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Rethinking Work: art as labor

In my recent piece on activism as labor, I briefly touched on the connections between art and street activism, and promised to get back to that soon. I do think that in a discussion of art as labor, we need to look at other purposes art is supposed to serve and ask if that feeds Western culture and especially the United States’s devaluing of art as vocation.

Earlier this year, the second target of FOX News pundit Glenn Beck’s modern-McCarthyist campaign against Obama staffers was Yosi Sergant, director of communications at the National Endowment for the Arts. Sergant came out of the Obama campaign and was responsible for the Shepard Fairey HOPE poster and many other collaborations with the campaign and young, hip artists.

The battle over the stimulus bill focused briefly on funding for the NEA as well. Funding F-22 bombers that have never been and will never be used is perfectly fine, but $50 million for the arts was abhorrent to conservative opponents of government spending in general and government support for creativity in particular.

Art is important. Art gets us, it stimulates us, challenges us, lets us vent our feelings and thoughts, lets us create alternate worlds, alternate realities. It allows us to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist. It builds bridges, creates communities, allows new forms of communication.

But it requires work, time, money. And a recent survey noted that while 96% of U.S. respondents thought art was valuable and inspiring, only 27% of them valued the artists who make it.

Lewis Hyde, in The Gift wrote of art as fundamentally unsuited to capitalist economics, as a gift that prospers from exchange, that creates community and bonds people. Perhaps this is why conservatives tend to be especially angry at the idea of funding art. But Yasmin Nair wrote that the assumption that art needs to be progressive in nature, oriented toward social justice, itself contributes to the devaluing of artists’ labor.

In this context, the neoliberals of the left are those who would press artists to continue to work for “social justice” and, perhaps, to fight against censorship. The neoliberals on the right are those who think that social justice is not a function of art. Both kinds of neoliberals want control over the production of art, and neither cares much about repaying artists for their labor, and in that they are neoliberal to the core.

Just as activism is something that one should do in one’s spare time, or for no money, because it matters, art is something we are expected to do in service of a higher calling. Hyde falls into this trap as well in his book, spending more time focusing on the piece of art—the gift or commodity, depending on its exchange—and less on the labor that went into making it, talking of the “gift” or talent that led the artist to create in the first place.

Which is well and good—few of us, I think, would argue, that artists do not have talents above and beyond the rest of us. But the thought of the “gift” of art might explain the discrepancy in the survey above, the reason that Americans valued the object, the commodity or gift, but not the producers and their labor.

Indeed, Hyde writes,

”We could—we should—reward gift labors where we value them. My point here is simply that where we do so we will have to recognize that the pay they receive has not been ‘made’ the way fortunes are made in the market, that it is a gift bestowed by the group.”

This type of payment system still presumes, though, that the value is in the end product and not the labor that goes into it. And maybe that’s true. I could spend as many hours as Van Gogh creating a painting, but it would probably not be as “good” as Van Gogh. At some point, we must have a boundary between the real artists and the others, right?

Many of us do make art for ourselves only, not for anyone else’s eyes—it can be a gift you give yourself as much as anything else. But this feeling has contributed to our devaluing of the work involved. Art is seen as personal, as something you do for yourself. It’s self-indulgent in an economy that prizes asceticism as much as it prizes consumption. It’s reflective, in a society that tells you to get your needs externally. Though an artist makes something tangible in a way that no banker or lawyer does, it is not a necessary—or necessarily good—something.

When we discuss valuing art, another problem pops up. How do we decide what is good art, what is bad, what is worth supporting? Mingling with the conservative arguments against the funding of art is the familiar caricature of the effete, privileged coastal liberal with a glass of wine, at an art opening, spending thousands on an abstract painting that most people look at and shrug. Yet the art that scares them is the art Yosi Sergant supported—populist art that was slapped up on street corners, art-as-propaganda, yes, but art that escaped the boundaries of the gallery where the upper classes (and we know that they exist on both sides of the major party lines) play.

What Nair called the “neoliberals of the left” have served just as big a role in marginalizing art both along lines of quality and of production. The fetishizing of indie culture created a boundary between “high” and “low” that started out as a statement on the means of production but often ended up as just snobbery, the “cool” being walled off from the masses. The obsession with indie purity often meant an obsession with musicians not getting paid—or not getting paid much—for their work; hence the term “sold out.” There is a similar distrust of populism in the art world and the liberal political arena.

Patrick Brown noted that

Maybe the lesson here is that, as the distinction between mainstream and indie ceases to be relevant from a production standpoint, it should cease as well to be a way of categorizing art… The only deciding factor is quality. Maybe rather than asking “Is this indie?” we should satisfy ourselves with asking “Is it a good show?”

I would add Nair’s question: “Are these projects fair and equitable and just in the way they treat artists as workers?” Yet breaking down the wall between an elite with access to the arts and artists who are either starving or for a lucky few, fabulously rich, would perhaps bring us a step closer to valuing not just the art but the people who work at it.

Hyde’s gift system is working for some artists—Amanda Palmer, for instance, has raised money the old-fashioned way—by asking for it. But this presumes that the artist already has an audience, which means they’ve had to have time to create some art for people to assign a value to.

In arguing for a real stimulus for the arts, Jeff Chang wrote:

What we might call “the creativity stimulus” goes far beyond job creation and even economic development. Culture is not just something conservatives wage war on. The arts are not just something liberals dress up for on weekends. Creativity can be a powerful form of organizing communities from the bottom up. The economic crisis gives us a chance to rethink the role of creativity in making a vibrant economy and civil society.

It’s easy to argue for state funding for any suffering form of labor, but in this case, the best way to develop art that is truly a window to the whole culture, not just the parts of it that rich people value, is to truly support art education, to nurture those willing to put in the work of creating art for the rest of us. We need to value them as much as we value what they produce.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Work: art as labor

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Still, I think your analysis leaves that key problem dangling before us: who determines the boundaries between the “real artists and the others…?” You write ” I could spend as many hours as Van Gogh creating a painting, but it would probably not be as “good” as Van Gogh. At some point, we must have a boundary between the real artists and the others, right?” And yet, for years people lined up and enjoyed the work of the famous Dutch painter before the Van Gogh Museum removed several paintings that turned out to be forgeries. Based on your position if goodness and quality are the measure of artistic labor’s real value, then how did these Van Gogh clones suddenly become worthless? And what about the quality of experience – the gift if you like – given to the people who had enjoyed them prior to their removal? To put it another way, if the artistic labor that went into them was so good that it fooled experts, how did it become devalued so quickly? Thus the boundaries between “real” art labor, and less than real artistic labor are seldom if ever sorted out by an appreciative audience alone. The way things are now it requires the apparatus of the “art world,” however defined, to mediate, right? But if creative work in a market economy can not be directly experienced without institutional validation, then the joyful labor of the “real” artist is no more or less valuable than that of the informal amateur anytime prior to some moment of institutional framing. More than a question of content or entreaties from the left or right for an art art about social justice, or an art just about art, the de-valuing of artistic labor, like all labor in a market economy, begins not at the point of actual production, but at the moment it is, or it is not valorized within a system that combines symbolic weights and measures with monetary forms of discipline. The art market, ever more inseparable from the not-for-profit world of museums and foundations, is that disciplinary structure. And its process of enforcement exerts a steady influence from the moment we pick up the pencil, paper, brush, or (gulp) even when we begin to think about that next piece. If we want to rethink the relationship of art and labor, I suggest we start by imagining what “art” production, as well as reception, would be like without the steady forces of monetization, either from the corporate private sector, or the state. Impossible? Well, isn’t that the kind of imagining artists are especially good at?

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