The most sensible of economists say so, and have done since the late 19th century: capitalist societies are evolving towards a growing reduction in work and reduction in the time that will be devoted to it in the daily activity of individuals, in proportion to the lessening of its symbolic value. In the meantime, never before has so much space been given to employment within political debates, within current discourse, and within our visual environment, in which the act of working is the subject of a suspicious aestheticization. Work is even being flaunted, shamelessly, in shared offices that open onto the street or in the teahouses designated for co-workers of the creative economy, as though working were a trendy kind of lifestyle while idleness has become a has-been trope. Even before the idea for this special issue was mooted, none of the members of the editorial committee of La belle revue could look at the smiling intern on a four-by-three billboard or be assailed by other positive images of employment without seeing in them the sign of a collective neurosis, even in spite of the satisfaction that we find in our many voluntary activities. Let’s not mince words: for us, this love of labour is shady, especially when expressed in the art world.
First of all, the authors, artists, and contributors of La belle revue know very well that a “labour of passion” is afflicted with the same hurdles as any professional activity, the only difference being that the suffering at work is apparently rendered tolerable by the worker’s enjoyment. Despite this eloquent lexicon, our engagement in art has little to do with a religious vocation and we persist in our belief that all work merits recompense, even for a free magazine and not only when the commission concerns the precariousness of artistic work. Under these conditions, in his studio, Ghislain Amar plays out typical situations that anyone who has had some experience in the professional art world will recognise for their particular bipolar syndrome. The score that indexes the images makes them into a repertoire of emotions ready for use, transposable into various contexts in which they are doomed to recur, like classical tragedy with its unchanging themes. Lidwine Prolonge’s text is the result of “remediation” work based on interviews conducted with art workers having experienced hierarchical pressures more or less dissimulated by an amicable framework, an integral clause, it would seem, in any employment contract signed within a cultural facility. The writing of “déjà entendu” also refers to a dramatic form and, beyond the performance, to a cathartic theatre that strives to thwart everyday oppression through collective mimesis and, more specifically, the repetition of others’ words.
Joshua Schwebel probes the actions of power in the art field. His artworks function by revealing the managerial and ethical malfunctions of an artistic organisation, as he explains to Marie Bechetoille by way of a French example. In this interview, he unflinchingly points out the hypocrisy that reigns in the institutions that sustain forms of alienation, even when their programming demonstrates its interest for the emancipation of the working classes. The artist calls for the definitive sanction of these abuses. It is a redemptive call to arms.
Some of our faithful readership will perhaps say – with surprise – that La belle revue is a bit late to the party, since labor has stood out as a theme and motif in contemporary art since the 2000s. More alarming is the observation that the art world has not yet finished with the “labour issue” – despite the fact that it has given rise to many artworks and exhibitions, some of which were dull. The current transformations in labor are sparking new curatorial experiments such as integrating “third sites” into exhibitions1 or other contemporary manifestations of empowerment, even if it means reducing these to an alienating spectacular arrangement. This creates distrust in us, as there is no more effective way of maintaining order than by turning the promises of a better world into entertainment; similarly, we have reservations about the public usage by ultra-hierarchized cultural institutions of a semantics pertaining to collective intelligence (collegiality, horizontality). If labor models have been able to be renewed thanks to cross-sectorial thinking (between the fields of business, art, and activism), is it not stupefying to expect that art offer us a providential view of labour, when the fine arts sector lags far behind from a legal perspective and in terms of social protections? These fantasies gloss over the need to normalise labor frameworks in art, in which the urgency is still that of asking “how to work better”, to cite the ten-point statement from Fischli & Weiss (How To Work Better, 1991) that ironically offered solutions for improving the efficiency and well-being of workers, in a language transposable from zen philosophy to neo-liberalism.2 Researcher Barthélémy Bette deciphers the complex relationship that society maintains with artistic work in a conversation with Sophie Lapalu. Once again, the question is posed of what degree of critical effectiveness artists have. The point of view offered by Benoît Lamy de La Chapelle on the theme of the office in contemporary creation, in which he observes the suave manifestations of a corporate aesthetic, is somewhat pessimistic in this regard, unless this adherence to the generic images of the new spirit of capitalism constitutes a strategy. “6. Accept change as inevitable. 7. Admit mistakes. 8. Put it simply. 9. Be calm. 10. Smile.”
- The section entitled “L’Expérience tiers-lieux, Fork the world” provided an example at the 10th Biennale du Design de Saint-Étienne, Working Promesse, in 2017, which overall gave a dystopian image of the end of employment. More cheerful, the exhibition Index Makers organised by Fabien Pinaroli at 19, CRAC de Montbéliard in 2017, hosted Fab Labs as part of the exhibition programme.
- Thumbing the nose at its conceptual forefathers, How To Work Better is a ready-made statement that was not lifted from the language of a manager fond of teambulding but from a sign found at the entrance to a pottery workshop in Thailand to motivate workers, usually foreigners, since many locals had left in search of better work abroad.