Today from our partners at Art Practical, we bring you the next installment of our Summer Session—for June we’re considering the idea of labor. In this essay, author Elyse Mallouk (also an artist) notes, “While artists struggle publicly to make the value of art work visible, they are bound as a corporate body by the uncertainties and sacrifices they share in common… Artists can gain power by making their deliberations transparent to each other, especially their mixed feelings about their own artistic labor and its value.” This article was originally published on April 3, 2014.
Published in Slate in January 2014 and widely circulated on social media, the article “In the Name of Love” argued that an often repeated phrase, “Do what you love; love what you do,” communicates an “anti-worker ideology.” The problem with the adage, the author contended, is that it devalues the vast majority of work (the tedious kind) while elevating the type of work—that of a designer or executive, for example—that feeds on the unfulfilling labor of others. In effect, the article reasoned, the phrase divides work and the workforce into “two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (boring, unintellectual, undistinguished).” Beyond reinforcing the aphorism’s oversimplifications, the essay neglected a whole group of workers—contemporary artists and cultural producers—who often undertake one type of work to enable another, and experience conflicted feelings about both.
In a recent discussion with two fellow artists, Piero Passacantando and Shannon Finnegan, I found myself using the word work fluidly, to signify both my job in the arts and my art work, or studio practice. But these two kinds of work mean different things, and I experience a firm opposition between them. The rewards of the work I do for pay are myriad and not confined to the fiscal, but in a sense my primary relationship to my job is a pragmatic one. It pays my expenses and also funds the work I do for free, which helps to sustain me intellectually but not monetarily. The necessary constraints my job applies to the rest of my life can create urgency and impel focus in my art work, but those same constraints can also drain me of the energy to be industrious in what might be considered my spare time. Far from wholly fulfilling or unfulfilling, both types of work elicit a range of sentiments from discouragement to gratification. While distinct, they are embroiled in a complex relationship that involves emotion as much as money.