Dying of Exposure

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

Dying of Exposure

By Aruna D’Souza May 27, 2015

At some point, two years ago, maybe, I stopped doing things for free: no free writing, no free talks, no free critiques with artists or art students, nothing. I didn’t make the decision out of avarice; I made it as a matter of survival.

I used to accept all kinds of invitations to do such things, paid or not, when I was a tenured professor. I used to feel that it was sort of crass to think about my economic needs when there were important intellectual ideas to discuss. But, of course, the privilege of not having to think about my intellectual labor in those terms was predicated on the very fact that I was being paid, by my university, if not by the publishers, colleges, students, or artists who hosted the events to which I was invited.

Dawn Kasper. THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT, 2012; installation view Whitney Biennial, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 

When I decided to leave academia, things changed for me. It wasn’t just going from having my salary deposited in my bank account every two weeks to the feast-or-famine-but-mostly-famine pay schedule of a freelance writer. It was rather that, for the first time since I was a college student filling out a time card for a menial job, I was intensely aware of what my time was worth. And even more aware of what my time should be worth. Those two numbers were suddenly almost never the same.

I bought my freedom in cold, hard cash.

I’m not complaining, not exactly. I left academia purposely because I realized there were things I wanted to write—and even to just think about—that I simply couldn’t do as a professor. Whenever I take an unpopular stand in an intellectual argument or call out an influential colleague for hypocrisy or bad behavior, I joke that I paid a steep price—about two thirds of my former income—to have the privilege of doing so. I bought my freedom in cold, hard cash.

For a while, as I made my transition from professor to civilian, I wasn’t sure how to handle the invitations that I was getting. Most were extended by well-meaning colleagues who didn’t believe me when I said I was changing careers; they all seemed to assume that I still had a salary and a research fund and all those other perks that make contributing one’s work without an honorarium possible. I accepted these invitations because it was slightly humiliating to refuse to take part in an exchange of ideas simply because I couldn’t afford it. It felt like the academic world’s equivalent of admitting that one needs food stamps. (The irony that so many adjunct instructors in academia are actually living on food stamps is not lost on me.) 

We’re not where we are because we failed but because capitalism works.

So, stupidly, I subsidized a lot of institutions—publications, universities and colleges, professional associations—because I did what a lot of people do: I imagined that the fact that I was subject to economic realities was my failure and not the failure of larger systems of economic relations. The point isn’t that I shouldn’t have been as embarrassed as a food-stamp beneficiary should be; the point is that a food-stamp beneficiary shouldn’t be embarrassed either. We are all playing a predetermined role in this economy; we’re not where we are because we failed but because capitalism works.

My decision to refuse invitations that didn’t cover my costs (my time, my travel expenses, and so forth) came when an Ivy League academic, whose work and opinion I hold in very high regard, wrote to me to tell me how much she admired my decision to change careers—and invited me to review a book for a very attractive, slickly designed, and widely read website that she edits. The gig sounded tempting; I wanted to write about that book, and I wanted to do it in a publication like hers. We talked for a bit about the details (word count, deadline, and so on). As almost an afterthought, I asked what my fee would be.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “we don’t pay contributors—yet—but we can offer a huge amount of exposure, as our articles often reach tens of thousands of readers.”

I’m exposed. Trust me.

I struggled not to snort a laugh. My friends and I had a running joke about this—the “think of the exposure” line that is often said by people trying to get things done for free that should, in any reasonable accounting of value, be paid for. But until this moment, I’d never actually had it used on me.

I’m exposed. Trust me. My blog—the reason I had caught that academic’s attention in the first place—is notorious for revealing my messy, emotional, real self. I’ll be dying of exposure when I can’t pay my bills.

Justin Lieberman. The Scavenger’s Daughter, 2014; mixed media; 60” x 40”. Courtesy of the artist and Martos Gallery, New York. 

After I had a chance to catch my breath and type out a reasonable but firm reply turning down the offer, the worry set in: the worry not only that I had given up an opportunity but also that my sheer outrage at this conversation was immature, childish, and naïve. But then it occurred to me that my anger wasn’t the outrage of a child but rather that of a middle-aged woman who had been protected by the privilege of academic tenure from the realities of a changing marketplace for ideas. It was the outrage of someone who had graduated from college in 1991, when the possibility of making a living as a writer was not yet a pipe dream—when newspapers still hired staff reporters, when magazines still paid their contributors, when publishing houses still took on B-list novelists, and when, even if one couldn’t expect an easy life of it, one could cobble together enough to live on.

I am like a pigeon who aspires to be a pterodactyl.

Had I become a writer then, instead of going to graduate school and becoming an academic, I would have been one of a dying breed, like one of the last generation of brontosaurus. Instead, now, at age forty-five trying to fashion a second career, I am like a pigeon who aspires to be a pterodactyl.

As I often do, I turned my frustration into a statement—a declaration, a manifesto, or maybe just a chance to burn some bridges. I posted an article on Facebook, a piece by the writer and activist Yasmin Nair, titled “Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free.” Typical of Nair’s style, it was unyielding in its analysis. It wasn’t simply (or even mostly) a condemnation of websites or publications that ask for free writing when they are happy to pay webmasters, designers, advertising reps, and all other manner of employees, and sometimes even marquee writers—although she doesn’t have kind words for them. The focus of her righteous outrage lies elsewhere: on the academics (tenured, tenure-track, and even adjunct), activists, and other professionals who decry neoliberalism in the classroom or at the demonstration while they take part in the devaluation of labor it creates in their own profession. If writers are workers, she says, then “those who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs.”

She goes on: “If you can’t see unpaid writing as part of the neoliberal machinery of affective exploitation, you should stop writing about its evils.  Nothing, nothing that you ever write for free, about the problems of our time, including relentless war, the exploitation of workers, queer or trans politics, the banking system, or the prison industrial complex will ever be valid, until you confront your own role as a neoliberal. Until then, you're just another hypocrite…and just another scab.”

I found Nair’s analysis bracing, in part because it was the same argument I’d been making to anyone who would listen about the role of adjuncts in higher education: as long as there is someone willing to work for less, universities and colleges have no reason to pay their adjunct instructors fairly. The word scabs may have a harsh sound in this context—certainly Nair took a lot of heat for it—but it felt reasonably accurate to me. I’d had enough, seeing so many of my former students and my friends taking terrible jobs instead of engaging in a politics of refusal. And now I was ready to admit that writers were no different—that I was no different.

The minute after I posted the article on my Facebook page, the reaction was intense—borne, I think, from deep defensiveness, although expressed in a variety of ways. There were comments from academics who have long believed that their participation in the world beyond academia (which often takes the form of writing for publications like the one I was invited to contribute to) was part of their salaried obligation and who didn’t want to think about the impact their decision, to write for free, might have on the larger economics of writing. There were comments from artists who felt guilty (I assume) about their decision to forego pay in order to make art at any cost. These commenters were, for the most part, people who still believed in passion projects and who may not have wanted to admit (to themselves or others) that they weren’t buying their next meal on passion—that they had the privilege, perhaps in the form of a wealthy partner or a previous career or family support, to pursue their passions without ending up destitute. There were commenters like me, people who had imagined that the income from corporate-writing assignments or from a day job was there to subsidize their real writing, without wondering if their willingness to offer their labor of love for free was akin to an investment banker serving his own table (and thereby stiffing a waitress out of a tip) because he really had a passion for restaurant service.

David Hammons. Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983; performance still, Cooper Square, New York. Photo: Dawoud Bey. 

But there were also comments from people (many of whom fell into the above categories, too) who wanted to believe that there could be a space for the exchange of ideas and the making of art that existed outside that of money—those who believed that we could all work to create that space and, in doing so, we would resist the totalizing effect of capitalism.

I will admit that I’ve never felt that I could do that, or even aspire to it, but my paltry sense of agency is not a judgment about the viability of that goal. I am not an idealist; I never have been. My best and worst quality is my pragmatism. But I deeply admire people who feel it’s possible to create a new set of relations predicated on what I would call, for lack of a better word, love. I felt a pang of guilt, thinking that I had just declared their idealism to be a form of betrayal.

It’s another to sign on to writing for those publications where the only people who aren’t being paid are the writers.

But maybe, I reassured myself, I was reminding them (and myself) that creating a space outside capitalism wasn’t as easy as they imagined it to be: that you can’t opt out of certain parts—by participating in a system that devalues your contribution (as an artist, as a writer)—while valuing others. It’s one thing to take part in a genuinely grassroots, DIY operation, where everyone is making a gift of their labor and the whole thing is put together at the twenty-first-century equivalent of someone’s kitchen table (or an actual kitchen table). It’s another to sign on to writing for those publications where the only people who aren’t being paid are the writers.

The irony of my declaration, and of my unsparing judgment of those who work for free, is that it was made on Facebook, the ground zero of free content. My main mode of being in the world—personally, professionally, and politically—is Facebook, that site that mines my data in terrifying and opaque ways and that coerces me into spending hours of my time in its thrall so that it can bombard me with ads that deliver my attention to companies willing to pay for the privilege of having me see their posts. And I do it not begrudgingly but willingly, with relish. I love Facebook; I’m good at Facebook. I’m fascinated by the fact that I can post the most banal things (pictures of the latest meal that I cooked, or some terrible review by an art critic I hate, or a ridiculous and hopefully funny observation about my failures as a mother) and they will almost always create, as if out of thin air, interesting conversations among my Facebook friends—not to mention those rarer but not infrequent moments when real discussions arise on topics that mean something, such as Charlie Hebdo, Ferguson, object-oriented ontology, intellectual labor, and intellectual economies.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Go-go Dancing Platform), 1991; installation view, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen. 

On Facebook, I recently hosted a thread about moisturizer that received almost two hundred fifty comments: some of the finest minds of our generation—artists, art historians, political theorists, lawyers, curators, writers, MacArthur genius-award winners—were telling me what I should put on my skin. It might have been the most educational and intellectually rigorous event I’ve ever been party to (people are still talking about it). I’m fairly certain that Kiehl’s reaped several hundred dollars worth of sales thanks to a couple of hours of my non-renumerated activity.

At the same time, I can say with sincerity that every bit of paid work that has come across my desk in the past three years has been the result of my Facebook activity: every single dollar, from my corporate writing to my journalism, to my consulting work, to my teaching, to my paid lectures. The lesson: think of the exposure. This shows the challenge of being a writer in an age when we are all content providers: the difficulty of separating one kind of free labor from another kind, of weighing one type of exposure against another, of what we are willing to offer as a gift and what we insist should be paid for, of distinguishing real writing from mere content.

And yet I look at my bank account and insist that the line can still be drawn. And I comfort myself (perversely, I know) by recognizing that the freedom to write is purchased at great cost and that knowing—admitting—the cost, for all fellow writers, is the only way to make our way politically (if not financially) in the world. 

________

Aruna D’Souza writes about art, food, and culture for the Wall Street Journal, the Forward, Edible Hudson Valley, and on her blog, Kitchen Flânerie. She was paid $125 to write this essay, less than her usual rate but enough to make her feel like she wasn’t participating in her own exploitation. 

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