Neoliberalism, the internet and the privatisation of the self: What can painting do?

Building on the ideas explored in my last essay I will focus on the following questions:

  • Are young people under increasing pressure in contemporary neoliberal society? If so, how and why?
  • How are the new medias implicated in the situation facing young people now?
  • What can art do? Is there a role for painting in neoliberal society?



We’ve never had it so good. In the West at least, we live in a world with unprecedented opportunities. There have been huge expansions in education and international travel, diseases that used to threaten us have been eradicated and life expectancy has increased. Human rights are valued in many societies and the Internet has provided us with previously unthinkable levels of connection. Vast amounts of information are only a click away and for many of us levels of affluence continue to rise.

For some though there is a growing sense of unease and unfairness. A concern that the progress we have made, and the developments that have taken place, have been uneven. That, in some parts of the world, and even in some parts of the country, some people are being left behind whilst others prosper. In fact, some would argue that the opportunities enjoyed by some (the rich and powerful) have been gained at the expense of others (the poor and vulnerable).

Aside from these obvious inequalities and their consequences, other issues have arisen which suggest that even those who seem, on the surface, to benefit from the dominant political system of neoliberal capitalism are in fact suffering from its effects.

While there are huge and important debates to be had about its global spread and its effects in all areas of life, for the purposes of this essay, and in relation to my current art practice, I will focus on the social/psychological/political effects of neoliberal capitalism on one particular group, young women. I will also look at the role of art, particularly painting in contemporary society.

The effects of neoliberal capitalism on young people – the evidence

There is a mass of evidence pointing to the distress experienced by young people now. Young Minds (2016), a charity that provides support for young people, state that contemporary society can be bad for children’s mental health with one in 10 deliberately harming themselves (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2014) and approximately 725,000 people in the UK suffering from an eating disorder (B-EAT, 2014). They list many issues that are adversely affecting young people including:

  • Pressure to have the perfect body and lifestyle
  • Materialist culture
  • 24 hour social networking
  • Bullying on and offline
  • Increasing and early sexualisation
  • Exam factory culture in schools

An important question to ask is, to what extent are these issues a result of neoliberalism? Hasn’t it always been difficult being a teenager? Of course it has, but it can be argued that teenagers’ problems now are specifically connected to a system that increasingly commodifies young people and many other aspects of their lives. Giroux (2013) claims that young people now are seen as disposable. They are given the message that the only obligation of a citizen is to consume and they are encouraged to see themselves as a brand. Giroux maintains that there is no discourse that is not commodified. Issues that may have been central to the ideas of previous generations such as social responsibility, caring for the less fortunate, justice and integrity are neglected, as the exam obsessed education system robs teenagers of the ability to think about anything other than passing tests (Giroux, 2013).

During my research I interviewed a counsellor who works with young people.[1] Her anecdotal evidence supports the findings of Young Minds. She described some of the typical issues she has to deal with. One involved a distressed young girl devastated after being bullied and humiliated on social media. Of course bullying has always happened, but, whereas in the past, a child bullied at school could escape at the end of the school day, now, the bullying can continue online, at any hour, relentlessly, day and night.

She also spoke about the unmediated access to extreme online pornography at an increasingly young age that leads to unrealistic and distressing expectations for boys and girls. Obviously pornography has been around since before the Internet but, until recently, extreme, hardcore porn was not easily available to confused and frightened nine year olds.

Competition within the education system is also causing distress. With young people forced into an increasingly narrow, exam-based system, which values only wealth generating, STEM subjects and neglects anything else, many of them are cracking under the pressure. If we take a more global view of this, it seems we are in the bizarre situation where a large proportion of the world’s children (mainly girls) are denied education whilst the rest (mainly in the West) are barely able to cope with the relentless demands made on them to over achieve.

She also cited social media and selfie culture as a cause of anxiety and depression, with girls being pressured to appear perfect at all times, and, to continually compete and compare themselves (usually unfavourably) to others. Arguably, this type of competitive behaviour has always been present but, as the counsellor notes, there is no escape from it now, no off-button, no downtime, no time for reflection, just relentless posting, relentless looking and relentless comparison.

The role of social media

We know that social media activity, particularly the posting of selfies, is often dismissed as superficial narcissism. This is hard to reconcile with the facts. Young people are concerned about how they appear to others, but it seems to have little to do with self-love. It would be wrong to think that they are only posting selfies too. Research done by anthropologists at UCL shows that online postings are not as homogenous as we think. Each platform generates its own particular type of post. They identify Instagram for ‘selfies’, Snapchat for ‘uglies’ and Facebook for ‘groupies’. As Miller notes “it is the interpretation of the selfie, not the selfie itself that should be condemned as merely superficial” (Miller, 2014). Some, such as Ryan, take a feminist perspective. She asserts that selfies are “a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness” (Ryan quoted in Giroux, 2015).

The market and state sanctioned selfishness

According to Giroux, selfie culture is market driven. He relates the mass acceptance and normalising of selfies to Foucault’s theories of the proliferation of state surveillance (Giroux, 2015). Scott Malcomson also explores the relationships between big business, the state and the internet. He states that commercial data gathering is a reality of modern online life and that the implications for privacy, security and manipulation are enormous (Malcomson, 2015).

It’s not just selfies that are market-driven. It could be argued that most of the issues discussed so far can be explained by neoliberal ideology. The market dominates everything and this fact increasingly affects all aspects of life. As Will Davies notes neoliberalism is “an effort to anchor modernity in the market”.  He claims that, things that previously would have been viewed as social or political issues are now seen only in terms of their monetary value. (Davies, 2016). It is not difficult to see how this ideology is currently being played out in areas such as education, disability and unemployment for example.  It was Ayn Rand who claimed that selfishness was the highest virtue (Giroux, 2015) and it seems that this idea is now state sanctioned and becoming thoroughly embedded throughout society.

The culture of quantification and comparison is noted by Monbiot, who writes that the paradox of neoliberalism is that in its attempt to free up a central bureaucratic state it has created a market driven bureaucracy of relentless assessment and monitoring, which is applied to individuals and public services alike. Designed to identify winners and punish losers, its brutal assessment regimes mean that ‘those who fall behind become defined and self defined as losers” (Monbiot, 2016).

The psychoanalyst Verhaeghe (2012) argues that the neoliberal organisation of society has far reaching and devastating consequences for people’s sense of identity and their mental health.  His research reveals epidemics of loneliness, depression, performance anxiety, social phobia, eating disorders and self-harm. He cites social media as an important part of the picture.

 The Internet as saviour

Some suggest that the Internet can be a space to challenge neoliberal ideology, and there are certainly instances where it has been used to inform and mobilize  resistance movements with extraordinary efficiency (e.g. the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement).

Others such as Roberts are sceptical. He notes that we should avoid a one sided and de-contextualised explanation of the democratic possibilities of new media. Roberts claims that its links to governance and the market means that “e.democracy will never be realised” (Roberts, 2014, p22). It seems that although there are opportunities for resistance, new media is “part of the battle for hegemony” and it would be overly optimistic to think that anyone else except the state and the market is likely to win (Roberts, 2014, p20).

What can Art Do?

What is the role of art in all this?  There is a long tradition of art as opposition to the system. As Downey notes, art can disturb and disrupt. It can be a practice that challenges the allocation of voices and roles in a community.   (Downey, 2014)

Historically we can see examples of this with Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica, Bosch’s Ship of Fools where he expresses his disdain for the corrupt church and Gericault’s anti-imperialist Raft of the Medusa.

Guernica – Picasso

Contemporary examples are Allan Sekula’s Waiting for Tear Gas 1999-2000. These are a series of photographs in which he documents demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Washington, where 40,000 people protested against the neoliberal monetary policies of the WTO and the IMF (Downey, 2014).

Santiago Sierra’s 2000 work Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Renumerated To Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, addressed the employment conditions of immigrant workers. Sierra placed refugees into boxes for four hours a day for the duration of the six-week exhibition (Downey, 2014). Jeremy Deller’s 2009 It Is What It Is exhibited a car that had been bombed in Baghdad during the Iraq war (Downey, 2014).

It is what it is – Jeremy Deller, 2009

But we need to be wary. Although some, such as curator Laura Hoptman, argue that contemporary painting is somehow able to detach itself from societal influences, and that artists now can operate outside the system (Hoptman, 2014), if this were true it would turn everything we know about how human beings operate within social and political systems on its head. Traditionally it is the rich and powerful who have commissioned and bought art and it would be naïve to think that art has not in the past, and does not presently, get co-opted into the dominant political system.

What About Painting?

Painting is no less complicit in that system than anything else, but one could argue that awareness is vital. Just the knowledge that we are operating in a system that tends to co-opt everyone and everything for the market, may be enough for art and artists to have some measure of objectivity.

Artist Sal Jones, for example, paints strong female characters taken from film or TV, as an antidote to the prevailing culture of portraying women in films as vulnerable victims or sex objects.

Without me they’re nothing – Sal Jones

Annie Kevans’ work looks at a misogynistic art world that excluded women. She recently painted over 30 successful women artists who have been left out of art history (Frizzell, 2014).

Angelica Kauffman  – Annie Kevans


It seems then, that in spite of the many advances made under neoliberalism, its market driven ideology is having adverse affects in many areas of contemporary life, particularly for vulnerable groups. The ever present and ever evolving digital technologies play an important role in contemporary neoliberalism and are a double-edged sword. The Internet has been used to previously unimaginable effect. It has enabled people to connect, to organise and to resist, but it is a contested space and, as in real life, anyone wanting to challenge the dominant political system, will find themselves taking part in a fundamentally unfair contest, that that they are very unlikely to win.

We live in an era when the pace of change is breathtaking. The old is constantly being exchanged for the new. Some things remain however, and art has not gone away. It has of course been affected by (and itself affects) contemporary society and its new technologies, nonetheless, art is still a place where a variety of voices can be heard and where the un-sayable can be said.

It’s perhaps worth remembering that Albert Camus said, that art itself contains in its core a form of rebellion (Camus, 1971). Painting may no longer be centre stage, but in an era when we are all focused on multiple screens of rapidly changing digital information and, when attention spans are short and splintered, then perhaps just the very existence of something still and quiet to focus on, is a revolution in itself.


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

B-EAT  (2014) The Costs of Eating Disorders, research report written by PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Camus, A. (1971) The Rebel Translated from French by A. Bower. London: Penguin Books.

Davies, W (2016). The Difficulty of Neoliberalism, PERC, 1 January.

Downey, A.  (2014) Art and Politics Now London: Thames and Hudson.

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

Frizzell , N. (2014), Why were so many female artists airbrushed from history, The Guardian, 19 May.

Giroux, H. (2013), Zombie Capitalism, Radical Art Initiative, viewed 1 May 2016,

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

Hoptman, L. (2014) The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World New York: MoMA

Malcomson, S. (2015) Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce Are Fragmenting the World Wide Web London: OR Books.

Miller, D. (2014) Know thy selfies, UCL blog, viewed 23 April 2016.

Monbiot, G. (2016) The Zombie doctrine, The Guardian, 16 April.

Roberts, J. (2014) New Media and Public Activism: Neoliberalism, the state and radical protest in the public sphere Bristol: Policy Press.

Royal College of Psychiatrists (2014) Managing Self-Harm in Young People CR192, October.

Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together New York: Basic Books.

Verhaeghe, P. (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.

Young Minds (2016) What’s the Problem?, viewed 2nd May 2016,

[1] Interviewee requested anonymity. Interview carried out April 2nd, 2016.

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