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Anti-Work, Anti-Art: The Paradoxes of Radical Proximity

Marina Vishmidt »

“‘The difference of being a woman hasn’t found its free existence by establishing itself on the given contradictions, present within the social body, but on searching the contradiction that each singular woman was experiencing in herself and that didn’t have any social form before receiving it from the feminine politics.We have invented ourselves, so to speak, the social contradictions that made our freedom necessary.’ Where ‘invented’ doesn’t mean ‘made up’ but ‘found’ and ‘translated the facts’ that reveal their dormant political dimension.”[1]

In this essay, I would like to table the question: 'If art is already a refusal of work, then what is its relation to a politics of labour?' Asking this question will allow us to approach some of the durable paradoxes that inhabit the relation between art and labour as forms of activity within capital, and to project the negative and affirmative sides of labour struggles in general and labour struggles as enacted in and by art.

Adorno argues that art has to use autonomy to question autonomy. This is emblematic of the conceptual and political model of negative dialectics: using constitutive subjectivity to dismantle the fiction of constitutive subjectivity.[2] More precisely, however, Adorno argued that the autonomy of art – its social uselesness – relies on the concealment of labour, and, also on the exaggeration of the split between mental and manual, or intellectual and manual labour in capitalist society. Which is to say, briefly, that while capital is always both incorporating and expelling labour, as classically depicted in the fetish-character of the commodity, in art this is presented in an emancipatory, creative and, as it were, 'pure' way, which is why Adorno and contemporary writers such as Stewart Martin call it the 'absolute commodity': the commodity under laboratory conditions, shorn of the ideology of social necessity that other 'products' and labours carry with them. But, paradoxically, it is the critical distance with which art is endowed, the distance from the way this tendency of capital establishes and perverts social or wage labour that allows it, from a place of perhaps spurious autonomy, to question this arrangement and model different ways of organizing production, on however small and fictonal a scale.

So, what does that mean for the labour politics of art? When it comes to a set of practices that tend to emerge around thinking of art as labour, we can be aware of two things: one is that it can become a means of advocating more regulated and contractual working conditions with institutions and with collectors, that is, in production and distribution (conditions of production and conditions of sale), that can, but does not have to, emphasize that artists are also workers (the long history of artists‘ contracts, from Seth Siegelaub to Michael Asher, etc. is a fascinating study in how artists try to gain better terms for the treatment and sale of their work from a position of a small businessman, or, perhaps more accurately, a small craftsman, with the collective implication that the adoption of this contract can put all artists into a better negotiating position, regardless of whether or not they are represented by commercial galleries or produce objects). The other is that this runs the risk of blurring, for entirely pragmatic and even strategic reasons, what structurally differentiates artists or 'cultural workers' – this is another can of worms – from employees or workers in general, artistic labour from abstract labour, and that this difference is at source of the problematic autonomy that both allows artists critique the conditions of labour in general through their 'free labour' and pays them as elite workers, commodity producers or project managers, whose activity can mimic these conditions effectively, and even enact them veritably, insofar as it is understood to be displacing these functions from their customary principles of use or profit, fictionalizing or 'de-functionalizing' them.

I would aso like to turn this around a little, maybe 35 if not 180 degrees, and think about how bringing up or organizing around the labour conditions of art, and the kinds of political implications that come with that, perform the important gesture of de-mystifying art as a special and specialized kind of activity. Now, if it doesn't re-mystify it under such headings as 'we are all precarious workers' (which also doesn't acknowledge the mystification of useful labour, or how conditions for 'regular workers' are increasingly infused with the ideologies of creativity, free labour and self-exploitation in an emancipatory key that are transferred wholesale from the non-labour of artists), what it can do is highlight art as reproduction, that is, what kind of reproductive role – as in legitimating and reproducing the system, as art's exceptional status or its 'autonomy' is always charged with doing – art performs systemically, and, from a more empirical and antagonistic perspective as well, what sorts of reproductive or maintenance tasks go unacknowledged and unseen in the production, presentation and mediation of art, as in other areas of capitalist society, the gendered and racialized as well as mental/manual labour divisions – how for art to remain art, it can only be speculative thought and practice, never labour, how it must symbolically and actually expel labour from its self-definition and market position. This is what situates art as not only an elite commodity, but artists and cultural workers as financial speculators or managers of other, less high-value people's labour. The campaigns of the group W.A.G.E. is very clear about this conflation of art and financial speculation, and its pernicious effects for artists: though maybe less clear for how this relates to the position of workers in general, paid and unpaid, in this historical moment on a global scale. This is perhaps the most progressive aspect of re-defining art as labour – that it can cut the link between art and money, and install it into a more socially experimental sphere, if it doesn't then trap it or politically romanticize it only as labour. This would then exactly follow the equation Adorno sets out with art using its exaggerated division from labour to question why capital needs these zones of dependent, exploited and heteronomous usefulness and this elite, non-functional, irrelevant autonomy. Since in Marx's terms, art is not really or even formally subsumed (dominated and organized by capital) in its production, in its working conditions, it has the freedom – disregarding here the many ways it is supported by mediated forms of that subsumption (money, labour) – to question and refuse how it is subsumed systemically, that is at the level of the market, the institution, real-estate development, what have you – how its uselessness has very specific use-values for capital. But this is not thereby to forward the claim that art can be directly socially useful as an outcome of its position in networks of activism or its producers' ethical orientation. This would be to mistake a tactical position for an ontological one; meaning, art's politics are embedded in its relationship to the conditions of its own production as art (social production as well as, or even instead of, empirical production) – what Adorno would call its 'heteronomy'. 'Heteronomy' refers to social infrastructures that are not internal to the discourse and methods of art but which radically shape its development.

But, from yet another side, how can we make sure this dialectical trajectory doesn't stop there, get frozen, how can we not only go from art as production to art as reproduction but continue on to a truly speculative or communist re-evaluation of the world that produces these separate spheres, that refuses their terms? An artist I have recently been in dialogue with, in struggle as well as in an educational setting, the London artist and activist Sophie Carapetian, has been developing some insights that might be helpful here. I'll quote briefly from a text that she recently sent me in advance of a meeting I had with her. She ends the essay by saying:

“I would like to suggest some more radical demands that working class artists could organize around. The first would be a refusal of work. In a time of the proliferation of alienated labour, where more and more of life comes under the remit of work, should artists be arguing that one of the last forms of un-alienated labour be recouped under the wage relation? I think not. Instead, communist organisations of artists are needed based around a refusal of the work ethic, a refusal of the institution as regulator of work, and possibly demanding a social wage stripped from production altogether and for everyone.”[3]

Here Sophie is proposing that if art is already a refusal of work, why not push that further? The ontological status of what constitutes an artwork is already uncertain, so wage contracts would allow the institution or the commissioner to define what it is they are paying for and how it is to be evaluated – as already happens with public funding – thus alienating the relations of artistic production even further, in the well-intentioned attempt to make sure artists 'get paid'. Sophie suggests that artists should be in solidarity with other workers not because they are all exploited in an identical manner, but because it is in their common interest not to be exploited. To find ways of reproducing their lives and relationships not linked to a commodified output, where the lives and the relations are always the last priority, as they are in capitalist society and capitalist (anti-) production. The gesture towards a guaranteed social wage is part of that, although that notion is problematic since the question here would just be generalized to the level of administration of the society as a whole if we keep it in the framework of a 'wage' – perhaps the content exceeds the phrase, or its articulation, in this case.

We know that capital tends to externalize its costs, and that unwaged and unmeasured labour is not only the source of value for it (the process transpiring in paid work which expands across the whole of society with gendered and raced division of paid and unpaid labour, work and non-work) but the central mystification that traps people within a misrecognition of commodified life and activity as an expression of autonomy and self-expression. The critical, as well as positivist, division between production and reproduction can obscure this systemic tendency and end up calling for an economic recognition that would measure and support both equally, or revalue one at the expense of the other, ignoring that it is in the interests of profit as a social as well as, or rather than, an economic relation to keep them apart only to bring them together, that is, to eliminate payment across the board and replace it with a speculative aproach to one's own activity as (possible) commodity more like that of the artist. Therefore, bringing a feminist analysis of reproduction to art, reminding us of its formal symmetry with the pure form of value and thus with capital, is only a first step: to show what it excludes. We need to take the further step, though one that was often left implicit in the historical instances of reproduction politics in the feminist movement, such as “Wages for Housework”. That step would have to be a destructive one: a challenge to the wage-relation that homogenizes all activity with money, a challenge to the division of labour that produces art – art as a refusal of work that ends up sustaining the rule of exploitation as exception, and which itself increasingly is organized according to an industrialized, customer-facing model. If, as Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, 'only what is useless can stand in for the stunted use value', then it is the deformed and attenuated form of its autonomy as a speculative intransigence to the existing, including work that is the source of its political powers. And yet, identifying with work, especially with the disregarded and disposable subjects of that work, can indeed be the first step for such a politics of artistic inquiry and making, since capitalist work is structurally the antithesis of capitalist art, even if practically they sit on the same continuum.


[1] Claire Fontaine, “Human Strike within the field of libidinal economy”, quoting from Non credere di avere dei diritti (Don’t believe you have any rights), 1987;
[2] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, E.B. Ashton, trans., London and New York: Routledge, 1973.
[3] If we were in a revolutionary enough situation to have overcome wage-labour, we would not be demanding a guaranteed social wage from anyone – except maybe ourselves, and this is a notion of a political demand – a demand we make to ourselves as political subjects that I find much more compelling, and which I would connect to feminism; consider in this context the history of “Wages for Housework” or the notion of the “human strike”.

Short bio

Marina Vishmidt is a London-based writer and critic occupied mainly with questions around art, labour, materiality, feminism and the value-form. She is above all interested in the relationship between practice and its conditions, and what forms of subjectivity are produced there. She has just completed a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London on “Speculation as a Mode of Production in Art and Capital”. She has held posts including the DAAD Research Grant at the University of Hamburg, the Montehermoso Research Grant, critic-in-residence at the FRAC Lorraine and a fellowship at the Jan van Eyck Academie. She holds an MA from the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy. She co-edited “Uncorporate Identity” (2010) with Metahaven, and “Media Mutandis: Art, Technologies and Politics” (NODE. London, 2006). She has taught at Central St Martins, ArtEZ, Goldsmiths, and the Universität der Künste Berlin. Moreover, she is a regular contributor to catalogues, edited collections and journals such as Mute, Afterall, Parkett and Texte zur Kunst. She also takes part in the collective projects “Unemployed Cinema” and “Cinenova”. Currently she is writing a book with Kerstin Stakemeier on the politics of autonomy and reproduction in art (Hamburg: Textem, forthcoming).

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