Vika Kirchenbauer, essay, 2017


Via social media, an internationally established artist of substantial means advertises a position as a video editor for a piece dealing with social justice issues for an exhibition at a major Berlin art institution. No information is included regarding the window of payment the artist is prepared to offer—common practice with such postings. Interested individuals in possession of a professional skill set for editing artists’ moving image are asked to include formal references with letters of recommendation on their behalf as part of the application process. Two days of scheduled interviews with several selected applicants take place during which those invited become provisionally aware of the overall amount the artist is willing to offer for one month of freelance work. For specialised work that requires skills both cognitive and affective—also outside of concrete working hours—the artist offers professionals a total fee of €1,000, a fraction of the established minimum rates for the field. Taking into consideration the time it takes to apply for such positions, the organisational work, the short-term nature of such gigs, as well as the thinking and reading required to help craft complex art works, one would very quickly find oneself working well below minimum wage—which, at the time of writing this essay, is €8.50 per hour in Germany.

This case—like all others in this essay not fictitious but anonymised in order to focus on the structural realities—is a particularly ironic instance since the piece utilises social justice as its central topic. Nonetheless, it points to a larger set of problems connected to a general shift toward art projects over the past decades, as well as a misguided understanding of the artist concerning the nature of her labour.

As the scale of art production elevates into increasingly complex and extensive endeavours, specialists, researchers, assistants, editors, etc. need to be employed for the completion of almost any individual art project. The expectation from and practice of artists’ moving image work, for instance, has developed into pieces that require an independent cinema-like scope of production. Within its relatively short history, video art moved from a person in her studio with a camera to production schemes that make camera and lighting professionals, location scouts and sound technicians essential elements of creation.

The circumstances of art’s production are frequently overlooked, probably due to misunderstanding artists as workers. Many artists are not, however, workers, but entrepreneurs who produce upon commission or in hopes of finding a market, be it institutional or commercial. A visual artist desires to be her own boss: to hold authority over the conditions of her own work and yet acquiesce in facilitating her own exploitation, while simultaneously overlooking that she takes the role of being someone else’s boss, mistaking her own exploitative measures over others as gestures of support, shared dedication and sacrifice or real political purpose.

One of several shortcomings of the different waves of institutional critique is the discussion of the artist as, at best, an entangled representative of the institution, while failing to examine the Artist as an institution herself. For successful or even semi-successful artists it is more common to employ than to be employed. Those employed by these artists are frequently creative professionals or less financially successful artists. Overall, it seems fair to estimate that there are more artists working for Artists than there are Artists with direct financial engagements with art institutions.

Regarding the Artist as an institution helps to better recognise neoliberal restructuring. While there persist highly varying degrees of visibility of different kinds of labour required to complete the Artist’s product, the artist-as-institution indeed likens herself to flexible capitalism and frequently obscures power behind oxymoronically flat hierarchies. For those employed, self-realisation, personal contact with Artists and intimate identification via one’s work all seem at first like desirable attributes, yet these characteristics overburden them with the requisite responsibilities of love and purpose in order to collaborate in their own exploitation.

Conscious Capitalism, a movement and theory put forward by Whole Foods Market’s co-founder John Mackey, places higher purpose at the core of any ideal corporation. It learns from grassroots organising and volunteer work the ways and reasons with which people tirelessly dedicate themselves to causes they believe in without expecting remuneration.1 Conscious Capitalism deploys the rhetoric of higher purpose2 as a means to assist the employee in the wilful devaluation of career or money interests, stimulate their passion and understand work as a medium for personal growth and doing good in the world. A similar mechanism might be at work in political art and its labour practices when those supporting Artists with their un(der)paid labour sacrifice their salary for a role within some grand vision for a greater good.

Again via personal platform, a highly successful artist and writer held in major public and private collections offers a studio manager position requiring skills in several fields, each of deep individual specialisation, namely editing and post production software, 3D modelling software, architectural planning software, etc. Simultaneously, the ideal applicant will physically install the exhibitions previously crafted and designed, yet also book flights and execute other, less desirable office tasks. The description mentions merely one guaranteed workday per week while demanding full availability in times of greater workload. Here the Artist provides a characteristic example for a neoliberally designed position: offering no security or stability while demanding everything on call.

Why is it that even artists with a leftist and socially conscious agenda fail so terribly at understanding their roles as bosses? A theoretical belief system that positions itself against the hierarchical nature of bosses cannot excuse neglecting the responsibilities of employing. If artists identified their (at least partial) role of entrepreneurs—which would mean understanding that they are not part of the union, but often rather its opponent—that would make it harder to mistakenly identify solidarity when in fact there is none, at least not in the invested sense of the word. Critical practices are rarely discussed in terms of their own circumstances of production, a flaw in both art criticism and theory.

Within the professional art system, those who publicly denounce their representing gallery’s questionable labour practices or directly criticise systematic workings, find themselves at career dead ends, considered untrustworthy traitors too risky to work with. This obscures conversations on labour and exploitation within art systems, as they rarely extend beyond bar talk within smaller circles of friends. How could these shared experiences of exploitation be communicated? How could public platforms be created in which those working for Artists might discuss their working conditions—with the aim of improving them—such as they exist online for, i.e., people working in other fields for specific companies and corporations? How could systems of accountability be established that would be constructive and address these problems in structural ways without ending up in bitchy, art world gossip, workplace bullying or scapegoating of individuals?

It is not breaking news to anyone that the entryways to gallery jobs and institutional positions are through un(der)paid internships. Yet most protests on that matter focus almost entirely on art’s distribution, sales and presentation system, while ignoring comparable mechanisms also at play within art’s production—often much more thickly obscured by the concrete subject matter that a piece or an artistic position might express.

Many people will accept these poorly paid jobs, either for lack of other employment options or because working for an Artist is desirable work. Working for an Artist is visible and lovable work; it offers higher social recognition than most other jobs within a comparable pay range. Thus many artists, as well as those wanting to work for them, help produce an ideology that rebrands exploitation as self-realisation, presenting work as a pure act of self-love naturally independent from immediate or fair compensation. It is rather ironic that even in Mackey’s book Conscious Capitalism he and his co-author Rajendra Sisodia at least rhetorically highlight a company’s long-term benefits of happy employees.3 In short-term project work such as in art production, in contrast, such long-term benefits do not seem relevant or applicable.

Surely no one is surprised that mostly young professionals from more comfortable backgrounds establish themselves in circles that demand un(der)paid performance in order just to get in. These un(der)paid positions also lead art school graduates—those without the convenience of a security net—to abandon their own work, succumbing to exhaustion working for more established Artists under precarious working conditions.

The question of how an artist structures the circumstances and condition of her own art production also becomes an aesthetic one. Is it, for instance, worth producing a film about in/visible un(der)paid labour and communist utopias in conditions of production where none of those involved earns a living wage—including the producers? Is that which is being expressed more valuable than the material reality created as part of the endeavour? Will its artistic contribution to political debate naturally outlive and outweigh the pains inflicted for its becoming?

A well-established German director and film professor remarks publicly that if there were unions for film professionals imposing fair wages and working hours, all European independent cinema production would collapse. His remark makes it clear that he believes the cultural significance to be of higher value than its modes of production. But shouldn’t exactly such an insight motivate a person to try harder at finding aesthetics that would not base a whole genre on accepted and “inevitable” exploitation? Wouldn’t it be an interesting challenge to not replicate aesthetics of exploitation, instead developing alternative aesthetics that don’t require as much time, people and expertise?

The logistic and financial requirements of project-based work challenge not only the highly established but also those aspiring to become part of the established, in addition to those simply desiring consideration. The ever-greater aesthetic expectations as regards the scale of productions become the gold standard for emerging artists to measure themselves against, not without palpable consequences. For instance, when receiving grants from the Berlin Senate—which are designed as stipends while requiring detailed and competitive project plans—one must declare not to pay anyone less than the minimum wage of €8.50. However, there are no checks and balances in place; it is largely understood that within common habits of production artists employing others frequently fail to meet this requirement.

In all of this, of course, artists are embedded in larger economic systems of visibility and competition, such as state-of-the-art demands on how art is supposed to look alongside institutional and spectatorial expectations. What kind of scale is considered appropriate for an exhibition to be considered professional, vast and significant? At a Berlin grassroots democratic arts institution with mid-scale funding, where members decide upon the following year’s exhibition programme from a number of proposals, it becomes apparent that those who promise the most—those who are most willing and able to exploit themselves and others—will generally find the membership’s favour. Rarely does somebody propose a project dedicated to the reasonable allocation of this modest budget for an exhibition’s expenses, a handful of artist talks and a catalogue without succumbing to (self-)exploitative strategies since, however, without additional workshop formats, audience-engaging special events, an elevated number of participants, concerts and film screenings, the chances for any proposal to get selected are terribly slim (similar phenomena are observable at biennial or quinquennial expansion projects). All of this is handed down to artists, who are increasingly expected to produce new and site-specific work for each and every exhibition. This leads to an uncomfortable double bind position for the less economically successful artist: to lack the funds to get by herself while having to hand that financial pressure down to co-producers and freelance employees. Even for artists with limited dimensions of support, this creates a split identity of being simultaneously exploiter and exploited. Yet if not only the undeniable precarity of many artists were to remain the sole focus of public debate, but also their simultaneous role as entrepreneurs—modelled in the image of high-profile Artists’ practices—wouldn’t that create material for interesting artworks negotiating such complexities once they are acknowledged? While not reducing the desired absence of gross exploitation to a creative obstacle and whilst not merely considering it a new opportunity to artistically innovate, such an acknowledgement could be the first step towards a conversation in which better conditions could be negotiated and established at large.

1 John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), pp. 54, 87, 156.

2 Mackey and Sisodia, pp. 33-34, 41-43, 46-49.

3 Mackey and Sisodia, pp. 72, 75-76, 158-59.