writing commissioned by Aislinn Evans for their 'Chump Change' publication FREE here via Unbound Books
words by Harry Josephine Giles, Raju Rage and Stephen Pritchard
Art isn't dying but I'm getting fired.
‘Writing’s not an art with me it’s a job, a craft. I graft at it, people say I’m a writer but really I’m a grafter. I’m a lathe operative turning words, I’m a panel beater hammering sentences into shape. I’m a master baker-’
Victoria Wood, Episode 6 (Staying In)
I head to my studio at the post-industrial estate (sometimes the industry is still there, although I’m not sure which kind) I step inside and stare at the wall for 5 hours. I take out my laptop and struggle to plug it in. I move some things around. When my tracksuit becomes adequately dusty and paint splattered, I can go home. I have not been paid for my labour. I realise, sadly, that I am being my own boss and - to paraphrase Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle - my boss is a real asshole.
Put Artists on the boards of things! Make Artists work with scientists! Put an Artist in control of the nuclear button! Put Artists hairdressers in schools, put Artists surgeons in HR, send Artists landscape gardeners to Mars! (Calls to put cleaners on the boards of directors would actually be a bit radical. Calls to replace cleaners with Artists would be a whole mess). Putting Artists on the boards of companies sounds like, forgive me, a fucking stupid idea and you don’t have to take my word for it because they tried it in the 60s. One has to wonder, why would this be put forward as any kind of solution to a problem that is directly linked to the mere existence of ‘boards’? Is it a nice distraction from the real demand for worker’s control? Is it a nice distraction from the fact that many of these industries must be completely dismantled?
Artists can be handy for this because we are allegedly a cerebral, imaginative bunch prone to flights of fantasy. We’ve been trained to speak in vagaries and so are quite useful in instrumentalising diversions. We aren’t, as a group, particularly more aware of systems of oppression than anyone else of the same economic relation, and unlike many other jobs our economic relations themselves can vary greatly. Connection to the Art world can provide a window to upper class society that I doubt I would’ve experienced otherwise, which was helpful for cementing my hatred of the world as it exists and the rich people who keep it that way (see - that poster hanging in certain self-aggrandizing Art Offices which reads “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous."— Queen Victoria) But this connection could easily go the other way, especially for those already connected and/or with less reason to object to the status quo (which, famously, is the majority demographic of the ‘Creative Industries’).
It might be useful (for the purposes of this garbled thought-spiral at least) to make a distinction between an Artist: someone who refers to themselves as an Artist; someone who makes some kind of money from Art via the Arts Industry; and an artist: literally everyone. And if at an idealistic conceptual level everyone is an artist, how useful is it as a category to organise around? Are Artists workers or are they special? I find the two get mashed together too often in such a way that it renders the term 'worker' as meaningless as 'artist', rather than the aim which I imagine is the opposite. Worker becomes idealised, work becomes idealised, and people spend longer feeling embarrassed about being petit bourgeois than they do organising around their work. I flit between the two depending on how much I have been paid by the Arts Industry for my Art Work that year (currently hovering around £2000 if including therightlube consolidated industries LOL - I made about £300 from just my own Art practise) as well as how rude Artists have been to me in my front of house job (furloughed this year but still annoyed). Generally, being around the Art Industry makes my world and imagination shrink.
It’s misguided to claim any group as more inherently radical than anyone else - but it feels particularly foolish to claim it of Artists. Many of us younger lot have been through a thoroughly neoliberal education and imagine saying things like ‘working class Gallery Director’ counts as resistance. Some of us are just muppets! Why expect Artists to have the secret to a better world, have you met us? Perhaps if we could express things like that with words, we wouldn’t be making art. It’s just another way of justifying Art as Useful, which is a slippery slope. Let people make their art, give them space to make the work that can ‘imagine new worlds’ or whatever it is, pay people to make this art rather than speak awkwardly on a panel about it.
Of course, I believe that those instrumentalizing a centering of Artists - politically, socially, economically - don’t really think Artists are radical, which is why Artists chosen: we can be Useful idiots. And Artists go up for it because speaking gigs and the like are a potentially lucrative side hustle to an Art career which can actively assist in one's career - unlike some of the less discussed side hustles of less successful artists (sex work, service industry work, precarious work outside of the academy etc.). The projects and symposiums and schemes and lobbying themselves become a selective stop-gap to the solution they are allegedly focused on providing. They are self replicating and therefore unfocussed on necessary, difficult change - from those funding it (because they don’t actually want to make changes that would disadvantage them) and those invited (because they won’t be invited back if they call bullshit). We’ve seen this trend growing (during lockdown but present before) on /the left/ where I worry about a centring, distinction and exceptionalising of Artists over those directly bearing the brunt of the worst effects of capital, and those doing the grassroots work to fight against it. Sometimes this is the very same person, but too often the Artist is chosen by virtue of being legible as an Artist to the very same standards of the capitalist Art industry.
These Artists - successful Artists - are hard to categorise as workers. They likely have a not-insignificant network of workers below them. If not assistants, at the very least packers and shippers and installers. I would like to hear from these people (who are also probably capital A Artists!), and their experience working under a Jeremy Deller type, rather than the man himself for a change. These are the Artists approached to speak at the picket line as the closest thing we've got to a celebrity. I worry we place too much importance on the Arts & Cultural Industry in general, that it is just a slightly more high-brow form (i.e. less fun) of a celebrity culture that must be ended. The World Transformed was weird vibes and Corbyn lost. How much power do Artists really have? Even successful Artists do not seem to have much power over their own labour: if they can't take action against institutions for their own benefit, how effective is it for them to speak out on behalf of workers? Are they using their privilege or just being performative?
So what power does the Artist have here? We like to imagine the Artists’ power is in their Artwork but if they are to be looked at as workers, their power is in withdrawing their labour. What would an institutional Art strike, where Artists refuse to deliver their Art work to institutions, look like? How could this be achieved without someone scabbing? What effects would this have on the Art Industry? We’ve seen last year’s Turner Prize winners share their prize, rejecting competition and seizing collective power: a powerful message and action. Their action’s impact can perhaps be felt in Tate’s decision to turn the prize into a series of bursaries this year. It was a courageous stance, doubly so because even seemingly successful artists in our current landscape can be lucky to scrape a decent yearly salary from their work. This leads me to wonder how Artists kept out of even the smallest degrees of success can organise as Artists, when many of us end up leaving the Art Industry altogether. The hierarchies of success in the Art World - as well as usually being inextricable from hierarchies of race, gender etc. - are in themselves a tactic to break solidarity and keep conditions poor for the majority: Artists like dock-workers lined up at the pier of the Arts Council, waiting to be picked, while the same Artists get chosen again and again to back up a false notion of meritocracy and value.
The Artist’ Union England has a strict membership criteria which fails to challenge this central concern: lack of paid work compounded by hierarchies of success. UVW’s Cultural Workers sector has no such criteria and focuses on the instability of freelance work, unpaid internships and other concrete issues which affect Cultural Workers. They organise drawing on experience of the gig economy, which overlaps with the experience of Cultural Workers who rely on freelance or project based work. My knowledge of their work is too limited to speak on, but I may join them once I am out of the service industry and out of a union (dear reader please join a union and/or if your workplace isn’t unionised start organising with your fellow workers!) I raise this only to draw parallels between the Arts and other industries where many big unions have become overly bureaucratic, run by administrators on high salaries who simply want to ensure cooperation between boss and worker and manage shitty conditions rather than unseat the bosses altogether. Join a union because it’s a way to collectivise as workers which is an incredibly important tactic, not because all unions are great and have wonderful politics.
If it currently feels like a fight to even get work - as an Artist and/or a Worker, I’m currently out of work in both categories - how can we maintain our real goal which is not having to work at all?
I’m tired of all these different forms of trying to make Artists useful: from pie charts of how much money the Creative Industries brings in, debates over whether Artists are ‘essential workers’, Artists being instrumentalized for Institutional Diversity and Artists being held up as experts on the identity or position they inhabit. T shirts that say ‘Everyone’s work is equally important’ (I’ve never seen anyone except middle class professionals in the creative industries wearing one of those). Is it? I’m happy to go out on a limb and say that garbage collection is more important than T-shirt design. If I am dying of a heart attack, I don't want an artist to come and help me and apologies for being facetious but I mean this as a compliment. To treat the artist as a specific job akin to emergency services does it a disservice. The pandemic has taught us a valuable lesson on what we need to survive: shelter, food, healthcare, and that our access to these things are woefully lacking and dependent on our economic status. Living and thriving is something else, something essential but something even more difficult to hold on to in our current system. Something I don’t think we can get by recategorizing things as essential or important or even 'work', by holding up pie charts as a gotcha. It doesn’t make sense to fetishise work - to claim work as skilled, to claim work as essential - when it doesn’t make sense for us to be working. As an artist, I don’t want to be represented as a social good or a big chunk of GDP for a country that won’t give me trans healthcare or housing, a country which brutalises people. I don’t want to be categorised as essential because I want to be able to just make art when I feel like it, and I want nurses and doctors and garbagemen and shop workers and fruit pickers to be able to do this too, which they could if work was shared out and not in service to capital.
We have a wealth of material outlining utopias, the whole point of which is NOT working all the time or being defined solely by our labour. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Reinventing the wheel at every panel discussion may as well be turning a wheel that isn’t attached to anything, treading a treadmill just to look busy, working working working JOBS JOBS JOBS. Of course, this is quite a nice grift and I wouldn’t expect those in a relatively precarious industry to turn it down. I’m in fact doing this very grift right now! I’ve had much more luck getting money and attention with bratty criticism, discussions, conversations and workshops than I have for my art. Some of this is fun, some of it feels like repeating myself, and when I get time to read and learn as I did at the start of lockdown before my brain checked out I get to know that I’m just saying things that others before me have already said better. We could have turned ‘therightlube’ into much more of a ‘success’, I’m sure, but a global pandemic happened and even before that we didn’t see much merit in churning out writing for the sake of it with the increasingly slim possibility of getting a patreon following or solid institutional gigs. There's much more important work to be done, and never enough time to do it. I’m tired of vague new manifestos coming out every six weeks to six months. Maybe now we’ve both been fired (twice! each!) this will change - but the hustle doesn’t feel as lucrative as it is tiring. Universal Credit, a deeply cruel and exclusionary system that should not exist, has still given me more money than the Art Industry ever has.
Art will never die. People have always made art - with or without acclaim or support. A lot of the best art is made by people who never got any of these things. Art isn’t dying because terrible institutions are laying off workers - isn’t the worker’s fate (me lol) bad enough without falling to hyperbole? Art isn’t dying, but I’m getting fired. It feels odd to despair over an imagined loss of the Tate when that place should be torn down (or repurposed, to be more eco-friendly). I acknowledge that dreams of reparations, of workers control, of at the very least increased diversity in the art shown at Tate can feel even further away the more it slides into corporatism, but our reaction to that cannot be to beg for more of the same. Let’s not pretend that Southbank Centre is a socialist institution. Southbank may have been set up by the 1945 Labour government, but it was always a top down bureaucracy, it was never under worker’s control, and it was funded (much like Labour’s other progressive policies) with colonial riches. Now that Corbyn’s been shafted we can stop pretending to be social democrats and get an actual critique! As workers we’ve learnt the hard way that we’ll never be listened to at Southbank, Tate etc. without a fight. PCS have been fighting hard for us and have been met with disrespect, obfuscation and dismissal from management, which is unsurprising! The redundancies have decimated the union (a clear ideological goal of these institutions - covid is just a handy excuse) which is much more concerning than the fate of some abstract faintly nationalist idea of ‘the Arts’. Successful Artists are still calling on Art Institutions to be better, to take their side. If we are generous, their success has made them hope, misguidedly, that this is possible. If we are less generous, they are simply coaxing the hand that feeds them. As success continues to shrink, I hope such Artists will reconsider but really what they get up to isn't that important. Despite all the noise made, all the press and the support, the strike ballot at Southbank didn’t get enough votes to go ahead and that’s that. I cannot know exactly why that is, but I speculate a combination of hopelessness and a remaining romanticism surrounding the Southbank, an imaginary future where we all get our jobs back. The Tate strike continues, and more power to them!
From my position, I do not care about ‘the Arts’. The class who control the Arts don’t even care about the future of the Arts - which is why calling them out for hypocrisy or appealing to their Artistic integrity inevitably fails. Elaine Bedell wrote a book about having sex with Jeremy Clarckson, for fuck’s sake! The rich these days are doing coke on their yachts listening to EDM from 5 years ago. They’re thinking more about VR porn and trips to Mars than whatever clunky audiovisual installation we’re making. The upper class patrons of the Arts are a dying breed, and good riddance tbh. I don’t care about the vision of the Arts that some want to save. I care about losing my job, a job I didn’t even particularly like, because Universal Credit is designed to harm. I care about losing a job after I just spent a great deal of time and mental energy coming out as trans, when I know trying to get a job when I’m out will be a nightmare, and when I’m closeted not much better. I do not want to lose my job but I also do not want to go back to it. Much like the majority of people in this country, I do not want to go back to normal.
I don’t want to be the Art Industry’s best little worker.
I don't want things just to be better for Artists
So what does this mean for now? How can we do less and still live? Are there times when a simple No ❤️is enough? Can we spread the opportunities out thinner between us? Certain artists and collectives and organisations have already been doing this - giving out a small percentage of their income to a less successful and/or more marginalised artist, or working collaboratively on grants or bringing in artists to work with them and splitting the income. We’ve materially benefited from wonderful older queer artists doing just this to help us out. Can we build upon these small acts of mutual aid, link up with union work, stand in solidarity with more oppressed workers and pin our sights on storming the gates of the Arts Council to take what’s ours? (I hope so! Our local arts index has been getting v political, teaming up with anti-gentrification work and is challenging funders and administrators to pay local people for their input as a minimum demand. I doubt this would be happening if its founder wasn’t committed to an egalitarian vision of art, if most of us weren’t ‘successful’ in the Industry meaning, or if we were funded)
I don't care to attempt to provide quick fixes for Artists much more successful than me, or for Art organisations that feel bad. I literally don’t know enough about it even if I cared because I have been kept out of the Art Industry even despite my many advantages (white, went to a prestigious art school, not so dyslexic that I can’t navigate some applications). I think some Artists are and will remain traitors and hacks and scabs, where others are comrades. I remain a little suspicious of people whose primary identifier is ‘Artist’.
In the meantime, i.e. before revolution, I will try to cultivate a rejection of productivity and embracing of joy. This embracing of joy is I think what people are trying to do by centring Artists. Unfortunately, many of us are miserable - but I am trying to be better. For me, in my own small way, it’s meant not applying for things that I don’t want to do, not trusting that Art=net good, interrogating, intervening and obstructing Art industry processes that will be negative (such as large consortium led projects like CPPs or City of Culture that occur at the same time as redevelopment plans) and linking up with others to do so, not being a useful idiot or a useful worker, not demanding from myself that I excel as an individual in a world designed to keep people like me tired and working and in my spot, by putting in the bare minimum, doing benefit fraud, not asking people ‘so, what do you do?’ at parties, having friends not colleagues, career self sabotage, being critical, talking to people who aren’t Artists, joining the union of the place I actually work(ed) at, having unproductive hobbies, not letting people who are hiring me treat me like a mate, not viewing activism as a resource for Art generation. At some point I will make another piece of art, but I’m trying not to hurry.