Thoughts on Art as Labor

This year, I am dedicating myself to the area of art as labor. It is an attempt to open a dialogue around how labor is defined in the arts and what it means to choose a profession in the creative sector. It is not a new research area and a lot of interesting work has already been done. Nevertheless, some problems seem recurring and others are connected to the current Zeitgeist. I know it can be exhausting to constantly fight the same problems, therefore, it is so comforting to see how others handle similar issues and that we all together as a community are able to change circumstances. This is the main motivation to build a library of resources with this blog around different topics for professional and aspiring culture and art workers.

My first project in this area has taken place in March 2016 with the exhibition Art as labor or the myth of the poor female artist, which explored the idea of the glorification of sacrification in the arts and the role of the female artist. This idea is very much linked to the genius artist from romantic times, who is just able to be truly creative if he locks himself up in solitude and gets in a room with his demons, for as long as it takes, to translate this negativity into a glorious product in any creative form. It seems that there is this religious connection to creative labor that almost demands that creativity is nourished through pain or in other words: no (creative) glory without pain. As art becomes then a service of a higher calling its appropriate financial compensation becomes rather difficult.

The glorification of suffering comes together with the myth around financial instability or poverty for the sake of the artistic freedom. The term poverty is very challenging, according to the United Nations absolute poverty is defined as the lack to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, while relative poverty varies from country to another as it is usually defined through the relation to a medium range in the population. In terms of art we are most likely talking about relative poverty. Going back to the Fin de Siècle in Europe the fetishization of a poor lifestyle became somehow the definition of an authentic, autonomous artistic life. Nowadays, the obsession with indie purity seems to be deeply rooted in this belief and translates in artists not getting paid, getting tricked into believing the trap of exposure or feeling guilty for being focused on their prizing. Female artists are in a particular role as they weren’t allowed to join art academies until the 20th century (1919 in Germany). The only form of creative labor women were allowed to do was handcraft. This part of craftsmanship is usually never connected with a genius cult nor with high intelligent labor. Even though, they were allowed to study at academies later on, female artists are until today less likely to get solo exhibitions in main museums, selling artworks for high prizes or end up in a permanent collection.

When we talk about art as labor several questions come to my mind: What can we say of artists' autonomy in relation to contemporary labor practices? How do cultural workers effectively organize around labor issues? How do the rules of efficiency apply to the arts? How does one define success when art becomes labor? How can unpaid labor be addressed and how does fair compensation look like? Labor is often associated with a product, but how do we characterize immaterial labor and what does it mean for art?

The Problem with free labor:

Aspiring art professionals complain that arts organizations habitually take advantage of their glamorous reputations to entice job candidates who are willing and able to work for no pay, leading to the exclusion of those who cannot afford these working conditions. The problem runs deeper, many graduates are put into a position of no choice to get insights and contacts, as art academies and universities still stick to a very theoretical approach leaving graduates with little to no practical experience. While real volunteering is a choice to be part of a community and provide your skills for a cause, unpaid labor turns out to be too often an exploitative tactic to increase the profits of a company. Choose wisely where free labor is really aligned with your values. But let me get one thing straight, asking someone to do something unpaid is not per se a diabolic or unethical thing. There are so many different reasons for it that you have to find a way to navigate through your own belief system.

Talking about money in a natural and transparent way is important in such a competitive field as the arts sector. Instead of assuming that work in the arts is unpaid we should set the bar higher and define how much we want and value the skills everyone is bringing in individually. Having a positive relationship towards money and getting paid is neither unethical nor does it compromise any criticality in one’s practice. While it might be difficult for someone starting out in her career, without any experience, to get paid from the beginning it is significant to define when to refuse to work unpaid and better start negotiating.

A few months ago I wrote an article called Precarious labor for art's sake where I stated that exposure isn’t a good exchange for free labor as it usually never pays off and if you choose to work for free e.g., in the case of an intern you should at least look out for some benefits that you cannot compensate monetarily:

  • Do you find true mentorship in the organization? Get a supervisor or mentor to make sure someone actually provides knowledge. If you are unsure, put a curriculum together that you oversee with your chosen mentor or supervisor to make sure you aim for progress and that you are not misused for unskilled tasks. Can they teach you one new skill that you really need for your professional development?
  • You should not replace paid staff. Free labor might undermine the labor market in the field and have a severe consequence for any kind of future perspective in the area.
  • Will the company/institute/organization give credit to your work? You can get in touch with former interns and ask them if the interns were visible or if their work remained anonymous in the background.
  • Does the organization provide a form of alumni organization that provides long-term professional contacts and future events?

Gender & Variety

  • Women and minority groups comprise the majority of the low-wage or unpaid workforce.
  • It is somehow often assumed that strong negotiating skills are considered bossy and unladylike. They are not, it is professional to ask for compensation.

Alternative monetization models

  • As the entrepreneurial model has become more and more part of the arts world, creative professionals are often required to create their own support structures to share their work and monetize through their community (crowdfund) e.g. Kickstarter, indiegogo, Patreon or any other similar site.
  • Bartering can be a powerful way for producers of any creative genre to be able to actually implement an idea without having to fundraise money beforehand. An interesting example for crowdfunding and distribution platforms in the film industry is Seed&Spark and a great platform for bartering is ourgoods.
  • Networks might be one of the most important models for sustainability in the arts. People who are willing to talk about experiences, edit articles, cook for us, provide a couch to sleep while traveling for projects, voluntary babysit or providing any other valuable service and build the backbone of success.

Blurring between work and leisure

  • Low income workers can't often afford to take a lot of time off as one is constantly worried about paying expenses and thinking about the next stream of revenue, which will lead to increased levels of stress. Well-being is an underrepresented topic in the art world, but creative work is a long-time commitment and if we want to do it on the long run we need to make time for moments of stillness. 
  • As the art world events take mostly place during late evenings the days get longer and it is normally on these events where networking happens, so for the sake of success in the industry one is often expected to visit these gatherings. 
  • Being an arts professional means to constantly gather information to nourish one’s practice.
  • Short term contracts and international projects have an important impact on the personal life.
  • Can things we love doing be translated into wage-generating business models? A very fascinating article on the often misleading “do what you love” mantra” has been written by Miya Tokumitsu and published at Slate in 2014 where she describes that the focus on DWYL [Do what you love] labor creates a divide among workers, largely along class lines. “Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce. (…) But job creation goes both ways.“

Transformation of job categories

  • The art world is constantly changing, so are the genres and the tasks that need to get done. What happens to the job of the curator when a project is long-term and asks for another expertise e.g. community organizer etc. as seen in social practice projects?
  • As the museum is not longer exclusively a temple of knowledge but tries to become more inclusive, how can audiences be activated beyond the regular guided tours?
  • How do we need to rethink education in museum, when the art practices are built through a network of different fields ranging from pedagogy, community building, social practice and others?

Production and productivity

  • In a society obsessed with high productivity and the glorification of constant hustle, what does that mean for art as labor?
  • In which terms do we measure success in the arts? Impact, visibility, money, places on lists, length of the CV?
  • What happens to art as labor if your day job is consuming most of your time?

Valuing art as labor

  • Systematic structures for art as labor: schedules, payments, social security
  • Visibility of (daily) structures, routines, habits that facilitate persistence and nourish the creative spirit
  • Honoring creative labor that does not conclude in an immediate product. As Maurizio Lazzarato would have it—the “turn” to immaterial labor is a central characteristic of a post-Fordist service economy
  • Organize in professional alliances, groups or even unions that demand rights and are able to be visible in the socio-political realm.

Have a look at these two presentations as they give you some amazing insights:

BROOKLYN, April 10th, 2014 - Arts in Bushwick is pleased to announce our second AiB Panel Discussion, Arts Labour, to take place at Radio Bushwick, 22 Wyckoff Avenue. Coordinated by Arts in Bushwick Lead Organizers Sessa Englund and Julia Sinelnikova, and moderated by writer and Hyperallergic contributor Alexis Clements, this panel discussion will focus on issues surrounding artist labor rights.

Video of the closing keynote from the PREOCCUPIED International Conference, given by Prof. Hito Steyerl on June 30th 2012 at IMPORT Projects in Berlin.