On the book by Bojana Kunst, The Artist at Work: The Proximity of Art and Capitalism, Zero Books, 2015 [Umetnik na delu: bližina umetnosti in kapitalizma, Maska, 2013]
The article was first published in Slovenian language in the Art Words magazine [Likovne besede], issue 98, winter 2013
At a time when the social and economic system, which was established in the second half of the 20th century in the Western world, is collapsing, many questions are being raised about a new order that would revalue today’s pretty much global models of individualism, entrepreneurship, competitiveness and materialism. The values of the current times largely follow the logic of neoliberalism in all spheres of society, including those endeavouring to reflect on and raise awareness of this state of mind. In her book, The Artist at Work, Bojana Kunst, publicist and theoretician of contemporary art practices, attempts to break down as clearly as possible the phenomena of internalizing the principles of the neoliberal economy and the organization of work in the world of art, and to partly link it to the general state of mind in society. In her extensive analysis, she relates to the changes in working methods and relations that are rapidly taking place in societies that are (still) relatively prosperous. In this sense it is precisely art and autogenous activism that are the fields, which – even though on the social margins – still allow for a space of open public discourse and criticism. On the other hand, art and its protagonists are often inconsistent in their activities, since they are implicated in identical modes of production and social relations on several levels, which they so often criticize in their substance. In order to express disagreement with the prevailing economic, political and cultural realities of their immediate surroundings, artists and art institutions are often forced to use similar modes of exploitation as they are subject to themselves.
One of the most pressing problems in the functioning of the art system today is precisely unpaid work, through which particularly museums, galleries or individuals engage mainly young cultural workers and promote voluntary work of artists, who fill up the programmes of institutions at their own expense in hope of breaking into the artistic elite. As the author notes already in the first chapter, it is precisely this inconsistency that is the main affliction of the engaged contemporary arts, in the field of which, the mentioned occurrences have still not been brought to full attention. To follow, Kunst also addresses the role of the contemporary museum, which has been marked by Charles Esche as an “active space of experimentation and discovery,” and exposes its inner clockwork. She places the institution of the museum side by side to the way that democratic authority structures and corporations function and communicate today, within which a constant absorption and distortion of any kind of criticism goes on: this is usually accepted with open arms as the ultimate expression of transparent operation, encouraged and even financed by these same structures, and consequently often completely disarmed. There are therefore plenty of paradoxes in the art world. Recently, a relatively wealthy private foundation in London, supported by public and private funds, which presents engaged art practices in the spirit of the time, was looking for volunteers to work in its gallery space, which consisted of looking after the exhibitions, providing service in the gallery café and performing hands-on organizational tasks. Even though this is not an isolated case by any means, it was precisely this that spurred on public protests, which the management of the institution took into consideration. However, it did not implement any changes in the working conditions, as there was clearly a high enough demand. In this respect the question that Bojana Kunst poses is very apt: why do people want to work in an art environment so much that they are willing to work for nothing at all? And how can the “workers” – especially in London – afford this anyway?
One of the more likely and frequent answers would be that the reason lies in the general belief that art is just that social and economic division, which may, in exceptional circumstances, produce high added value. Bearing in mind market speculations in economic terms, artworks may reach a value that far exceeds their production value. On the other hand, it is precisely art that serves as the adhesive to ideology during times of significant social upheaval. Artists are therefore mostly driven by the aspiration of achieving success – a visible social position and material security. This is particularly evident in the competitive environments of the major centres of power, where funds for activities of non-profit initiatives and individuals are much more difficult to access. In the same vein, artists (and cultural workers) also want to leave some sort of trace behind, which is why it is precisely the inscription into the collective memory that propels them to accept jobs in unenviable working conditions, where the boundary between work and private life (free time) becomes completely obscure.
Considering the value and organization of work within the artistic practices, as well as addressing work through artwork, is actually the main subject of the book, in which the author focuses on very specific fields of creative activity. Thus, she embraces “those art practices that can be broadly labelled as performing or live arts.” With that, she aims at performance art, contemporary dance and live events that demonstrate a clear political tendency in their exploration of new ways of working and performing. She also deals with the more static forms of the visual arts, those arising from the conceptual foundation of the historical avant-gardes of the first half of the 20th century and the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s. A reduction of material means of expression and the proverbial breakdown of the boundaries between life and art is typical for these, as the artist no longer confines herself or himself to the framework of a single discipline or manner of presentation in hers or his activities, but passes fluidly between various contexts. The practices of contemporary dance, relational art, marginal performance or art activism usually sway towards the process-based as opposed to a completed whole, advocating the dynamic rather than the static. The focus is therefore on the practices that take the artist away from being a producer of representations of reality to being an active participant, a producer of sociality.
The contents of the book do offer a historical analysis of such practices in terms of artists’ connectivity (and subversion) with dominant models of economic activity, although the final thesis only reaches completion in the current time, as the neoliberal model has come to life in full light after its longstanding development process. Today’s cultural workers or self-employed, the former freelance artists – the author exposes an obvious ideological shift in the neoliberal discourse between the definitions of the two – are thus the ultimate workers of the late capitalist ideology. They are flexible, adaptable and immensely ambitious. Promoting various types of competitiveness among the deprivileged social groups and perpetually rousing the aspirations for a breakthrough into a higher social class are the basic keys to establishing the vicious circle.
The contemporary artist is labelled as a producer of sociality, who – at a time when individualism is rising – creates various forms of social interaction, like a social agent, constantly questioning the role of art in society and his own position within it, at the same time also addressing the integration of work as an activity (labour) into the artwork (work). Extensive theoretical concepts are backed up again and again by the author through the use of examples from practice, which also serve as orientation in the multifaceted interpretations of the state of things. An example of a loss of critical stance in artistic practice, its contradictory positions in the production of subjectivity and, ultimately, its exploitation, is excellently recapped by the case of the famous correspondence of a dispute between two icons of the contemporary performing arts, Yvonne Rainer and Marina Abramović. Rainer accused Marina Abramović of exploiting her position of power, a lack of ethics and contradictoriness. Namely, Abramović was invited to prepare a scenography and dramaturgy for a gala dinner for the donors at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. She invited young performers to participate for the meagre payment of ($ 150). Following a carefully crafted scenario, they performed a reconstruction of her performative actions, which in their time dealt with precisely the issue of disciplining the body in the context of social reality and questioned the impact of ideology on the body of the individual. The naked and silent performers at the dinner were relegated to being an ornament to a wasteful dinner (the bodies of the performers, who were not allowed to communicate with the surroundings, nor react to any possible physical harassment, actually just acted as a decorative element of the space and the laden tables). So late in her career, which was built on completely different principles of production and ideology, Marina Abramović operates in a fundamentally corporate manner, since she wishes to monetize already produced artworks without producing any new ones.
At this point one of the key issues is raised about the art of today and its declarative active participation in changing the dominant production models and social mentality. Ultimately, it is precisely the capitalist logic that advocates eliminating time-consuming production at the expense of faster short-term returns that create added value without any great investment. The work of contemporary artists today has therefore managed to thoroughly capitalize on the economic and social potential of its original subversive stance based on immateriality and the reduction of resources. As in the case of Marina Abramović, the young generations of artists looking for success in the art world nowadays are facing a much tougher task than their counterparts four or five decades ago.
In this context, it is possible to read about the immense self-referentiality of today’s contemporary artists, who continue to expose their own unenviable production conditions. But the problems of cultural workers and artists that are extensively analyzed by Bojana Kunst, are at a given moment the problem of the entire population, particularly its younger part, that in comparison with their parents’ generation simply does not have comparable conditions to live and work. This is why reducing the contents of artworks to a self-referring discourse on the position of the artist in society and forever mulling over his production and working conditions is a rather futile act that only goes to show the short-term particularity of interests of a certain interest group. This type of behaviour suggests the definitive corporate thinking, which embodies the attributes of the capitalist structure such as selfishness, individualism and competitiveness that stand against the discourses of solidarity central to the art world. By refusing to address the broader social reality that goes beyond the discourse about artistic functioning, artists reduce the general relevance of their work.
In such a way Bojana Kunst raises many issues which can quickly be recognized by many cultural workers. Even though she retains the neutral position of an observer throughout the book, she defends the disciplines and artists that she discusses at the end. By defending the relevance of existing art practices, she strongly opposes the catchwords about the economic value of art and art as a way of life (and not just work), while at the same time setting up a three-point argument on insubordination, which marks the aforementioned practices. The author notes that it is necessary “to show that art is not linked to the economy of producing value, but is much closer to squandering in the dark”, that one should “resist defending usefulness and justifying art through human work, which is why numerous artworks of the second half of the 20th century are interested in ways of working that are incestuously related to laziness and non-work – mistake, minimum effort, coincidence, duration, passivity”, and that one needs to “defend the sustainability of (artistic) work in contrary to completion, since art should last and show the potentiality of the human strengths, which have not yet been put into practice.”
Despite this, a decisive critique of the (same) methods, which become entangled in their own archetypes and ambivalence, can also be read between the lines of individual chapters. A particularly fascinating fact here is that the author deals with the selected phenomena in (almost) real time, without any great distance of time. The processes of functioning and creating, which she addresses as the core of the convergence of art and capitalism, are admittedly not new, but in the current social and economic situation they are thoroughly radicalized, which is why the book points at yet another important fact, namely, that also the considered art production, which is based on the continuity of the 20th century, and the structure within which it operates, will sooner or later undergo radical changes. The discursive field of institutional and academic art, particularly when it wishes to remain radical, is nowadays somewhat outdated, considering the analysis in the book, and also extremely unsuccessful, as it is mainly based on the (unconstructive) criticism of the current time. The transition into the 21st century indicates many, not necessarily positive, breaks with the social (and artistic) structure and values of the 20th century, which will need to be built anew. And on the entrenchments of these ideas, we will undoubtedly also see artists.
© Miha Colner, 15. 11. 2013