Work (even the creative kind) won’t like you back
My sister is an artist in the truest sense of the word. For Rebecca, her daily work is just that: an exchange of her time for someone else’s money, a business necessity to indulge her passion: painting. Creation is what allows Rebecca unspeakable joy and rigorous challenges – opportunities for the deepest breakthroughs. As many artists know, however, his painting – while spiritually invaluable – does not make for a solvent lifestyle. So a day job. So, work.
During an intense episode of burnout, I sent Rebecca a series of texts. I just had a revelation that the pursuit of being an artist is actually very anti-capitalist, I wrote. The pursuit of art for the sake of art pierces what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism”: a denial of the existing system; a radical enactment in another way.
I had no idea I was running alongside themes explored closely in Sarah Jaffe’s recent book, Work Won’t Like You Back: How dedication to our work keeps us exploited, exhausted and alone. As Jaffe explains in the introduction, for centuries it was no secret that work “sucks”. Being rich was a luxury in part because it exempted a population from the necessity of labor, which consisted of strenuous efforts like coal mining and, later, factory labor. The workers were not mistaken that these professions were their passions. They were working because they couldn’t afford it.
As Jaffe explains, the dawn of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s radically changed our relationship to work. Neoliberalism went hand in hand with the belief that freedom exists, as long as you can afford it: in Jaffe’s words, “neoliberalism has tried to sell us freedom not from work but through work. ”To rationalize our operation, we have developed a problematic and persistent myth: the“ labor of love ”.
Each chapter of Jaffe’s book explores how various jobs have been touched by a philosophy of working only for love. The first half of the book is dedicated to employees like teachers, nonprofit workers, and nannies, while the second half examines workers who have attempted to make money by doing what they love, such as artists, athletes and academics.
In a chapter entitled “My studio is the world: art”, Jaffe studies how art intersects with capitalism. She discusses the value of art both financially and spiritually, as well as organizing efforts in the United States and Mexico that have made artistic creation more accessible across races and classes since the 1920s.
Reading “My Studio Is The World: Art” laid bare some of my most internalized beliefs about art, work, and the art world. Basically, I struggled with the implicit comparison of the plight of those of us in the art world to some of the other workers described in the book – domestic workers and teachers; people who, as the pandemic revealed, were already financially and physically insecure. Were we not to choose this path, not to take it because we had at? Who would an artist, the model of a worker without a boss, even appeal to be recognized?
As Jaffe describes, this tension is familiar in the discourse on the rights of art workers. The long-held belief that artistic creation comes from motives outside of capitalism – love, or even “genius” – continues to fuel sentiment among artists, art institutions, art schools, and the state. that what we do is not work, nor workers.
This is of course false: in the richest, but also the densest, section of “My Studio Is The World”, Jaffe offers an illuminating chronology of the centuries-old history of art and money. Since the Renaissance, artists have received commissions from the rich to earn a living. During the Industrial Revolution, a growing middle and upper class had more disposable income to purchase art, which “rose in value precisely because it was not produced by machines.” Today, according to Jaffe’s estimate, the art market is “bigger than ever, generating well over $ 700 billion in one year.” At the same time, in the United States in particular, public funding for the arts is a shell of its former New Deal glory, playing a central role in the income inequality that exists among artists today. In a field structured by “a series of guardians who remain attached to the idea of art as meritocracy”, working class artists have been ousted. It’s no wonder: A 2018 study cited by Jaffe finds that the median artist income is between $ 20,000 and $ 30,000 per year, with more than a fifth of the artists surveyed earning $ 10,000 or less. Despite a description of art as one of the most sincere “labors of love,” as Jaffe argues, “art can and does exist under capitalism, and for many people it is. work in one form or another ”.
The mentality of art as anathema to the workplace has also thwarted efforts to struggle for greater rights among art workers. As early as the 1930s, one art critic viewed the Union des artistes as a booming artist, writing with disdain that artists “are not the same as coal miners.” Almost a century later, in 2018, workers trying to organize at the New Museum were reprimanded by the administration that “unions are for coal miners.” The implication of these two statements, nine decades apart, lays bare our assumptions about the types of jobs that are “really” exploitative.
Yet the perceived disparity between the working class and the workers of the art world is factually true: a 2014 study in the United States found that the majority of “artists and other” creative workers “were likely to have grew up in the middle class, even though their current art professions paid around 35% less than their parents. This was only made more evident in 2019, when a spreadsheet of over 1,000 anonymous artists revealed how low the art world can be.
As such, Jaffe emphasizes a reality that many in the art world are familiar with: the staggering wealth disparity between those who collect, sell, and exhibit art and those who make it. Such a power differential is at the heart of Jaffe’s argument about the injustice of contemporary work: “the way our work makes other people rich as we struggle to pay rent and barely see our friends.” While not having a boss is considered one of the great advantages of unconventional work like artistic creation, it also systematically deprives artists of their rights to see themselves as capable of claiming equal rights. : who would we ask for recognition? What would a call for equal rights for artists look like? What could a contemporary artists’ union do to make an artistic career more accessible to people of color? For people from low income communities?
Public funding, both for the arts in particular and through welfare, is a solution to the inequity of the American art world. At the start of this chapter, Jaffe interviews an Irish artist named Kate O’Shea, who comments, “I could never have justified becoming an artist if it involved the kind of money that it entails in America.
Whether or not you think artists can or should unionize, Work won’t love you back is a provocative and fascinating read. The conversation such an idea sparks raises fascinating questions about the pursuit of art, the nature of work, and the need for radical change. For artists, one of the main stumbling blocks are the opposing ideas that work sucks. and that we have chosen to pursue what we love as a job. How can both be true? Besides, what if – I ask gently – I like to work? What if work gives me meaning?
In his conclusion, Jaffe asks, “What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to work? I was comforted to find that, in an interview with Challenge, Jaffe herself described using her imaginary free time to write a screenplay about union leader Harry Bridges – something she quickly admitted “would definitely be work as well.” But, she continued, “That’s the thing […]: Do these things have to be work? What would a society be like if we had space for people to be creative in all kinds of ways that didn’t require it to be your job for you to be able to do it? ”
Work Won’t Like You Back: How dedication to our work keeps us exploited, exhausted and alone (Bold Type Books) by Sarah Jaffee is now available at Bookstore.