Shotgun Review

Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor, and Economics

By December 19, 2009

On December 16th, I had the pleasure of attending an unusual event: a symposium of artists debating the economy at large and the fallout within the arts community. Organized by Matthew Rana, the reading took place at Sight School, a new Oakland gallery operated by local artist Michelle Blade, and included Malak Helmy, Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert, and Lynn McCabe as speakers.  The topic: "What does a just arts economy look like?"  Contrary to the usual lectures where well-funded museum directors and curators sophistically attack the capitalist system that supports their extravagant lifestyles, this panel was made up of working artists facing tough economic realities.

The event was a public reading from Art Work, a free newspaper published by the Chicago collective Temporary Services, who gathered essays from a variety of sources to examine the art world and academia with a quasi-Marxist slant.  Zachary Royer Scholz commenced the evening with a reading from “State of the Union,” in which Gregory Sholette describes the subjugation of artists in a deregulated market, resulting in the phenomenon of "artist as entrepreneur." [1], This model inevitably propagtes an increased gap between the haves and have-nots of the art world, mirroring the American economy at large. 

The highlight of the event was art historian Julian Myers' excerpted reading from Research and Destroy's "Communiqué from an Absent Future."[2] In his opening remarks, Myers asked how the work of artists is to be valued in an age when the fetishization of the cultural commodity is the dominant factor driving artistic production. Myers then posited that the production of art is not distinct from the labor of other workers, but the result of that labor is. The work of art functions as both a commodity and a sign.  He went on to suggest that this complicates the relationship between producer and consumer, and consequently renders artists vulnerable to exploitation by the art market.

Art Work public reading, 2009. Photo by Michelle Blade. Courtesy of Sight School, Oakland.

Zachary Royer Scholz. Art Work public reading, 2009. Photo by Michelle Blade. Courtesy of Sight School, Oakland.

A heated debate ensued following the readings, in which the audience addressed the question, "What is a just arts economy?" Suggestions ranged from the reinstatement of the guild system to an artist take-over of commercial galleries, but the discussion became mired in the intricacies of the art market and the language of the capitalist system. Myers came closest to defining the real question when he astutely scratched out the word "art" on one of the posters behind him, revealing the phrase: "What does a just economy look like?" I would take this one step further and ask, "How can artists survive within an unjust economy?" 

If Ms. Blade continues to program events of this caliber, Sight School will be a welcome addition to a visual arts community that would greatly benefit from a sustained and expanded discourse.

Art Work was presented at Sight School in Oakland on December 16, 2009.  A free copy can be downloaded from Temporary Services.

[1] Sholette, Gregory. “State of the Union” in Artforum, April 2008, 181-82.

Peter Dobey
 is a San Francisco-based artist.


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