1. The allure of the ‘personal brand’
In his One Market Under God, Thomas Frank describes how, during the dot com boom, employers encouraged young coders to identify as anti-authoritarian creatives, letting them sport zany haircuts, listen to indy rock in the office and cover themselves in tattoos. Yet because their rebelliousness was purely aesthetic and explicitly individualist, it worked out quite nicely for management, thank you very much: the young rebels disdained collective organisation as irredeemably old fashioned, and so could all be smartly marched out the door as soon as the economy turned sour.
Something similar happens within literature though with worse haircuts and more tweed.
Jyotsna Kapur describes the prevalence of what she calls "an old narrative" about the arts: an idea "that artists are genius outsiders, voices of dissent, rugged lonesome individuals who live on the margins, victims of economic marginalisation and social misunderstanding, with a special, even sacred relationship to their art that must be protected from the intrusions of the world."This sense of artistic endeavour as inherently rebellious — "subversive", if you like — helps legitimise the Dalkey-style workplace, since, Kapur argues, rather than being somehow anomalous, artists are actually exemplary neoliberal employees — especially since they don’t realise it.
Think about how writers are accustomed to honing their skills on their own time. They often pay for their own training, through courses or university degrees. By and large, they don’t join unions; they understand their careers in purely individual terms — indeed, they’re often told to think of themselves as "brands". They’re not only willing to accept short-term contracts, they’re pathetically grateful for them — every creative writing student dreams of a book deal.
Jeff Sparrow in Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?, at New Matilda.
2. The sense of ‘devotion to the art’
As we all know theatre reviewing/criticism is in its death throes. For print media it’s all over bar the counting – where I used to get up between 800 and 1200 words when I was at the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake gets a couple of hundred. (…)
The announcement last week that Alison Croggon is retiring her Melbourne-based blog should sent a bleak and urgent warning to the industry. Alison is super-women – not only were her reviews of the highest order, nothing in the country anywhere near like it. She also managed a creative writing career to which is now intending to commit full time. As she should. She has left behind a 9-year legacy – an intimate and informed and impassioned legacy – with a huge local and international profile. Thanks to the help of no-one (officially). Actors complain about co-op rates – reviewing nowadays is one step down to the zero dollars in return. Even successful print outlets like Time Out don’t pay any more. And it shows.
Free tickets to the serious critic come with a burden of responsibilities. They’re not lollies as editors seem to think as they keep their main eye on the financial bottom line.
(…) The relationship between theatre companies and critics has always had its ups and downs. It is to entirely misunderstand the job if publicists think our purpose is to put bums on seats. That can happen – hopefully many many times. But that is the publicists job not ours. On any given show the reviewer is there to represent the interests of the company (at least keeping in mind its goals), but also offer feedback to the artists involved, feedback to the audience who has seen the show, readers who are thinking of seeing the show, and readers who just want at least a little info in hand for that next dinner party. Plus the reviewer keeps a kind of record book – in my view the most important responsibility. To assist with the collation of a history.
The biggest problem about the current situation is this. Theatre lives and dies on the night – apart from the mark it strikes on our souls. The good critic is not the person sitting in row G who sees ‘more and better’ (though the best of us do accrue a certain discernment over time). Our gift is to DESCRIBE in WORDS what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show. (…)
We are entering a time when the theatre industry is relying on the good will and huge efforts of the likes of Alison and myself for its endeavours to be remembered. When will I get to the point at which, like Alison, I say ‘enough is enough’. What will be left to remember of your efforts? Your life’s work as artists – achievements, setbacks and recoveries. There will be no history – not even written in sand.
Theatre is not cinema or a novel. We can’t go back to the opening night of Baz Lurhmann’s La Boheme or Armfield’s Cloudstreet. Imagine someone in 20 years saying: “I never new Cate Blanchett acted on stage – nothing here on Google”. (…) People in twenty/fifty years time will find no meaningful (extensive and reliable) record of what ever happened at Australia’s most renowned venue over these recent years. Very clearly marketing departments sit above publicists nowadays in the hierarchy. And their view would be: who needs feedback after a show – esp if it’s sold out in advance – end of story – job done. (…) And meanwhile the rest of the performing arts gets a few ill-informed grabs from freebie happy wannabes.
James Waites at Alison Croggon Retires Theatre Notes at jameswaites.com.
3. Economic privilege
People from richer backgrounds are three times more likely to have undertaken unpaid internships than those from poorer backgrounds, according to a recent survey conducted by NUS and YouGov. I have managed to support myself with my student loan while working for free, but when I graduate, unpaid work will no longer be an option. Yet I am constantly being told that I should expect to work for free after graduating.
After my seventh internship, I decided enough was enough. I have become actively involved in the campaign against unpaid internships, both at my university and nationally. I have protested outside a famous PR company, and I gave official evidence to the Low Pay Commission, which is currently investigating unpaid internships.
When I talk to students about unpaid internships, one common response is: “But I don’t mind working for free.” What I hear is: “I can afford to work for free.” My involvement in the campaign has made me much more conscious of my individual responsibility. If I were to take on unpaid work now, I would be very aware that, by doing so, I am not just saying that I don’t deserve a wage, but that my peers and friends don’t either.
For every person who can work for free, there are so many who simply cannot afford to. This means that they are being shut out of many careers where internships are an essential part of your CV.
4. Self-identification as ‘free’, ‘independent’ ‘elite’ and ‘privileged’
Contemporary art’s workforce consists largely of people who, despite working constantly, do not correspond to any traditional image of labor. They stubbornly resist settling into any entity recognizable enough to be identified as a class. While the easy way out would be to classify this constituency as multitude or crowd, it might be less romantic to ask whether they are not global lumpenfreelancers, deterritorialized and ideologically free-floating: a reserve army of imagination communicating via Google Translate.
Instead of shaping up as a new class, this fragile constituency may well consist—as Hannah Arendt once spitefully formulated—of the “refuse of all classes.” These dispossessed adventurers described by Arendt, the urban pimps and hoodlums ready to be hired as colonial mercenaries and exploiters, are faintly (and quite distortedly) mirrored in the brigades of creative strike workers propelled into the global sphere of circulation known today as the art world.5 If we acknowledge that current strike workers might inhabit similarly shifting grounds—the opaque disaster zones of shock capitalism—a decidedly un-heroic, conflicted, and ambivalent picture of artistic labor emerges.
Hito Steyerl in Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, at e-flux.
5. The belief that the self-exploitation will lead to increased employment opportunities for oneself, rather than decrease them for everyone in the sector.
Why is working in the realms of “culture” and academia so undervalued? Not only by the instutions that hire, but also by the good, committed workers themselves who will step on each other for the next available job? It’s equally worth organizing adjuncts as it is art-workers. he work doesn’t get done without us. Some institutions know this and act on it. When workers in any field collectivize and strategize to confront management, management listens and attempts to compromise. This is just the first step, that often rewards its participants with euphoria. It gets more difficult after that, but a necessary step to make. It is worthwhile to at least imagine what labor unions for art workers and adjuncts might look like. It’s worthwhile to imagine how good things could possibly be, as there are more than enough examples to point to as examples of what is bad.