Representations of the body under neoliberal capitalism. Can painting add to the dialogue?

In this essay I will outline some of the preliminary ideas that inform my current painting research and practice.

I intend to address (briefly, at this stage) the following questions:

  • What are the effects of neoliberal capitalism on certain sectors of society particularly those in liminal or vulnerable groups such as young people and (possibly) especially young girls?
  • What is the role of mass media, social media and new technology in these effects?
  • Can (and should) the medium of paint add to the debate? Can it illuminate the issues or ameliorate some of the deleterious effects of neoliberal capitalism and, if so, how?

There is little doubt that those societies which have embraced neoliberal capitalism have benefitted hugely from its effects. Many would argue that it has been a resounding success and that its inexorable spread across most of the world is unquestionably a good thing.

There is however a small but significant number of dissenting voices who argue that neoliberalism’s unfettered spread should be questioned. Some maintain that it should be halted or, at the very least, that it should be critically examined (Picket, K. and Wilkinson, R. 2010). They suggest that its effects have been unpredictable, uneven and unfair (MacIntyre, A, 2007) and, that it may have eradicated many ancient problems but, in the process, it has replaced them with newer, more complex ones. Some, such as Giroux (2011), cite new communication technologies as a particular double-edged sword of neoliberal capitalism.

The new technologies abound. Increasingly inexpensive they are available to almost everyone. And with the spread of new tech comes (perhaps surprising) the return of that old fashioned thing, the portrait. The portrait in neo-liberal capitalism is digital, self-generated and everywhere. We are saturated by selfies and with them come the inevitable attempts to analyse them.

Dismissed as narcissism by many, for others they are an opportunity to be creative, original and individual. Karen Nelson-Field suggests they are a form of personal brand promotion (Nelson-Field 2013). The weird thing is, these portraits of individuals are not individual at all.

What you see is the same pose repeated, same pout, same glossy hair, same clothes. A (very) superficial reading of them suggests a simple display of vanity, but one does not need to look very far below the surface to see that it is, of course, much more complex than that.

Behind the selfie for example (among many other things) lies an epidemic of self harm and eating disorders. The figures are shocking. The Observer in 2006 reported that a national inquiry into self-harm found that “one in 12 British children deliberately hurt themselves” (Hill, 2006). The figures for eating disorders are more difficult to quantify as many are hidden, but there has been a marked increase in hospital admissions in recent years, and boys are a significant part of the picture now (Micali et al, 2013).

This poses some interesting questions. If the people posting the smiling selfies are also cutting and starving themselves then what is going on? Is it possible that the new self-portraits are less about simple narcissism and more about attempts to navigate an increasingly alienating and highly pressured society?

Several commentators have attempted to address these questions. Recently Giroux (2013) has written about how neoliberal capitalism “endlessly commercializes kids, both as commodities and as commodifiable”. He cites selfies as an intrinsic part of the process. Verhaeghe (2012) warns that the neo-liberal model thrives on comparison, envy and fear and also notes the spectacular rise in self harm and eating disorders alongside increased surveillance in the form of social media.

Some analysts take a feminist perspective. Laurie Penny, for example, relates the lack of control young women feel in contemporary society to the oppression of patriarchal capitalism (Penny, 2010). Previous to this Berger wrote cogently about the male gaze (Berger 2008) but, if boys are not immune to the effects of capitalist machinery then, it may be, that a purely feminist analysis is inadequate as an explanation of the complex pressures on humanity now.

What is apparent is that there is a contradiction in modern life between an apparently benevolent society of relative affluence, democracy and freedom and rising levels of anxiety, alienation and dissatisfaction, at least among certain groups. It’s obviously a complex topic but as an artist it seems important to ask, what, if anything, can painting add to the debate?

Figure 1: ‘Georgina’ by Corinne Day, photograph, 1985

Traditionally art has been used to let us see, or make us look at, uncomfortable truths. From Hogarth’s depiction of poverty in Gin Lane, to Gertler’s representation of the horrors of war in Merry-Go-Round. In the 90s Corinne Day illuminated the dark side of the fashion industry with her evocative photos portraying heroin chic. Currently Marlene Dumas addresses issues of alienation and disconnect in her paintings of sex workers and victims of apartheid.

Figure 2: ‘The Visitor’ by Marlene Dumas, oil on canvas, 1995.

Contemporary film too addresses the pressures of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on the body. Girl Model is a documentary film that follows the unenviable journeys of 13 year old girls scouted by model agencies. What unfolds is a depressing story of objectification and child exploitation by the faceless, pitiless, profit driven fashion industry (Girl Model, 2011).

Figure 3: still from ‘Girl Model’, documentary film, 2011.

To conclude, neoliberal capitalism with all its advantages, affluence and freedoms looks set to stay (at least for now). Freedom is, of course, a highly prized virtue of a free market society. As Henry Luce, quoted in Barbrook (2007, p28) said, the abundant society is a free society. It’s unfortunate then that those freedoms are not for everyone. Also, if freedom means being co-opted to advertise big business, to promote their products, to spread their ideas and values like a virus, to be so pressured by this process that you are compelled to starve or cut yourself and, to be derided as a vain narcissist at the same time, then this raises the question of what it actually means to be free under neoliberalism.

There are, of course, many different ways to explore that question but it is feasible that painting can add to the dialogue. Possibly by providing a counter narrative to those provided by other media and technologies. Painting, as it has traditionally done, may be able to shed light on the dark side of our neoliberal society and, in exposing those things that we find difficult to look at, it may in turn provoke (at the very least) a critical and, perhaps much needed, examination of where we find ourselves now.



Barbrook, R. (2007) Imaginary futures: from thinking machines to the global village, London: Pluto Press.

Berger, J. (2008) Ways of seeing (Vol. 1), London: Penguin UK.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Translated from French by A. Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.

Girl Model (2011) Directed by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon [Film] USA Carnivalesque Films.

Giroux, H. (2011) ‘The Crisis of Public Values in the Age of the New Media’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 28, 1, pp. 8-29.

Giroux (2013), Zombie Capitalism, Radical Art Initiative, viewed 23 December 2015,

Giroux, H., 2015. Terrorizing the self, Cyrano’s Journal Today, viewed 23 December 2015,

Guéry, F. and Deleule, D. (2014) The Productive Body. Winchester: Zero Books.

Hill, A. (2006) ‘Teenagers’ epidemic of self-harm, The Observer, 26 March.

MacIntyre, A. (2007). After Virtue. A study in moral theory London: Duckworth.

Micali N, Hagberg KW, Peterson I et al (2013) ‘The incidence of eating disorders in the UK 2000-2009’ BMJ Open 20013; 3: e002646. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002646

Monbiot, G. (2000) Captive state. London: Macmillan.

Nelson-Field, K. (2013) Scholarly reflections on the selfie OUPblog, viewed 23 December 2015. http

Penny, L. (2010) Meat Market. Winchester: Zero Books.

Picket, K and Wilkinson, R. (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin.

Sontag, S. (1977) On photography. London: Macmillan.

Verhaeghe, Paul. (2012). ‘Capitalism and Psychology – Identity and Angst: on Civilisation’s New Discontent.’ in Vermeersch, W. (ed.), Belgian Society and Politics, pp. 55-63.

Verhaeghe, P. (2014). What about me? The struggle for identity in a market-based society. Translated from Dutch by J. Hedley-Prole. London: Scribe.


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