Should Artists Struggle?

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

The question of whether or not artists should struggle is already phrased in biased terms, concealing issues of exploitation and the operations of the art market under a flimsy veil of Romantic theory. During the Industrial Revolution, the cheap labour of children was exploited to maximise production and profits. The argument against outlawing underpaid minors in the workplace was that industry would collapse without it. Today Britain is largely defined by its thriving culture industry, and while factories are increasingly far from view in remote countries, the visual arts dominate the urban landscape and attract tourism like never before. This time, however, it’s not children who are being exploited. The promise of fun, creative jobs and lifestyles attracts countless young people to the UK in general and to London in particular every year. What they don’t know is that they will have to pay for their pleasure. Art is an expensive hobby, and while everyone from the canvas manufacturers to the lorry drivers who transport sculptures and paintings gets paid, artists are expected to volunteer their work.

Money, meanwhile, makes its circuitous way around the art world. It is dangled by commercial enterprises, the drinks companies having long divided the market into music (‘Carling’) and art (soon to be known as ‘Becks’). It slithers through mailing lists and databases offering various public funds for those prepared to engage in worthy community issues. If one is lucky, the privilege of selling beer or becoming a bizarrely under-qualified social worker beckons, with the temptation of proper income from artistic enterprise, almost. For the unlucky, fierce competition over lowly pseudo art jobs ranging from the secretarial to the janitorial awaits.

The romantic notion of the artist’s struggle as part of the creative process merely obscures a much more mundane issue of labour laws and human rights. It’s easy to smirk and blame these naive bohemians for their lifestyle choices in a society that consumes more culture than any before yet finds it distasteful to participate in monetary exchange for it. Already in the nineteenth century, William Morris decried "that division between artists and other men, which to me seems monstrous, to you natural: you cannot imagine your daily life, still less your daily work, having anything to do with art: somebody else paints a picture which he hopes a rich man will buy, but scarcely dares to hope anybody but a few artists like himself will understand". But other models exist: in Canada, apparently bereft of such silly notions of sublime suffering, artists are paid by law every time a piece of their work is shown in a gallery or reproduced in a magazine.

Yet the issue at hand is more than just a petty concern: it regards the value of art as well as of the artist’s labour. In his seminal study of the gift economy, Marcel Mauss suggested that the gift created an obligation between the receiver and the giver that did not exist in more modern forms of exchange. In the tribal societies Mauss studied, there was no such thing as a ‘free’ gift – the gift expected in return was determined by a complex system of rules which often included the paradoxical notion of an ever increasing value, leading in extreme cases to a self-destructive potlach in which the loser in this competition had to destroy his own village to show he had nothing left to give. This inextricability of the gift system created a sense of solidarity that Mauss found lacking in modern capitalism. It is this same solidarity that is absent from an art system in which the gift is never returned and utopia – ‘success’ – is always deferred.
Moreover, there is no public control over proceedings, no system of checks and balances to equal the gift economy’s visible rituals of honour. While the privilege of entering a gallery free of charge is certainly one of the few remaining totally democratic pleasures, such uncommodified consumption merely belies the invisible economy of art galleries. It is not only that the artist and the viewer are deprived of the sense of solidarity that so clearly exists, for example, for the gig-going music fan. The public is also denied access to the site of real exchange. Thus, galleries can attain a reputation through the display of contemporary art while in fact making their business from classic oil paintings at best and completely other enterprises at worst.

For art to survive in an age of tremendously competitive visual input as a critical counterpoint to culture and society, it must sign some divorce papers with dubious funding bodies on the one hand and dated notions of noble suffering on the other. Paradoxically, critical art must find its place within society, under the protection of society’s laws of labour, to flourish. William Morris also claimed that popular art could not "live under the full development of competitive commerce" – on the contrary, contemporary art practice must respond to the demands of competitive commerce by joining the world of labour in order to assert, rather than hide, its true value.