ACTIONS! and Other Art Worker Tales
On September 28, 2013 I attended conceptual artist Simon Leung’s collaboratively created performance event ACTIONS! at The Kitchen. I was initially attracted by the question he posed in the project description, “In our age of precarious work, what is the role of the ‘art worker?’” as this line of investigation is central to the Brooklyn Commune Project. I went with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation but found myself moved, almost from the outset, by the David and Goliath story of the MoMA art workers’ strikes and the heartfelt, earnest artlessness of the performers.
The event began with a slide show entitled “Actions Countdown” by the artist Andrea Fraser. The first slide informs us that MoMA director Glenn Lowry makes $1.8M a year, is the highest paid museum director in the U.S. and, as such, makes $28,000 in 32 hours, $28K/yr being the annual grade #1 salary of a Professional and Administrative Staff Association (PASTA) MoMA Worker.
The slides continue through the roster of MoMA Trustees from Eli Broad to Ronald Lauder to Agnes Gund and so on, each one earning $28K more quickly than the next, until we finally learn that some MoMA trustees earn that much in mere minutes. It is a very stark, powerful and concrete illustration of the distance between the artists, the art workers and the keepers of the museum.
The slide show sets the tone for a series of twelve scenes that recount the story of the three “actions” directed at the Museum of Modern Art—first in the 1960/70s by the Art Workers’ Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group, second during a four month-long workers’ strike against the museum in 2000 and the more recent general protests by art-activist groups such as Occupy Wall Street Arts & Labor.
We get firsthand accounts of life on the picket line in 2000, and fanciful reconstructions based on transcripts of organizing meetings from all three eras. A surreal meeting between art workers and museum administrators jumps back and forth between decades, mirroring the recurrence of the central issues and the persistent naive optimism of the artists themselves.
We learn about MoMA’s betrayal of its mission in numerous ways, including closing its film stills archive – the preeminent archive of film history in the world – and then moving it to The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, Pennsylvania, partially as retribution against curator Mary Corliss for supporting the 2000 strike. After 30 years as curator and caretaker of the collection Mary had begun to earn an annual salary of some $40K a year and dared to think that the starting salary of $17K for most employees at MoMA was too little. A veteran of the earlier strike, MoMA wanted her gone, and the relocation of the collection made it impossible for her to continue working there. Not only did Mary Corliss lose her job, the public lost access to the collection, which remains inaccessible to this day.
One artist does a stand-up comedy routine, others a song and dance with a model of the now-iconic Inflatable Rat. In one particularly amusing scene, Leung, inspired by City Center’s Encores! Off Center presentation of Cradle Will Rock, uses dialogue from the play about open vs. closed shops and repurposes it to explain the debates around the formation of PASTA – the MoMA employees’ union.
The twelve scenes unfold at a leisurely pace, and vary widely in tone and content. Some use assemblage techniques to interpolate found texts with original material, some blend historical re-enactments with fiction, others use the presentational aesthetics of Agitprop street theater. The description on The Kitchen’s website offers that the piece uses the “conventions of workers’ theater, academic conference, vaudeville, and postmodern dance” – and one might well add devised theater, community theater, documentary theater and a host of other familiar performance practices.
Given that Leung, a conceptual artist, was drawing so much on well-known theatrical practices for the staging and creation of this collective art action, I wondered what Leung’s theatrical background was and why there were no self-identified theater artists involved in the creation or performance of the work. So I called him.
Simon and I talked the first time for almost two hours on the phone and met in person a few weeks later for an animated brunch conversation in Greenpoint. Over the course of several hours we covered a vast landscape of topics from the role of class as a plot driver in early 1980’s popular film to the conundrum of “affect versus identity” in the presentation of the self in the post-post-post-Modern moment, to Mexican-American Heavy Metal bands to the impact of globalization on regional variability and much, much more.
I was absolutely charmed by his intelligence and candor, not to mention his patience in guiding me through his life and work as a conceptual artist. We both share a passion for art that exists at the intersection of critical theory, politics and the avant-garde, and I was eager to learn the conceptual history of ACTIONS! and his previous body of work.
Leung knew early on that he wanted to be an artist; in high school he wrote papers on Chris Burden (9th grade), Andy Warhol (10th grade) and Brancusi (11th grade). He readily credits Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelly and Vito Acconci as influences; reading Elizabeth Kley’s 1996 artnet review of his show at Pat Hearn Gallery or listening to Leung’s 2010 Slought Foundation lecture on Marcel Duchamps’ Étant donnés, one can see how his investigations have expanded on the work of those earlier artists, pushing them in new conceptual directions.
“I’ve been working on ACTIONS! for thirteen years,” Leung told me, “Shortly after Yvonne Rainer and I attended the strike at MoMA in 2000, I knew I wanted to make a piece about it. But it wasn’t until Tim Griffin and The Kitchen took an interest that I was able to find the funding to do it.”
“Looking back at the history of PASTA and especially thinking about 40 years of history of women’s labor, things have gotten worse. In 1971 young educated women workers organized for better wages, and now those women don’t even get jobs, they’re just interns. I have to fact check it, but we were told that at one point even the intern MetroCard subsidy had been cut because the summer internship fund had been invested with Bernie Madoff.”
The impetus for this version of the piece was to trace what had happened in the past thirteen years. “Tim put my name in front of it, but it really was a collaboration with a much looser form of authorship. For instance, almost every line in the Art Workers section is a quotation from transcripts of conversations from 1969 and Housing Works in 2012.”
“It was important that it be cast with real people, people who were there in 2000, there in the 1960’s, participating in Occupy Arts & Labor, and so on. Everyone who was in the piece had a reason to be in the piece. People told me what they can do, and they provide what they can provide. so everyone who is in the piece is also doing something else in the piece – videos, karaoke, sound, text – we all built this together.”
Since there is such a long history of this kind of work in the dance and theater worlds, I asked Simon if he knew about the extensive documentary theater work of Rimini Protokoll or Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements project, which has been working with non-performers to tell their untold stories for over twenty years.
“I’m not familiar with Rimini Protokoll, but of course I know Ping’s work, and we were doing something different with ACTIONS! When you think of documentary film, for instance, it can take any form, but we tend to think of it in terms of facts. Look at Godard – he re-calibrated how information is conveyed, how it can come across in a non-conventional form. I wanted to use a variety of forms – worker’s theater, vaudeville, post modern dance, an academic conference – for instance, to convey the information in a different way.”
I asked, “Given your interested in collage-based performance aesthetics, and experiments in unexpected formal and textual juxtapositions, I’m curious if you are familiar with Hans-Thies Lehmann’s seminal work Postdramatic Theater? He has written rather comprehensively about the history of these practices in theater from the 1960s to today.”
“No, it sounds interesting, I’ll have to read it,” said Simon, “but like I said, my influences are really more Acconci, Burden, Kelly and McCarthy. I wasn’t trying to make a theater piece, I didn’t want to have actors. In fact, with ACTIONS! a lot of people didn’t even show up for rehearsal, so the first performance was kind of like a dress rehearsal, and that is the aesthetic of the piece.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair to the audience,” I said.
“Well, this piece wasn’t really for them. ACTIONS! is more like community theater – we made it for the people who were there. Nobody knows about the 2000 strike, nobody remembers the strikers and I wanted to say ‘This is something, this happened, this is important.’ And it meant a lot to those people, Mary Corliss came twice, for instance.”
I told him I understood and appreciated his position but still, there was an audience, and as one of those audience members, I would have appreciated more consideration of my experience. “For instance,” I said, “in the final sequence it seemed like you wanted everybody to sing along to this vaguely familiar worker’s anthem by Joe Hill – you sent performers into the audience and, facing the stage, began singing. It was really awkward and confusing!”
Simon laughed. “That’s so funny! That part is the one that people seem to find really problematic. I didn’t want anyone to sing along. You know the guy who was standing center stage conducting? He is supposed to stand for Glenn Lowry. In 2000 Glenn Lowry would stand up in the window of MoMA and look down at the strikers. When they would chant or sing, he would pretend to conduct them from his window! And we see that gesture return in Lowry’s TedTalk speech that we quote in ACTIONS.”
(ACTIONS! quotes Lowry from 0:00-2:40 and 8:17 to 9:51)
Simon continued, “He talks about Marina Abramovic at MoMA and literally co-opts performance art in front of us. So I wanted to comment on what has happened, even to this supposedly radical form. What I wanted to have happen was for him to be conducting, in silence, for a long time. So the show kind of begins and ends with Glenn Lowry, in a way it is a ‘Fuck You’ to Glenn Lowry!”
I sat with that for a moment and tried to unravel my complex skein of thoughts and emotions.
“But there are people who know how to do that,” I said, finally. “That is what skilled, trained theater directors know how to do. They craft the arc of the entire event, they think about how people get on and off the stage, how to plant clues to follow an idea or a character or a theme over the course of an evening and direct the audience’s attention in subtle, nuanced ways, to create a meaningful and transformative effect on the audience. When Richard Serra or Mark Di Suvero want to make one of their huge sculptures, they hire a fabricator! They know that they don’t have the skill to realize their vision, so they hire someone who does.”
“I agree with you…”
“Then why didn’t you want to work with someone who could help you realize your vision?”
“Well,” he said, “There’s this idea of de-skilling ….”
I cut him off. “I know what de-skilling is, I was just on a panel with Claire Bishop and have been down this road many, many times,” I said. “What I can’t understand is why you would choose to embrace an aesthetic of deskilling rather than bring in someone who actually knows what they are doing and could help you create a better work of art, while still adhering to your politics, principles and aesthetic priorities.”
I immediately felt bad for being rude.
“I’m sorry, Simon. Thanks for being patient. I really loved what you were trying to do with the show and I really believe in the same things, I just can’t wrap my head around it. You’re not the first artist I’ve heard talk about how much they hate theater, but I don’t understand why, if visual artists hate it that much, they continue to make it!”
As we talked I came to several realizations. One is that “visual art performance” is like outsider art for theater. I began to understand how trained visual artists from elite institutions can get upset when unskilled amateurs make paintings and sculptures that garner critical praise and earn big money in galleries. A trained theater or dance artist will find it frustrating, even angering, to watch – but the work offers an institutional critique that can question assumptions of the form and provide valuable insights.
I also realized that the reason these conversation are so difficult, so often, is that we are in a kind of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus scenario, where even when we are in agreement, we are coming from such vastly different experiences and world views, it is hard to find common ground for communication.
My third realization was that if we, as artists, are to achieve any kind of change in our material conditions or create any real change in the world at large, we have to find a way to communicate with each other, we must find common ground and build solidarity. If we are to resist our systematic exploitation by the market-driven logic of institutions and funders, then we need to move ourselves beyond all institutionally imposed structures and received narratives to build a movement that is mutually respectful, tolerant and supportive.
And finally, I realized that while for Claire Bishop, et al, the aesthetic of deskilling is merely source material for witty bon mots and clever cocktail party repartee, it is actually an implicit devaluation of the labor of theater and dance artists. If we are going to talk about the role of the art worker in a precarious age, if we are going to talk about the relationship between arts and labor, if we are going to work for real change, then deskilling must no longer be relegated to idle ivory tower aesthetic discourse but must be called to account for its insidious complicity in the exploitation of artists. The aesthetic of deskilling is merely the art-critical manifestation of a wider worldview that devalues craft, training and anything that visibly connects labor to outcome as it affirms corporate capitalism’s disdain for the communitarian values of civil society.
Lest you think I am being hyperbolic, I point to the Glenn Lowry TedTalk that Simon Leung included in ACTIONS! Lowry is brilliant – and evil – as he reframes Occupy Wall Street, performance art and artists generally, under the rubric of creative disruption as it relates to capitalism. In the beginning of the talk he implies that artists and activists don’t know how to do anything with their ideas, but those ideas, when co-opted into the institution, become meaningful and powerful. The institution, of course, is Visual Art, with The Museum serving as non-profit instrument for the creation of market value.
Lowry goes on to use Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” as an example, natch. His talk is billed as being about “the trend toward performance art and the rise of the individual” and this provides us a key insight from which to frame Lowry’s position and that of the Visual Art Museum.
In his book How To Change The World, scholar Eric Hobsbawm, discussing the historical antecedents to the philosophy of Karl Marx, writes, “It is not possible to dismiss quite so summarily the ancient religious and philosophical traditions which, with the rise of modern capitalism, acquired or revealed a new potential for social criticism, or confirmed an established one, because the revolutionary model of a liberal-economic society of unrestrained individualism conflicted with the social values of virtually every hitherto known community of men and women.”
Andrew O’Hehir, writing in Salon, says, “One of the greatest acts of neoliberal hypnosis over the past 40 years has been convincing almost everyone in mainstream politics, conservatives and liberals alike, that it was both fiscally prudent and morally necessary to subject the entire public sphere to “market forces.” It was neither prudent nor necessary; it was a vicious and misguided political decision, rooted in a quasi-religious dogma that sought to imprint the values of the market on every aspect of society and has largely succeeded.”
Lowry’s vision of performance art and the individual, as embodied by Abramovic, is essentially an expression of unfettered free market capitalism that has little to do with actual capitalism and everything to do with ruthless corporate exploitation and privatization of public value. In his conception of society, it is the myth of the individual as rational actor in a free market that serves as the pinnacle of human achievement and the linchpin of social organization. Thus Abramovic’s current work, enabled by the institutional support of MoMA, its trustees and curators, is essentially a spectacular performance of self-commodification: how does one dehumanize and objectify oneself to the point where the Self no longer exists but as a Brand, as a mere signifier pointing to emptiness?
Witness the absurdity of Lady Gaga and Jay-Z helping Abramovic on Kickstarter (as if Gaga and Jay-Z couldn’t just underwrite the entire project themselves), among other cynical strategies for framing self-commodification as an art form.
Abramovic is in the vanguard of visual art’s aesthetic colonialism. She seeks to open what is, essentially, a theater, but calls it a space for performance art to distance it from that downmarket reality, making it sexier and more attractive to collectors. Abramovic patents and purveys a method of performance that references both the outdated training techniques of Method acting and the meditative exercises of a long line of spiritualist charlatans. As I wrote on Tumblr a few months back:
… she is a modern day Mme Blavatsky, the Russian-German Occultist who was a sensation in late 19th century Paris.
And of course the fantastically fickle & shallow high end art world slavers at her quasi-mystical gobbledygook. Like Madonna & Kabbalah or Marianne Williamson & A Course In Miracles or Tom Cruise & Scientology, it is all a bunch of bunk for the spiritually vacant & easily duped. This is what happens when you sell your soul for a strap-on.
Abramovic’s sleight of hand in making theater and calling it visual art is only possible through the well-capitalized exertions of the visual art museum as it relentlessly pursues a monopolistic claim on cultural capital in a supposedly post-object world. Insofar as almost all art, including live music, uses vision as a means of encounter, one might well ask what isn’t visual art? And herein lies the great complication. If all art is potentially “visual art”, then all other forms become subservient to the aesthetic criteria of the visual art museum.
I am certainly not the first to suggest that Visual Art does not exist at all and I am quite sure that others have, at some point, suggested that the term “Visual Art” is more useful as a signifier for a certain kind of speculative marketplace than for any particular form of creative expression. Visual Art Performance, then, is performance created to exist in the Art Market, even as it measures its distance from that market. And it is a mighty market indeed, as ACTIONS! so clearly conveys, and as we can see from the Francis Bacon triptych that recently sold for $142.4 million at Christie’s.
According to the NY Times:
The Bacon triptych was not the only highflier. A 10-foot-tall mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture that resembled a child’s party favor, Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold to another telephone bidder for $58.4 million, above its high $55 million estimate, becoming the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction …. Four celebrated collectors own the others: Steven A. Cohen, the hedge-fund billionaire, has a yellow one; Eli Broad, the Los Angeles financier, owns a blue one; François Pinault, the French luxury goods magnate and owner of Christie’s, has the magenta version; and Dakis Joannou, the Greek industrialist, has his in red.
As astonishing as that might seem, even to people in the visual art world, try and imagine how that looks to people in the performing arts. Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider posted a pointedly funny open letter on her Facebook page:
Dear “Balloon Dog” collectors: For that price, you could have rescued the New York City Opera, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, AND the Minnesota Orchestra, three of our country’s musical treasures. I get that that profoundly heroic claim to fame doesn’t look as cool in your living room as a large stainless steel balloon animal, but for $58.4 million I imagine there would have been spare change to name a Lincoln Center plaza after you or commission a marble bust of you for your living room — or hell even to ask Jeff Koons to create another balloon animal for you, cut rate, as a gesture of solidarity with his fellow artists in the world of music! I am appealing to your ego and reason here: when you go, is the world really going to remember that you had a very cool balloon dog? But they will remember that you saved two orchestras and an opera.
Just a thought. I know you have a long list of deserving artistic and humanitarian ways to save the world instead of buying a very cool giant balloon dog and I appreciate your time.
The truly destructive and deleterious effects of visual art’s colonization of performance can be seen most profoundly, and tragically, in the Performa Biennial, which will conclude on November 24.
I always know when Performa rolls around because I start getting emails from my friends like, “Oh my God you should write something about that Ryan McNamara piece it was HORRIBLE!” or “Did you see Rashid Johnson’s Dutchman? Please tell me you’re going to rip it apart!!? It was BRUTAL!” or “Can you believe that BAM presented The Humans as part of Performa? Did you see it? It was so bad it was laughable!”
As usual, the performances by visual artists were terrible but visual art audiences don’t seem to know the difference or to mind all that much. Maybe they’re habituated to unpleasant experiences. But this year – as with every Performa biennial – there were some really great performances too, all by actual choreographers.
The biennial began promisingly with the playful duet Still Standing You by Belgian choreographer/dancer Pieter Ampe and Portugese choreographer/dancer Guilherme Garrido. Later, choreographer Maria Hassabi offered a new work, PREMIERE, at The Kitchen, and just last week French choreographer Jérôme Bel brought his work Disabled Theater to NYLA.
I want to pause here and discuss this work in more detail.
Disabled Theater is a collaboration between Bel and 11 actors from Zurich’s Theater Hora, Switzerland’s best-known professional theater company comprised of actors with learning and mental disabilities.
I missed Disabled Theater when it was featured as part of Theatertreffen in Berlin, but it was controversial then – both because Bel is a choreographer making theater and because it was seen as “disability porn”. But my colleagues who did see it almost uniformly loved it, and I couldn’t wait for it to come to NYC.
Disabled Theater is a stunning example of why craft and skill are absolutely necessary in the creation of dance and theater. Almost all of the strategies that Leung aspired to deploy in ACTIONS! are used here to great effect, yet no visual artist could have made this piece.
As a choreographer, Bel understands the nature of time, the nature of attention and the profound resonance of embodiment. He understands the subtlety required for negotiating subjectivity between “audience” and “performer” and the third entity that is created out of the two. He is meticulous and careful as he frames his performers, creating that most ephemeral condition of collective trust and openness that allows for surprise, insight and expanded self-knowledge.
The performance begins with each of the disabled performers entering and standing center stage, in silence, for a full minute. The audience is thus gently compelled to sit and apprehend the totality of the human being in front of us. Then each of the performers comes out again, individually, and tells us their name, their age and their profession. All of them self-identify as actors, which tells us something about the complexity of their sense of identity and their agency in choosing to be in this show. Next they all enter and sit on stage next to each other in a curved row of chairs.
The audience is called upon to see these performers individually and collectively. We see the diversity in this group that has been uniformly labeled “disabled” – we see the range of disabilities, the individual styles, outlooks, demeanors and personalities. Over the course of the performance, as each actor is asked to share incrementally more of their personal history and perspective, we see them not only as distinct individuals but as a complex community, a mirrored microcosm of the audience.
Bel has asked each of them to choose a song and create a solo dance – a technique he has used previously to great effect in The Show Must Go On. The performances are stunning, not because of their technical virtuosity, as none of the performers are trained dancers, but because of what each dance tells us about the person performing. Bel calls upon the audience to witness the vital, vibrant, unique, inner lives of each of these actors as they are manifested in their dances. He is at once compelling us to confront our own preconceptions and prejudices, and remonstrating us for the defenses we have constructed to separate ourselves from others.
The disabled actors haven’t put up the same defenses, haven’t developed the same social callousness and guardedness, they have a different relationship to ego. Certainly they have egos – and it is fascinating and often funny to watch them interact with each other during the show – but they are not at all ironic, they are passionately sincere. When they dance, they hold nothing back, they truly dance as if no-one is looking – they remind us, the audience, of who we could be, who we might be, if were only a fraction as brave as these actors.
Disabled Theater is transcendent, profound and moving. It truly challenges us and changes us, it does more than convey facts, it offers us the chance to experience something meaningful, eternal and true. It brings us into a new way of being and compels us to aspire to be more human.
Legendary Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s most influential writing on film is called Sculpting In Time, but the phrase could just as well be used to describe choreography or theater. To be able to sculpt in time, to use as one’s material not clay, or wood, or paint, but time, light, sound and the human body, to use phenomenology as one’s canvas, is extraordinarily difficult. To be a dancer, actor or singer, to use one’s own body as the tool for creative expression, to attempt to bridge the existential gap between isolated selves, to attempt to achieve profound intersubjectivity, is a Herculean task that requires years of training and study. To dismiss that skill, as visual art performance does, is not only criminal, it is in collusion with the dehumanizing forces already at work in society at large.
It is disingenuous at best to place Disabled Theater, curated by NYLA’s Carla Peterson or the work of dancer/choreographer Maria Hassabi, curated by Matthew Lyons, next to a “visual art performance” celebrity circle jerk and imply equivalence.
If the Performa Biennial aspires to be anything more than a slick marketing effort to create value in the so-called visual art world, if it truly aspires to the historical grandeur implied by founder RoseLee Goldberg’s rhetoric, then it would make a clean break from visual art once and for all, it would change its name and just be a “performance biennial”. It would redouble its efforts to discretely identify who curated what, why they curated it and they would open up the critical discourse about the work to more substantive interrogation. And it would at least try to become W.A.G.E. certified.
For those who aren’t familiar with the organization, W.A.G.E stands for “Working Artists and the Greater Economy.” It is a New York-based activist group that focuses on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions, and establishing a sustainable model for best practices between cultural producers and the institutions that contract their labor.
The Brooklyn Commune Project was greatly influenced by their work and the need for performing artists to organize in a similar way.
When, for Documenta 13, The MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst presented the first solo exhibition in a museum of the artist Andrea Büttner, artist Lise Soskolne from W.A.G.E. was invited to give a speech while seated at the same table as Documenta 13 artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. That speech was one of the most transfixing moments of Simon Leung’s ACTIONS! and I include it here, in an edited version:
W.A.G.E. stands for Working Artists and the Greater Economy. We’re a group of visual + performance artists and independent curators fighting for the regulated payment of artist fees by the nonprofit art institutions who contract our labor.
So this is sort of a strange situation because the artist Andrea Büttner and Frankfurt’s Museum of Modern Art have generously invited W.A.G.E. to share in this very special meal inside of this important museum to talk about poverty and economic inequity in the art world.
W.A.G.E. is an activist group that addresses the role that non-profit art institutions play in preventing the artist’s ability to survive within the greater economy by not paying us for our labor—so, W.A.G.E. may just indirectly bite the hand that is feeding us tonight.
And in this context there might appear to be some contradiction in our claiming impoverishment in the face of so much affluence, especially when we participate in the creation of wealth, and we benefit from it too.
How can we complain? Artists have the privilege of getting to do what we want, when we want, and how we want. And sometimes we get to present our work in great cultural institutions like this, in a space like this, and like this exhibition which has been mounted with such care and sensitivity that it affirms that what we make together—as artist and institution—has little to do with the creation of wealth.
So it seems kind of inappropriate in such a place and at such a moment and in such company, to talk about the fact that it has everything to do with the creation of wealth, and that this wealth is unequally distributed. And that most of the time artists don’t receive any form of compensation for their work, and that most of us – while being culturally affluent – live in relative material poverty.
So it’s exactly because this is the wrong moment and the wrong place to address it, that W.A.G.E. has been invited to speak here. And if I chose not to speak about inequity with candor tonight out of deference to the museum and the opportunity it has afforded me in being here, I’d be enacting the very relation that W.A.G.E. is working to overturn.
Demanding payment for services rendered and content provided is not an act of disrespect and there should be no shame in it. To bite the hand that feeds us because it’s not feeding us what we deserve and need in order to live, and because it feeds us at its own arbitrary discretion, is really just to break with a relationship that is inequitable.
W.A.G.E. is focused on regulating the payment of artist fees because they are the most basic transaction in the economy of art. A fee is a rudimentary, crude and confused form of remuneration that bears no resemblance to the value of cultural labor today.
Artistic labor supports a multi-billion dollar industry and yet—there are no standards, conventions or regulations for artist compensation. We sometimes receive artist fees if we ask for them, or they’re dispensed at the discretion of the institution. As compensation for the work that we’re asked to provide: preparation, installation, presentation, consultation, exhibition and reproduction, that sounds a lot like charity to us.
And charity is a transaction.
But W.A.G.E. believes that charity is an INAPPROPRIATE transaction within a robust art economy from which most get paid for their labor and others profit greatly, and we believe that the exposure we get from an exhibition does not constitute payment. We provide a work force. We refute the positioning of the artist as a speculator and call for the remuneration of cultural value in capital value.
We expect this from non-profits precisely because they are non-profit. They are granted special status because they serve the public good. This also means they’re not subject to the laws of supply and demand for their survival. Instead they receive subsidies—charity, in fact—to do their work. A non-profit is by definition a public charity.
A public charity also has a special moral status because it seems to operate outside of the commercial marketplace—it isn’t subject to what profit demands from the rest of us. It doesn’t have to compromise its ethics for the sake of capital.
Paradoxically though, it is this very moral authority that imbues artworks and artists with economic value in the commercial marketplace. The logic is that if it’s exhibited in a museum, it must have value beyond commerce—and it is exactly this perception which adds value to art when it reaches the commercial auction and sales markets.
Moral authority also enables the nonprofit to raise money. The money that non-profits receive from the state, private foundations and corporate sponsors is given to them with the contractual obligation that they will use it to present public exhibitions and programs.
That’s what the money is given to them for.
The non-profit is a public charity but it is not a charity provider and artists are not a charity case because we earn our compensation—just like the director, the curator, and the graphic designer.
A non-profit art institution is an economic anomaly in the free market because it maintains an unusual position in relation to profit and the role profit plays in determining wages. If it’s true that wages are often kept low in order to maximize profit, then there is a real opportunity here—since profit is not the goal—to set wages in terms of their real value, and in direct relation to the cost of living.
So, Artists: you also bear some responsibility in this equation. Don’t tell yourself that you’re lucky to be having an exhibition. You were subcontracted to produce content for an institution that receives charity for exactly that purpose. Exhibiting your work at an institution is a transaction. Even if 50,000 euros are being spent to produce your artwork, that 50,000 euros has been budgeted for, and an artist fee should also be budgeted for separate from production costs so that you can pay your bills—just like the salary of the person who wrote the budget, the salary of the person who did the fundraising, and even the person who donated the funds—they got a tax break. None of this is luck: it’s a system.
Institution, W.A.G.E. doesn’t accept your claim of being a charity when you fundraise and a Capitalist when you design your budgets. W.A.G.E. challenges you to use your moral authority and special economic status to set new standards for the compensation of labor.
Institution, have we bitten your hand? Have we shamed you into understanding why we can no longer accept being written out of the economic equation?
If so, maybe this was in fact the right place and the right moment to have done so.
The truth of the situation is that artists – regardless of discipline – are systematically exploited by many of the institutions that purport to work in their service and for the public good. It may not be intentional, it may be just a condition of working in an environment of scarcity – but it is a fact, one that needs to change, because this exploitation is part of a larger, systemic crisis of values and imagination.
For change to happen, we must build a broad-based coalition of artists across disciplines, one of mutual respect for skill, craft and labor. We need to actively change the aesthetic criteria that reinforce devaluation of skill and labor and reframe our aesthetic priorities to align with our values. We need to build a movement that is not just for artists, but for all of society, where creative expression is a human right and artistic pursuits are considered a necessary component of a thriving, sustainable society.
I was inspired by, and continue to be inspired by the work of W.A.G.E, Simon Leung, the MoMA strikers and all the artists coming from visual art contexts. The Brooklyn Commune Project is devoted to exploring the economic dilemma in the performing arts and we hope that we can all come together in solidarity to discover what we have in common, to move beyond institutionally and academically imposed divisions, and co-create a new, better, world for artists and everybody.