Protest culture: Wisconsin and WAGE

March 20, 2011 · Print This Article

Two things have been occupying my thoughts over the last couple weeks: the protests that have been happening in Wisconsin in response the end of collective bargaining for unions and Nato Thompson’s interview with the group Working Artists for a Greater Economy (WAGE) article in the most recent Artforum. I’ve been thinking a lot about the stakes of the artists working in solidarity with a larger public engaged in protest and artists working in solidarity with other artists to create a more equitable art-world. These are not mutually exclusive propositions obviously but sometimes it feels like the baby steps that count for change in the art-world are so cut off from the rest of the planet.

WAGE describes themselves as “an activist group of artists, art workers, performers and independent curators fighting to get paid for making the world more interesting.” While I identify with the sentiment that artists and art-workers do indeed make the world more interesting, so do a lot of other people. And that seems to be a particular sticking point at the moment when public sector workers are being asked to give up their rights because apparently no one (private or public sector) should have any kind of safety net in today’s economy. My point is not to come down too hard on WAGE who have done some good things to get artists paid for their work including negotiating a fee for each artist participating in the New Museum’s exhibition “Free” last winter, but something about their position seems overly limited.

The interview states as much:

Nato Thompson: One of the critiques that gets leveled against WAGE is: Why just artists? Why agitate within the arts, which is seen as a largely privileged, predominantly white, middle-class constituency – and for whom discussions about labor are divorced from the conditions of mass disenfranchisement, to say the least?

WAGE: The question was simply, What do we need? We need to paid for our work at institutions. Here’s a single goal, and we will work at that single goal until we get there. If you want to talk about class issues and art, nothing speaks to class disparity more than assuming an artist is privileged enough to afford to not to be paid for their work. We just want to have this realistic, specific focus and we do include independent curators, performers, and writers in our advocacy.

(the full interview is here)

WAGE’s main beef is with nonprofit cultural institutions, who they feel are not adequately implementing sustainable compensation models for working artists who are operating outside of commercial markets. Their inspiration is the Art Workers Coalition, active from 1969 – 1971, which was similarly comprised of artists and art-workers taking aim at the politics underlying the art-world. The AWC splintered rather quickly and spawned many other active groups, but in their limited time they helped inspire the first ever union of museum workers, the Professional and Administrative Staff Association (PASTA) at the Museum of Modern Art. PASTA most recently went on a successful strike in 2000, working to minimize lay-offs during the building’s expansion. I support WAGE’s efforts to support themselves but I’m not fully understanding their end-goals since they are not interested in unionizing and instead see themselves as a consciousness-raising group for a very specific community of art-people who have already been anointed as being worthy of being exhibited in major venues.  And while they are a New York specific group and therefore not responsible for proposing a new economic model for the art-world at large, I can’t help but want a more broad-based economic analysis of the cultural workforce and proposals for new models of support that are not about commodifying artistic labor. And to be fair, all of us art-workers are responsible for being part of that process and WAGE is an important step in the right direction. But where else can we look to for inspiration? It seems that even the conventional economic structure that WAGE is advocating for is under duress.

Back to Wisconsin. When unions are under such direct attack, so is (and maybe most relevant to the art-worker) the state university system wherein the precarious artist-professor and artist-grad student are losing their jobs and right to a free education. Again, not a new problem, as evidenced in the large student protests in UC system in California a year ago and the working conditions for most university art instructors in Chicago. But witnessing the spontaneous energy and creativity that has erupted there (Dan S. Wang’s blog has some great coverage), is a welcome rejoinder to the way the art-world views just compensation. Right now there’s a temporary restraining order on the authoring of Governor Scott Walker’s bill and it remains to be seen what will happen with the recall efforts but I’m excited to see the ways in which artists and non-artists are creating expressions of the kind of working world they want to live in.

Wisconsin images from Public Collectors’s photo set of Protest Signs from March 12, 2011

2 Responses to “Protest culture: Wisconsin and WAGE”

  1. [...] by Randall Szott on 03/21/2011 Abigail Satinsky’s recent post on Bad at Sports Protest culture: Wisconsin and WAGE and recently seeing a group called “Artists Call for Workers Rights” has me thinking [...]

  2. [...] Abigail’s post yesterday on protest culture, Wisconsin and WAGE has me thinking about a lot of things, not the least of which is the visual culture of demonstration itself. Last week Eyeteeth’s Paul Schmelzer blogged a newsbit about the Smithsonian sending a curator to document the signs and placards being used during the protests. I had never really considered all those black Sharpie-scrawled cardboard signs and drawings as conveying anything other than the messages written on them, but as soon as I shifted my perspective to consider them historically, i.e. as examples of material culture worthy of historical documentation and preservation…well, that was a head slapping moment for me. This material is so obviously significant, and yet so easy to overlook. The fantastic set of images Abby used to illustrate her post also helped slam this point home for me, especially because several of those messages were delivered on something other than written placards. Protestors wear costumes and perform. They make collages and small drawings. They build installations and sculptures. There is an art to all this: whatever form the protest sign takes, it needs to be sharply worded (or visualized) yet concise, funny helps too, and even if the sign consists solely of text it needs somehow to be strikingly visual in nature. The Wisconsin signs reference Edvard Munch alongside movies like Kill Bill and  Star Wars, and I think I even glimpsed a nod to the Librarian in Terry Pratchett Discworld series (ook!). Image from Buzzfeed, see link below. [...]

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