Contemporary art is kind of a pyramid scheme: the few artists who make a living making art in this speculative market obscure the vast majority who must do all kinds of other work to pay for food, rent and the art practice itself. I say this not to create an us-versus-them situation between more and less ‘successful’ artists — the delineation is obviously not that simple, and the question of what constitutes success remains open. I’m interested in what we all do for the money, and what that means for the art we make.
In his novel A Portrait of Alice as A Young Man (2019), Ender Başkan describes the experience of the relation between waged labour and typically un- or underpaid art practices as having ‘no dependable job because you sell just enough of your labour to buy enough time to do the thing that makes you no money but keeps you alive.’1 Over the last eight years I’ve worked casual jobs in six different printing studios and factories, ranging from small design companies to commercial screen printing factories to fine art printmaking studios. The income from this work has provided me enough money to live, with any excess funding my print-based art practice. At art school I was drawn to the repetitive labour of printing, the mastery required over tools and processes, and the collaborative and social nature of the work. And when I called myself a printer I felt less of the anxiety and embarrassment I associated with being an artist. Partly this was because I didn’t have the guts to defend my own work and partly it was about the money: it felt less risky to try to sell a printing service than an artwork. When I first started working in a factory as a screen printer I felt proud that I was using my art degree to earn a wage.
The art school studio hustle (first to arrive, last to leave, all-night printing marathons) transferred seamlessly into the workplace (accepting working conditions such as 10+ hour days, often in extreme temperatures and without overtime). I had fully internalised the idea that working hard makes you a good person (and worker, and artist). On the home page of my website is a photo of me collapsed next to a drying rack entirely full of screen prints, part way through a project that involved the production of 34,000 prints.2 It reminds me of photos I’ve seen of smoking, burnt-out power tools that have died part way through a job, proof that the operator has been working just so hard that they pushed the tool beyond its limits. But in my photo I am both the operator and the tool. As an artist, I’ve viewed my own capacity to labour as one piece of a production process on the same level as equipment and materials, together forming a business that is larger than myself as an individual. Artists are more than just creators of objects or providers of services; artists are businesses themselves.
After a couple of job changes, and the realisation of just how effectively my self-worth had become tied to my productivity, I found myself listening to David Harvey’s lectures on Marx’s Capital (1867) through the noise-cancelling headphones I was using as de-facto personal protective equipment (PPE) while operating an industrial embroidery machine in a screen printing factory. It was quite something to come to understand the labour theory of value — that labour is the only commodity with the capacity to produce more value than that which it contains — while literally labouring with my hands. At about this time, the machine I was operating was upgraded, quadrupling my productivity. I had no expectation of a corresponding increase to my wage, despite the fact that I now had to work four times faster to feed the four-times-hungrier machine. What I did have was an understanding of the processes at work here: it now took me four times fewer hours to produce the value that covered my wage, meaning that given I was still working the same number of hours, my boss was accumulating a whole lot more surplus value from my labour.
I’m reminded of a comment made by a previous boss: ‘The problem with employees is that they make the same wage no matter how hard they work, while the boss’s income depends on how hard they work.’ In context, they were trying to light a fire under my arse while we were working to a very tight deadline. Out of context, however, it is a profound statement about labour, precisely because it is false. The worker’s side holds up: no matter how hard I work or how much surplus value I generate, there are structural limits to how high my wage can rise (assuming I’m receiving a legally-mandated minimum wage in the first place).3 The boss’s side of the statement is more complex. Typically, the boss’s role is to direct and discipline the production processes under their control, but in almost all of my workplaces they have also worked, to some degree, on the factory floor. In that regard they are technically workers too, but with a unique relationship to the products of their labour (and with the added bonus of being able to surveil the production process from within). So even in this circumstance, the assertion that the boss’s income is dependent on the intensity of their work applies only to the portion of the productive labour they personally undertake, and doesn’t account for all the extra surplus value they collect from the labour of their employees.
An argument I’ve often heard in support of bosses’ ‘right’ to accumulate all of the profit is that they take on the risk of the enterprise, but in my experience of overwhelmingly casual work (as is the norm in more and more industries), when business is slow it’s the worker whose hours or job gets cut, long before the boss takes a cut to their income.
Now I exit the factory and return to the studio where, whether I’m working on an independent project or with other artists, I’m the one in control of the printing press: the means of production. As artists, I think we often make the mistake of aligning ourselves with the capitalist class over the working class, at least partly due to the myth that artistic labour is not ‘real’ work, so therefore we must not be ‘real’ workers. If we’re engaging in a process of production and we — albeit falsely — don’t see ourselves as workers, does that make us capitalists? However, just like not all money is capital, not all production is capitalist. JK Gibson-Graham and the Community Economies Collective’s ‘Diverse Economies Iceberg’ illustrates the extent of productive exchanges already existing in society that do not typically conform to a capitalist mode of production.4 Above the surface are the well-known and highly visible forms of capitalist exchange: wage labour, commodity markets and capitalist enterprise. Below the surface are a wide range of typically non-capitalist forms of exchange: compost, soil nutrition, respiration, parenting, elder care, workers’ co-operatives, housing co-operatives, theft (re- appropriation), gleaning, collective ownership, housework, open-source frameworks, families, imagination. Some of these forms are in transition — being yanked up into the sphere of capitalist production (often with devastating results as with, for example, for-profit elder care), or being slowly reclaimed back from capitalism (for example, an increase in backyard- and community-based food production as a result of the pandemic).
Artistic production is one such transitional form of exchange. Some elements exist firmly within the realm of capitalism, for example the high-value art market and the international art festival circuit, while other elements — including, I’d argue, a significant proportion of artistic labour — don’t adhere to the labour theory of value. Under capitalism, the only labour considered productive is that which produces value in excess of the remuneration it receives for that quantity of labour time.5 If my daily wage in the screen printing factory is $200, I must produce more than $200 worth of value within that day to be considered productive. Artistic labour, however, frequently lacks this clear relationship between labour time expended and value produced.
I once had a job producing the photographic screens used to print designs onto garments, in which I was expected to produce at least sixteen screens from start to finish in five hours. It was a multi-step process, taking a screen from its finished state — still holding the stencil from the previous print job — through reclaim, coating, exposure, washout, inspection and blockout to the point where the new design is ready to print. I earned $125 for five hours of labour and the screens I produced brought in at least $1200 of revenue. Of course my labour was not the only cost involved in producing these screens — other factors of production including administrative and graphic design labour, raw materials, equipment costs and factory rent also need to be accounted for. I don’t know the cost of those factors, so I don’t know how much surplus value was generated through this production process (that’s alienation for you).
In contrast, during a recent residency project I spent about twenty hours making one screen, using a much less efficient hand-painting process. I used the screen to produce four copies of a print — one of which I gave away for free; the remaining three are still sitting in my studio — before cleaning it off ready for another project. Putting aside the fact that I didn’t produce these prints with the end goal of selling them in the first place, let’s say I ultimately sell them for $50 each, making a total of $150. If I value the associated twenty hours of labour at the same rate as my factory work, then we can say that $500 of value has been consumed by the process. As such, the process has been incredibly unproductive, in that less value was produced than went into it in the first place. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t ‘worth’ doing, but if I want to keep making work in this way I need to keep my day job so that I can buy the time required to do it.
I once worked in a renowned fine art printmaking studio that produced only a handful of prints each year. As is the case for the speculative economy of art, the prices assigned to artworks produced in this studio bear little relation to the labour that produced them. Instead, it is speculative factors, including perceptions of exclusivity, reputation and investment potential, that ultimately determine the price a collector is willing to pay for an artwork. Even in the print studio where artworks are produced as multiples — ostensibly to facilitate distribution beyond the reaches of the singular art object — scarcity is still enforced as a way of inflating value.
One way of dealing with the speculative nature of art production and valuation is to make art as cheaply as possible. If I can’t know at what price, or even if I’ll be able to sell an artwork, then I’m going to minimise what I spend to produce it. Vertical integration is when a business acquires specialised equipment and knowledge in order to bring multiple stages of production — and the associated profit— in-house, instead of having to pay another business to do it for them. All of the printing businesses I’ve worked in have practised vertical integration to some degree. Where my own practice is concerned, in the past I made photographic screens using equipment at my old university print studio, an arts centre and my workplace. When I moved cities, I decided to invest in my own screen print exposure unit as I didn’t yet know where to go or who to ask to access their gear. On the one hand, now I can make my own screens whenever I want; on the other hand, the self-sufficiency has led to a kind of isolation that makes it harder to build alternative communities of production.
If the last thing I want to do is to recreate the factory in my art practice, then what is the first thing I want to do? Kill the boss in my head, which is an ongoing process. It might start with challenging the false scarcity and competition that permeates contemporary art. Rather than seeing other artists working in similar contexts to me as a threat, I’ve been trying to consider the value of being part of a community of printers. What are the things we’re able to do together that we can’t do by ourselves? Valuing solidarity over competition won’t end capitalism on its own, but there is a collective resilience that comes with it that can help in the fight.