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  • Writer's pictureDave LeRue

The Neoliberal Aesthetic? Colour in the Home Interior, 1965- Present

*The following is a re-purposing of something written in late 2016 for a graduate term paper. I've left the thesis and writing largely in tact, even if my analysis of these issues has moved further left, but added a few additional points of interest and departure.*

Colour in the home interior has changed dramatically since the 1960’s. In the 60’s, home décor magazines and Ikea catalogues featured liberal use of colours, wallpaper, and shag carpets. Fast forward to present day and the colours in an Ikea catalogue feature many shades of black and grey, concrete and tile floors have replaced carpet, and most new dwellings are condominiums. My research will focus on this shifting cultural phenomenon, one that has been referred to as the “purging” of colour. (Batchelor, 2000) This purging of colour has been a point of interest in my studio practice, which has recently led me to painting modernist home interiors. This research will seek to understand why this look has become so popular, and to explore how contemporary social, political, and economic conditions may be leading to this phenomenon.

Colour in the lived environment is primarily the product of design choices influenced by “trends” and implemented by architects, furniture stores and interior designers. My hypothesis is that the living interiors of new homes today is correlated to globalization and neoliberalism. The relationship between culture and economics is more pronounced than ever, with cultural output becoming increasingly capitalized. Economic factors cannot help but change cultural output and has with historical trends. For example, cultural output looked a lot different when the church was the primary patron of culture. 

But what is our primary patron? Since the fall of communism in what Fukuyama calls "the end of history," the incentives of the west to patronize the arts for their own sake have evaporated. The British council for the arts is a shell of what it once was, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the United States doesn't give grants for individual artists. Instead, art is increasingly looked at for utility of social inclusion, and the artist as a model for the ideal worker- contracted, passionate, and willing to live in precarity. (Bishop, 2012) This creates the illusion of freedom and enlightenment, freeing us from the chains of hourly labor and replacing it with something timeless. The timeless worker doesn't clock in at nine and clock out at five. The timeless worker never stops, feeling a nagging pressure to always be productive. This new system doesn't emancipate anyone from labour, but breaks down the barriers between labor and life. 

A point of departure in this research has been considering how the condominium is sold. Instead of selling dwellings, condominium developers sell lifestyles complete with luxurious amenities. I have come across condominiums that offer pools, massages, ferry services, coffee shops (that deliver), bistros, ovens to keep take-out food warm, pickup laundry, rooftop gardens, and gyms. Location and urban living are also heavily emphasized in their pitches, and the design of these spaces often resembles modernist principles.

The contemporary condominium is clearly an idealistic space proliferated in the last twenty-five years. Could the idealism of the condominium coincide with the economic idealism of Neoliberalism? Many art movements are reminiscent of these interiors, drawing visual parallels to modernist and minimalist midcentury painters including Don Flavin, Carl Andre, Joseph Albers, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Frank Stella. In this research, I will look for ideological comparisons between these midcentury painters working with a relatable aesthetic. Is modernist architecture related to an art movement? Beyond researching specific artists, I would like to refine my own practice to better represent monochromatic modernist spaces. I find it a struggle to merely represent things through painting, so I would like to understand the relationship between painting practices and ontology to rationalize and adjust my approach going forward.

In his 1995 Massey Lectures An Unconscious Civilization, John Ralston Saul theorizes that in precarious economic and social times there is a human tendency to move toward utopian ideologies, such as free market capitalism. He suggests that there is no evidence of the unregulated free market producing long term prosperity, but there is evidence of it causing damage both socially and economically to the common people. I think Saul was describing what we would today call "neoliberalism," and it would be fair to say that since 1995 these problems have worsened. Instead of adopting rational solutions or the construction of any kinds of institutions, governments have doubled down on free-market ideologies through privatization, tax cuts, and public service reductions.

We certainly still live in precarious social, economic, and cultural times. The social and political elites have endorsed broken policies in the name of being “business friendly”, and our cities are undergoing rapid changes. Keeping all of this in mind, my research will look to answer this question: Are the changes we see since 1965 in the contemporary living space the result of an emergent Neoliberal Aesthetic? This research will engage with several writers and disciplines to unpack the social and ideological factors of this question. In doing so, I hope to develop a framework in which to further research these ideas.

(Mildly revised in 2019)

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