ART ON STRIKE during a protest with the Paris Opera workers (photo by Art en Grève)

PARIS — What does it mean for an artist to be on strike? What does it look like when painters, photographers, and performance artists stop working? As we near the third month of the longest strike in modern French history, art workers have united under the banner “ART EN GRÈVE” (ART ON STRIKE).

The collective was created in early December as trade unions called for protests against the government’s new pension scheme. Demolishing an edifice of the post-World War II French welfare system, a point-based system, which is currently being debated in the Assemblée Nationale (the lower house of the French Parliament) and should be voted by the Parliament this summer, would extend the retirement age and decrease pensions for the vast majority of wage earners. Alongside other, mainly public-sector workers, ART ON STRIKE has organized a series of protests and other actions to fight this punitive program and the reactionary ideology of President Emmanuel Macron and his political cronies. In the demonstrations that have now entered the daily rhythm of life in France, the eye-catching signs of ART ON STRIKE — bold, black letters on dazzling yellow backgrounds, recalling the symbolism of the gilets jaunes — visually represent the interprofessional solidarity that characterizes the movement. The choice of the word “art” over the narrower, guild-like term “artists” confirms this.

ART ON STRIKE in the cortège de tête along with the CLAQ (comité de libération et d’autonomie queer), the queer liberation and autonomy comity (photo by Barthélémy Bette)

The history of social protection for artists in France is quite complex. The Paris Opera and the Comédie-Française, which respectively employ 1881 and 350 people, benefit from favorable pension schemes which allow them to retire early, while artists and authors — that is, writers, poets, or musicians — are not subject to the financial support received by entertainment workers (intermittents du spectacle). Though individual situations may vary, for the majority being an art worker is often synonymous with precarity, and many are obliged to supplement their artistic practice with odd jobs and modest state allowances. The move from a pay-as-you-go system to a capital-funded one requiring workers to subscribe to private pensions will most likely increase these difficulties.

Members of ART ON STRIKE during a national demonstration (photo by Barthélémy Bette)

Some members of the collective have called attention to the fact that art workers feel disconnected from the prestige associated with art. Some have formulated specific demands: taxation of blockbuster exhibitions that charge inflated admission fees to support a creation fund, and a minimum payment to exhibiting artists of 100 euros for a collective show and 1000 for a monographic one). However, the majority of members of ART ON STRIKE are adamant that having a specific list of demands is not the role of their group. Its specific role is to act as a collective of other collectives, uniting people, precarious or not, who feel a connection to the field of art, and who share a dissatisfaction with the neoliberal vision of the world that the pension reform stands for.

Poster by Formes des luttes (Forms of struggles), a collective of graphic designers, part of ART ON STRIKE (photo by Robin Benzrihem)

This month, at one of their general meetings at DOC! — the non-profit locale in the 19th arrondissement where the Parisian wing often assembles — technical questions alternated with philosophical considerations: how to join forces with the other collectives of precarious cultural workers who have launched initiatives of their own, such as the sporadic closures of major museums like the Louvre or portions of the Musée d’Orsay? Other debates touched on the consideration of artists as fully-fledged workers, and how art has often been excluded from our conceptions of labor.

Poster by Formes des luttes (Forms of struggles), a collective of graphic designers, part of ART ON STRIKE. (photo by Robin Benzrihem)

What is happening is a sign of the times: artists and associated workers are bringing their struggles together with an eye to joining in a cross-sectoral form of contestation. Under an inclusive banner, ART ON STRIKE is now organizing and elaborating critical tools against economic and patriarchal mechanisms of discrimination, while looking to prepare for other fights ahead.

Sarah Gould is an Assistant Professor at Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne. She works on 18th- and 19th-century British art.