Creativity and Capital in an Age of Austerity

Caroline Douglas

This article was originally published in Uncertain States, October 2015

There’s an embarrassment in our precariousness. This contribution is for people in my position who do not talk about being in that position.

Our conjuncture – austere Britain in the twenty first century – does not present favourable conditions for artistic production. For many artists, work and creativity have become contradictory, not complimentary endeavours.

Photography encompasses the full range of contradictions of the society in which it is produced. Consider the inception of the medium itself: austere 19th Century Victorian Britain. In this context, then as now, creativity and capital bore a direct relationship to one another. Of the pioneers who shaped the field, many died without recognition and are still unknown to us this day. Others with foresight, status and capital (in the cultural, social and economic sense) had their discoveries patented and their names recorded in the annals of the medium. We all know a Daguerreotype, but can we identify an F. Scott Archer? Photography is more than alchemy; capital and class cannot be excluded from this story. Gender, too, is part of this (his)tory. Take a walk round Photography: A Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland, where women are invariably subjects, yet rarely practitioners. But were they really absent from the production process? Or were they ‘employed’ in other, more invisible roles during the emergence of the field? (How many were denied access to the laboratory as their male counterparts made their ‘discoveries’? And just how many were present in ‘subordinate’ but no less essential roles?). One is reminded here of the ‘founding father’ of colour photography James Clerk Maxwell’s Lectures to Women on Physical Science: ‘O love! you fail to read the scale / Correct to tenths of a division. / To mirror heaven those eyes were given, / And not for methods of precision.’

We cannot, therefore, understand artworks independent of the context in which they are made. So where are we today? For many of us, this is a story which begins roughly thirty years ago. As Stuart Hall once argued, ‘Thatcherism’ (read: British society since the 1980s) brought about a new social condition: a valorisation of self-reliance, individualism, free-enterprise, altruism, personal advancement and competitiveness. These transformations inscribed themselves through the very practice of everyday life. No-one emerged from the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era unaffected, and this includes artists and the arts more broadly. If the YBAs and the Glasgow Turner nominees were the ‘children of Thatcher’, doing it for themselves, we are the distant (younger) cousins for whom Thatcherism is all we’ve ever known.


Today, conditions of austerity impose a tangible set of pressures on artists: self-advancement first, participation in common causes later. Other fellow artists appear to us as obstacles rather than sources of solidarity. In an innumerable range of ways, we are set against one another and encouraged to compete, quietly. To progress is to look out for the ‘self’. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the domain of social media, with its very public career-advancing cajolery. Self-promotion is the order of the day, and familiar hierarchies find new means of consolidation. We all know it, and even participate in it. Perversely, when presented with a platform for expression, we hesitate…one can’t run the risk of losing a follower. Yet importantly, we do this under duress. This generation has learned well the art of performativity. In the online presentation of the self, we rarely disclose our class position as zero-hours workers, as unpaid artists who know failure far more intimately than ‘success’. Why such quiet embarrassment in our precariousness?

Earlier this year at the GRAIN State of Photography Symposium held in the magnificent (and scandalously threatened with cuts) Birmingham library, Adam Broomberg called for artists to delete their Instagram accounts as a mode of gaining ‘self worth’.[1] A liberating thought. Or is it? Perhaps our disdain for Instagram reveals that our attitudes are much closer to our Victorian ancestors than we would like to admit? As photography critic Francis Hodgson reminds us, the Victorian dismissal of carte de visites is not unrelated to our own discomfort at the vulgarities of Instagram and its users: it [carte de visite] was cheap; it completely altered the mechanics of social interaction among the people who had access to it.[2] Sound familiar?

We are artists. Ideas are our currency. Their value lies in their capacity to speak to someone else, to resonate with the stranger. In this sense, the arts have a genuinely social character, a transformative potential. We might even say that they even have a specifically political capacity. And if this is so, let us then consider the current case of striking National Gallery and museum staff. It may seem a crude question, but why are there so few artists on the picket lines? Are we adding our creativity to their struggle? But more fundamentally: why do we see it as ‘their’ and not our struggle? Now, more than ever, we must think more concretely about the relationship between creativity and capital.


One such attempt to do this, is the 2015 Venice Biennale All The World’s Futures.[3] Here, among the chandeliered Venetian palazzos, curator Okwui Enwezor gives Walker Evans’ American Great Depression photographs a timely outing. These classic images have been appropriated and (re)presented before (most controversially by Sherrie Levine in Image Scavengers 1983). But context is all: Enwezor’s decision to display them in their original form amidst the greatest economic crisis since Evan’s time is significant. Capital and art production run throughout the Biennale. Take Jeremey Deller and Graham Fagen’s contributions. Deller’s The Shit Old Days compares 19th century and contemporary working conditions. The unimpeachable 18th Century Scottish poet Robert Burns has his legacy disrupted in Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament, which interrogates Burns’ flirtation with the slave trade (a planned journey to Jamaica never materialised after his book sales took off). In recent weeks, there have also been attempts to think through and relate to more urgent, unfolding political questions. For example, Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor are leading a series of ‘walks of compassion’ for refugees. As Kapoor reminds us: “We are artists, we are part of the whole situation…we don’t stand on the sidelines. Artists are part of the story of a response, we cannot stand aside and let others make the response.”[4]


In my own practice, I have attempted to get to grips with the relationship between creativity and capital in this age of austerity. As stated earlier, labour and creativity have, for many artists, become contradictory not complimentary endeavours. In the UK, the context for this, in part, is the phenomenon of the Zero Hours contract. Zero-Hours means no guaranteed hours. At the time of writing, 744,000 people in the UK work a Zero-Hours contract as their main job, and this includes those working in the private and public sector.[5]  Zero-Hours workers are disproportionally women, students in full-time education or working part-time. They receive no holiday pay or sick leave, and are more likely to be aged under 25, or 65 and over. Working a Zero-Hours contract one can feel under pressure to accept work given at short notice, and the compulsion to accept is strong: there is an ever-growing reserve army of (flexible) labour waiting to take your place should you decline. Such ‘flexibility’, for many, amounts to insecurity; the experience of occupying an uncertain state where ‘we can just get someone else in’. In such circumstances, what time is left for self-funded creative labour?

Zero Hours Creativity [6] represents several minutes of my contract reclaimed from my employers. While cleaning up at the end of my (teaching) shifts, I collected photographic paper left behind by students and facility users. These shadowgrams are their accidents, gathered and assembled by me. Returning to the elementary essence of photographic processes, these lensless images begin from the interaction between light and the materiality of the photographic paper. Captured digitally, in a three dimensional space, they invoke a conversation about photography’s positionality within the related mediums of painting and sculpture.

But they also speak to the positionality of the precarious worker, the artist in an age of austerity. As silver is fixed to the paper, I am remunerated in gold. This exchange, it seems, led to some creativity after all.

[1] 23rd of January, 2015.

[2] Interview with Gemma Padley, 1000 words magazine

[3] Other examples include; Economy Stills / CCA 2014 and Glasgow International 2016.



[6] See work in full here: