With the implementation of lockdowns and social distancing measures last year we witnessed an almost overnight closure of a large part of the Australian arts sector, prompting a widespread call for financial support. These calls for assistance often took a well-trodden road, emphasising the significant contribution that the sector makes to the national economy, as well as the role that the arts play as an implement of social cohesion. In light of the economic turmoil and widespread anxiety caused by the pandemic, the arts have even been touted as vital to the process of recovery. Here there is a curious conflation of popular terminology derived from the fields of medicine, psychology and the economic and cultural regime of financialised capitalism. Thus, we find the assertion that the arts are ‘key to building a more resilient and well-resourced society and economy’1 or that support for that arts will ‘nurture the creative thinking needed to rescue us from this prolonged crisis’.2 The artist is presented as a specialist in reweaving the fiscal and social fabric and, beyond the immediate fallout of the pandemic, an engine of creativity crucial to future economic and social development.
In these justifications of the sector the arts are presented as a universally beneficial force, as if all members of society were set to derive value from their continued existence. Concepts such ‘creativity’ and ‘imagination’ — claimed as the unique purview of artists — are presented as tools vital to the ongoing development of the networked economy, and key to negotiating the transformations in work and society that are expected in relation to increasing technical automation.3
The arts are hence framed in terms of an explicitly neoliberal agenda. They are justified through their contribution to the stabilisation of this economic regime, and ultimately in their contribution to profit-making, and hence the continued process of capital accumulation. That the arts are primarily described in these terms is a sign of the times — in the cultural sphere we have internalised the neoliberal ethos of economic rationalism and the pervasive commodification of all aspects of life — but this also points to a serious difficulty faced by the sector in justifying itself in a cultural milieu which is, at best, ambivalent about the place of institutionalised ‘highbrow’ culture.4 This particular crisis is not new, and the effort to dress the arts in the rhetoric of recovery signals a lack of imagination, and perhaps conviction, in the understanding of their significance.
The calls for additional funding or support, reasonable as they may be from the point of view of maintaining the sector, tend to gloss over the point that the value contributed to the national interest is built upon the extensive exploitation of cultural labour. The value that the arts bring to the economy is the result of the collective labour undertaken by artists and other cultural workers who, for the most part, are willing to do this work for free, or for whatever meagre sum can be scraped together by a commissioning institution or funding body to make their activities possible.
As such, developments in the thinking of social reproduction, advanced by feminist theorists and scholars since the 1970s, and with increasing interest in recent years, can provide a vital perspective on the art sector’s uneasy relation to production. Social reproduction, in Marx’s original sense, refers to the processes which support the continuation of commodity production. This is often thought in terms of both the daily return of the worker, rested and revitalised, to their post, as well as the broader processes by which the working class is maintained and reproduced, both materially and ideologically. Feminist-Marxist scholarship has taken up the gendered dimension of this split between production and reproduction, and hence the ways in which labour traditionally performed by women is fundamental to the capitalist economy but not remunerated. The labour of social reproduction has hence been symbolically devalued due to its supposedly peripheral relationship to productive labour (understood as labour which directly produces commodities and therefore surplus value).
Art and cultural work could be considered part of social reproduction (in a broad sense) because it constitutes part of the fabric of the communities on which economic production depends, and more particularly because it plays a part in the process by which stratifications of class are maintained and justified. At the same time, there is a strong sense in which cultural labour is performed and viewed in ways analogous to a more restricted definition of social reproduction (i.e. domestic and emotional labour), in that it is presumed, both broadly in society and by arts institutions and even artists themselves, that this work is in essence not directly productive, and so is naturalised as something which should be performed ‘for love’.5
Of course, domestic labour and institutionalised cultural work have quite different relationships to industry. Some cultural workers are seen as esteemed professionals, and are even paid a living wage. Nevertheless, this group is exceedingly small, while the existence of the sector relies on the labour of a large contingent of workers who are either underemployed or not paid at all. The constant reserve of unemployed practitioners imposes precarity on those employed within the industry, and provides a continuous source of free labour motivated by aspirations to one day receive symbolic or even monetary return.
This reserve of artists, described as ‘dark matter’ by Gregory Sholette, may not see their activities as related to the interests or the audiences of the commercial or mainstream avenues of the sector, but in effect helps to generate the conditions in which particular artworks come to be recognised in those contexts: ‘These hungry lumpen not only compete for the minute rewards doled out by the art world, but they inadvertently prop up the symbolic and fiscal economy of art as they do so.’6 In other words, even though a small percentage of art works realise profit directly, this value is generated by the collective labour and attention of the broad group which maintains the existence of the sector.
More and more, cultural workers come to act like professionals, with degrees, CVs and internship experience, despite remaining for the most part unpaid and without any clear sense of career path. The contiguity between the artist and the ideal of a self-governed, self-made, flexible worker, symbolic of post-Fordist labour, has often been observed. The artist, as creative entrepreneur, forms the model for the individual worker as ‘brand’, and artists are subsequently moulded in this corporate mindset by art schools, funding bodies and galleries, which increasingly demand that the artist take responsibility for social impact, audience building, promotion, media engagement and community outreach. Meanwhile, art institutions are relieved of much of the obligation to underwrite the production of the artist as a professional entity, or to employ dedicated staff to fulfil these interfacing functions.
Black feminists and other theorists of social reproduction have long recognised that the structuring of paid and unpaid labour, and the relative symbolic value attached to its various forms, have been a mechanism for maintaining a given cultural order, including subjugations of race, class and gender.7 Nancy Fraser suggests that to transform these conditions, we need to recognise that social reproduction is not simply the complement of productive labour, but rather forms part of the conditions of possibility of capitalism, understood as both a cultural and economic system.8 This is a call for a denaturalisation of the positioning of reproductive labour, and a recognition of this arena as a site of resistance.
The perceived secondariness of reproduction is linked to both the subjugation of women (which capital has always been happy to profit from) and the contemporary crisis of care that we find ourselves in, in which capitalist production has come to stretch or destroy the reproductive capacities and resources that it depends upon. COVID-19 has exacerbated this crisis of reproduction, to the point where governments have come to lend financial support to some workers in order to prevent a total breakdown in their housing, employment and domestic security. It is natural that workers in the arts might ask for similar support. But to talk of rebuilding and resilience is another matter. Unsurprisingly, the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 crisis have been borne inordinately by women, people of colour and people of lower socio-economic status. This is likely to be largely the same in the arts, a sector in which impediments to participation already exist along class, race and gender lines.
To shift these things, we need not just a recognition of the value of the arts to the current political-economic order, but also a transformation of the relation between production and reproduction, both in terms of reckoning with capital’s exploitation of the labour of reproduction in general, and more particularly in terms of the way the arts are governed and inhabit a particular position in our society. This won’t come from a top- down reform of the sector; it needs to come out of the practices of participants themselves.
The call for help, and for funding more generally, often comprises an endorsement of the sector as it stands, and hence the reinforcement of the status-quo. Instead of arguing for arts’ worth in terms of the production of surplus value, we should be challenging the fact that our activities are framed in this fashion. In following the neoliberal imperative, we remain consistent with the monetisation of still-further aspects of the social sphere.
A host of artist-led campaigns have struggled against the exploitative culture of the arts, and the ways in which cultural capital is appropriated to serve vested interests. Groups like the New York-based Art Workers’ Coalition of the 1970s and the contemporary London-based Precarious Workers Brigade have successfully organised to create significant institutional reforms, addressing the lack of representation of women and people of colour in art museums and the prevalence of unpaid internships.
These initiatives share with social reproduction struggles the attempt to target a broad cultural situation, and therefore the need for a form of organising which traverses the divisions between employers, institutions and industries. Recent feminist strikes, for instance, such as in Argentina in 2016, Spain in 2018 and Poland in 2020, involve a strategic refusal to participate in patriarchal regimes which maintain women’s subordination and tolerate gendered violence. In following the development of social reproduction theory, it becomes clear that what is at stake is not limited to a demand for reforms that would create a more equitable version of the current system. By withdrawing — albeit partially — from the reproduction of that system, these initiatives call for an upheaval of the values that structure it.
Within and beyond the arts, this entails breaking with the normative condition of being usefully productive to capital accumulation, and the sense that one’s value is based on this capacity. This requires a transformation of the narrative regarding the significance of cultural work, and hence the way artists think about themselves. Organised resistance to the neoliberal conditioning of art needs likewise to take place at the sites of those institutions that shape the artist as a public entity, such as art schools, funding bodies and galleries.9
The systematic devaluing of the labour of social reproduction has led feminist theorists and activists to argue for its value, and hence demand its recognition, and even remuneration, within the capitalist economy. As Marina Vishmidt argues, the limitation of this endeavour is that it does not constitute, at least in principle, a challenge to that system.10 Likewise, to change the way art is valued, we need to evacuate it of its nobility. Rather than trying to esteem art as ‘productive work’, we need to imagine and engage in forms of activity disparate to this impoverished criteria.