From our partners at Art Practical, today we bring you Lane Relyea‘s commissioned response to Stephanie Syjuco’s “Participation ≠ Compensation” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum at the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley. Relyea notes, “[...] art venues will often claim to treat artists as professionals by rewarding their research with exposure more than cash. But who then pays the bills?” This article was originally published on May 22, 2014.
In my role as respondent to the day-long events comprising “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” I had the good fortune to be asked to attend Stephanie Syjuco’s morning workshop titled “Participation ≠ Compensation.” In her introductory remarks, Stephanie briefly described to us some of her recent art projects, including a 2009 commission for PS1 in which she re-created a late-’60s draped felt piece by Robert Morris—only Stephanie chose to work not with felt but a large, custom-made industrial moving blanket. Prior to the piece’s exhibition, the museum’s shipping staff was instructed to actually use her faux-Morris blanket to wrap artworks for safe transport. Stephanie wondered aloud whether in the end she should have credited PS1’s professional movers as coauthors, as being every bit an artist in relation to the work as Syjuco herself. Later, I told Stephanie I thought that would’ve been cruel to the movers. Why? “I imagine they’re unionized,” I said, “with pensions and benefits. What a major step down to give all that up to become artists.”
What, if any, difference exists between the creative effort devoted to making art and other kinds of work—like, say, shipping art? One argument is that, unlike art making, wage labor is undertaken not for its own sake but for a paycheck; it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That might sound abstract and academic, but the idea has long exerted real-world effects. “A fine artist has no use for use, no meaning for meaning, no need for any need,” declared staunch socialist Ad Reinhardt in 1964.1 During the various “Valuing Labor” workshops I attended, I noticed museum visitors staring at us, obviously wondering what we were doing and why we were doing it in an exhibition space. Maybe they thought we were the art. If only they knew what we were actually discussing: labor disputes, inadequate working conditions, nonpayment for services, contract battles, crass economic exploitation. But then it struck me: Even knowing exactly what we were saying, maybe they’d still see it all as art, and thus as being somehow divorced from material concerns. And if so, would they be wrong?