Work and Art Within and Beyond Crisis. 3.

3. Artistic Response

This section maps examples of artistic response in crisis. It is focused on two inquiries –

  1. What role does art play within and beyond crisis?
  2. What are artistic responses related to care, collectivity, sustainability?

This section includes questions, meditations, and fragments. My intention is not to document and index all the ways artists could respond to crisis, but begin to frame my observations.

“This is the time, we hear, that artists move. We continue to draw on support and energy outside of institutions, outside toxic positivity, outside power. We claim the speech that crisis makes possible. That speech from the gut, stirred, unearthed, and drawn up to the surface. And so: resist the pressure to forget. Resist the demand to accept this as the way things are. In this transition, we break. ” 1

Artistic response in today’s era includes a combination of skills from conception, problematization, production, and presentation. Artistic practice manifests in many ways including studio-based practices, social engagement, para-institutions, digital born art, and many more forms.

Given art is not money, art is in a unique position to interrogate the capitalist mode of production.2 As previously discussed, the capitalist mode of production has made things worse by subordinating basic workers rights, such as affordable housing, healthcare, and job safety to capital, creating a depleted healthcare system, and rushing to open businesses before it is safe.

Generally speaking, artists play a role in each of the processes from start to finish in their work. Artistic skills range from concept to production if they are not broken up and atomized by the capitalist mode of production.3 Working end to end, enables artists to see and participate in all points of production. This control over their own work puts them in a unique position to document/reframe/reshape/rebuild models, frameworks, modes of production, and methods of survival.

Despite the deep self-isolation of the pandemic, a recent survey revealed 82% of artists will deploy their creativity to support the recovery – more than half whether they get paid or not.4

Based on the principles that art can have autonomy from the capitalist mode of production, I believe that the more ways art can enter society, to interrogate capital, the more potential it can have towards social change.

In modern society, art has to confront the cultural aesthetics of politics. This confrontation helps art avoid the trap of aestheticizing or fetishizing the capitalist mode of production or a social issue of some kind. Let’s explore this concept in the ad from Amazon below.

In this advertisement, Amazon thanks their employees for working through the crisis. Amazon’s ad is an attempt to frame the company’s respect from front-line during context of the crisis. This ad is propaganda to boost Amazon’s brand and distract from negative press around their response to the pandemic.

Back in March 2020, workers had to fight to get the Amazon fulfillment centers cleaned after COVID-19 started spreading. Amazon is not transparent and subordinates employees well being to the pursuit of wealth accumulation. Jeff Bezos gained $35.5 billion in the two month period between March and May, 2020. This while 19,816 Amazon workers have contracted COVID-19.

Amazon’s PR engine publicly thanks workers while many of those workers are living on thin line of subsistence, risking their health to work through the pandemic. Richard Wolff asks the question,

If all of the workers at Amazon had a choice on what to do with the surplus value they created, do you think they give so much of it back to Jeff Bezos?

Artistic response in an era of crisis must confront that it exists in a society where institutions, like Amazon, are not democratic and use cultural aesthetics in the form of advertising to produce a distorted reality, free of any degraded working conditions. One of art’s roles can be interrogate this reality distortion and expose it. This is where I have chosen to focus on my own artistic practice.

Art has a long history of various forms of political interventions. In the 1960’s, groups such as the Art Worker’s Coalition and the Artist Placement Group emerged to confront issues of inequality in the art world or take art into the context of industry.

The ways art respond to crisis are limitless and continuously shifting. Also, included in response is the negation of artistic response, a refusal to make art, to deploy one’s time and energy elsewhere. The Situationists removed themselves altogether from the art world to make interventions in society that would raise class consciousness towards proletarian revolution. I think other forms of labor related to artistic production include teaching, farming, caring, delivering food, checking-in with community members, raising funds, sharing information with neighbors, talking, demonstrating, organizing etc.

Art emerges from the ideologies and modes of production it is embedded within. Therefore, artistic production inspired by activism or operating in solidarity with a cause, can be most potent and authentic when it originates from the site of politics, not broken off from the world, conceived and produced in a far off studio.

The work of art removed from the site of politics, or helicoptering into that site, runs the risk of generalizing and aestheticizing the subject (a concept I attribute to Ben Davis) into a material commodity to be acquired — thus subordinating the artwork to capital.

Given my own work, I often find myself in worker rallies and protests in solidarity with workers. During these actions, physical bodies are needed to stand on the line and support. Or, skills are needed to document actions e.g. photography, film, interviews or to create visual materials e.g. bulletins, posters, etc. In such efforts, art skills may be useful. These skills become meshed into a larger assemblage that is the direct action, whether it be a protest for the negotiation of union contract or a general strike. The artwork as a material commodity has little function in this zone because this movement is about direct action — not the materialization of any object.

Artwork in general operates on a different logic than direct action, which a direct goal and aim to accomplish. This does not mean art cannot be political – far from it. It is that the mode of production in artwork and the logic embedded into art is different.


Ultimately, what is likely best for artists is what is best for all workers: universal high quality free public services and the abolition of the wage-discipline of capitalism. These demands seem possible surprisingly today and are in a strange way an actually existing fact in the emergency. If artists make common cause with others, we might be able to preserve and extend these, and so abolish capitalism as such.”5


Questions

  • How do we, as an artist community, build momentum in demanding changes that will help all artists, and all workers, such as universal healthcare, and debt and rent cancellation? How do we impose deadlines and accountability on these demands?
  • Where do other deadlines that we impose on ourselves come from? Which ones are required or not? How can slowness be a response, an ethic, and an aesthetic? How do we end the pressure put on ourselves by institutions? How can we find validation in other ways?
  • Capital has commodified caring and well-being as it has penetrated into our homes. Caring for oneself and others is work and comes in many different forms. What do you care about most? How do you like to be cared for and want to care for others? In terms of mutual aid, what efforts are underway – or in need – that you could plug into and serve? How to practice open-source, sharing, and communing without placing the burden on someone else?
  • How can we think about redeploying our skills to serve a cause?
  • How would we reshape/reprioritize/reorder our work accordingly, during or beyond crisis? How do you imagine yourself and your work differently? Are there new projects or previously unimaginable ones that are now more important to you? How does your home reshape your work? This includes the virtual space you create from within the home. How does your use of material and methods shift appropriately to the ideas in your work?
  • What could emerging artist-run spaces in the home, shed, yard, garden, woods, online, etc. look, or feel like?
  • Taking stock of your sustainability and self-care. How much risk can you take on? How much money do you have right now? How much do you owe? Who around you could offer you flexibility? What could you offer others?
  • Who are people you could connect for their mutual benefit? Who are people with whom you could practice reciprocal care?
  • What are new alternative ways of removing or avoiding the ontology of ruthless business thinking – profit, efficiency, individualism – in the arts?

Meditations

  • It’s enough to try to stay healthy.
  • Listen.
  • Think small. Think local.
  • Not doing work. Establishing boundaries with production.
  • Talking is a start to organizing. Getting organized in local issues that serve your community.
  • Accept your previous work may be upended. Now may be a time to do something new collectively. Accept all the imperfections, mistakes, and disruptions that come with experimenting in your practice.
  • Feeling anxious.
  • Being hypervigilant.
  • Small ripple effects count tremendously (hat tip to Phong Bui).
  • Demand to be paid and paid fairly.
  • Join in solidarity with fellow workers for social progress.
  • Invisible asymmetries can be made visible through art (thinking about artists such as Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, and Fred Lonidier).

Next chapter –>>>


Introduction

1. The landscape of labor

2. Art worlds

3. Artistic response

Appendix

Footnotes

  1. Anonymous. “A Call for Complaint: for Plague Speech, for Sick Speech”
  2. As noted in part 2, while art is not money, some artworks are highly commodified and subordinated to the capital mode of production
  3. I suppose an example of an atomized task would be selling one’s labor to work in an art studio, mixing colors at a station in a repetitive task, while others perform tasks in other stations.
  4. ”Americans for the Arts, The Economic Impact of Coronavirus on the Arts and Culture Sector, April 21, 2020
  5. Haiven, Max. “No Artist Left Alive.” Arts of the Working Class, April 25, 2020