Too Embedded? Between Object and Experience by Sara Reisman
Artistic labor has no fixed value. The term “artistic labor” implies a distinction from the art object, which, within the art market, has potential value as a commodity. This potential is key in understanding how transient the value of art is. A painting, sculpture, or the more ephemeral example of a video have value as art objects (the first two examples in space, the third example in time). The value of these objects is contingent on market indicators such as the provenance of the specific art object in question, the artist’s previous sales, and which collections the artist’s body of work appears in. The price of the materials of a sculpture—steel, bronze, cast iron—fluctuate within their own markets, and the stability and fragility of certain materials might imbue an artwork made of, for example, hand blown glass, gold leaf, or sugar, with more or less value. The conceptual nature of an artwork further complicates the monetary value of an artwork. An artistic gesture—a staged performance or an unannounced intervention, for instance—has value in the context of the art world, but it would be difficult to sell these types of works to a buyer who is unfamiliar with the conceptual practices of contemporary visual culture.
In the United States, the service economy has grown exponentially. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), in 2009, nearly 80% of the U.S. domestic economy was service-based. This proportional rise in value of the service sector within the larger U.S. economy corresponds to an increase in high skilled labor that is the result of two intertwined conditions: the decline of industry within the U.S., and technological advances that have replaced manual labor with automation. Traditionally, art as a profession (as opposed to a hobby) has involved the production of objects. If we consider the broad spectrum of cultural production, including performing arts, art also involves the production of experiences. In the last decade, socially engaged art, or social practice, has become a legitimate form of artistic production, one that does not necessarily result in object making. Part of social practice’s currency is that its value resides somewhere between object and experience—in the relational exchange between artist and viewer, artist and community, artist and participant. Social practice art has been defined by many, including Pablo Helguera in his book Education for Socially Engaged Art (2012) and Tom Finkelpearl in his book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (2012) as a medium that focuses on relationships over a process of production, and process over product.
Some artists working in the social realm might describe the people who participate in the work as their material, expanding on the notion of artistic labor, one that is not limited to work performed by the artist, but a larger community of viewers/participants/actors. Tania Bruguera for instance, delivered her performance piece Referendum, staging a public vote in Toronto in 2015 and in New York City in 2016. The performance involved teams of people who solicited the public to vote on abolishing borders. In this example, the labor was performed by a team whose efforts became an extension of the artist’s labor.
The types of service provided by artworks that enact relational exchanges are varied. Two types of service are exemplified in the health and wellness workshops that were part of Simone Leigh’s 2014 project Free People’s Medical Clinic which was presented by Weeksville Heritage Center and Creative Time, and Nicolás Dumit Estévez’s Help Offered in Jamaica, Queens in 2004 and Kitchener, Ontario in 2005, in which Estévez worked for free for small businesses in both communities. In both artists’ projects, artistic labor was given over to the community to symbolically and literally address a lack. Leigh’s Free People’s Medical Clinic highlighted and addressed the historic and current lack of healthcare and wellness services for women of color. In Estévez’s Help Offered, the lack was more ephemeral: an appreciation for labor itself.
In thinking about the meaning of value as it relates to artistic labor, several terms come to mind: worth, utility, benefit, stature. By applying these criteria in respect to pedagogical art practices, a framework for evaluating art as a service emerges. Artists like Pablo Helguera, Suzanne Lacy, Harrell Fletcher, and Gregory Sholette are deeply committed to pedagogy within the art academy. While most reading this will likely agree that education is more complex than mere “service,” it provides an example of artistic labor with an unfixed value, blurry in the sense that some teaching artists regard their work as educators as part of their artistic practice, while others see the two as distinct: teaching being the day job and artmaking as a profession. At the Museum of Modern Art, Helguera heads the Adult and Academic Programs. Lacy teaches at the Roski School of Art at the University of Southern California. Fletcher and Sholette have each founded social practice graduate programs, at Portland State University and Queens College at the City University of New York, respectively. Within these settings, their artistic labor is legitimized as education—teaching—a fact that is supported by various forms of accreditation in each artist’s workplace, and the demand for the programs that they run or where they teach.
While the social good, or benefit, of pedagogical engagement is more easily measurable than the effect of a painting, the art market still holds its position as the arbiter of the value of artistic labor. But maybe the perceived benefit and utility of art objects are beginning to shift in relation to socially engaged practices. Art school tuition and museum admission have been on the rise. The Museum of Modern Art’s admission fee is $25, and tuition at the Roski School of Art is just shy of $25,000 per year for both undergraduate and graduate students. That these socially engaged educational experiences are at such a premium speaks to the lack of agreement about their value in the public realm. This is not to question the value of Lacy, Helguera, Sholette, or Fletcher’s pedagogical practices. If asked, their students and colleagues would likely confirm the benefits of their artistic labor. The problem is that art—as objects and otherwise—is already so undervalued in our culture that there is a risk of it being too embedded in larger structures, such as city agencies where artists are currently participating in projects at residencies, like the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) program. Embedding the work of artists in larger structures is undoubtedly beneficial to the whole, but the perception of art as art begins to fade, and, to the uninitiated, what was once an open-ended question, something mysterious (in other words, art) might become instrumentalized to such a degree it may eventually no longer be visible. The question then is whether we expect artistic labor to remain visible as art, or whether we prefer its full integration into life. If art is no longer distinct from other fields, we must find new ways to assess and articulate its value.
Read the full series on The Value of Artistic Labor at Art Everywhere Musagetes