PRINT April 2016


Thomas Bayrle’s Euro, 1998, as installed in the Albertinum’s Baselitz Room after Georg Baselitz’s work was removed and returned to the artist at his request, Dresden, Germany, 2015.

NEOLIBERALISM, a synonym for privatization and the progressive reduction of the public in favor of the private, has become our condition, the social, economic, and political dispensation within which our activities have unfolded in recent decades. Opposed to any type of government interference in the life of citizens, neoliberalism believes utterly in the self-regulation of the market, and it perceives any form of administration by the state to be a stumbling block, an obstacle to economic growth. Nevertheless, reality shows us that this ideology, both in its classic nineteenth-century version and in today’s counterpart, has in fact never ceased creating norms and structures, consolidating power over a society that has become increasingly authoritarian and single-minded in its goal of preserving the free market, and whose control apparatuses have been implacable in carrying out their paramount objective: the defense of capital—over and above the common good.

Expropriation is one of the pillars on which capitalism rests, though it also spreads beyond economics, as it is consubstantial with other modes of social organization. It operates through the pillages of war and conquests of peoples and civilizations on the periphery—practices made habitual by successive empires—as well as by means of the processes of “enlarged reproduction,” whereby capital accumulates wealth. The dispossession takes place in the first instance in areas lacking in legal regulation, and in the second arises from the connivance between state and capital that characterizes neoliberalism today. The two forms of expropriation are not exclusive but complementary, usually acting in concert to spin a complex web of social subordination.

In this order of things, culture occupies a position that is both central and marginal at the same time. Everyone is aware of the importance of the information and communication industries to the world economy and to our system of values. We know, too, that this preeminence has led to the absorption and subsequent negation of a whole series of practices that were critical in their day. The marketing arms of large corporations continually appropriate artistic styles and strategies for ends that have little to do with the desires of the artists who conceived them, some of whom occasionally fall into a kind of self-inflicted absorption. Artists such as Sebastião Salgado and Damien Hirst, to mention two extreme cases, exploit the most wretched labor conditions or the art market itself to criticize or parody the system. The result is generally the opposite of that intended. On the one hand, the aestheticization of misery and the decontextualization of labor lead to the fetishization of the artwork and the transformation of the suffering of others into a commodity. On the other, sarcasm becomes an exercise in cynicism that does little more than ratify the very dynamic emptying the work of content.

The artist’s role in society has changed, and intellectual activity has lost the almost aristocratic prerogatives it enjoyed in other eras. The author is no longer the praeceptor. Artistic activity lacks the autonomy it is presumed to have had for centuries, and the dispossession of our knowledge and experience is constant. Without nostalgically hankering after a return to the past, we must ask ourselves whether it might not be possible to devise a system that would boost new forms of distribution and retribution, going beyond promotion of the media value of a few and confiscation of the labor of a majority.

SOME MONTHS AGO, Jaime Botín, a prominent Spanish businessman and the owner of Picasso’s Head of a Young Woman, 1906, which was requisitioned by the Spanish state last summer on the grounds that it may have left the country illegally, argued that the painting was his to do with as he pleased. “The picture is mine,” he declared in an interview in October 2015. “It doesn’t belong to Spain. It isn’t a national treasure, and I can do what I want with it.” Botín professed not to understand why he was being deprived of an artwork he had acquired legitimately, despite the fact that, for several years, Spanish courts had repeatedly denied him a permit to export the painting (which he hoped to auction off in London), and yet it had turned up on his private yacht in a Corsican port, where it was seized by French customs officials on August 4 of last year. The confiscation was one of the top news stories in Spain last summer, and it saturated the front pages of the newspapers for a few days. Not long before, the international press had reported on another controversy having to do with export rights regarding cultural property. In this case, Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister of culture, presented a bill that would have limited the movement of certain artworks. Although the proposal would ultimately undergo a number of revisions, the first version imposed restrictions on any piece more than fifty years old and having a value greater than €150,000 ($163,000)—a modest figure by the standards of today’s art market. Until then, the law pertaining to cultural patrimony had been fairly flexible in Germany. It was assumed, of course, that various artworks were to be regarded as belonging to the national heritage and so declared unexportable. Such cases were, however, exceptional, and were specified in a list of “national treasures,” officially known as the Verzeichnis national wertvollen Kulturgutes (Register of Cultural Objects of National Importance), drawn up and periodically revised by a committee of experts. Now virtually any artwork of even middling repute, by an artist living or dead, German or foreign, could be subject to export restrictions. (A revised bill, yet to be voted into law, would cover only works more than seventy years old and having a value greater than €300,000, and stipulates that the work of a living artist could be classified as “national treasure” only with the artist’s consent.)

Though one wouldn’t know it from the fierce debate that subsequently raged—an irate Georg Baselitz withdrew works from the Albertinum in Dresden and Gerhard Richter threatened to reclaim all of his works on loan to German museums and sell them before the law could take effect—Germany was merely trying to bring its regulations into line with those of other European governments, which have sought to protect their treasures from the voracity of the global market by restricting the permanent exportation of works more than fifty years old (or a century old, in the case of France, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden) and deemed of national interest. Under these laws, a work is “of national interest” if the artist was a national or if the object or document in question is an integral part of the country’s history. The application of such criteria can be a little convoluted. In 2015, for instance, Italian authorities refused permission to export a picture by the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí (Figura en una taula [Figure at a Table], 1925) because it was deemed to be related to the painting of the Valori Plastici (a movement whose rappel à l’ordre had transformed Italian art practices in the years immediately after World War I) and was therefore essential to Italian culture. Just this past February, British minister of culture Ed Vaizey, on the advice of the United Kingdom’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, placed a temporary export ban on Giacometti’s Femme, 1928–29, claiming that, although the artist was of Swiss origin and worked primarily in France, this work had had a profound influence on modern British sculpture and should remain in the country.

Shipping containers in the yard of Natural Le Coultre, Geneva Free Ports and Warehouses, June 4, 2014. Photo: Hito Steyerl.

SINCE THE EARLY 1980S, the art market has grown steadily, at times meteorically. Between 2004 and 2014, total annual auction sales of US and European postwar and contemporary art soared from $621 million to $4.5 billion, an increase of 625 percent. With such a precipitous rise in prices comes a high risk that many artworks will leave their countries of origin, especially in the case of nations with faltering or less developed economies. Significantly, the art boom has found an echo in the consolidation of free ports—free-trade zones in which goods may be received, stored, and exported free of customs duties—such as Luxembourg, Geneva, and Singapore, where large numbers of collectors warehouse works to avoid duties and taxes. Under the circumstances, it is unsurprising that states would attempt to protect what they recognize to be their cultural legacy, either by passing new laws restricting the exportation of national treasures or by updating existing ones.

These protectionist measures have been questioned by an important part of the sector, which contends that hindrance to the free movement of artworks would threaten the market and condemn the production of many artists to a sort of reverse ostracism (whereby the artist’s work is exiled not from her country but from all others). Furthermore, the argument goes, collectors, gallerists, and artists will not accept such a loss of control over their work. Finally, market apologists contend, important collections of national and international contemporary art have been amassed in countries that have maintained flexible laws in this area, while such collections are conspicuously absent from countries with more restrictive legislation. Harald Falckenberg, a collector from Hamburg, pointedly asks, “Where are the great collections of Arte Povera in Italy?”1

IF IT IS TRUE that the separation between the public and the private is growing ever more indistinct, and if it is the case that neoliberalism regards the function of the state as that of guaranteeing access (though not necessarily for all) to the market, then what is the point of a law like the one they are trying to pass in Germany? How could restrictions on the exportation of art objects be compatible with a globalized world in which museums are increasingly delocalized, no longer committed to serving their surrounding communities but instead concerned with addressing an increasingly generic and diffuse public? How are we to understand a court ruling that seems to go against the flow—against the consecration of property rights—at a time when everything is being privatized? Are we witnessing points of resistance to globalization, with culture providing a place of refuge, or are these various disruptions of the status quo rather symptoms of a more complex situation?

Ostensibly, what is rendered explicit by these laws is the state’s will to protect that which is historic in character (leaving contemporary art to the vagaries of the market). The historic, whose definition varies from one place to another, is thus placed beyond the reach of global market forces, safeguarded from the most extreme speculative tendencies. However, what is concealed in controversies is often more telling than what is said, and this debate reveals that, despite neoliberalism’s claim that the liberty of the individual is its very cornerstone, the ultimate objective of the system is not freedom but profit, and that, when necessary—contradictory as it may seem—it will not balk at establishing norms and sacralizing certain cultural artifacts to facilitate control over the population (by reifying the “national character,” for instance, or by embodying national or aristocratic virtues). And this contradiction inherent to neoliberalism explains why the free movement of goods and citizens in the twenty-first century is accompanied by its opposite—the raising of barriers against their circulation. It is impossible to speak of heritage without understanding it to be integral to a power structure that feeds off of inequality and thrives on the oppression of certain social groups by others. To which social class do we refer when we speak of a country’s legacy? To that which writes history, or to that which suffers it in silence? We have known since Gramsci that the battle for cultural hegemony is crucial and that it often precedes political hegemony. This is understood by neoliberalism, as it was by the authoritarian regimes of the ’30s and by the superpowers at loggerheads in the Cold War.

Far from manifesting itself in incompatibly opposed positions, the controversy in Germany has evidenced the two sides’ complementarity. It has made clear that the problem lies not in the irreconcilable dichotomy between individual rights and the collective but in the fact that the opposing positions are based on the same principle: that of property as the essential element in our relations and the germ of competition and growth. For some, property is predicated on the individual enjoyment of and dominion over the object; for others, on its collective use.

In Das Kapital, Marx demonstrates that the enclosure of the common lands in Britain at the end of the Middle Ages was a necessary condition for the emergence of an initial form of accumulation. Today, knowledge, affections, and our own subjectivities are the new common pastures, and their increasing enclosure by the ascendant entertainment and communications industries undergirds capital’s newest mode of accumulation. But it is also one of the causes of contemporary capitalism’s crisis. In a period when technology permits all but universal access to cultural properties once the cloistered domain of the elite, the logic of a new enclosure fails. For, as Christian Laval and Pierre Dardot argue (as did Benjamin Franklin at a far earlier moment in capitalism’s development), intellectual activity is neither extractive nor exclusive; it is based on cooperation, not competition; and it is not exhausted by use but, to the contrary, gains energy the more energy it burns.2 Again neoliberalism’s contradictions reveal themselves: We pass restrictive copyright laws and at the same time encourage the expropriation of cognitive labor. We restrict the circulation of cultural goods while promoting the hegemony of a market that is global by definition. And in the midst of our pitched battles over property rights, we forget that the yields of an artwork, the narratives and experiences it generates, transcend its owner or keeper: They are common land belonging to all.

Manuel Borja-Villel is director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.


1. In conversation with the author, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, October 2015.

2. Christian Laval and Pierre Dardot, Commun: Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2014), published in Spain as Común: Ensayo sobre la revolución en el siglo XXI (Barcelona: Gedisa, 2015).