For the last few years, sociologist Barthelemy Bette has been preparing a thesis entitled L’art contemporain au travail, enquête sur des pratiques artistiques à la frontières de deux mondes sociaux [From Contemporary Art to Labour: An Inquiry into Artistic Practices on the Borderline Between Two Social Worlds]. It deals with the relationship between artistic activity and dominant forms of labour. In this interview, we asked him about the precarity of art workers within a system they help maintain.
Sophie Lapalu: Your research is situated at the intersection between sociology and aesthetics, and endeavours to highlight the issues around the artist’s status and the relationship between aesthetic choices and political involvement. But today I would like to talk about other aspects of this notion of labour in contemporary art, in particular, why is the art world so interested in the question of labour?
Barthelemy Bette: First of all, I think your observation is correct: while working on this subject, I seem to have observed an increase in the number of exhibitions, publications, and catalogues on this theme since about the early 2000s. I see this phenomenon as being a convergence between far-reaching issues of historical significance and a more specific contemporary context. Since the Romantic revolution, artistic work has been seen as the opposite to “work” in the common sense of the word, that is, for the most part (93% in France) salaried labour. Everything in their shared representations opposes these two forms of labour: liberty versus subordination, eccentricity versus rigour, risk versus calculation, etc. These pairs of opposition are endless. But this fundamental social structure, “work” (in the sense of a legal and institutional ensemble that determines the apportioning of economic and symbolic value), is increasingly called into question. The two main social dynamics at play in this change in perspective seem to me to be, on the one hand, capitalism’s current phase, which some refer to as neo-liberalism, and on the other, the general rise in our level of education. These two dynamics are contradictory, because an increasingly large part of the population is able to understand the mechanisms that lead to increasingly arbitrary and unequal division of values, while also being able to envisage other types of organisation and production. Artists are in a social category that is especially attuned to this historical contradiction, because they have significant cultural capital at their disposal but also a conspicuous lack of status and protection. This group of people in insecure jobs therefore tends to demonstrate their condition, and these works resonate with the public and organisations, because in today’s world these are questions that are not only important but pressing.
SL: Is there not a kind of obvious paradox where directors of artistic organisations or curators want to denounce alienating forms of labour, even though this alienation sometimes occurs (and often at their expense) within artistic organisations themselves? It is sad, but are the precarity and oppression denounced in some works not the same as those experienced by art workers themselves?
BB: Yes, it is an obvious paradox, but this sharp divide between theory and practice is more predominant in the social world: sociologists Michel and Monique Pinçon-Charlot have shown, for example, that dominant classes can adhere to an ultra-individualist ideology while also practising a practical form of communism. In regards to the art world, I would instead call it an apparent paradox, as one of its well-known specificities lies in its near-paradigmatic ability to transform criticism into an institutional norm. It is therefore easier for those concerned to remove symbolic profits from exhibitions that present critical works, while putting up with, or more or less intentionally prolonging the structural constraints in this domain, because I think it is less an issue of people than it is of social representations, where it is easily accepted that “art is not work” and so it does not need to be remunerated like other jobs.
As you say, artist are also “art workers” and they put up with the fairly widespread precarity evident in cultural domains. In my study, I often came across artists who, after leaving school and finding themselves confronted with the harsh reality of the labour market, created works out of what they were experiencing. These works are particularly powerful, which, paradoxically, gives them artistic visibility. In fact, I know a few who have struggled to rid themselves of the label “work artist”! Artistic activity enables this specific, though limited opportunity to transform a social stigma into an advantage. In addition, today’s artists have also inherited an educational background that has incorporated the gains made by the previous avant-garde that mixed art and life. If we make the connection between this social situation and this now-legitimate aesthetic potential, we can see that these artists have exploited this precarity for artistic means, allowing them to talk of a labour market whose violence applies (almost) to everyone.
SL: Pierre-Michel Menger, particularly in his work Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur, métamorphoses du capitalisme [Portrait of the Artist as a Worker: The Metamorphoses of Capitalism], highlights the pronounced individualism of those in the cultural world. Do you think that the competition between artists prevents a form of collective commitment? Without this commitment, how can we change the labour situation in the artistic sphere?
BB: This is a fundamental point as it is true that these two activities – political and artistic – are based on fundamentally contradictory theoretical principles. Although art allows a multitude of voices, the aim of political activity is to explain and convince, and that is undoubtedly the reason why many artists are scared of seeing their work being used in a militant fashion. Reducing a work to its political message then becomes a way of disqualifying it on an aesthetic level. The social functioning of the art world furthers this opposition as the symbolic value of the signature remains essential and commits artists to a sort of “war of each against all”, which could be understood (I am overstating things here a little) as a kind of scale model of a neoliberal utopia. Although alliances and exchange based on generous and progressive principles are omnipresent, in the end, it is this principle of making things unique that determines the various social positions occupied by each of us.
This slightly disillusioned view does not mean that all political discourse within the art world is illusory or opportunistic. Quite the contrary – it reveals, as I have said, awareness of the massive inequality present in the field. But for these ideas to really change artistic organisations, artists have to do what other social groups do to generate new rights: commit to a collective struggle. To overcome the current political stalemate, a simple, but rarely admitted conceptual distinction must be made between artists’ work and their status. A collective struggle demanding various forms of income redistribution in the artistic world (for example, a Tobin tax on financial art transactions or presentation rights in exhibitions, like musical or theatre performing rights) will not necessarily result in a standardisation of artistic rights. Challenging the common idea that “art is not work” does not mean that artistic activity is a job like any other – on the contrary, its special features must be retained – but instead that being an artist is a social function like any other, and as such, it can claim the same political rights.
SL: Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski, in Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme [The New Spirit of Capitalism], show how capitalism has changed since the 1970s. The Fordian principle for organising work has been relegated in favour of the development of a networking organisation. Labour therefore becomes more autonomous, with the price to pay being an increase in material and psychological precarity. Also, according to them, by reclaiming “artistic critique” – which denounces the alienation of daily life by the alliance of capital and bureaucracy – the new spirit of capitalism has killed the very critique it took on. Can participants in cultural roles still embody a critique, given that they are the protagonists of what they are denouncing?
BB: It is indeed true that the “artistic critique” as defined by these two authors (that is, capitalism’s lack of authenticity hindering an individual’s aspiration for freedom and fulfilment) has been picked up to a great extent by capitalism itself. From this point of view, their analysis of management literature is convincing, especially as it is a real management ideology that applies to the whole of society. But that does not prevent us from believing in the possibility of an artistic critique that converges with a “social critique”, stemming from the world of labour and articulated around the notion of exploitation, because today’s social situation is no longer that of 1968. The condition that artists find themselves in can now be expanded to include a whole society that is increasingly precarious: a boom in self-employed work, freelancers and short-term contracts, or the appearance of new legal developments such as the “site contract” currently being extended to other domains. Much of the population is already affected by these “reforms” (this has been the accepted word for forty years), which, through their breadth and systematic application, constitute a real historical counter-revolution. As is shown by the emergence of public debates on the basic income or a lifelong salary, we are starting to see a sort of revival of a social critique that questions not only economic inequalities but the definition of work itself. I agree with Bernard Friot here, who maintains that the key issue in the social struggle is the definition of what is considered as work, that is, of what we consider generates economic value. As opposed to repeated claims by a dominant form of economy that has become a real doxa, all human activity creates economic value, a fact which allows us to once again question the operation of two essential labour institutions: the ownership of tools of labour and the status of the producer. This is how salary becomes a right attached to a person and not to a specific job whose terms are defined by the owners of the means of production. It is therefore a question of expanding the field of labour to all human activities, an expansion that in some ways joins up with the artistic criticism that those in the avant-garde held against the art world itself, maintaining that any one can be a “producer of artistic value”, to express the idea in economic terms. Perhaps within all this there is an opportunity for a convergence of various struggles, so necessary for any successful revolution, to suddenly re-emerge after its brief appearance during the events of 1968.
- Pierre-Michel Menger, Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur, métamorphoses du capitalisme, (Paris: Seuil, 2002).
- Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. by Gregory Elliott, (New York: Verso, 2017).
- Bernard Friot’s latest book summarises his key analyses. See Bernard Friot, Vaincre Macron, (Paris: La Dispute, 2017).