We're writing about your labor, and how you choose to engage it.
This letter is addressed to you in the singular because you are a worker in the singular. As Artist, you work alone and in competition with your peers. You are a speculator betting on your own unlikely success, and if you fail it’s because you have failed to work hard enough. You have no choice but to exploit not only yourself but also inadvertently all those working along the supply chain. You are a contracted subcontractor, a self-employed employer, and you are often unemployed—but without being anyone's employee your ability to organize is limited.
None of this makes you singular, either as a worker or as a work force. These are the conditions under which many people labor today. What makes you singular is your willingness to work not for a low wage but for free.
Artist, in as much we each enable exploitation we also have the capacity to resist it. And we need to do this now, during what is a critical moment of transition. Because as the slow motion transfer of presidential power has begun, so too has a preemptive nostalgia for a politically progressive art world and the calls to maintain it as such in the face of what's to come.
But before we heed or make any calls in defense of progressive values, we have to come to terms with what’s wrong with the art world insofar as it’s built on and enriches itself through free labor.
As it turns out, what’s wrong with the art world is no different than what’s wrong with the rest of the world. In fact it is the art world’s perception of itself as having a unique form of wrongness, as being other than—as being exceptional—that impedes it from realizing in material terms the political and moral claims it makes for itself in theoretical ones.
The fact that over many decades little to no progress has been made to correct the systemic racism and institutionalized white supremacy that underpins it, despite ongoing attempts to demonstrate otherwise, makes clear just how unexceptional the art world really is.
Even though it is made up of a for-profit and a non-profit sector, the world of art is an industry just like any other. All of its supporting institutions, including philanthropy, contribute to its perpetuation and growth as such, and all those who contribute to its economy by facilitating the production and distribution of art products, including and especially artists, are wholly unexceptional in their support for and exploitation by it. The role of art and artists within this multibillion-dollar industry is to serve capital—just like everyone else.
But there is an important distinction between the role of artists in the art industry and our status. Unlike our role, our status can be described as exceptional. Even though our participation inevitably serves capital, artists are uniquely enabled to work both for and against it at the same time. Today institutions expect artists to question and attempt to subvert the aesthetic, political, material, social, and economic conditions from which we operate. This makes it sound like we get to have it both ways and it appears to be a privilege. But this privilege comes at a cost: our status is only exceptional as long as we don’t get paid.
Here is the problem: we have been led to believe that getting paid to work against the very forces that render our art world an industry just like any other will render meaningless our political potential as artists. But think of it this way, not getting paid by an industry in which you and your work support a billionaire class and a transnational elite is precisely what renders meaningless your political potential as an artist. The demand to be paid is a political one.
Here is what we must do: we must put our exceptionality to work. Putting our exceptionality to work means claiming the privilege of having it both ways. It means dissenting from the industry that we serve by demanding to be paid for the content we provide. And this demand can no longer be made on the basis of being an impoverished, marginalized, and exploited constituency. While there is still steep class stratification between artists, the art field is inarguably an elite one. This means that the demand for compensation must be made on behalf of a broader class struggle that extends well beyond the field’s impossibly high barriers to entry.
W.A.G.E. agitates for the wholesale redistribution of resources within this industry and proposes forms of union building based on individual self-organization grounded in collective struggle that must take place laterally across class. Keep your ear to the ground. WAGENCY is coming.
Working Artists and the Greater Economy
WAGENCY is a broad-based coalition and artist certification program intended to provide working artists with the necessary agency to negotiate compensation or withhold content and services from institutions that refuse to pay them fees according to W.A.G.E. standards—a new form of labor organizing for an unpaid and atomized work force. Due to launch in the coming months.
We'll be ready when you are.
W.A.G.E. is generously supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, the Henry S. and Margaret Gay Mika Charitable Foundation, and numerous individuals.