excitement that is expected from them.

In other words, when the excessive proximity of culture and capital becomes clear, their mutual investment logic approaches total devaluation. In London, this state is becoming increasingly apparent, but the awareness of this coming tipping point can be a fertile ground for new approaches and practices to come.

The ground has been cleared for all artistic and architectural urban practices aiming to be more than providers of consultation in disguise, cover-up exuberance for spatial injustice or face-value narratives to be spun to home buyers. The urban cosmopolitan culture arising out of this consciousness already exists in our midst, dis-integrated from the bankrupted nexus of culture and capital in its current paradigm. It’s up to us cultural producers to remind ourselves that the immaterial aesthetic dividend produced by the urban space must be recognised as a protected common and not as a commodity.

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