Art Worker – WAGE – Artistic Labor
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 again about the idea of the art “worker” and artistic “labor.” Could anyone tell me what these terms even mean? They get thrown around quite a bit as if there is some self-evident justification for their use or understanding of what they are supposed to mean. Maybe if I used other terms my confusion will be more evident – Does juggler worker or juggling labor make immediate sense? Or hike worker/hiking labor? Pinball worker/labor? Bird watching worker/labor?
Obviously there are many activities that people enjoy without monetary compensation. They often have to have jobs to support undertaking them. Yet again and again, I see artists singling themselves out as engaged in some sort of special endeavor. Calling themselves “workers,” calling their activity “labor” in some honorific sense. In the interview Satinsky cites conducted by Nato Thompson with W.A.G.E., Thompson does at least ask why just artists, but W.A.G.E will have none of it – apparently having fully accepted the capitalist paradigm, self-interest reigns. “What do we need?” is the motivating impulse. They complain about artists having to “cobble together a living” and assure us that “The dream [of state funding of artists] is alive and well” in a perfectly self absorbed art cocoon. Why not state funding for jugglers? For hikers? The answer seems to be that artists are special, providing a uniquely meritorious “service” to the world if only the world would recognize that. And in the cavalier dismissal of social capital, it appears that the only real recognition an artist can receive is in the form of monetary compensation.
In my more snide moments I think yes, go ahead W.A.G.E., go ahead art workers, join the calls for a General Strike in solidarity with the labor protests in Wisconsin (the second line of thought in Satinsky’s piece). Let the resounding fury of artistic labor “withheld” be felt across the nation. Deny us Bruce High Quality Foundation’s self-indulgent Teach 4 Amerika tour. Refuse to publish the next issue of the e-flux journal. Teach the world a lesson…except that lesson is already established, which is that the art world this whole discussion takes place in, the art world that clamors for criticality and “radical” action will not be missed much by the people who live outside of it and the problem for its advocates is that most people do…I am quite sure that transit workers, nurses, firefighters, garbage collectors, and teachers will be missed a bit more and thus their cries of economic injustice are not met with my same skeptical ears.