Endless Work

Sylvette Babin
The working world has clearly changed. Since the 1970s, we’ve shifted away from the Fordist model toward a so-called “flexible” approach to work, according to which we grant workers more autonomy and demand that they be more adaptable while offering less job stability.

This flexibility has not freed us, however, from the iron cage of industrial capitalism (Weber), and we continue to be haunted by old moral maxims such as “time is money” and “idleness is the mother of all vices.” Twenty years ago, sociologist Richard Sennett wrote that “revulsion against bureaucratic routine and pursuit of flexibility has produced new structures of power and control, rather than created the conditions which set us free.”1 1 - Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998): 47. In the era of the Internet and Workplace 2.0, this situation has only amplified. The working space has never been as nomadic or the working hours as flexible as today, with the result that the border between professional activity and private life is inexorably crumbling away. Therefore, flexible individuals find themselves even more constrained by work that now accompanies them at all times.

The art milieu is not exempt from this society of endless work. We must not forget that for a long time artists and cultural workers have been demanding status that would give them access to the same benefits as anyone else in the job market and by the same token allow them to escape the common misconception that creation — a “labour of love” — is an extra-economic activity. Therefore, including art (not the object, but the practice itself) in the work economy necessarily places it within a logic of productivity that forces us to invoice the actions. While the theory of art’s exceptionalism (according to which art is not a commodity like any other and is therefore exempt from the labour theory of value) seems valid for artists, we would have difficulty claiming the same for cultural workers, who are the actual workforce of the art Business. Nevertheless, for both artists and cultural workers alike, the proliferation of tasks related to the rapid development of new forms of flexible work is increasingly encroaching on the research and creation time particular to their professions. As a result, the “unproductive” time necessary to developing ideas (contemplating, daydreaming, drifting, casually researching, taking breaks, and being silent) is often abandoned for the benefit of more productive tasks, or ones that meet economic or organizational requirements.

The current feature section reflects on the issues of work time and unproductive work, the exceptionalism of art, the mechanisms of bureaucratic power, and the voluntary or self-exploitation of artists. As we might expect, the findings are not encouraging. Although the demands of artists and cultural workers are starting to be heard in the political arena, the responses all too often remain at the level of promises. For example, Québec recently adopted a cultural policy that includes the following measure: “Implement concrete solutions addressing the issues of employment, remuneration, and social safety net of professional artists and cultural workers.”2 2 - Gouvernement du Québec, Partout, la culture : Politique culturelle du Québec, ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec, p. 9, <bit.ly/2HH5HwP>. However, the main action proposed for implementing this measure is “increasing the knowledge of socioeconomic conditions” — political jargon that certainly shows good intentions but that does not engage with anything concretely. While “knowledge” of artists’ conditions should have been acquired a long time ago, not taking them into account is an act of bad faith.

The economic instability of the entire art milieu is at the source of many operational problems of organizations, ranging from a blatant lack of financial resources to the inability to adequately valorize the skills required of those working in the art sector. Therefore, the delicate question of the exploitation of cultural workers even by art institutions was worth including in this issue. Art projects address in a sensitive and engaged manner the tensions raised by these challenges, whether in relation to power dynamics, unequal working conditions, or the use of an unpaid workforce. These works and their accompanying analyses lay the foundation for a crucial rethinking of how the art system functions. Yet to carry the thinking even further, it is crucial that all the parties concerned participate and that they keep all the elements needed for discussion accurate and informed (transparency regarding the financial situation and hierarchical structure of institutions, consideration of governance models, necessity of a workforce and policies in this area, etc.). In all debates, it is especially vital to avoid separating the stakeholders of the cultural sector — society’s poor cousin — while all around, other sectors of the capitalist world keep getting richer, sometimes thanks to the cultural sector.

We also discuss some art practices that have chosen instead to shed light on the situation of other workers — their pay conditions, their daily tasks, their physical or mental experience, as well as the materials that accompany their labour — so many examples reminding us that while this issue focuses on the precarious status of artists, exploitation, unfair wages, inadequate conditions, and overwork, it also reaches well beyond the art field.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

Sylvette Babin
Sylvette Babin
Sylvette Babin
This article also appears in the issue 94 - Labour

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