Arts Forum with PACE
Creativity is a renewable resource
Mayor's Arts Visioning Commission
Art is Work.
It’s a dirty little secret that we’ve been trying to cover up for hundreds of years now, but maybe it’s not to our benefit to keep in this one closet any longer.
The question of immaterial labour has haunted the identity of the artist ever since Velázquez campaigned to elevate art above craft. The production of illusory or conceptual work seems at odds with any embodied toil in the processes of its creation. There are rarely invoices, timesheets or job tickets for artists to quantify or account for their work. Rather, they are assumed to create, but not to labour.
The gains of this deception are of questionable worth. Freed from an association with labour, artists presumably enjoy greater social standing and mystique. And yet, what once was an asset in aristocratic society has become an impairment in today’s capitalist economy. Distanced from toil and material work, artists stand uncomfortably in contrast to the premium on productivity levied at other vocations.
This seems to be a point made again and again by Kelly Mark, an artist that continually positions herself as an art worker rather than what we might imagine an artist to be.
In & Out (1997 ongoing until 2032) consists of the continuing accumulation and display of punch cards documenting all the hours spent by the artist in her studio. It is owned by a private collector, who pays a yearly stipend for the continuation of Mark’s work (and, in a way, Mark’s own studio practice), thereby becoming her “shitty boss”. The multitude of cards, which measure and visualize the time spent in labour, forefront the activity of art making as a form of toil, sustained and extracted hour by hour.
Likewise, Working Hardly Working (2009) teases out this play of expectations, pitting the difficulty of maintaining a practice of work against the presumed sloth of artists such as Bruce Nauman, whose pieces present more mystique than product and are far distanced from manual craft undertaken by the artist’s own hand.
It is interesting to consider what could be at stake in conceiving of art as labour, whether material or otherwise. Different forms of valuing are won and lost in this paradigm shift. Instead of status, the artist gains legitimacy; instead of heroization, the artist is awarded wages (Mark, for instance, has successfully renegotiated artist fees to work for the minimum wage rather than the CARFAC standard, and come out ahead). Arguably, in turn, this new understanding of art work stands to dignify the profession, albeit on the terms of productive economy rather than through the value of art in and of itself.
And yet, this does not precisely address the nature of the kind of work artists engage in. While Mark’s studio time is on the clock, this measure of her labour does not explain the character of her time spent at work. Rather than the alienated toil of a factory worker, the labour of an artist is more strongly immaterial and relational than industrial work. Despite hinging around a material object, the purpose of much of art today lies in its emotional and conceptual affects.
This opens up an entirely different understanding of work and of toil, one that might be aligned with Michael Hardt’s idea of immaterial labour. Reworking Marxism for the 21st century, Hardt sketches out a working class based out of offices and institutions rather than factories, engaged in the exchange of services and information instead of material commodities. This post-industrial work not only contains the potential to be very exploitative (imagine the emotional wear on the call centre worker or health care provider), it also has become an increasingly invasive organizational system as the work day creeps outwards from 9-5 into a cascading string of second jobs, weekend projects and evening events.
Art making, understood in this context, can also appear quite exploitative. The lack of boundaries between work and life, the incredibly low rate of pay per hours worked and the unequal relation between the artist and the public are all challenges that can weigh particularly heavily on art makers. It can be a thankless, oppressive job when things are going poorly.
This is not to say, however, that artists and other immaterial workers are purely exploited. Hardt makes the case that those who we might see as victims are also powerful agents in many respects, endowed with unique capabilities that emerge out of their skills as post-industrial labourers. Much of this kind of work, be it the creation of affects or the organization of systems, essentially outfits these workers with the tools to create new social relations and political arrangements. Between artists, teachers, nurses and clerks lies the ability to form new societies, if creatively and collectively applied. In this space of possibilities, perhaps there is even the potential to form more truly democratic relations.
We might therefore say that art is work- work with the dual potential to empower or oppress its maker. Still, that definition excludes the attraction towards art making that many experience which seems to extend beyond a rational calculation of capital.
To fully account for the pleasure of art making, one can turn to Peter Kropotkin’s notion of the need for luxury.
Kropotkin, “The Prince of Anarchism”, makes an important intervention into the usual Marxist rhetoric on labour. His anarchistic vision for work does not glorify toil, but instead seeks to completely minimize drudgery through the intelligent application of engineering technologies and a radical rethinking of consumer waste. Living on little means sacrificing less in labour, freeing time for individually driven pursuits and desires. Moreover, rather than abolishing luxury goods as bourgeois vices, Kropotkin claims that they still constitute vital human desires for ornament, beauty and leisure. For Kropotkin, this may have included his beard, which we must confess is quite luxurious and pleasing.
Art seems easy enough to situate in this context. As a common luxury good, or as affective leisure, artworks are not to be reduced to ideological tools or status objects. What’s more, the drive to make art is theorized on the level of the individual, presenting art as a vocation more than another job. Art making, like all immaterial labour in Kropotkin’s social arrangements, is a calling and an individual passion. The manual drudgery and affective demands that comes with the job are costs paid gladly for the pleasure that comes from the creation and community of art work- and perhaps the power of agency that comes in turn with its immaterial labour.
Seeing art as work, then, is to conceive of an artistic practice with conscious consideration to the nature and cost of its labour. Forefronting art as work may form the first step towards improving the conditions of this labour and exploring the potential that it offers as a common luxury and political resource.
However, as is the seeming nature of all labour today, my work here is hardly done. I’d like to open up the conversation about work and art to Latitude’s online and tangible communities. How are art and work divided in your experiences, and what may be at stake in recognizing art as labour? Please feel free to leave your comments below, or, alternatively, come by the gallery next Wednesday night for October 5th’s Theory for Dinner. We’ll be looking at a short chapter by Kropotkin and a talk by Hardt, which I promise will be more leisure than toil.