If you suspend your belief in the romantic myth of being a noble, pure, vocation-driven, starving artist, for just a second, you rapidly realise you’re an artist that is starving. In other words, you’ve been reduced to the status of proletarian and you’re being exploited.
This moment of epiphany destabilises the cruel, unrealistically optimistic hoaxes of meritocracy, freedom, egalitarianism, creativity and individual fulfilment that the prevailing, orthodox mythology ascribes to life as an artist. An honest and dispassionate examination of your true situation reveals that advancement and success as an artist have nothing to do with your intrinsic artistic merits. Your freedom is severely circumscribed and constrained by your economic circumstances. The art market is a winner-takes-all game, where egalitarianism is a virtual stranger. Your creativity will be unavoidably limited by your access to resources and the necessity of existential survival, which will always override your need to express yourself or self-actualise. There is very little fulfilment to be found in having one’s life and prospects so severely constrained by external factors beyond your direct control.
Your labour, within the art economy, is being exploited in no less a fashion than all labour is in the broader economy at large. Artists are not exceptional. The gig economy, which is the norm for artists, is no different in complexion to the zero hour contracts that Uber and parcel delivery drivers work within. It’s not wild and glamorous; it’s dangerous and precarious. As an artist, like every freelance worker in the world, you never know if or when you’ll work again. Nothing is guaranteed and your plans can never be long term.
Not only will your artistic working life be difficult, but any complaints you make about it will receive little sympathy, as people working in non-artistic jobs will castigate you for your ingratitude. They will assert that your working terms and conditions are much more flexible and desirable than their own, ignoring the many hazards and penalties that are part and parcel of working as an artist. The similarities are not recognised. Art work is arduous and uncertain – two characteristics that are not always present in more mundane occupations.
More profoundly still, a dispassionate reckoning of your predicament, as an artist, will draw attention to the fact that there is hidden organisation and exploitation of cultural labour taking place, which all artists are required to comply with. It is rendered invisible, opaque and mystified by the cliched narratives that describe life as a working artist. The typical portrayal of the starving artist is but one of them.
The political economy of artistic labour, when illuminated by a momentary awakening, is shown to depend entirely on hierarchy, exploitation and the extraction of value. Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the commercial music business, with its one-sided contracts of adhesion, established pecking order of and within the vast corporations that run it and even in the hierarchy of stars, superstars and megastars. It’s baked into how royalty payments are calculated and disbursed, for example.
The system artists work within, just because that’s the way it is and will always be, positions artists as workers without health care, child care, maternity/paternity leave, sickness, retirement and holiday benefits. They are unprotected from risks to their health, safety and well-being, with no limits to the hours they must work, the conditions under which they will labour and very little control over where they are required to work or when. They work within a largely unregulated industry. This is all consistent with a longer, historical tradition of aligning artists with the proletariat, rather than the elites or the middle class bourgeoisie. Artists, even at the pinnacle of the hierarchy, are still essentially plebs. Art serfs, if you will.
Furthermore, the condition of art workers illuminates the changing nature of work in the wider allegedly post-industrial economies, where each and every worker, whether full or part-time employee or self-employed freelancer, is compelled, through dearth of alternative choices, to take on the mythologised, romanticised, non-worker identity of the artist. Why is everyone forcibly encouraged to adopt this role? It’s precisely to expedite and normalise new forms of the exploitation of precarious labour.
Artistic existence has been co-opted as an ideal that all workers must aspire to emulate, but the personal benefits are vastly overstated, while the myriad mechanisms of suffering and exploitation are minimised, if mentioned at all. We’re all being conned and played – both the artists directly and all other workers, who are increasingly required to perceive themselves as free-wheeling, creative artists, irrespective of their actual occupations.
Art, like everything else in neoliberal economies (which are, these days, global), has been fully financialised. With financialisation has come a denigration of the authentic, non-monetary values that supposedly characterise a life of creative, artistic freedom.
It amounts to ordinary, everyday exploitation. Relentlessly.