The rise of the “free economy” that Chris Anderson lauded in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (read Cory Doctorow’s astute review of the book’s arguments in the Guardian here) takes on an entirely different, and far less celebratory, meaning when applied to the work of artists, critics, curators, arts administrators and other low-paid (or no-paid) culture workers today. A newly launched newspaper called Art Work is attempting to lay bare hard truths about the flailing economy’s impact on cultural production. Finally, people are starting to talk about money, explicitly and on personal terms. Or at least, they’re trying to.
Put out by Temporary Services (who were interviewed on the Podcast in Episode 218) the newspaper, distributed in both print and online forms, looks for alternative routes past market-based economies through articles that address resource sharing, collective action and other methods of keeping on with the keeping on when there’s very little money to oil the gears. In an article titled “This is Our Real Job,” the Temporary Services crew outline their primary source of dissatisfaction with the status quo: the dominance of market forces over the production of art. It’s a well-worded introduction to the project that frames the discourses contained within as a whole. In a key paragraph, they argue,
“For far too long, the rhetoric and logic of the market has dominated the production of discourse and livelihoods around art. Letting the market decide, as Reagan, Milton Friedman, and other ghosts of capital past cried, has drastically limited what we think art is and can be in our society. We have seen how quickly the commercial market collapsed, hurting large numbers of people. The commercial art market in the United States has hemorrhaged gallery after gallery. The flocks in the stables have been turned loose into the wilds of uncertainty and worry that the rest of us live in as normalcy. There will be no bailout or economic triage to save the galleries. The financial collapse has put a big crack in the hegemony over resources and discourse that the commercial system has long enjoyed. It is now even harder to see success in the speculative art market as a viable option for most artists, though the dictates of the market are still what gets passed off as curriculum for an MFA at most universities.”
My favorite section of the newspaper is tagged “Personal Economy.” Here, individual contributors really get honest –albeit anonymously–about their own financial situations as culture workers. It ain’t pretty. But it’s strangely empowering to learn that other people are in similar boats as you are–working for free or close to it, struggling to balance soul-crushing day jobs with creative labor, and trying to make real connections with peers that aren’t based solely on what the other person can do for you.
As a writer, I mostly work for free, and I often feel embarrassed about that. Although it’s not like I made tons of cash when I worked as a museum professional, nowadays I don’t contribute any meaningful income to my family’s bank account, and yet I am engaged in “work” that takes me away from the household labor to which, as a stay at home mother and an extremely reluctant housewife, I must also be committed. Despite my own personal distaste for the type of fevered rhetoric to which projects like Art Work typically fall prey (i.e., lots of poetically-written bitching, with precious few workable solutions put forth) I found most of the articles in Art Work to be incredibly compelling and personally meaningful. “The personal is political,” Anne Elizabeth Moore reminds us in her contribution to the newspaper. By demanding that we start talking openly and explicitly about money and its impact on the work we do, Art Work reframes that old bromide in ways that have the potential to rouse and discomfit us anew.