On Laboring for Love

5.4 / Valuing Labor in the Arts

On Laboring for Love

By Elyse Mallouk April 3, 2014

Published in Slate in January 2014 and widely circulated on social media, the article “In the Name of Love” argued that an often repeated phrase, “Do what you love; love what you do,” communicates an “anti-worker ideology.” The problem with the adage, the author contended, is that it devalues the vast majority of work (the tedious kind) while elevating the type of work—that of a designer or executive, for example—that feeds on the unfulfilling labor of others.1 In effect, the article reasoned, the phrase divides work and the workforce into “two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (boring, unintellectual, undistinguished).” Beyond reinforcing the aphorism’s oversimplifications, the essay neglected a whole group of workers—contemporary artists and cultural producers—who often undertake one type of work to enable another, and experience conflicted feelings about both.

Shannon Finnegan. 8 Hours of Work, 2012 (performance still); Saturday, June 9, 2012, 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Presented by Recession Art in conjunction with Everything Is Index, Nothing Is History at the Invisible Dog, Brooklyn. Courtesy of the Artist.

In a recent discussion with two fellow artists, Piero Passacantando and Shannon Finnegan, I found myself using the word work fluidly, to signify both my job in the arts and my art work, or studio practice. But these two kinds of work mean different things, and I experience a firm opposition between them. The rewards of the work I do for pay are myriad and not confined to the fiscal, but in a sense my primary relationship to my job is a pragmatic one. It pays my expenses and also funds the work I do for free, which helps to sustain me intellectually but not monetarily. The necessary constraints my job applies to the rest of my life can create urgency and impel focus in my art work, but those same constraints can also drain me of the energy to be industrious in what might be considered my spare time. Far from wholly fulfilling or unfulfilling, both types of work elicit a range of sentiments from discouragement to gratification. While distinct, they are embroiled in a complex relationship that involves emotion as much as money.

The struggle to ensure that art work is recognized as real work and compensated accordingly is an essential one, and it continues through the efforts of art collectives and organizations, the actions of artists, and countless individual decisions to accept or reject engrossing but unpaid jobs. Underlying this discussion about the value of art work for the society at large is a question about the value of art work for artists. In order to reckon with the complex and idiosyncratic calculations that affect our personal internal divisions of labor, we first need to acknowledge that these distinctions exist. There are undeniable differences between work that is done primarily for money and work that is done primarily for cognitive, political, or emotional engagement. There is something special about art work, particularly the kind that does not result in a product widely recognized as a marketable art object (such as a painting)—the kind that is frequently done entirely for free.

Shannon Finnegan. 8 Hours of Work, 2012 (performance still); Saturday, June 9, 2012, 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Presented by Recession Art in conjunction with Everything Is Index, Nothing Is History at the Invisible Dog, Brooklyn. Courtesy of the Artist.

Like an entrepreneurial endeavor, this type of work runs on the energy and devotion of individuals, but unlike such an enterprise, it rarely produces a scalable product compatible with capital investment. The unsuitability of socially engaged art for the market—despite its widely acknowledged and institutionally lauded cultural value—is both the source of its autonomy and its devaluation. Another reason for its lack of financial viability is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the producer’s deep engagement with the work itself. While personal investment in one’s work is acknowledged in other fields as a value-adding characteristic, artists’ uncommon commitment to their projects often means that they are willing to work without pay in order to see those projects realized. As a result, many artists end up working all the time, and even so, experience a nagging sensation that they should be doing more.

Shannon Finnegan’s project 8 Hours of Work began as an experiment prompted, in her words, by a “sincere desire for something that felt completely productive.”2 On June 9, 2012, she sat at a desk in the middle of a Brooklyn gallery for eight hours, writing the same two phrases with a ballpoint pen on 8.5-by-11-inch sheets of printer paper, one on each side: “I should be working more” and “I should be working less.” When the workday was done, she had marked hundreds of sheets of paper, each a record of the effort it took to produce it and each only capable of displaying one half of a two-part sentiment. The project commented obliquely on market logic—as the artist’s productivity increases, the value of each sheet declines—but more directly, its subject was the distressing cycle of deliberation that preoccupies many artists. Among the other dualities that appear in her work are:

Nothing is good enough / Anything is good enough
Hurry up / Slow down
I want more / I want less
Change is inevitable / Change is impossible3

Piero Passacantando. MyNerva, 2013 (performance still); session 4 at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Jason Falchook.

8 Hours of Work made this type of private equivocation visible. A year and a half later, when I asked Finnegan if the performance changed her perspective on her work, she answered, “I feel much less certain about what counts as productive and whether the idea of productivity in and of itself is something that is positive or whether that’s something that’s been imposed on my thinking.”4 Rather than creating a perfect division between work and leisure, the performance reinforced Finnegan’s feelings of uncertainty.

When love propels work, the worker often forgoes short-term rewards such as leisure time and money in service of a larger pursuit.

The precarious position between knowing and not knowing, accompanied by an unrelenting desire to figure it out, is one of the hallmarks of love. In Plato’s Symposium, Love is personified as the child of Poverty and Resource, always poor and driven by the pursuit of beauty and practical wisdom.5 Unlike Pleasure, which seeks gratification and self-aggrandizement, Love is motivated by a desire to hold and protect. It inspires self-sacrifice. While pleasure is often momentary, love implies devotion, a feeling carried through time even as its object changes, disappoints, or behaves erratically. Work undertaken for love isn’t necessarily enjoyable; it may still be punctuated by boredom, frustration, guilt, and anxiety. Loving one’s work implies a willing sacrifice more than it implies pleasure. When love propels work, the worker often forgoes short-term rewards such as leisure time and money in service of a larger pursuit.

As personified by Socrates, Love also has a mystical and deceptive quality; in its attempt to possess the beautiful and the good, Love is “always weaving devices, desirous of practical wisdom and inventive…a skilled magician, druggist, sophist.”6 As much as it involves devotion and protection, love is also a state that welcomes strangeness. It comfortably holds uncomfortable oppositions in suspension, but it is not aimless. Its aim is practical wisdom (that is, knowledge that enables correct action), and individual correct action, practiced en masse, is the foundation for a responsible society. While Plato’s exposition of love should be taken in stride—he wished to banish artists from the republic, after all—I recognize his account of its voracious yet self-sacrificing nature as characterizing my relationship with my art work, and I imagine I’m not alone in feeling this identification. Far from the happy-go-lucky state implied by the phrase “do what you love,” this relationship is knotty and tumultuous.

Piero Passacantando. MyNerva, 2013 (performance still); session 4 at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Jason Falchook.

In Roman myth and culture, the goddess Minerva was simultaneously the patron of craft, commerce, wisdom, and war. MyNerva, an ongoing project by Piero Passacantando, has a similarly broad purview: the exploration of corporate structures. In Passacantando’s account, artists and craftspeople were among the first to create corporations—groups of people authorized to act as a single entity—as a means of defending like interests. While the utopian and collective sense of the corporate body has been somewhat lost, in a very basic, practical sense the corporation is still a group that bands together in search of equitable pay and benefits (though not as vociferously as a labor union). The curious history of the corporate environment—its peculiar spaces and conventions—serves as the basis for MyNerva’s investigations. In its first four iterations in the offices of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York, the project variously took the form of an office party, corporate retreat, and collaborative brainstorming session. Office workers and freelancers participated in an ancient ritual, meditated, sat for a satirical photo shoot, and watched performers strip and swallow swords. The project highlighted the rules that regulate behaviors inside highly standardized spaces (e.g., the cubicle), infiltrating the corporate sphere in order to comment on its familiar forms. By freely breaking professional norms and regulations, MyNerva offered participants an opportunity to inhabit typically unthinkable behaviors, exposing a range of interactions made possible only when workplace conventions were willfully and collectively abandoned. It cultivated connection in the kind of space better known for engendering detachment. There, art work and office work could be experienced in a playful and deliberate tension, and each type of occupation emerged both stranger and clearer.

Piero Passacantando. MyNerva, 2013 (performance still); session 3 at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Aline Shkurovich.

While popular conceptions of love imply a certain starry-eyed daze, loving one’s work does not preclude questioning its conditions. In fact, love, which in its highest form Socrates called the pursuit of wisdom, can prompt that kind of inquiry. Whether one is considering paid or unpaid work, the determination should involve a personal dialectic and an examination of one’s motives: Am I doing this for love? Beauty? Money? Guilt? What is being sacrificed and is it something I can spare? Though the answers will arrive introspectively, they should not remain private. As MyNerva attests, the original sense of the corporation can be reclaimed. While artists struggle publicly to make the value of art work visible, they are bound as a corporate body by the uncertainties and sacrifices they share in common. Love need not be jettisoned to make the case for art work. Instead, artists can gain power by making their deliberations transparent to each other, especially their mixed feelings about their own artistic labor and its value. Such disclosures are oriented toward a kind of practical wisdom, a collective striving for a more equitable society in which work done for love might be understood, valued, and compensated as such.

Notes

  1. Miya Tokumitsu, “In the Name of Love,” Slate, January 16, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2014/01/do_what_you_love_love_what_you_do_an_omnipresent_mantra_that_s_bad_for_work.html.
  2. Shannon Finnegan, in conversation with Piero Passacantando and Elyse Mallouk, January 23, 2014.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Plato, Symposium, pp. 265–66, https://archive.org/stream/PlatosSymposium/Plato-Symposiumbenardete - page/n17/mode/2up.
  6. Plato, Symposium, p. 266.

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