State of the Union: Gregory Sholette on Artistic Labor

By Sholette, Gregory | Artforum International, April 2008 | Go to article overview

State of the Union: Gregory Sholette on Artistic Labor


Sholette, Gregory, Artforum International


BEFORE AN ARTWORK can be exhibited, before it represents or refuses to represent anything, before it can be dealt, sold, or collected, there come research and planning, gathering tools, purchasing materials, and even alerting networks. Whether the outcome is an object, document, gesture, or performance, it is, obviously, the result of labor. When Nicolas Bourriaud describes an artwork as "a dot on a line," it is this indivisibility of labor and result that he seeks to capture. But it is not the "line" that museums and collectors covet--it is the "dot," perhaps most appropriately envisioned as a red sticker. In this near-feral market, the artwork has increasingly become the focus, which probably explains why so little attention is paid to the conditions of artistic labor, even among artists themselves.

This was not always the case. Contrary to the oft-cited canard that artists are too independent to work together, the United States has a substantial history of artistic guilds, unions, associations, and collectives, many of which began in the Depression of the 1930s. While some half-million painters, printmakers, muralists, and sculptors found employment through work-relief programs managed by the Federal Art Project (FAP; a unit of the Works Progress Administration), many sought better pay and greater job security and challenged race-based discrimination through their own independently organized groups. In 1935, the Harlem Artists Guild pressured the local FAP to hire more African-American artists not only as muralists but also as project supervisors. One year later, artist Stuart Davis and other members of the Communist Party launched the American Artists' Congress, which agitated for a permanent federal arts work program and proposed that museums pay rental fees to artists (a demand echoed thirty years later by the Art Workers' Coalition). One member, painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi, later presided over the Artists' Equity Association (AEA), which was established during the conservative years of postwar "normalization," when radicals were purged from unions, women were fired from factories, and artists began to abandon picket lines for their studios. The AEA later split into two organizations, both of which continue to press for artists' legal rights and for ethical business practices among dealers.

It was not until the years of the "Great Refusal," as Herbert Marcuse described the '60s and '70s, that artists again took up militant self-organizing, often identifying with a blue-collar workforce already coming under pressure to accept pension cuts and disband unions. In January 1969, a group of artists and critics that included Vassilakis Takis from Greece, Hans Haacke from Germany, Wen-Ying Tsai from China, and Tom Lloyd, Willoughby Sharp, and John Perreault from the United States established the Art Workers' Coalition (AWC). The coalition quickly drew several hundred people to its open-door meetings, among them familiar names such as Carl Andre, Benny Andrews, Gregory Battcock, Lee Lozano, and Lucy Lippard. At first, the AWC functioned much like a trade union. It treated museums, their boards, and their top administrators as if they constituted a managerial front for the interests of the commercial art world. The group presented a list of thirteen demands to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1969 (the following year, these were boiled down to nine and addressed to "art museums in general"). Among the reforms called for was a royalties system by which collectors would pay artists a percentage of profits from the resale of their work. The AWC also proposed the creation of a trust fund that would provide living artists "stipends, health insurance, help for artists' dependents and other social benefits"; a levy on the sale of work by dead artists would ensure the fund's endowment. The coalition also demanded that museums "should be open on two evenings until midnight and admission should be free at all times. …

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