The Collective Forms of Decommodified Labor

by Leigh Claire La Berge, critical theorist

Adapted from Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art

“If artists want to survive in a corporate capitalist society, they must organize themselves externally.”

—Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

In 2014, the artist-run institution BFAMFAPhD — composed of collective members Susan Jahoda, Blair Murphy, Agnes Szanyi, Vicky Virgin, and Caroline Woolard — released the publication Artists Report Back. This report was concerned with how artists function as professionals, including how they pay rent, how they pay back loans, how they obtain supplies—in short, how their professional lives as artists are sustainable and how they make due when such a life becomes circumscribed. Perhaps the most relevant of the group’s finding for my own study is their claim that while there are over 2 million arts graduates in the United States (there are more artists, the group claims, than there are doctors and lawyers combined), only 8 percent of those artists — some 180,000 people — make a living from their art. How, the group wondered, can one sustain a career as a professional artist if one cannot make a living through the remuneration of one’s artistic labor, particularly if one has paid to train as an artist? If the increasing number of conferences, calls, and directed residencies is any indication, one answer seems to lay in the collectivization of artistic labor through artist-run institutions. (For example, the New Museum recently organized a call for a conference on the theme of “Why Are Artists Starting Institutions?” See also the ambitious convention in Vancouver on “Institutions by Artists”. See Liz Park, “Pluralising the Institution: On the Conference ‘Institutions by Artists,’”). In my writing, I read the work of BFAMFAPhD as an institution for other artists founded by Woolard in an attempt to redress the decommodification of artistic labor.

Artists Report Back located what are essentially two categories of art graduates. The first group, the majority, have BA and BFA degrees in the arts and often function professionally as artists through a network of nonwaged concessions: artist residencies, museum sponsorships, access to university-based facilities, self-created artistic communities, community centers, and so on. The second group, which is much smaller, comprises those who do in fact make a living through the sale of their artistic labor. This group predominantly includes musicians, photographers, and filmmakers, all of whom probably sell their labor through vocational channels. The striking irony to emerge from Artists Report Back is found in the fact that artists trained in art school, artists professionalized qua artists, are probably unable to live off their artistic labor, whereas artists not trained as such were better able to support themselves via their craft. That irony is amplified by the likely art school debt that often comes as a consequence of arts professionalization. (Artists Report Back). Furthermore, the report included demographic analyses of race, class, and gender: more women and people of color attend art school than are represented in the general population, but less of those groups than represented in the general population will make a living from their art. (See Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room,").

BFAMFAPhD’s results in Artists Report Back empirically amplify the theory that artists often function outside of the wage system in their specific work as artists. The accuracy of this claim increases in the fine arts, and indeed in socially engaged art in particular, which itself has a higher percentage of women artists. Many scholars have made the claim about the wagelessness of art as a generic category, if without the data to support it. John Roberts plainly says: “Artists are not wage laborers.” Dave Beech contends that “it is clear that artists are exceptional to the wage structure.” Artist and theorist Anton Vidokle’s argument in “Art without Market” is rather eponymous. He argues in a slightly different idiom that “art is not a profession.” (See Anton Vidokle, “Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art,”). No less an observer than Karl Marx claims that artworks are not included in his study of capitalism for they are “of a special nature.” Wages Against Artwork, the book from which this text is excerpted, both assumes that “special nature” of art to the wage and asks how and why the relation between the two has been transformed and represented in our economic present. And while critics have long made such claims about art’s exceptional status to the wage structure, two features of this contemporary discourse have been updated and deserve attention. First, artists themselves are now making such claims and incorporating those claims into their art. This fact is something that critics, including some of our best on the topic of art and economy — John Roberts and Dave Beech in particular — have not addressed. John Roberts suggests art should be understood to participate in “second economy,” that odd space of non-market activity in which a majority of arts production operates; Beech suggests that art is structured by a process he calls “commodification without commodification,” in which art is not made as a commodity but sometimes is sold as such. (See Dave Beech, Art and Value; John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde). What neither Beech nor Roberts attends to, however, is the manner in which such economic processes are not only the social conditions under which art is often produced; rather, these economic limits become both productive possibilities and heuristic devices in their own right. Art produced without wages must be read, in part, through its wagelessness.

Art has long been positioned as independent of the world of goods and labors, of the world of commodification — a separation that since early Modernity has been understood to constitute “the aesthetic.” This separation undergirds art’s “autonomy.” (See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde). Yet oppositional independence often belies a connection, and the institution of art history has been entangled with the wage form.

Capitalism hides the value of labor through the wage, which comes to assume the seeming totality of labor’s value. One must begin, not end, with the wage. And once we move past the surface appearance of the wage to the essential relations of wage labor — with all of its compromises, dependencies, and exploitations — the independence of the institution of art is threatened. Conversely, the structures of our capitalist economy make labor power in its commodified form difficult to see and, according to Peter Bürger, provide art as a compensation for that loss of sight. One can’t see the economy, but one can see art. Thus the institution of art, oppositional to but entangled with the wage form, is endowed with the possibility of critique.

artists often function outside of the wage system in their specific work as artists

Decommodified labor in art designates a similar if more local struggle over art’s potential emancipatory possibilities, the realization of which requires a confrontation with labor’s unfreedom. Without a wage to which it is counterposed, it becomes difficult to say what, precisely, art is independent of. Yet those changed coordinates of aesthetic disinterestedness do free art to occupy a place that is not only “interested” but insistent, demanding, organized. It is by now a common enough historical narrative to place socially engaged art after institutional critique, a dating that relies on the assumption that, in David Joselit’s words, “Institutional Critique, as we know it,is obsolete.” (David Joselit, “Institutional Responsibility: The Short Life of Orchard,”). Joselit’s is a claim that is both true and incomplete, and what I want to do in this essay is examine how certain artists’ historicization of their own and other artists’ decommodified artistic labor has organized a particular aspect of the movement from institutional critique to socially engaged art. While the art produced through institutional critique offered critical assessments of the museum, the gallery, their financing, their ties to American imperialism, and the race, gender, and class politics that subtend the foregoing, institutional critique largely did not critique the wage. (See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers; Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter).That is, it did not critique the fact that many artists are not paid for their labor and that we live in a system in which social reproduction is only possible through labor’s remuneration.

That omission has begun to change. At the height of the 2008 global credit crisis, the artist group Temporary Services staged a national conversation called “Art Work,”devoted to art and labor. The organization W.A.G.E. (Working Artists for a Greater Economy) now makes demands for wage rates and work standards for arts. W.A.G.E. states, “W.A.G.E. is made up of practicing artists, but we are not an art collective and our work is not art. We are an activist and advocacy group. Our participation is never in the capacity of being artists.” (See W.A.G.E.).

Woolard has inherited the mantle of institutional critique and enjoined it to her own understanding of the decommodification of artistic labor. And she has done so through the construction of new institutions, a crucial term that, in this essay, will mediate the aesthetic, the historical, and the practical. Caroline Woolard uses the term “institution” to describe many of her collaborative, long-term practices and installations. Tarrying with when and how to move beyond institutional critique, she quite consciously engages in forms of institutional elaboration. She constructs what we might call “institutions as art.” Her respective institutions — what she sometimes refers to as “platforms” — have as their foundation the question of how artists might continue to make work outside of the wage form or whether they must organize themselves and fight for inclusion in the wage, as this chapter’s epigraph from Adorno suggests that they must do: “If artists want to survive in a corporate capitalist society, they must organize themselves externally.” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory). OurGoods.org and TradeSchool.coop, see chapter 3, respond to decommodification at the level of the individual work, and like these institutions, BFAMFAPhD is another example of a durational institution. Without secure access to a wage, these artists have developed their own institutions to address their own and other artists’ precarity. Why, I ask, have artists turned from institutional critique to institutional elaboration?

Without secure access to a wage, these artists have developed their own institutions to address their own and other artists’ precarity.

“Something has to come after Institutional Critique,” artist Caroline Woolard has said. “And something has to be possible other than ironic institutions,” she insists. (Personal conversation with the artist, 2014). Such an “afterness” and otherness of artist-run institutions in the wake of institutional critique has been given a variety of names by critics. There is the “counter-institution,” so named by Yates McKee; there is “institutional detournement,” a term proposed by T. J. Demos; the “anti-institution” is Tom Finkelpearl’s term for a similar insistence; (Tim Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation) David Joselit speaks of a turn toward “institutional responsibility” in his discussion of the artist-run Orchard Gallery; Chris Gilbert notes that Anglo- American collectivism often takes what he calls an “institutional form.” (See “Institutional Responsibility,”. See Chris Gilbert, in Collectivism After Modernism, Chapter 3). In each term we may locate a remainder of the power of both institutional critique and something retrievable from the institution itself. The institution persists, it outlasts any individual, it embodies a historical memory. Perhaps curator Maria Lind best captures the spirit of this kind of work with her term, “constructive institutional critique,” itself similar to Claire Doherty’s claim of a “new institutionalism” now present in contemporary art. (Janet Marstine, Critical Practice: Artists, Museums, Ethics; Claire Doherty, “The Institution is Dead, Long Live the Institution! Contemporary Art and the New Institutionalism,”; Lisa Dent, “The In-between: Artists Build New Frameworks for Institutions,”).

Indeed, the past ten years have seen a flourishing of actual artistic institutions as well as considerations of them. What both distinguishes Woolard’s work and places it on a continuum with institutional critique is that her institutions are centered on the problem of arts production — that’s the continuity — but specifically, they isolate the problem of decommodified artistic labor, which is the distinction. Institutions like BFAMFAPhD are durational in that they are ongoing and that they have transpired over a matter of years and continue to do so. These works attempt to reclaim duration as it has been embodied in labor; “what the worker sells is time,” reminds Harry Braverman. (Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century). But these decommodifed workers do not sell their time; rather, they possess time, and it is that resource that will mold and contour the shape of the institutions they construct. The relation of these works to duration echoes Peter Frase’s description of the benefits of decommodification. Highlighting the emancipatory sense of the word as Gøsta Epsing-Andersen originally used it, Frase writes, “we can think of the decommodifying welfare state as giving people a choice about whether or not to commodify their labor. ... The choice that is involved here is not merely about income. It ultimately comes down to how we want to organize our time, and how we want to structure our relations with other people.” (Peter Frase, “De-commodification in Everyday Life,”).

If socially engaged art is that which seeks to ameliorate restrictive social conditions, then perhaps the aesthetic reflexivity to be found in the institution-building work of Woolard is best located in how she seeks to change her own working life and the lives of other artists.

Her work asks us to question whether art that remains decommodified may remain recognized as art

In Woolard’s work there is no negation, no irony, no moment of “institutional detournment”; rather there is a commitment to endurance. Her work asks us to question whether art that remains decommodified may remain recognized as art. I want to suggest that we think about “institutional reflexivity,” the manner in which the institution as a kind of art returns the ability to understand how decommodifed artistic labor frames the work of the art institution itself.

Leigh Claire La Berge, PhD, professes at the intersection of arts, literature, visual culture and political economy. She is the author of Scandals and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s (Oxford University Press) and Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2019). She is Associate Professor of English in the Department of English at BMCC CUNY.