On May Day, I participated in a panel as part of the Work After Work exhibition curated by the USC Art/Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere graduate class of 2011. The exhibition was the first to come out of the program’s newly designed curatorial curriculum, and featured work by an interesting mix of artists including Michael Asher, Andrea Fraser, Alex Israel, Sharon Lockhart, Yvonne Rainer, Kenneth Tam, and Anton Vidokle among others. The work was installed at the Mak Center Garage, a small but pleasing space behind the Mackey Apartments, and was accompanied by a small catalogue and series of public programs and performances.
In the words of the 12 graduate students who organized it, the exhibition “is motivated by a keen awareness of how the current economic situation applies particular pressures on artistic labor and seeks to address how artistic production contends with these economic conditions. It is a crucial moment to reexamine the shifting values – both economic and cultural – of artistic labor and explore the ways in which artists navigate, resist, and reproduce these values.”
The work in the exhibition seemed somewhat disjointed and imbalanced in its interrelationship (it was very heavy on video and textual documentation, which is perhaps to be expected given the subject matter and some of the artists involved – Asher, Fraser and Vidokle particularly), and revealed the disjunctures that can arise from 12 curatorial perspectives on the same subject matter. Though compelling in and of themselves, Alex Israel’s Freeway sunglasses line was set in confusing juxtaposition to multiple videos (4 I believe), a garish set and costume rack belonging to Eternal Telethon, and some quiet, difficult text pieces by Michael Asher and Andrea Fraser. On a purely visual and conceptual level, curating such works into such a small space must have presented significant challenges that the students gamely took on. Beyond the physical exhibition, however, the accompanying programming and excellent little catalogue drew together some very timely conceptual stakes, and hit upon a hugely relevant topic once again trending in art world discussions – that of artistic labor, renumeration, practice, production, and professionalization.
There are clear precursors to this discussion, and plenty of forerunners who have attempted to address these issues in the past. Several of the self-identified “art workers” of the 60s and 70s who participated in the short-lived Art Workers’ Coalition to lobby for artists’ rights and expand the definition of creative labor are detailed in Julia Bryan-Wilson’s excellent recent book “Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era.” Yet since that time, we seem to have relapsed down the road to late-stage capitalism, become implicated in exploitative opacity and a culture of complicity.
In most art worlds, people don’t much like to talk about money. There is a persistent attitude that such discussions are rude, and that cultural producers should be grateful for opportunities alone (a delayed gratification model) which makes it okay to ask them to work for free. In addition, the fluidity between art and life, “artistic practice” and cultural production, leisure time and work and pleasure has muddied up how we might think about identifying and renumerating artistic labor. The friendly collaboration, the handshake deal, the Saturday night party/fundraiser, gift economies, mutual aid, volunteering, and unpaid internships all contribute to this confusion and reluctance to discuss the connection between cultural worth and a living wage.
There are many aspects to discuss in regards to artistic labor in the parallel but mutually inflected systems of art schools, non-profits, galleries, and art writers – the role of pedagogy, unpaid student labor, renumeration for object and non-object-based artworks – and I hope to explore each of these topics more in-depth in future posts. Many such topics were raised by my excellent co-panelists on May Day – A.L. Steiner of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy) and Robby Herbst. Both are engaged in rigorous work to actively change in how cultural labor is renumerated and how alternative economies can be codified to counteract our complacency in insipid capitalist domination. Their work also deserves much deeper intellectual engagement.
Today though, I will end with a distinction that Andrea Phillips points out in her article “Education Aesthetics” between notions of artistic work vs. artistic practice. There is a de-skilling of artistic labor stemming from a collapsing of formal skills and informal modes of cultural production. Called “immaterial labor” by many post-Marxist thinkers, this labor results not in a good but in a “service, a cultural product, knowledge or communication” as Antonio Negri puts it. This labor is increasingly difficult to distinguish from life, as it becomes autonomous and self-defining – what Mauricio Lazzarato calls a “hyper-exploitative totalitarianism”; and this impacts our expectations of artistic labor, or practice. When we work, we expect renumeration and a discrete part in the production of an outcome. When we practice, we do not have these expectations – rather we participate in an ongoing flow or process. Practice, therefore, modifies our concept of work. Hopefully an awareness of these muddled expectations can help clarify new notions of artistic worth, but there is still much work to be done in this arena.