Michael Hirsch

Culture Wars and Think Tanks

Neoliberal Hegemony and Artistic Interventions


Artistic explorations of contemporary social systems work from the idea of a critical counter-knowledge. They are based on the notion of counter-hegemonic strategies in the face of neoliberal capitalism. In this process they employ the by now well-established ways of appropriation or resignification of existing fragments of reality or, to use a time-honored term coined by Brecht’s ‘Epic Theater’: alienation (‘Verfremdung’).

Contemporary art is understood here as a medium of knowledge production, as the site of articulating counter-knowledge. Even though the term ‘research’ has become controversial in this context, as it suggests a quasi-scholarly form of scientific research, I nevertheless find it useful to consider contemporary art from this perspective.

The “Better Think Tank Project” as well as other projects by Manuela Unverdorben and Ralf Homann may serve as examples for this type of research-based art. Their examination of neoliberal U.S. think tanks, which represent a form of expert knowledge barely-legitimized by democratic principles or scientific standards and put at the disposal of the ruling elite, exemplifies the logic of resignification and alienation of fragments of reality.

The subversive and critical tone of this ‘exhibition’ of hegemonic knowledge points towards the dubious side of such ‘think tanks’. Save for a few exceptions there is actually not much thinking done in those institutions. Rather, we find lobby organizations, political cliques or old boy’s networks. Quite likely their key anti-democratic function can be found in the substitution of public democratic debate with seemingly objective, semi-private expertise. To bring such processes of obfuscation or black-out back into the light of the public domain is one of the goals of Manuela Unverdorben’s and Ralf Homann’s projects. For that purpose they research, ‘exhibit’, and ‘alienate’ or defamiliarize the hidden agenda, external aesthetic manifestations and cultural influence of neoliberal think tanks. For it is here that the conservative spirit of the neoliberal revolution becomes condensed, as it is not only a political-economic revolution, but also a cultural one.

By means of artistic practice and intervention a more general question is being posed: Why and how has the rebellious “bottom-up” counter-culture again and again been absorbed and appropriated by a conservative “top-down” counter-revolution? And there is also another question: What is the future of Freedom?