Response: Precarity as Profession

Valuing Labor in the Arts

Response: Precarity as Profession

By Lane Relyea May 22, 2014

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center hosted Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This daylong event included a series of artist-led workshops that developed exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics.

Lane Relyea participated in the “Participation ≠ Compensation” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum and was commissioned to write this response.

In my role as respondent to the day-long events comprising “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” I had the good fortune to be asked to attend Stephanie Syjuco's morning workshop titled “Participation ≠ Compensation.” In her introductory remarks, Stephanie briefly described to us some of her recent art projects, including a 2009 commission for PS1 in which she re-created a late-'60s draped felt piece by Robert Morris—only Stephanie chose to work not with felt but a large, custom-made industrial moving blanket. Prior to the piece’s exhibition, the museum’s shipping staff was instructed to actually use her faux-Morris blanket to wrap artworks for safe transport. Stephanie wondered aloud whether in the end she should have credited PS1’s professional movers as coauthors, as being every bit an artist in relation to the work as Syjuco herself. Later, I told Stephanie I thought that would’ve been cruel to the movers. Why? “I imagine they're unionized,” I said, “with pensions and benefits. What a major step down to give all that up to become artists.”

Even knowing exactly what we were saying, maybe they’d still see it all as art, and thus as being somehow divorced from material concerns.

What, if any, difference exists between the creative effort devoted to making art and other kinds of work—like, say, shipping art? One argument is that, unlike art making, wage labor is undertaken not for its own sake but for a paycheck; it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That might sound abstract and academic, but the idea has long exerted real-world effects. “A fine artist has no use for use, no meaning for meaning, no need for any need,” declared staunch socialist Ad Reinhardt in 1964.1 During the various “Valuing Labor” workshops I attended, I noticed museum visitors staring at us, obviously wondering what we were doing and why we were doing it in an exhibition space. Maybe they thought we were the art. If only they knew what we were actually discussing: labor disputes, inadequate working conditions, nonpayment for services, contract battles, crass economic exploitation. But then it struck me: Even knowing exactly what we were saying, maybe they’d still see it all as art, and thus as being somehow divorced from material concerns. And if so, would they be wrong?

Participation ≠ Compensation workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joseph del Pesco

To be more concrete, one could say that the general material conditions of art labor are different today. The work artists do is both less technically specialized—that is, more wide-ranging, prosaic, and everyday—and at the same time more intensely professionalized. Thanks to the likes of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Hamish Fulton, cooking and walking can now be considered art skills. From one angle, the appreciation of such common activity as artistic comes across as humanist, an elevation to the status of the aesthetic of the broadest and most humble reaches of our existence. But from another angle, such humble activity resembles the cheapest kinds of raw manual-labor power usually devoted to rote tasks, like turning a switch or flipping a burger or delivering newspapers. Furthermore, no matter how ordinary, such activity, when performed by artists, will still exist inside, not outside, the art world. Perhaps not entirely inside, and not necessarily inside an art world centered around objects and the series of white cubes—studio, gallery, museum—that dictates conformity in their production, distribution, and reception. Rather, it would be an institutional art system that regulates and organizes the production and circulation of artists themselves and their discourse—that is, a system centered around MFA programs and their graduating of art subjects.2 Such a system has been spreading steadily throughout the U.S. since the 1960s; it includes San Francisco as well as places like Kansas City, Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, San Antonio, and beyond, even Brooklyn. Here, artists with little or no prospect of commercial sales survive instead on ever-dwindling government support or a rare grant from such Medici-like patrons as the Warhol Foundation, but more likely by turning to each other through crowdsourced funding and community-supported art schemes. In all these flyover scenes, artists have to work together to achieve the level of coherence necessary for internally reproducing things like professional status and recognition. They have to devote attention to organizing as well as to object making; they themselves need to seek out and improvise ever-new situations and contexts for staging what can be recognized and evaluated by their peers as art.

Today even the painters seem afraid their resumes will look thin if they list only solo and group exhibitions.

For an example, just look at all the workshop attendees at “Valuing Labor.” Here were sculptors and painters who also ran galleries and residencies, did consulting, not only made objects but also organized and staffed public performances and service-oriented community projects. As a teacher, I also see an aspect of this phenomenon reflected in the CVs that accompany MFA applications. Today even the painters seem afraid their resumes will look thin if they list only solo and group exhibitions. Shows aren’t enough; now you have to attend residencies and publish blogs and curate others into shows, etc. The more diverse the categories, and the more subcategories within categories, the better. But the point is still to produce a CV, to position oneself within a particular field of research and knowledge, to establish oneself as a professional artist.3

Participation ≠ Compensation workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joseph del Pesco

It’s in this much more expanded geography of the profession, where lack of commercial revenue is the norm, not a chosen alternative but a given, that art becomes most indistinguishable from the fragmented, flexible, precarious wage labor artists undertake to survive. In the absence of cash sales, art making will often be valued in much the same way as research in other professions—like, say, with art historians, who typically don’t get paid to publish their work in academic journals. What they get instead from publishing is exposure, which in turn can leverage monetary support in the form of university jobs. Likewise, art venues will often claim to treat artists as professionals by rewarding their research with exposure more than cash. But who then pays the bills? Not likely the universities, whose art departments are usually the most under-funded units on campus, while also among the most bloated with adjunct hires that pay far less than a living wage. Beyond that, there’s little more than the hourly wages offered for what largely amounts to nonprofessional manual or clerical work—whether inside the art world, as studio assistants, fabricators, museum preparators, etc., or outside, as with administrative or service-sector work in general.

Which brings me back to the difference between art making and other forms of labor. The idea of art as something done for its own sake has a historical dimension. That is, such an art becomes possible only when labor itself reaches a surplus, when enough free time is made available so that activity otherwise devoted to survival—what one does for food, warmth, and shelter—can instead be spent on manifesting creativity as an end in itself. This holds true individually—when, say, you don't worry, or have to worry, about money—and collectively, when labor in general becomes socialized and automated and made efficient enough to decrease work hours across the board. And indeed, our society produces a good deal of surplus —that is, excess wealth and thus freedom from labor as necessary toil—only it’s misrecognized as individually rather than socially produced and in turn hoarded by an infinitesimally small fraction of the population. This historical project of not just expanding but more equally distributing freedom from toil can thus articulate one of the many relationships between labor as a means to an end and art as a form of laboring for its own sake, and hence can also bridge the professional existence of artists to that profession’s larger social relevance. In other words, such a notion of art holds out a promise, albeit one that’s continually frustrated, as artists throughout the country struggle under the weight of huge student-loan debt, are barely able to survive, their creativity narrowed by necessity, their art as surplus folded back into scarcity. Struggles to better fulfill this promise in turn suggest a politics—one that all art, no matter how professionalized, could possibly stand for. 


  1. Ad Reinhardt, “An Artist, A Fine-Artist or Free-Artist,” in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1975), 142.
  2. See Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
  3. In “After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social” (e-flux 31, 2012, http://www.e-flux), Gregory Sholette writes about social-practice art: “Currently there are about half a dozen college-level programs promoting its study. However, if you include the many instructors who regularly engage their students in political, interventionist, or participatory art projects, the tilt toward socially engaged art begins to look more like a full-blown pedagogical shift, at least in the United States.”

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