In this essay, I reflect on the idea of the artist as an "autonomous" producer and the implications of this role for the contemporary art system. I take my piece Art Workers, 2019, as a starting point to question, among other things: what is the real place of art in the organization of work? Or, in a more intuitive way: what does the word “work” mean exactly in the expression "work of art"?
On May 1st, 2019, a small group of people were seen in the São Paulo neighborhood of Barra Funda carrying a black banner with the words: O BOLETO SEMPRE VENCE, which in Portuguese literally means “the bill must always be paid”. For those walking the streets on that sunny May Day, the small, sparse and silent protest – not really obstructing anyone from going anywhere – must have seemed unusual, if not comical.
In Portuguese, the word VENCER can mean both “to win” and, in the context of bills, “to become due”. The banner is a reference to a slogan often used in demonstrations claiming that when united, people always win; however, in this case, the bill always wins. It is a straightforward and cheap pun, as puns should be, but it also has a touch of resentment in its allusion to the pointlessness of working. For many people, all they do is work to pay the bills, to survive, to continue to work and ultimately pay more bills. Adding to the contradiction, the act took place on a public holiday, which only applies to salaried workers who (at least until recently) have enjoyed the historical benefits and guarantees set forth by the Brazilian Consolidation of Labor Laws. The rest of the workers – the subcontracted, the self-employed or those looking for work – were not strolling the streets that day. For those walking the streets on that sunny May Day, the small, sparse and silent protest – not really obstructing anyone from going anywhere – must have seemed unusual, if not comical.
A photographer followed the protest from a few feet ahead. He was not a reporter, but one of the participants. His aim was to produce an image that could function as an artwork. From this point of view, the banner also evoked a common theme in the field of visual arts: the disconnection between symbolic and financial outcome as a result of artistic work. This means that many artists are forced to find a secondary source of income in order to, paradoxically, support their primary – mostly unprofitable – activity. Therefore, the public holiday added another layer of contradiction as it is supposed to be a “free” day, hence ideal for artistic practice. That small number of people, with their banner and camera, were not leisurely strolling the streets that day.
Trabalhadores da arte [Art Workers] was born from the desire to look closely at an issue that has been troubling me for a long while: what is the real place of art in the organization of work? Or, in a more intuitive way: what does the word work exactly mean in the expression work of art? As a way of delving deeper into these questions, I created a study group, called Work Art, that host a number of meetings with a diverse group of artists, curators, researchers, designers, producers, actors, educators and other professionals working in the field of culture, both self-employed and employed. Even though its main focus are the work conditions in the area of culture in a broader sense, one issue was introduced by artists from the first day, becoming a common thread in every subsequent debate: why is it, after all, that they cannot pay their bills through art?
This was not a merely abstract concern. After all, none of these artists – including myself – have been able to support themselves exclusively by art as a single source of income. Actually, in many cases, the opposite occurs: by accepting to work for nothing or less than nothing, we ended up paying to work. The expression “job insecurity” was also introduced into the debate from day one. In order to come up with some sense of it, it seemed important to make some basic distinctions, since it is not possible – not even as a metaphor – to compare the work of artists to the labor of services workers that face high levels of job insecurity, for instance, of those who travel the city for 15 to 20 hours a day in their cars or bikes hired from banks or dealers. Despite some superficial points of contact with Uber and Rappi drivers – such as some level of flexibility in managing our own time, which results, as a general rule, in extended work shifts – the crucial difference is that we chose our profession; that was our cut-off point.
There are as many reasons for this as there are artists. Here, I can only speak for myself. I decided to become a visual artist as a way of conducting my research more freely than in academia. In my view, today, as an artist, I am able to apply theoretical and methodological tools to something that in the past was completely beyond my reach, which is my personal experience. Now, it is precisely because I am the object of study of my projects that I cannot afford to be sloppy. From a social perspective, I must be objective: I am fully aware of the extraordinary privilege of being born into a upper middle-class family and not to suffer any type of prejudice related to my skin color, my gender or sexual orientation.
Without this alignment of factors, accessing the leading institutions where I studied abroad and the work opportunities – albeit under-paid – that I have been offered since I returned to Brazil would have been highly unlikely. As far as my work in the field of art is concerned, such privilege is translated into the possibility of dedicating myself to something that brings me enormous symbolic return. I like what I do.
Since I like what I do, I often have the impression that I am simply responding to an inner motivation, an intrinsic desire to make art. However, some of the theoretical references I have read in the context of the study group have led me to believe I am in fact wrong. Here, I am considering one particular argument raised by an artist-researcher from the USA, Andrea Fraser, who is known for her works linked to Institutional Critique. In her paper “How to Provide an Artistic Study: An Introduction”, she highlights the myth of the “subjective experience” she believes most artists have. For these artists – myself intimately included – there would be no “demand for art as such, but only for some individual artists of particular genius etcetera, and, in the absence of such artists, the entire contemporary art apparatus would just disappear”(1).
However, the contrary is true. The evidence is that in Brazil, as well as in the rest of the world, in the last few decades the art market has vastly expanded, fueled by a growing demand for contemporary works. But this is not exclusive to the market: institutions, such as foundations and museums are also involved. This demand, rather than being pressingly aimed at “individual artists of particular genius”, is fiercely disputed by all art agents: artists but also journalists, critics, curators and dealers. “These struggles”, Fraser explains, “are the dynamics through which the field [of art] reproduces itself.”(2) Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is: people desire works of art but no one needs your or my art. Only, of course, if proved otherwise. In order to secure legitimation in a field that requires institutional credentials (on top of sale figures), artists must find a way of subsidizing their practice via secondary jobs, help from family members or partners (if this is an option), welfare assistance (if this is an option), public or private grants (if this is an option) or, in general, via a combination of some of these elements. Even for the artists who are already established in the field, it is important to highlight that sales alone do not guarantee a fixed income. Even when the artist sells at a considerable monetary value, sales are often too staggered and irregular.
The type of art concerned also does not matter. Those bills will become due eventually. In my case, I am “project” artist or a “post-studio” artist. As opposed to artists that need physical space and materials at their disposal, I can work perfectly well from a café using only my laptop. However, when it comes to my exhibitions, I have to pay the many service providers I depend on: the professional who treats and prints my photos, the glassblower that makes my neon pieces, exhibition technicians, the people that participate in my performances, my text reviser, possibly exhibition mediators etc. In turn, those artists that have managed to find steady 9-5 jobs report that the stability provided by fixed income often comes with the frustration of wasting the best part of their time away from their art practice. In any case, it is important to compare the time we spend raising funds for the production of works and the time we spend using that money. This calculation is as simple as it is ruthless: more time producing means less money to spend. In my case, I have the privilege of enjoying my secondary activity, which is teaching.
Here, I run the risk of giving the impression that artists are entrepreneurs by nature. They are not. We are not. After all, it is one thing to understand this correlation and another thing to accept it, and it is something else completely different to find a feasible balance between the two. A number of my colleagues (including some Work Art group members) adopt attitudes that challenge the most basic understanding of financial common sense, opting, for instance, to get into debt for their main practice, which means eventually wasting even more time with secondary jobs. And after securing a source of income that allows them to save some money, some let go of the job as soon as they raise all that is strictly necessary for surviving a short period of time. Even though I try to move away from these “ineconomic” impulses, I also surprise myself, again and again, repeating this pattern of debt and flippant attitude towards money.
If I cannot justify this behavior I can at least try to understand it. The way I see things, remuneration is not the end of my work, but only the means to continue to work. (In reality, this modesty is also to my advantage because if I was producing art with the intention of making a fortune, it would very likely lead to frustration. All available statistics show that ours is a winner-takes-all type of field, structured in a way that only a handful of artists make loads of money whilst the vast majority makes nothing or next to nothing). Clearly this quite simplistic distinction between end and means could actually be applied to any profession (but not to all professionals). However, apparently, it is only in the field of art that people with such high-level educational backgrounds are happy to work for so little, or often for free or by paying out of their own pockets.
Surely there is something to gain from this sacrifice. After all, in which other area would we enjoy so much freedom? Which other profession offers the same level of symbolic return? These gains come in different formats: prizes (paid or unpaid), public exposure (media appearances), invitations to become part of top social circles (dinners, cocktails, parties) etc. However, they can also include day-to-day aspects, such as “particular freedoms in the way of dressing, sharing opinions, rebelling against impositions and managing when and where to work”(3). This is highlighted in a report called Proyecto Ocio [Project Idleness] conducted by Chilean researchers linked to the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado. The artists interviewed in Santiago also revealed that “they felt alien to and disconnected from the several practices that are ‘common to mortals’: […] strictly material concerns, consumerism trends”(4). Such statements corroborate the widely disseminated image of art as an eccentric, exceptional and exclusive activity. In its profane version, art offers to some individuals the possibilities of standing out from the masses. And in its sacred version, a slice of eternity.
Going beyond Walter Benjamin’s claim regarding the 1930s and 1940s, art seems to be capable of assigning a distinctive aura not only to artworks but also to their authors. This explains why a tool for eccentricity – a word that literally means to remove something out of the center, the norm, the model – can trigger the opposite movement, that is, to place in the center of attention certain marginal elements that would otherwise be condemned to a rigorous regime of social invisibility. For certain individuals, mainly for those relegated to the margins of the system, such as Black, Indigenous and LGBTQI+ people, the option to become an artist goes beyond a simple search for legitimation. It is also a survival strategy through exposing their difference.
The aura that is inherent to the art field is due to the fact that it constitutes a privileged source of social capital. The term, widely used in social sciences, describes a series of extremely valuable resources that secure legitimation and influence in relation to a complex network of social relations. Even though we are used to identifying and categorizing social classes into groups A, B, C and so forth, which respond to income criteria, these letters – in theory – say nothing about this other type of value, which exists beyond financial reach. In principle, true social (or cultural) capital is not something that can be bought. However, in practice, we see that the most powerful classes, in economic terms, are also the most culturally influential. The apparent contradiction between these two types of capital is solved, in this case, not by the concrete negation of money, but by the gesture of symbolically concealing it. Put simply, it is inappropriate to talk about money at the dinner table.
This etiquette has serious consequences for the field of contemporary art. Even though the field is deeply rooted in a business mindset, everything happens as if everyone was averse to money. “One thing is the aesthetic value, another is the economic value of an artwork”. This statement is often heard in high social circles, coming from those who can afford to buy the artworks. And, of course, they acquire them for their social value, which means that, at least in terms of discourse, buyers totally agree with artists: in art (and culture in general), money is not an end, but simply a means. However, there is something very insidious in this rhetorical “coincidence” that separates art and money in such a clear way. The results are very different for some than for others.
This rationale benefits the holders of economic capital. By putting their money at the service of art, via generous purchases or donations, they are rewarded with social capital, enjoying now the status of art lovers or patrons. Furthermore, this protocol is also extremely favorable to business, as noted by Dutch artist and economist Hans Abbing when questioning the reasons behind this apparent “denial of the economy of the arts”. In his introduction to his 2002 book Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, Abbing writes:
« On the one hand [in art] money and commerce are rejected. On the other hand, trade is very present in the temple of sacred art […]. The temple of art cannot exist without trade. Moreover, the trade in art profits from the belief that art is sacred and beyond commerce. For art dealers denying the economy is profitable: it is commercial to be non-commercial. »(5)
This is something that in business jargon is known as a win-win situation. However, such denial prevents the people that produce the art to aspire to a better financial position. According to this logic, this is a two-way scenario: either the artists are serving only themselves with their creations and cannot expect (or demand) any financial return, or are simply providing a service to others, therefore, no longer entitled to any symbolic return. Hence, we must conclude that the real artists are those that work autonomously, for the sheer pleasure (or need) to express themselves. And, in particular, those that never let themselves be corrupted by another salaried activity, undoubtedly at a lower social capital rank. As observed by Andrea Fraser, this demand, which is internalized by the artists themselves, is misleading: “Am I really serving my own interests? According to the logic of artistic autonomy, we work only for ourselves; for our own satisfaction, for the satisfaction of our own criteria of judgment, subject only to the internal logic of our practice, the demand of our consciences or our drives”. The response to her own question is: “It has been my experience that the freedom gained in this form of autonomy is often no more than the basis for self-exploitation”(6).
In this era of self-inflicted job insecurity, artists operate as providers of authenticity, creating works with a degree of prestige that feed a machine controlled by intermediaries. This is precisely what they are doing when the value that is produced, exhibited and sold is their own personality: young artist, promising artist, damned artist, engaged artist. This is even more perverse in the case of individuals from marginalized groups, as their presence – which would otherwise be extremely unlikely – in spaces of high social prestige, such as galleries and museums, can help to give visibility to urgent social agendas, but can also operate as cultural tokens, an immensely useful tool for a system that ultimately profits from the marginalization of these same groups.
This conclusion does not mean that we must simply reject the system. In a deeper sense, it calls for the rethinking of the role we play as artists inside it. There is a long history – from the Renaissance to Romanticism then Modernity – behind the figure of the artist as outsider and artistic work as exception. To retrace this history, even if in a summarized way, is something that goes beyond the purpose of this text. However, it is worth mentioning that we have witnessed a symbolic inversion. Today, the perpetuation of this idea has the practical effect of placing the artist at the forefront of a type of capitalism that is eminently symbolic and whose greatest asset is creativity. The “artistic autonomy” of 19th century bohemian artists is now sold as a form of professional fulfillment that is essentially individualist. The artist exception is now a commercial rule: “we are all outsiders”.
In art, to continue to see yourself as an authentic individual who is fully free and singularly sensitive – therefore, a genius – is today a way of exacerbating a process of social marginalization conjured by a form of self-exploitation. Furthermore, it systemically secures the preservation of an exclusionary and elitist social landscape; limited to the few who can rely on alternative sources of income and therefore, carry on being paid by applause.
Amongst these – and we must be very clear about this – are the members of the Work Art group. Questioning the roles we play in our field is our first step in the direction of triggering a structural change, which can affect all to a greater or lesser extent. In this sense, the work Trabalhadores da arte was already an invitation to self-analyze. For, to repeat, time and again, “the bills are always due” implicates in looking to what we do every day in our bedrooms, offices and studios in a blunt manner: that is, as an activity historically reserved to a privileged few, but not a privilege in itself, a reality against which it is still worth fighting. Just like bills.