Some Thoughts on Art and Work

Living & Working

Some Thoughts on Art and Work

By Maria Porges February 20, 2019

How does one survive and thrive as an artist in the San Francisco Bay Area? Living & Working is a multi-platform column focusing on the experiences and strategies from those who continue to live and work in the Bay Area.


Living & Working is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.

________

I.

We were talking on the phone when—unexpectedly, offering it in the guise of advice well meant—he told me I should “let art go” (meaning: give it up, since nothing new would result, only something derivative or coy). Moments later, after ending the call, I remembered with vague regret how polite and attentive I had been the night I went to see his work. I had liked him and thus wanted to respect what he did, yet, surrounded by the blandly agonized figures in his paintings, I’d imagined them as fish, swimming in a ragged school. Now I saw them as hitching a ride on currents of jargon and presentation strategies: bottom feeders, sucking on a flow of refuse, a jumble of rotting bits and scraps drifting down from above. As I called up this image in my mind, I could hear him saying, “You should stick to writing.” I wondered if he knew what this could mean.

In the art world, the word work serves so many purposes that it is difficult to know what it really means or how to use it. Unlike the descriptor liminal—which is now rare but was once so trendy that one couldn’t read an Artforum review without encountering it multiple times—work in all its myriad permutations remains perennially popular.1 This may be in part because of the widely held fear that the activities engaged in by artists are, in the perception of the general populace, not considered work at all.

Alfred T. Palmer. Woman working on an aircraft motor at North American Aviation plant in California, 1942. Photo: Library of Congress

Artists say, “I am working on a new series,” implying physical labor. Artists’ statements begin with optimistic variations on “My work is…,” suggesting that work describes a whole practice as well as the individual objects or images that practice generates. But why? There is certainly labor involved in generating and creating these things, but when did the notion of work become so omnipresent?

This word, work, often used by art historians, curators, and critics to describe what an artist has made or does, has been incorporated in contemporary artists’ shoptalk. By this, I mean one of the special shorthand terms used by people who do the same kind of thing, when talking to each other. Often such expressions are all but meaningless to outsiders. Imagine two artists headed for San Francisco on a BART train, surrounded by others who cannot help but overhear their conversation: “What’s his work like?” “Oh, it’s kind of post-internet, influenced by the Mission School, deliberately outsider-ish. You know…self-reflexive without being obscure.” People standing next to them wonder what language they are speaking.

Perhaps the root of my question posed above is entangled in the difference between the perceived and the intrinsic value of work. One of the driving forces of most industrialized societies is the work ethic. This concept and precept puts work at the center of our lives, because (the idea goes) it has both moral and pragmatic value. Furthermore, having and doing work is believed to be essential for self-respect and fulfillment, making it necessary to refer to artmaking with the term work. By doing so—creating a parallel to other forms of labor—the activity becomes worthy.

At the same time, artists feel secretly guilty because, when making art, we are actually doing what we want to be doing rather than what we have to be doing. Making art isn’t like data processing or driving a delivery van; no one hands you a paycheck at the end of the week. And no one gives you a raise for staying for years on the job or promotes you up the rungs of an institutionalized structure. It’s equally likely that the kid who started making art a month ago will get recognition and exposure for his work before you do and get paid much more for it. (It’s possible that you will be eligible for grants that he won’t because you are classified as mid-career or established, but when he gets a solo show or a review in a major magazine, that may be small comfort.)

Being a working artist means that you make work, not that you make a living from your work. Unlike a working toaster, which successfully toasts bread, a working artist does not necessarily have measurable results, even in making art. She is just working. She may spend her entire career working yet produce little and sell none of it.

But if the work ethic is broken—and working more and harder does not mean working better—why are we doing this? If labor is only a capitalist tool to make more money by instrumentalizing the masses, then why do we revere it? Is it because artmaking is old-fashioned, almost nostalgic? Or is it because, for the most part, it isn’t what is traditionally regarded as work at all, since the majority of its practitioners make little money from it and has to do something else in order to live?

Or, how about this: Is it because, at its roots, it is an elite activity, increasingly one that only those with the advantages of class and education can embark upon?

II.

“I thought you came here to see my work,” she says, arms folded tightly across her tiny chest. I did. But something about those things she made, curled in various positions on the floor, makes me want to tear off all our clothes. I’m not sure what might happen next. Would we mimic the poses suggested by her objects, two blobs entwined in a sticky embrace, or just lie there and moan? I know I am not acting in accordance to her expectations of a curator’s cool demeanor. I sigh and ask for a cup of tea and some kind of chair. It’s time to hear her pitch.

Once upon a time, I lived in the Berkeley flatlands with a group of people dedicated to French intensive beds (a way of growing more food in less space), composting toilets, recycling, and pretty much anything else considered good for the Earth.2 During those years, I never referred to myself as an artist because to do so proved too hard to explain or justify. Art, in the view of many in the group, did not serve society. Eventually, as we drifted apart, I moved on and regained my identity through becoming—of all things—a sculptor with a mildly successful gallery career.

A few years later, I ran into one of my former commune members (the “Nazi Ecologists,” as my brother fondly referred to them).3 “Bob” told me he was getting a PhD in agriculture: a career move that baffled his family and friends because he is Black. His mom was a civil servant, his dad a high-school principal. He said, “They just can’t believe that I’d want to go backwards, after our people worked so hard to get off the farm.” When I told him I now made and sold useless objects in places dedicated to a completely different set of ideals than those we had once followed, he laughed. Looking thoughtful, he told me that his parents felt the same way about artwork as they did about his current endeavors. “That kind of activity is for people who can afford to screw around,” he said, as we parted. I didn’t take it personally. He was right.

This is the hardest part of the myth about work in the art world: owning up to the fact that we get to do it because we can choose it. With few exceptions, so-called fine artists come from the upper and middle classes.4 Perhaps that’s why we present ourselves to be so hardworking. How many of those artists who are successful, and debt free, have trust funds, or, at the very least, families that could pay for art school?

For Americans, there is the further complication of the constant presence of capitalism as one of the principles of the founding fathers, one currently the driving force behind pretty much everything in our culture. As Benjamin Franklin put it,

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.

Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on… The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation.5

Of course, the problem here is that Franklin’s assertion isn’t true. (The part about the pig is, but the rest of it is hogwash.) Working long hours at a factory for low wages allows only survival, not prosperity. The person who owns the factory becomes richer, not the worker. And, clearly, the “time is money” maxim is meaningless in the art world. Though some works of art take years to make and others take only minutes, their relative value is usually determined by other factors, many of which are intangible to the point of being ludicrous to those outside the system.

Pyramid of Capitalist System, 1911. A 1911 Industrial Worker (IWW newspaper) publication advocating industrial unionism that shows the critique of capitalism. Based on a flyer of the "Union of Russian Socialists" spread in 1900 and 1901.

In her work of autofiction, I Love Dick, Chris Kraus writes about having seen an Eleanor Antin installation called Minetta Lane: A Ghost Story and how it reminds her of a photography show that documented artists living in New York after the Second World War: “There was enough money around from the G.I. Bill to live and work in a low-rent district… Studios were cheap, so were paints and canvases, booze and cigarettes. All over the Village young people were writing, painting, getting psychoanalyzed and fucking the bourgeoisie.” As Kraus notes, “It was the first time in American history… that lower-middle-class Americans had a chance to live as artists, given time to kill."6

It was the first time—and, in all likelihood, it will be the last. The postwar period in the United States also saw an unprecedented explosion of something like income equality: working people, even those with factory jobs, could buy homes, send their kids to college, and retire comfortably.

Then the good jobs disappeared. Those who could still find work were paid less, even as everything cost more.

Nowadays, like those manufacturing-job wages, the G.I. Bill’s disbursements have not kept up with costs and no longer provide veterans with enough money to create that buffer of time needed to pursue activities that are not solely to maintain one’s livelihood. (It is worth pointing out that the veterans who took advantage of those benefits and succeeded in achieving art-world success were almost entirely white men.)7

Do I work to live, or do I live to work? The answer, of course, is both and neither. I’m just the storyteller, which rarely counts as labor.

III.  

“If paintings are windows,” he shouted, “then I’m Brad Fucking Pitt.” She flinched but only because his voice was so painfully loud it seemed as if her eardrums might be damaged for life. She knew she was right. She had never said a word about windows, portals, or anything the like; she had simply stated that she could see space in his work. She could see it now: a world in there, beyond the wood and paint, that she knew he never would. Still, it didn’t matter. The only thing that did was whether or not collectors would buy them for a satisfying price.

Notes

  1. See, for example, “Liminality in Art,” https://skonieczna.wordpress.com/2009/02/15/liminality-in-art/
  2. French intensive beds were popularized by Alan Chadwick, leader of the organic gardening and farming movement in North America: see http://www.alan-chadwick.org/
  3. I don’t make this stuff up. See Zimmerman, Michael E., "Eco-Fascism," in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Bron Taylor, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 531-532
  4. ‘Do You Have to be Rich to Make it as an Artist?’, Ben Davis, Artnet, 1/14/2016, https://news.artnet.com/market/do-you-have-to-be-rich-to-succeed-as-an-artist-403166. In a survey conducted by Goldsmiths, ”[A]n overwhelming majority of respondents working in the arts (76%) had at least one parent working in a managerial or professional {i.e., ‘middle class’) job.” https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/23/middle-class-people-dominate-arts-survey-finds
  5. Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748) as quoted by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).
  6. Chris Kraus, I Love Dick, Semiotext(e) (1997), p. 183
  7. Believe it or not, the most concise and eloquent summary of this is Khan Academy’s article: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/postwarera/postwar-era/a/african-americans-women-and-the-gi-bill. See also  this paper on the Inopportunity of gender in the postwar period: https://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/student/97/, or this excellent article from the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law titled “Whatever Happened to GI Jane?, Citizenship, Gender and Social Policy in the Postwar Era.” https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1107&context=mjgl As its author states: “Regardless of whether obstacles were formally erected to prevent women veterans from taking advantage of their military benefits, the provisions of the GI Bill and the culture in which it was enacted suggest that though the Act was gender-neutral on its face, its distribution of benefits was heavily skewed towards men.”

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