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In a class of our own? Art workers and the working class

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A photograph of five people riding bicylcles on a sidewalk underneath a grey overpass. Two of the riders wear large food carrying packs on their backs and one wears a black backpack. The cyclists are riding away from the camera.

Image: Alina Lupu, Minimum Wage Dress Code, performed at Public Art Amsterdam, Pay Attention Please!, 2018, with performers Kees Witteman, Raul Cioaba, Asia Kislev, Justina Nekrašaitė, Karin Iturralde Nurnberg. Photography: Alina Lupu.

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I started using the term ‘art worker’ to describe myself when I felt I didn’t fit within the other available industry terms. As a recent visual arts graduate, I had gained some experience exhibiting and in the field of artist run spaces and institutional gallery work, but I didn’t think that my activities could be neatly described as that of a curator or artist. Once I came across ‘art worker’ it appealed in its vagueness—I work in art, right? I also liked its connotative link to work and the working class. I come from a blue-collar working class background; my dad worked in a construction chemicals factory for most of my life and my migrant grandfathers worked in car factories after settling on Kaurna land. The term ‘art worker’ made me feel less alienated from where I come from. It’s still the term I use. Nonetheless, it’s a term that requires some unpacking.

The usage of ‘art worker’ began with the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC); an activist group which formed in New York in 1969 to demand political and economic reforms to the exclusive exhibition policies of the city’s museums.[1] Members of the AWC held contradictory ideas about what the descriptor art worker meant, including both “moves to identify with and distance themselves from ‘the workers.’”[2] Some art workers took the term literally, believing their practices to be imbricated in the capitalist system of work like any other, while others used the label to emphasise the value of their work, while recognising the difference of the artistic mode of production to waged labour.[3] Curator and academic Julia Bryan-Wilson notes the intractable problem of the term art worker, as it “connected art to work while also removing artists from labour’s specific class formations.” [4]              

Class and work are inherently linked. The upper class or capitalist does not need to work to survive; they can rely on the passive income they receive from property and investments. The working class has nothing to sell but their labour in return for a wage. The middle class are a part of the broader working class of wage labourers, but due to education, skill or opportunity, have managed to earn a higher wage and have more agency than other members of the working class.[5] Whether making art, organising, teaching, curating or writing, an art worker is undoubtedly working. However, this is rarely standard wage-labour, but often in the form of self-employment and gig work. Due to the “flexibilization” of the economy, the precarious, project-to-project work that artists do is becoming an increasingly common form of working class labour, from rideshare to food delivery and task-based services.[6]

The working class was traditionally associated with jobs that required physical labour, but this shifted with neoliberal economic policy and the rise of the service economy in the late twentieth century. The manufacturing sector in the West was de-industrialised and offshored, which encompassed mass assaults on unionised labour and the closures of mines and factories that devastated working class communities. This was the same period in which the Art Workers’ Coalition, primarily conceptual and minimalist artists with deskilled practices, claimed the title ‘worker’. Artists becoming workers within this context could be seen as a subversion of categories of identification consistent with the neoliberal devaluation of work as related to productive wage labour.[7] In her essay ‘What is an art worker?’ art historian Angela Dimitrakaki refers to the uncertain class position of artists and the question as to whether “educated yet precarized professionals and ‘creatives’ have expanded the ranks of the working class or undermined its perceived coherence.”[8]

The ambivalence around the class position of art workers is compounded by the fact that very few people from working class backgrounds remain in this industry. A recent study from the British Sociological Foundation showed that only 8% of people working in the arts in the United Kingdom come from a working class background, and people from the higher middle classes are four times more likely to be in a creative job than people from the working class.[9] A 2019 study in the US showed that potential access to familial financial support is a major factor in the decision to become an artist, with every additional $10,000 in total family income, a person is about 2% more likely to go into a creative occupation.[10] The risk of entering a highly competitive field where very few ever gain recognition and fair renumeration is simply too great for those with no economic back-up plan. Add to this that the appreciation and collection of art is a pastime of the rich, that opportunities are granted on the basis of perceived cultural capital and the expectation that emerging art workers gain necessary experience through unpaid work, it is unsurprising that few working class people can afford to enter and stay in the arts.

A problem with the term ‘art worker’ is that it gestures towards, whilst simultaneously revealing nothing about, class.  You could be an art worker who also works in a call centre to scrape by, or you could be an art worker and have an inheritance and investment property portfolio to bolster your art income. We cannot compare ‘art worker’ to comparative roles such as ‘cleaner’ or ‘supermarket cashier’ where workers who share a job title also share an equivalent income scale and class relation. ‘Art worker’ elides different class positions behind the precarious reality of freelance arts work, without recognising that a class based selection process has already occurred before the first invoice is sent.                                

The late bell hooks was a talented artist in high school, she won the school art prize for a painting of a boy with sad eyes. Paintings needed to be framed to hang in the exhibition but hooks’ parents refused to pay to have her painting framed, so her art teacher showed her how to make a frame from scrap wood they found in the trash. It was then she recalled realising that “making art was for people with money”[11]. hooks relayed this story in Class Matters, a book she opens with “[n]owadays it is fashionable to talk about race or gender; the uncool subject is class. It’s the subject that makes us all tense, nervous, uncertain about where we stand.” Class is often less visible than race or gender, and it is dangerous to, in hook’s terminology imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, because it is class that unites the broadest group of people, workers, across all other forms of difference. This is the great strength of the term art worker; it is broad and collective and opens a space for solidarity among art workers, as well as with other precarious gig workers. But in order to harness the potential of this common terminology we need to talk openly and compassionately about class: how it dictates who can and cannot afford to make, write about or curate art and therefore what kind of class interests and perspectives are furthered in the art world.