What is the Work of Art Worth?
Emily Gastineau makes a case for more capacious language around the value of artists' labor and contribution, language that demonstrates how this work is simultaneously concrete and ephemeral, valuable even if not quantifiable, independent but not exempt from capitalism.
The final panel of Hand-in-Glove, titled “Art Works?”, explored questions of whether, when, and how artists should be paid. The conversation crystallized some things I’ve been thinking through in my own work, about the simultaneous materiality and immateriality of artistic practice. At other times, in other sessions, I’d noted references to the dematerialization of art practice: for example, “I don’t make objects, so they’re not commodities.” In some ways that’s true — it’s certainly easier to sell an object. Indeed, in the “Art Works?” panel, Lisa Dent asserted that Creative Capital tells visual artists that, without a sales record, their work has no value. Thinking in art historical terms, it’s understandable to tie resistance to the art market to the development of less tangible modes of practice. However, I’d caution against an easy link between dematerialization of artistic practice and anti-commodification. Coming as I do from a performance background, where essentially all the artistic products are time-based, site-specific, and ephemeral, the economic factors that shape even immaterial artwork are readily apparent to me. For social and performance-based work, donations of time, energy, affective labor, physical effort, social connection provide the capital from which the work is formed; those resources are spent up front and throughout a work’s creation. In the experience economy, all manner of intangible materials are commodified. And even if artists are not always directly profiting from people viewing their artwork, the techniques artists use to create such time-based experiences are certainly being repurposed in for-profit scenarios.
I’ve followed W.A.G.E.’s certification program for arts institutions, specifying minimum and maximum pay for artists based on an institution’s budget size. Panelist Lise Soskolne gave an analysis of artistic labor to underpin the group’s advocacy work. W.A.G.E.’s fee structures account only for the specific project or services that an artist negotiates with an organization and purposefully do not account for the activities that the artist does to maintain their baseline practice: research, training, personal exploration. This squares with photographer Wing Young Huie’s report that his income as an artist comes from speaking about his work, not actually doing the work: as a society, we’re able to value a service artists provide to consumers far more easily than the creative process itself. Soskolne explained that such a valuation of labor allows artists to maintain their political agency, their ability to be critical of the capitalist economy, while at the same time allowing for them to be compensated fairly when organizations commission their work. She argues we should maintain this conundrum in order to protect art’s ability to transcend commerce.
I’m compelled by Soskolne’s argument: of course, I want to retain the right to critique the system that pays me. But a question from Lane Relyea, in the audience, spurred a conversation between me and my friend/collaborator Samantha Johns later: specifically, what are the drawbacks of such a separation? If we maintain and protect a separate sphere for art that does not participate in the traditional economy, then artists will continue to do a great deal of work for free in mutual collaborations and DIY, no-budget, artist-driven projects. The panel moderator, sociologist Alison Gerber, explained her stance in those cases: if anyone is getting paid, the artist should get paid; so, if no one’s getting paid, then the artist is may assign value for their work on a project in other, non-monetary terms.
As a society, we’re able to value a service artists provide to consumers
far more easily than the creative process itself.
The issue, though, is that these artist-subsidized projects don’t actually exist outside of the traditional economy. For an artist even to be considered for hire by an organization, they must have already compiled an impressive track record of projects, all completed within the artist-centric, alternative economy. And even once an artist is experienced enough to be hired for paid projects, they must continue to revitalize their practice through work in other, unpaid realms. New ideas and innovative forms of cultural production tend to be tested first in such artist-driven spaces before shifting into mainstream spaces. Thus, the transactional, gig-based economy between artists and organizations depends both practically and creatively on this alternative, non-monetary realm.
For a long time, I’ve been interested in the simultaneous materiality and immateriality of artistic labor in general, and of performance-based work, in particular. I actually did a project at the Soap Factory last year that asked participating artists to quantify their immaterial labor, both as a number of hours and as an amount of cash. This is impossible, of course — to divide when, as artists, we’re working from when we’re not, and to account for the varied, dynamic, often intangible activities that make up an artistic practice. We tend to lowball the value of our efforts when we try. As a practical strategy, Andrew Simonet writes that artists should negotiate for higher hourly rates on commissioned projects, in order to account for the additional time an artist must spend outside, but in preparation for the work of cultural production.
I’m curious about other ways we might find to describe and value (to use the term broadly) the more abstract aspects of artistic labor, in a way that preserves and sustains that practice in the face of the myriad demands on artists’ time, space, and energy. Elsewhere, Simonet compares artistic research to scientific research, which is usually funded for the length of time it takes to complete, whether or not it produces conclusive or applicable results. Could we not also think of artistic research as inherently worthwhile, whether or not an individual project tangibly changes the culture? We’d need more capacious language for describing such work: the scratches in notebooks and sharp observations, the realizations in transit, the reading of blogs, the ranting over beer, feedback given to colleagues, and the raising of heart rates. We need language for artistic practice that demonstrates how this work is simultaneously concrete and ephemeral, driven but not goal-oriented, valuable but not quantifiable, independent but not exempt from capitalism.
Related links and information:
Hand in Glove 2015 (#HIG2015) took place September 17 – 20 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information on topics, sessions, and related events, visit the convening’s website: hig2015.commonfield.org. Stream all the conference sessions online: http://livestream.com/commonfield/convening. Find more information on the Common Field website.
Look for more responses to the 2015 convening on Mn Artists, mnartists.blog, and read more essays from conference participants, session hosts, and audiences on-site and online, in Temporary Art Review’s rolling Hand in Glove Social Response.
Emily Gastineau is an independent artist working in and beyond the fields of dance, performance, and criticism. She collaborates with Billy Mullaney under the name Fire Drill. They work along the disciplinary boundaries of dance, theater, and performance art, conducting experiments around the notion of contemporary and how performance art is meant to be watched. She is the co-founder of Criticism Exchange and Program Coordinator for Mn Artists.