No Artist Left Alive
Speculations on the Post-Pandemic Struggles of Cultural Workers Within, Against and Beyond Capitalism
Some of my best friends around the world are artists, and I’m deeply concerned about their economic wellbeing during and after the isolation and lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. I find myself vexed by the language of some of the calls I have seen to “rescue art,” at least when taken in isolation from wider struggles. I categorically support artists, in the immediate moment, getting money by any means necessary. But there is more at stake in the long term.
If these calls are tied to broader demands for the radical redistribution of social wealth and the fiscal decapitation of the super-rich by any number of direct or indirect means, then they resonate with the kind of politics that could facilitate artists and everyone else (except perhaps the decapitated elites) coming into a much better position post-pandemic.
But many calls to support artists specifically, in the absence of universal provisioning and a radical reimagination of value, risk once again making the image of the artist (as opposed to artists in their many actualities) a pawn in the machinations of capital’s reproduction.
Ultimately, what is likely best for artists is what is best for all workers: universal high quality free public services and the abolition of the wage-discipline of capitalism. These demands seem possible surprisingly today and are in a strange way an actually existing fact in the emergency. If artists make common cause with others, we might be able to preserve and extend these, and so abolish capitalism as such.
Going Down with the Ship
The agonizing reality is that, after the pandemic, any resurgence of the hegemonic “art world,” let alone the art market - and here I have in mind the field of visual art, even when it has exceeded “the visual” - must be seen to index the restoration of finance capital’s hegemony (which enriches the lion’s share of the collectors and benefactors), and therefore as catastrophically bad for humanity.
We must admit that “contemporary art,” all theoretical pleasantries aside, is the plaything of the world’s financialized super-rich. This can be observed at art fairs or auctions in the world’s metropoles, and in the careers of the roughly 250 global art stars whose work hangs in the yachts and penthouses of the world’s oligarchs. Any “return to normal” in the art market simply means that the proverbial boss is back from his luxury disaster-bunker vacation and has money burning a hole in his pocket.
An honest assessment of the financial fates of many of the world’s independent and critical galleries and arts institutions also depends on the largess of these finance capital and its functionaries. Sometimes this is direct, in the sense that these super elite sit on the boards of, make donations to, and otherwise, in a million tiny ways, help sustain these institutions - even state-funded institutions, let’s be honest. Other times it is less direct. We all know (I hope) that collectors, gallerists, and others use their influence over even independent and critical galleries and venues as machines to add value to works of certain artists in whom they are invested. We know that even the most eccentric and anti-market art spaces are compelled, by no fault of their own, to participate in generating the upward churn of sub-market “dark matter” (as Gregory Sholette has called it): the hidden mass of aspiring but unsaleable work on top of which the tiny fraction of marketable work depends. We are also all too familiar with the way the most esoteric and outsider margins of the art world function, against their will, to pull to its centre new provocative and antagonistic works that will be tomorrow’s art market bonbons.
Whether we care to admit it, a huge proportion of the global art world is essentially funded by family wealth: artists, gallerists, critics and others who can sustain unsustainable careers only thanks to the hidden largess of trust funds, parents and partners. Then there are all the rest, who sustain themselves waiting tables, teaching, doing sex work, surviving on a trickle of cash from distended graduate degrees, doing discounted labour for arts organizations, or otherwise hustling unto death.
What Remains Contemporary Now?
I don’t blame individuals, rich or poor, for the choices they make to pursue their passion in a sick and abusive economy. But for those art-adjacent people who want to abolish that economy and create a world in which everyone can pursue their passions, the time for collective honesty has come. There is, frankly, nothing more boring to me than the sanctimonious sniping about art’s entanglement with money that, today, so often passes for criticism or, worse still, for art itself. I’m curious what else might emerge if we, collectively, directed our critical acumen, our creative energies, our social talents, and our collaborative dispositions towards supporting the creation of and the fight for a new post-capitalist economy?
Insofar as “contemporary art” is sustained by and ultimately for the pleasure of capitalism’s super-elite, it necessarily demands a certain latitude of freedom from direct capitalist command. The art commodity’s value derives precisely from the fact that it is unlike any other commodity: it bears at very least the illusion of unalienated labour. Though how we can sustain this illusion in an era where art stars employ legions of precarious mini-makers in factory-like studios is a bit rich, if you’ll excuse the pun. To impose direct capitalist discipline on art would be to destroy precisely that which gives it its unique, supernatural value. Thus art retains some degree of “play,” if not autonomy, under capitalism.
Recently, I and a number of critics, including Marina Vishmidt, Suhail Malik, David Beech and Leigh Claire La Berge, have each argued that the financialization of the capitalist economy is based on processes that don’t simply suppress or thwart creativity and the imagination but actively seek to excite and harness it, and that “contemporary art” is in some senses a laboratory for these methods. This is especially important in an age of the so-called creative economy, in which every worker is increasingly exhorted to imagine themselves as (a mythological version of) an artist, eagerly plunging into a world of risk and uncertainty to leverage their passion, moxy and creativity towards growth in market share of their own personal brand.
In other words, far from demanding all artists produce propaganda, capitalism makes the artist themself (regardless of the content they produce - indeed, the more provocative the better) into a figure of their own propaganda.
Work or Die, Redux
But maybe that age has ended.
In the post-pandemic economy it is doubtful that capitalism may have need of such propagandistic illusions. During the pandemic, governments, at least in the (post-)imperialist Global North, are being forced to intervene to relieve the pressures that otherwise blackmail workers into working, offering a raft of social welfare provisions that have been demanded by social movements for decades: a hiatus on rents, some form of de jure or de facto basic guaranteed income, free public transit, and the provisional (re)nationalization of infrastructure.
We are, in a strange way, living through a kind of temporary dream version of the abolition of work itself as government orders prohibit many forms of economic activity, though, of course, millions continue to be compelled to work, notably front-line health and service workers, farmers, and caregivers. Many of us in isolation are, against our will (and with terrible effects on our mental health), now being compelled to live like a distorted images of the quintessential romantic artist: impoverished, unemployed, agonized by romanticized isolation, detached from the world, gripped by ineffable nostalgia and a sense of squandered potential.
In the aftermath, it is not unlikely that capital will demand states use every tool in their arsenal to compel us to “return to work,” to get back to “business as usual.” In such a situation, and in a moment where unemployment threatens to make us compete for a dwindling supply of bad jobs at depressed wages, the bullshit about “doing what you love” and “embracing the inner artist” is likely to be thrown out the window. Work or die, bitches.
“Fuck you, Artists”
In such a moment, artists may be encouraged to stridently claim that their work is work, that it deserves to be compensated. There may be demands for something like the US depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), which paid artists to do community-facing work as part of a broader economic stimulus spending package, but also as a form of social uplift. Artists, if they are organized, might be able to make some modest gains in certain jurisdictions. Yet what will become of contemporary art’s thus-far constitutive claims to a hostility (or at least an inhospitality) towards capitalism when it is explicitly (rather than implicitly) put to work towards that system’s rescue and restoration?
I certainly don’t think artists and their friends should forgo struggling to defend whatever legal and economic gains they have been able to make in various jurisdictions when it comes to wages, securities, and working conditions. Yet as tactically important as these may be, I am skeptical of the broader strategy. We are very likely to emerge from this pandemic in a profound global depression. The money that states have already borrowed and that they will continue to borrow to keep the economy afloat and provide disaster relief will be repaid to the world’s financial overlords. Perhaps unlike other sectors of capital, finance is driven by competition into a kind of frantic inability to see their own disastrous collective mismanagement of the very system they superintend and benefit from.
This will likely mean, sooner or later, drastic and brutal austerity, unless social movements mobilize to refuse to repay the debts. We should anticipate that state arts funding, where it has even survived until now, will be early on the chopping block. In spite of Richard Florida and company’s now canonical claims that investments in culture return in long term economic growth, in lean times when states play Russian Roulette to see who will take the bullet for the global economic meltdown, art will be a hard sell. Frankly, a large percentage of the population, forced to work longer, harder and, ultimately, for less, might celebrate an attack on the arts with a misplaced revanchist loathing. “Fuck you, artists: Work to death to bail out the rich like the rest of us.”
The Abolition of the Artist as an Economic Figure
Even if this somewhat dismal prediction doesn’t come to pass (which would require, let’s be clear, a profound and coordinated rejection of neoliberal economic thought on the part of governments and might even demand the nationalization of major sectors of the economy, notably finance), artists in the post-pandemic economy will still be faced with a choice.
On the one hand, they might continue to advocate for themselves, along with other arts intermediaries, as artists, which is to say as the special unicorns on capitalism’s storm-tossed arc. Accordingly, because they are unlike any other workers they need special rights, allowances, compensation, and protection. There is something correct and justified about this approach: like agriculture, health care, and the patriarchal family, capitalism cannot actually sustain those fields on which its reproduction depends. It requires the state, in large or small ways, to help keep these fields alive so the whole system and the society on which it depends doesn’t crumble. Art may get some bailouts precisely so that it can continue to produce nice things for the resurgent financial elite, who would otherwise be content to let artists die, like blithe aristocrats feasting during a famine.
On the other hand, there will be an opportunity for artists to make common cause with other workers (semi-)abandoned by capitalism, like a pampered purebred escaping the mansion to join the feral mongrels. Artists should in this moment be joining radical and ungovernable movements to demand, at very least that the emergency responses of the pandemic, which removed the economic coercion of capital, be extended widely and forever: basic incomes, rent suspensions, free high quality public services, the nationalization of critical infrastructure, and more.
Further still, artists, both during and after the pandemic, have a lot to offer in terms of allowing us to dream of and practice new social relationships, new economic paradigms, and new structures of care. This has already been one of the most exciting tendencies in “art” in the past decades: a little platform by which radical activists in the belly of the beast license themselves to misappropriate resources and dream dangerously in public.
To call for the abolition of the artist as an economic figure, distinct from other workers, still has radical potential in this moment. I don’t mean it in a nostalgic fashion, but precisely as a way of highlighting the stalemate of capitalism’s politics of work. In this sense, what will serve artists best in the months and years to come is what will serve all workers and poor people best: universal services, the destruction of the system of wage labour, and the abolition of work.
No one should be an artist as a “job” or get paid to do it, either by public funds or in a private market. Instead, we should (and we can) abolish “work” and “jobs” as such, by which I mean labour coerced by a relation to wage. Everyone should get what they need to thrive regardless of what work or job they do or do not do. If there is shit-work (as David Graeber calls it) that needs to be done in society that no-one wants to do, it should be fairly distributed throughout society, not left to the most marginalized. (I also think my own very nice job as a professor should likewise be abolished, but that is an argument for another time).
We are in a historic moment when a massive, relatively peaceful economic shift might actually be possible. Once that is achieved, even in part, I would expect to see the flourishing of autonomous and collaborative human creativity in many forms, from the Artist Formerly Known as Artist, and from everyone else as well. And then we can figure out if landmark galleries, museums, and the other traditional institutions of yesterday’s “art world” are indeed the best vehicles for supporting, elevating, celebrating and enjoying the greatest cultural and creative achievements of our species. My suspicion is they will not be, and will need to be abolished as such, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.
The needs of most other small, independent, and radical arts organizations are best met not by offering them more funding, though I’m certainly not against that, but (also) by eliminating those needs they have trouble meeting. If rent were abolished, and if people (employees) could survive without the blackmail of the wage, if audiences had the time and energy to actually engage with work and ideas, I imagine these organizations and those who dedicate their time to them would be more capable and ambitious than ever.
Obviously I’m not suggesting an all-or-nothing strategy here: artists and arts organizations are in for a fight of a lifetime. But survival and success within a suicidal, revanchist capitalist system is pointless.
"No Artist Left Alive" was published in print issue 11, "Faux Culture"