Indifference. Art, Liberalism and the Politics of Place

Ferguson, Nicholas. 2015. Indifference. Art, Liberalism and the Politics of Place. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Against a backdrop of territorial expansion, land enclosure and laissez-faire economic policy in eighteenth-century England, a mode of perception was imagined that would disrupt conventional acts of looking which, to the critical mind, were linked to an economy of selfhood. There emerged a theory of a gaze that might resist tendencies to private authority, as well as the absolutism of public power. The gaze would, with time, come to be identified with artistic vision and is here labelled indifference.

This thesis seeks to characterise indifference, to use it as an optic onto liberal orthodoxies, and to evaluate its capability as a disruptor of neoliberal ideology. Selected for analysis is liberalism’s valorisation of place, to which twenty-first century cultural production has contributed. Through case studies of contemporary art, it is shown that artworks produced in order to cultivate a sense of place in the name of social welfare and a crowded public sphere may not in practice serve such ends. Rather, they threaten to reinforce hierarchies already operative in the concept of place. If they do so, their instigators are arguably complicit in the very inequalities that they propose to eliminate.

The thesis examines the disruptive potential of the artist’s indifference through an analysis of artworks by Robert Smithson and Thomas Hirschhorn. Both these artists, albeit in different ways, claim indifference to site, thereby promising to negate the authority of a body politic that is sustained by place production. However, in the case of Hirschhorn, whose public commission in Holland, 2009, serves as a case study, the promise is undermined by the fact that his indifference coincided with the interests of his corporate and state backers. Consequently, his art functioned not to sublimate selfhood in the interests of the polis, but to facilitate the liberty of corporations and the Dutch state.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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Printed thesis available for reference in Goldsmiths Library.


Site specific art, Liberalism, Neoliberalism, Place, Indifference

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31 October 2015

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Date Deposited:

20 Dec 2016 10:22

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:12


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