Lebenskünstler

Art “workers” are to art what sex workers are to sex. – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/23/2013

This might clarify:

To describe what sex workers engage in as “sex” is accurate, but only in a *very particular way*. I imagine most folks would agree that it is not the same type of sex one means when talking about consensual relationships. Ergo, for those engaged in art as art “workers,” what they engage in is art, but only in a very particular way as well…

Now, I knew the comparison was dicey from a gender point of view, but it is not the nature of the work I was trying to compare, but the relationship one has to, and in, work. The way that “work” transforms an activity.

So, fighting for improved working conditions for sex workers is clearly laudable. But I think a better strategy would be to focus not (solely) on the conditions of one’s “work,” but on the compulsion to work altogether. In the specific case of sex workers, I think those struggles are better attacked from a human rights angle than from a “work” angle…

Again, to me calling art “work” accepts a set of normative principles and imports a whole ideological framework that I think is unwise. I understand the motivation (or think I do), but it’s the same reason I call what I do out here on the boat “cooking” (with scare quotes) rather than without because what I mean by cooking has a set of qualitative conditions attached that get completely severed by doing it as work.

***** – “acknowledgement of the value of cultural labor” is precisely what I continue to object to.

To call something “labor” invites a particular type of “value.” So, do I think artists engage in interesting activity? Yes. Do I think the activity is work? No. Do I think it is valuable? Yes, but the nature of that value and how it is valued is important. If it is indeed, *mere* work (yes, in Bob Black’s sense) then I have no more or less sympathy for it than say selling insurance. If work is supposed to be honorific in some sense, then I think another term might be needed or we need to be expansive in its application (to no good end in my mind other than to be fair and inclusive) so that we speak of juggling “workers”, hiking “workers”, etc. And yeah art *can* be a stand in, and often *desires* to stand in for the “general application of creative principles,” but I think we might need to get away from the word “art” as quickly as we need to get away from the word “work!”

I would say talk of compensation is tricky. When I have friends for over for dinner I hardly expect compensation despite the fact that I might have undergone tremendous effort (“work”) to prepare the meal. So if one’s art is akin to a shared experience among friends, talk of payment gets weird. But if it is not for friends, but a professional endeavor, one in which a “service” is provided to a client then talk of money makes sense – to the extent it is such it seems like talk of “art” then becomes tricky…

I should have said – *can* become tricky. I definitely don’t want to set up ironclad dichotomies…

One Response

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  1. Albert Stabler said, on 07/23/2013 at 15:17

    I absolutely appreciate the provocation. I worked as a public school art teacher for ten years (just resigned) and freelanced for years previous to that, and never felt like I was a “cultural worker” exactly. Mostly because, despute being in and supporting my union, industrial labor was, even in Marx’s time, a problematic blanket label for all shity labor. And also because plenty of people who a re poorly-paid service workers in the culture sector are doing it cause they can afford to.

    That being said, the vast majority of art has always been enabled by, if not driven by money. Sex, not perhaps quite so much.


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