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On Art and Labour: Dilemmas of the Emerging Artist

From the very beginning, artists are trained and expected to sacrifice everything for their art, including their own self-interest. Emerging artists are repeatedly instructed to keep nominal prices. They are taught not to expect nor demand full compensation for their material and immaterial labour, but to compromise for the sake of their own career. “Don’t worry about money, just get your work out there”, is a frequently heard phrase. It is this initial compromise (for the sake of exposure) that becomes a defining feature of the emerging artist’s relationship with the art world.
Money should never be the end game, we are told; the sanctity of art lies outside of commerce. It is this deliberate separation of art from commerce that prevents us from viewing and discussing artistic practice as a form of labour. As a result, there is deafening silence on crucial issues around ethics and exploitation of art labour in Pakistan. In an attempt to address this silence, this essay began as a series of conversations with young artists about art, value and labour; about expectations from the art world and subsequent realities; about struggles and concerns regarding exploitative practices; and about spaces of negotiable resistance.
One of the artists I spoke to related that earning a living as a full-time practicing artist is incredibly difficult, “especially since people assume that artists come from privileged backgrounds with the security of money.” There are too many expectations of charity and self-sacrifice from the working artist. There is a prevailing assumption that “my love for art is, and should be, the sole motivation for my career. There is no room to talk about my desire or need to earn money.”
Another artist recalled having “naïve and highly unrealistic expectations” of his future art career. He explained that the hope of all students during their BFA thesis show is to be picked up by a “star-maker” – a term coined by students to describe the influential collectors, curators and critics who can make or break careers. However, instant fame and recognition, glamour and wealth, are one of the many art myths that students are fed.
Another artist explained that the art market, despite its speculative and volatile nature, is a looming presence in the artist’s mind. Even students who are producing their thesis need to keep the market in mind. Not only does the red tag set the criteria for the art work, but also becomes the sole definition for success. “In a world where the sale defines the artist’s worth and value, the question of pricing becomes very important. How should an artist ethically price their work?” she wonders. If an emerging artist charges too much, they are seen as too money-minded; if they charge too little, they are not worthy enough.
Often those who rely solely on their artistic practice to earn a living are labelled as too commercial, while those perhaps with more class privilege are considered the legitimate contemporary artists. This artist explains: “There is a very thin line that differentiates the commercial from the contemporary artist.” Emerging artists navigate this thin line with much caution, since no one wants to be attached to the stigma of “selling out.” As a result, this navigation often comes at the expense of earning actual money. A recent report on Cultural and Creative Industries in Pakistan published by the British Council states:
“Artists themselves evidence a range of attitudes towards the economic viability of their creative activity. Second jobholding is common with no expectation that the creative work will be able to become a full-time activity. There is a strong aesthetic sensibility that places the contemporary artist at one remove from the market.”
From my conversations, it became apparent that huge gaps exist between the hopes and dreams of economic viability and the realities on the ground. Fresh graduates face constant pressures from galleries to lower prices. When they try to justify the price as remuneration for their labour spent on the artwork, they are often told that exposure should be an adequate substitute for compensation. While exposure and networking are crucial components for artistic success, we must stop to think about these constant monetary compromises, which are reflective of an economic art system that capitalizes on emerging artistic talent.
Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), a New York based activist group formed in 2008, provides a new and urgent framework for thinking about the artist’s relation to the art economy. Below are a few sentences from their manifesto:
W.A.G.E. WORKS TO DRAW ATTENTION TO ECONOMIC INEQUALITIES THAT EXIST IN THE ARTS, AND TO RESOLVE THEM.
W.A.G.E. HAS BEEN FORMED BECAUSE WE, AS VISUAL + PERFORMANCE ARTISTS AND INDEPENDENT CURATORS, PROVIDE A WORK FORCE.
W.A.G.E. BELIEVES THAT THE PROMISE OF EXPOSURE IS A LIABILITY IN A SYSTEM THAT DENIES THE VALUE OF OUR LABOR.
AS AN UNPAID LABOR FORCE WITHIN A ROBUST ART MARKET FROM WHICH OTHERS PROFIT GREATLY, W.A.G.E. RECOGNIZES AN INHERENT EXPLOITATION AND DEMANDS COMPENSATION.
Although some may object to this positioning of art as work and labour, there is an urgent need for public dialogue that critiques the economic structures of the institutionalized art world. It is important to acknowledge the economic inequalities that exist, and to question the wealth accumulated by others at the expense of our in-kind labour. As William Powhida brilliantly writes in his essay, Why Do We Expect Artists To Work For Free, Here’s How We Can Change The System, one of the challenges for artists now is “to see ourselves as part of broader existing struggles instead of treating artistic labour as unique. Art may be special, but work is work.”
One excuse often used to shut down the debate is that “this is Pakistan, we don’t have government funding or support”, so it’s just not practical to talk about artist fees, compensation and such. However, there do exist avenues of private and corporate funding and most galleries are commercial ventures that profit from the selling of art. Why then are small honorariums that help defray the artist’s installation costs made out to be such an absurd demand? This is of course not to say that all galleries are bad. Some artists describe very positive relationships with organizations and galleries that offer great support. However, such experiences are not uniform. The same artists also always acknowledge that they have been lucky and privileged to receive such support. The problem is the lack of standardized conventions and practices when it comes to artistic compensation. But rather than wait around, perhaps it is time we set our own precedents.
We need to make visible a public discourse where the uneasy issues of money, value and labour can start being discussed. As teachers, writers, artists and curators we need to create spaces, whether in classrooms, galleries or elsewhere, to collectively start addressing the silenced issue of valuing artists’ labour. We need to begin asking some serious questions: As an artist, how do you define your labour? How often are you asked to work for free or for charity? Where do you draw the line when it comes to volunteering your time and resources? Are you comfortable going into debt to make your work? How do you respond when faced with unfair terms and conditions of a gallery? Is it worth the risk to take a stance on monetary compensation?
Many of us have already had these discussions in private amongst friends and family, but it is important to shift these conversations to a more public forum. Rather than struggling with problems of labour and compensation in isolation, we can instead enable a collective sharing of experiences to encourage greater solidarity. As discussed in the JUBILEE Roundtable Debate on The Value of Our Love: Artistic Practice and its Economic Reality held in Brussels, “The assumed mutuality between the artist and the dealer, based on a shared love of cultural production, masks a set of questions about the value of art: how is it created and how is it shared? If artistic practice is caught in a catch-22 with the market on which it operates, can we think of alternative tactics or countermoves within the system? Where do conflicts emerge when trying to put this into practice? Should this relation come to an end or are there ways to build new forms of alliances between all parties involved?”
This essay is an attempt to begin a public dialogue, to start an exchange of thoughts and constructive debate around issues of artistic labour. While we all might have differing opinions, we can at least start thinking more critically about our positions within the larger art economy, and reflect on issues of expectations, the market, exposure as compensation, professionalization, access, privilege and class. Besides the mythical lucky few, emerging artists are often left feeling excluded, vulnerable, undervalued and exploited. Hearing their experiences is the first step towards greater awareness of the many flaws of our market-based economy that thrives on such inequalities. A sharing of knowledge can help emerging artists identify and adopt strategies and tactics to create a sense of agency and self-determination regarding the economics of creative production.
Some anonymous comments to ponder on:
“Rather than getting an honorarium for my participation, for my art and labour, I have often had to pay fees to galleries and curators to participate in group shows.”
“One time I wanted to price my artwork at a certain value, but was told by the curator that I am too young to demand such a high price. I explained that this work was very labour intensive so the price was justified. The curator responded that I should stop being money-minded and just get my work out there.”
“As artists, we are asked to do an awful lot of charity.”
“Fresh out of art school, I felt much pressure to get shows lined up and make new work. But where should I get the money for materials? There is no way to cover the costs unless I get another job.”
“I knew I needed a second income. Otherwise, I would always be vulnerable to the whims of the art market.”
“I spend so much time and money producing new works for exhibitions. Often nothing gets sold and I find myself in further debt.”
“Rules are very different for established artists, and very different for emerging artists.”
“I love making art; I’m not in it for the money.”
“Sometimes when my artwork gets sold, I don’t receive payment for months on end.”
“It would be nice to get paid an honorarium from the gallery for participation in a show. If only to cover some costs of framing and transport. But you would have to be crazy to make that demand out loud!”
“Pick the wrong fight, and it could be career suicide.”
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about money. I don’t want to get quoted saying the wrong thing.”
Shahana Rajani is an independent writer, editor and curator.

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