EcoDomics and Cultural History: Valuing Art Labor Under Neoliberalism

5.4 / Valuing Labor in the Arts

EcoDomics and Cultural History: Valuing Art Labor Under Neoliberalism

By Ignacio Valero, PhD April 3, 2014

Accompanying this article is a selection of posters from the 2012 Occuprint portfolio of screenprints, courtesy of the artists.

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. — Genesis 2:7, King James

Miami Artist destroys $1M Ai Weiwei ancient vase.1

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.—Genesis 3:19, King James

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.—3rd Hebrew Commandment

Eikasia: A state of vague, image-ridden illusion.—Plato’s Cave

A major missing part of the dialogue is cultural sustainability. It feels like an add-on. We’re the entertainment… Discussion of the culture industry needs to be involved at a deeper socioeconomic level. We need to make our case with metrics, framed in a language that businessmen understand.2—Thomas P. Campbell, Director, The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

Older Tech Engineer: “When will you make something that matters?” Young Tech Engineer: “When will you make something cool?”3

We live in a bubble, and I don’t mean a tech bubble or a valuation bubble. I mean bubble as in our own little world.4 —Eric Schmidt, Google CEO

Geeks have turned out to be one of the most ruthless capitalists around… This little world has been protected from popular anger about inequality. The popping of the bubble will be one of the biggest changes in the political economy of capitalism in the coming year. 5—Adrian Woolridge, The Economist

The first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, [is that humans] must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history.’ But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.—Karl Marx, The German Ideology

An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage.—Karl Marx, Capital

Travail, labour, swink, werk, craft. 6

Colin Smith, Occupy Everything Pie Chart, from Occuprint portfolio, 2012; color screenprint. Courtesy of the Artist and

The Exile of the Arts

Why begin a reflection on “Valuing Labor in the Arts” with Genesis and Moses, King James and Plato’s Cave? And then shift to Ai Weiwei, Davos, and the Silicon Valley? In my mind, they are all related by the strange backchannels that form our idiosyncratic journeys, but also by actual cultural, intellectual, economic, and political histories that affect us in our very present. At one level, there is the issue of God the maker and artificer, literally playing with dust and clay like a good sculptor and ceramicist, so that the little homunculus Adam could be made ready for the breath of life. (I am not even going to go into the more patriarchal second version of the story, where Eve is a mere rib afterthought.) Suffice it to say, this is the foundational connection between the creator’s art and the creature, through the as-yet-undifferentiated mechanism of art-technē—hence, my allusions to New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Silicon Valley. But, as befits a myth of creation, the devil is in the shadowy details, lurking ready to seduce us out of paradise. Could this be the secular tension of Freud’s pleasure principle in the form of a cool app, trying to push away that old fussy principle of something that matters?

At the same time, the other side of the coin of the cool creative confronts us with a stern prohibition of no “graven images” compounded by the reality-principle curse of “by the sweat of thy face”—that “first premise of human existence” that will not leave us alone and to which Marx’s anthropology alludes. The role of the arts more formally enters in Plato’s Republic or Politeia, where he also sets a conundrum that will hunt Western thought for millennia.7 He is quarrelling both with his pre-Socratic forerunners (those engaged in the peri phuseōs search for the origin of nature and culture) and with his poetic ancestors.

The matter would have stayed there, a mere historical curiosity, except that this quarrel was canonized by the fusing of his ideas, via neo-Platonism and Aristotelian metaphysics, to the nascent amalgam of Judaic thought and Roman imperialism that was to transform a small urban religion into the Christian story the world at large has come to know and often suffer. But my interest here is in trying to briefly reflect on how this origin story impacts our contemporary art valuations when they are later merged with the history of capitalism. At one level, we see making and creating elevated to the highest possible echelon: the divine. God himself (and it is a guy in this story) is the artist in chief, so no doubt this is the ultimate divine cool. Sorry, Silicon Valley—though of course the Valley is hard at work trying to immortalize itself through the virtual singularity, busy uploading its bravest cryogenized pioneers to the universal matrix. Plato would be very proud.

In fact, in Laws 10, he

criticizes those who wrote works in prose or in verse of the peri phuseōs type. Plato’s primary reproach is that the authors of these works never admitted the notion of intention (implied by technē) as the explanatory principle behind the order that governs the universe. This refusal, in Plato’s eyes, is at the basis of the “atheism” of his time. These works propose a theory to explain the origin and development of the world, humanity, and the city/society. The structure of these works (even before undertaking a linguistic analysis of the word phusis) leads one to conclude that for the first philosophers, or pre-Socratics as we conventionally call them, the word phusis in this context means the origin and growth of the universe as a totality. And since humanity and the society in which they reside are also part of this totality, explanations of the origin and development of humanity and society must necessarily follow an explanation of the world.8

But Plato would have none of this. He makes a clean break between the physical and the mental or intentional, arguing that there needs to be an absolute separation between creator and creation. Otherwise, such confusion would lead to the elimination of God and Truth. It is the mediation of this chasm, later replayed within the intelligible and sensible dualism, the aesthetic alienation that art has been fated with ever since, as J. M. Bernstein argues.9 This is not just a matter of philosophical import, the poets and artists dealing with ghostly appearances three levels removed from absolute truth, but also a question of political hierarchy and control. Their image making, their idol making, their icons and effigies already trading with falsehood are a threat to the stability of the Republic and thus must be asked to leave, for they will inevitably mix with the rhetoric of sophists and populists and lead to the confusion of the common people. In some important ways, Plato has a point, in that eikasia is an omnipresent threat of shadows and screens; this is why I call him the first media theorist and art critic. However, the matter is not as simple as separating or merging art and politics and truth, or “knowledge, politics, and desire,” as Terry Eagleton notes.10 What about liberating knowledge and ethics from their theological underpinnings, where science can eventually question high priest and emperor, or freeing art from its subservience to power?

Bezer. Orange Strike Flag, from Occuprint portfolio, 2012; color screenprint. Courtesy of the Artist and

The (Modern) Prodigal (Art) Child Returns

There seems to be a glaring contradiction, a clear love-hate relationship: Art making is elevated to the highest via the divine technē, yet it is forbidden to mimic these creations because they are not to be represented, remade, and/or copied lest they turn into pagan idols full of aura and anima, those fumes that haunted Walter Benjamin.11 The philosopher-king and the high priest seem to be the only ones enfranchised to arbitrate between art and the divine truth, because the common folk have no time for art/philosophy. But, as A. Parker asks in his introduction to Rancière’s The Philosopher and His Poor, if

the poor have no time for philosophy, then why have philosophers always made time for them? Why is the history of philosophy—from Plato and Marx to Sartre and Pierre Bourdieu—the figure of so many histories of the poor: plebes, men of iron, the demos, artisans, common people, proletarians, lumpen, series, groups in fusion, masses?... Does philosophy constitute itself in thinking for the poor? If so, can it ever refrain from thinking for them?12

And, by analogy, is art more like such philosophy or more like the demos and the proletarian? Or have the government technocrat and the corporate wisdom 2.0 expert replaced all of them?13 Or, even worse, has the philosopher-king/corporation-as-person itself become the only game in town?14

In fact, as the arts threaten power, they are continuously exiled from paradise because their protean virus gets in the way. They are to be regarded as “pure supplementarity, that marginal region of the affective/instinctual/non-instrumental,” but always invited anew through the back door of commodity fetishism, and, now, with a vengeance, through neoliberal post-Fordism.15 The result: the technological and chrematistic treadmill; innovation and money accumulation to the very edge of apocalypse. David Noble has a precise term for this contradiction: The Religion of Technology.16

But this is also the condition of modernity:

Art is now autonomous of the cognitive, ethical, and political, but the way it came to be so is paradoxical. It became autonomous of them, curiously enough, by being integrated into the capitalist mode of production. When art becomes a commodity, it is released from the traditional social functions within church, court, and state into the anonymous freedom of the marketplace. Now it exists, not for any specific audience, but for anyone with the taste to appreciate it and the money to buy it. And in so far as it exists for nothing and nobody in particular, it can be said to exist for itself. It is “independent” because it has been swallowed up by commodity production. Art itself may thus be an increasingly marginal pursuit, but aesthetics is not. Indeed, one might risk the rather exaggerated formulation that aesthetics is born at the moment of art’s effective demise as a political force… Everything should now become aesthetic.17

And this turn to aesthetics is largely what W. F. Haug calls commodity aesthetics: “aesthetic abstraction” and the “technocracy of sensuality.” It is the “aesthetic promise of use value” and “aesthetic innovation.”18 It is all now a matter of style and lifestyle; it is a matter of cool.

But the matter does not stop there— it is cool that must be converted into instant electronic bytes, fast fashion, and photons repackaged, monetized, and utterly financialized. The nightmare of being an add-on or entertainment becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy, when art must talk in metrics and be “framed in the language that businessmen understand,” in Campbell’s clueless and unfortunate proposition. It is certainly somewhat pathetic that the director of one of the premier U.S. art institutions is caught begging the masters of the universe to hear his plight at the testosterone-filled Davos World Economic Forum, the yearly summit of high-powered cocktails and global business deals. And it is a further confirmation of Eagleton’s art–as–aesthetic and Haug’s commodity-aesthetic; yet one more speculative asset in the portfolios filling the bankers’ vaults. Here, then, the quarrel is not between art and philosophy, the sensible and the intelligible, but rather between the sensible and the chrematistic.

Melanie Cervantes, Pay Their Fair Share, from Occuprint portfolio, 2012; color screenprint. Courtesy of the Artist and

Behind this new aesthetic alienation and financial fetishism—art for the 1 percent who precariously and/or reluctantly support it—hides the Dark Matter of “art and politics in the age of enterprise culture,” Gregory Sholette’s evocative image of the 99 percent of art workers toiling at the base of a hierarchical tower of winner-takes-all art making. Under this contradictory condition, the millennia-old art tensions and paradoxes resurface with much intensity:

Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture… It includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices—all work made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world, some of which might be said to emulate cultural dark matter by rejecting art-world demands of visibility, and much of which has no choice but to remain invisible… Dark matter’s missing cultural mass is both a metaphor for something vast, unnamable, and essentially inert, as well as a phantasmagoric proposition concerning what might be possible at this moment of epistemological crisis in the arts and structural crisis of global capital.19

Helena Keefe’s Standard Deviation, a collection of thoughts considering “the complex relation between art and labor,” seems to echo Sholette’s reflections, calling for a public dialogue “in order to improve and find alternatives to the systems in place,” suggesting that though “art cannot be standardized,” as artists“we can each set standards.”20 In the same document, the New York-based Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) further support Sholette’s claims:

Artistic labor support a multi-billion dollar industry and yet there are no standards, conventions, or regulations for artist compensation. We sometimes receive artist fees if we ask for them, or they’re dispensed at the discretion of the institution as compensation for the work that we’re asked to provide.

Melissa Delzio, Give Me Your Poor, from Occuprint portfolio, 2012; color screenprint. Courtesy of the Artist and

EcoDomics: An Art of Living and Making (in) Common(s)

In this rapid tour, I have tried to succinctly show some of the systemic and historical constraints art makers and art laborers have faced that have resulted in the double bind of treating art and the artists either as pertaining to a divine technē or as a worthless triviality to be excised from the body politic and the political economy while constantly being devoured as free, precarious labor, desire magicians, or inflated financial investments. It reminds me of patriarchy, colonialism, and the enclosure of the commons that led to the development of capitalism and its latter-day neoliberal free-market fetishism. Women and reproduction are free natural resources, and when they resist, we call them witches, abortionists, and the source of plagues and earthquakes.21 Locke, at the service of the great landowning 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, proclaimed that: “In the beginning all the world was America,” ready to be occupied and appropriated by divine mandate because the Indians did not work the land and it had to be “improved” by private property.22 The subsequent enclosure laws decreed by fiat and violence the expropriation of the communal peasant lands in fruitful use since before the end of the Roman Empire.23

Konrad Becker and Jim Flemming recently asked in the New York and Vienna Critical Strategies in Art and Media conference if art has

any relevance beyond the role of the corporate style consultant or a decoration of digital product worlds? Is there any need for art beyond its function as a status décor, tax-minimizing investment, or a special market sector?… By now, gestures of rebellion have become the stuff of everyday marketing… Greenwashing and community kitsch are the order of the day.24

More bluntly, some of the questions posed during this conference include:

Beyond the obsolete model of artist or author as genius and their fetish objects, what collective and collaborative practices are inventing new terrains and flows? What strategies elude the creative industries’ seemingly infinite appetite for things radical? Are there any strategies that can elude being reduced to styles in the service of sales, or are critical practices doomed to play cat and mouse with the forces of consumerism?25

How can we reconcile the spontaneous affinity of the lone art practitioner honorably devoted to her/his creative craft in the midst of crass consumerism and cynical posturing? How can this seemingly undifferentiated dark matter rise up to the occasion and accept the singular within the commons and vice versa? Antonio Negri asked, back in 1988 during his exile in Paris: “Within this reality what could be the process of artistic production, of alternative creation, of reinvention of the real? This perception was not simply philosophical, it was also political."26 And it is, moreover, biopolitical:

Labour … is in the process of transforming itself into bios, into biopolitical labour, into activity which reproduces forms of life… (It) is a multitudinarian happening…which the Vienna School had described, with such force, as the interpretive sign of artistic production. In effect, we have to specify the multitudinarian event as an excedence, which opens to the common… The common, which has developed in artistic forms, must now be incarnated in a collective decision, in a common government by a “governance” of/over/in the forms of life which have been constructed… Art should give ethical meaning to these complex knots, in other words it should help us to construct this multiple paradigm in which being-for-the-other—qua being-in-common—triumphs.”27

EcoDomics as an art and practice of living, making, and constructing is precisely this attempt to reconcile these knots that have been cut off, estranged, and alienated over time, culture, and geography.28 It is particularly the transversal conjoining of three major realms of practice and existence: 1) aisthesis or aesthetic(s), the aesthetic critical field and the multiple aesthetics flourishing throughout the world; 2) koinos or common(s), the material commons and immaterial common; and 3) oikos, home, hearth, household, the semantic rhizome of ecology, economics, ecumenical, and ecodomics.29

Brian Tatoksy, Organize Occupy Overcome, from Occuprint portfolio, 2012; color screenprint. Courtesy of the Artist and

Aesthetic(s) and common(s) try to supersede the ruptures of aesthetic alienation and commodity aesthetics into new forms of art practices, convivialities and communities of sense and care, what I call the aesthetic(s) of the common(s), which is an emergent form of resistance and possibility growing out of new social movements and new cultural practices that may give new bargaining powers to the fragmented forces of art workers. As these crossings of aesthetic(s) and common(s) intertwine with the bios-giving possibilities of living labor, we would encounter a nascent biopolitical aesthetic(s) and biopolitical common(s), reinforcing the aesthetic(s) of the common(s) and each other. The hoped-for aim, thus, would be an invigorated aesthetic(s) sensuously and sensibly integrated and enriched by the other parts of the triad, that in turn would give and receive in a continuous flow of energy and materials. It would be a common-sense ecoDomics that makes sense, that makes aisthesis, both in its actual and metaphorical connotations of common-sense perception, a suggested practice of actually making; producing common(s) but also a constant relearning of living in common(s), so that the relentless neoliberal forces of appropriation and privatization may not hold sway. In short, the transformation of power over life into an affirmation of the power of life.



  1.  Eric Lash, “Miami Artist Destroys $1M Ai Weiwei Vase in ‘Spontaneous’ Protest,”
  2. Rachel Donadio, “Let’s Change the World. Cheers! At the World Economic Forum in Davos, ‘Sustainability,’ ‘Mindfulness,’ and Cocktails,” New York Times
  3. Cartoon from Yiren Lu, “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem,” New York Times, March 16, 2014,
  4. Adrian Wooldridge, “The Coming Tech-Lash. The Tech Elite Will Join Bankers and Oilmen in Public Demonology,” The Economist
  5.  Ibid.
  6. Nicola Masciandaro, The Voice of the Hammer: The Meaning of Work in Middle English Literature (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).
  7.  “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), 39.
  8. Gerard Naddaf, The Greek Concept of Nature (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005), 1, 11, 64.
  9.  J.M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1992).
  10. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 366.
  11.  Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin, Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, (1955) 1969), 217-251.
  12. Andrew Parker, “Mimesis and the Division of Labor,” in Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003), ix.
  14. A recent scuffle with anti-gentrification protesters during Google’s “mindfulness” presentation at the 2014 San Francisco Wisdom 2.0 conference had the organizers issue a rapid response, “lauding its corporate sponsor for its kindness and compassion. Of course, only in a country where corporations are legally people could a corporation be mindful, too.”
  15. Terry Eagleton, op. cit., 367-368
  16.  David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (London/New York: Penguin Books, 1999).
  17.  Terry Eagleton, op. cit., p. 368, emphasis in original.
  18. W.F. Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality, and Advertising in Capitalist Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, (1971) 1986). Here I am emphasizing more the commodification of aesthetics rather than the aestheticization of politics, as in Fascism.
  19. Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 1, 4.
  20. Helena Keeffe, Standard Deviation
  21. Maria Mies, Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (London: Zed Books, (1986) 1998); Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), and Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA/Brooklyn, NY: PM Press/Common Notions/Autonomedia, 2012); Selma James, “The Wageless of the World” (1975) and “Women’s Unwaged Work: The Heart of the Informal Sector” (1991), in Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012).
  22. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, (1690), 1967, 1988), 99 ff.; Ignacio Valero, “How Free is ‘Free’? Property, Markets, and the Aesthetic(s) of the Common(s)” in Ted Purves et al., What We Want is Free, 2nd edition (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014).
  23.  E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (Pontypool, Wales, UK: Merlin Press, 1991), 97-184.
  24. Konrad Becker and Jim Fleming (eds.), Critical Strategies in Art and Media: Perspectives on New Cultural Practices (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2010), 9-10.
  25.  Ibid, 7.
  26.  Antonio Negri, Art and Multitude: Nine Letters on Art, Followed by Metamorphoses: Art and Immaterial Labour (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press (2009) 2011), viii.
  27.  Ibid, 115-117, 119-120, 122.
  28. Oikodomia: construction, building, architecture. See also Ignacio Valero, “How Free is Free?” op. cit; and “EcoDomics: Life Beyond the Neoliberal Apocalypse,” in Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer, Informal Markets (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2014).
  29. I am using transversal largely in the way F. Guattari meant it: “Transversality is a dimension that strives to overcome two impasses: that of pure verticality, and a simple horizontality. Transversality tends to be realized when maximum communication is brought about between different levels and above all in terms of different directions.” Gilles Deleuze, “For Félix,” in Two Regimes of Madness (New York: Semiotext(e)), 2006, p. 382, quoted in Gary Genosko, “Transversality and Politics,” in Gary Genosko, Félix Guattari: A Critical Introduction (New York: Pluto Press, 2009), p. 51. See also Janell Watson, Guattari’s Diagrammatic Thought: Writing Between Lacan and Deleuze (New York: Continuum, 2009), 22-31. See also: Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, (1992) 1995); Schizoanalytic Cartographies (London: Bloomsbury Academic (1989) 2013); and Gary Genosko (ed.), Félix Guattari in the Age of Semiocapitalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

Comments ShowHide

Related Content