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My sister is an artist in the truest sense. For Rebecca, her day jobs are just that — an exchange of her time for someone else’s money, a necessity undertaken in order to afford her passion: painting. Creation is what permits Rebecca unspeakable joy and rigorous challenges — opportunities for the most profound breakthroughs. Like many artists know, however, her painting — though spiritually invaluable — does not a solvent lifestyle make. So, a day job. So, work.
During an intense bout of lockdown burnout, I rattled off a series of texts to Rebecca. I just had an epiphany that the pursuit of being an artist is actually very anti-capitalist, I wrote. The pursuit of art for art’s sake pierces through what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”: a denial of the existing system; a radical enactment of another way.
Little did I know that I was running parallel to themes explored closely in Sarah Jaffe’s recent book, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. As Jaffe explains in the introduction, for centuries, it was no secret that work “sucked.” To be rich was a luxury in part because it exempted a population from the necessity of labor, which consisted of arduous endeavors like coal mining and later, factory work. Laborers suffered no delusions that these professions were their passions. They worked because they couldn’t afford to not.
As Jaffe explains it, the dawn of neoliberalism in the 1970s and ‘80s dramatically changed our relationship to work. Neoliberalism dovetailed with a belief that freedom is out there, so long as you can afford it: in Jaffe’s words, “Neoliberalism tried to sell us on a freedom not from work but through work.” To rationalize our exploitation, we developed a problematic, persistent myth: the “labor of love.”
Each chapter of Jaffe’s book explores how various jobs have been impacted by a philosophy that one works out of love alone. The first half of the book is dedicated to employees like teachers, non-profit workers, and nannies, while the second half considers workers who have attempted to make money doing what they love, like artists, athletes, and academics.
In a chapter called, “My Studio Is The World: Art,” Jaffe investigates how art intersects with capitalism. She touches on art’s value both monetarily and spiritually, as well as unionizing efforts in the US and Mexico that have made artmaking more accessible across races and classes since the 1920s.
Reading “My Studio Is The World: Art” laid bare some of my more internalized beliefs about art, work, and the art world. Fundamentally, I struggled with the implicit comparison of the plight of those of us in the art world to some of the other workers the book describes — domestic care workers and teachers; people who, as the pandemic revealed, were already being forced into precarity both financially and physically. Weren’t we choosing this path, not undertaking it because we had to? Who would an artist, the paragon of a bossless worker, even appeal to for recognition?
As Jaffe describes, this tension is familiar within the discourse of art workers’ rights. The longstanding belief that artmaking comes from motives outside of capitalism — love, or even “genius” — continues to fuel a sense among artists, art institutions, art schools, and the state that what we do is not work, nor are we workers.
This is, of course, untrue: in the richest, but also densest, section of “My Studio Is The World,” Jaffe offers an illuminating chronology of the centuries-long affair between art and money. Since the Renaissance, artists have taken commissions from the wealthy in order to make a living. During the Industrial Revolution, a growing middle and upper class had more disposable income to buy art, which “gained value precisely because it was not produced by machines.” Today, by Jaffe’s estimate, the art market is “bigger than ever, generating well over $700 billion in a year.” Simultaneously, in the US especially, public funding for the arts is a shell of its former New Deal glory, playing centrally in the income inequality that exists among artmakers today. In a field structured by “a series of gatekeepers who remain attached to the idea of art as a meritocracy,” working-class artists have been squeezed out. It’s no wonder: a 2018 study Jaffe cites finds the median income of artists is between $20,000 and $30,000 a year, with more than one-fifth of the artists surveyed earning $10,000 or less. Despite a depiction of art as being among the most heartfelt “labors of love,” as Jaffe argues, “art can and very much does exist under capitalism, and for many people it is a job of one form or another.”
The mentality of art as anathema to work has also stymied efforts to fight for greater rights among art workers. As early as the 1930s, an art critic considered the burgeoning Artists’ Union, disdainfully writing that artists “are not the same as coal miners.” Almost a century later, in 2018, workers attempting to unionize at the New Museum were chided by the administration that “unions are for coal miners.” The implication of both statements, nine decades apart, lays bare our assumptions about which kinds of jobs are “truly” exploitative.
Still, the perceived disparity between working-class and art world workers is factually true: a 2014 study in the US revealed that the majority of “artists and other ‘creative workers’” were likely to have grown up middle-class, even as their current art world occupations paid around 35% less than their parents’ had. This was made only more evident in 2019, when a spreadsheet of over 1,000 anonymous art workers laid bare just how low earnings in the art world could go.
As such, Jaffe emphasizes a reality that many in the art world know well: the staggering wealth disparity between those who collect, sell, and exhibit art, and those who make it. Such a power differential is, at its heart, the crux of Jaffe’s argument about the injustice of contemporary labor: “the way our work is making other people rich while we struggle to pay rent and barely see our friends.” While not having a boss is seen as one of the great advantages of unconventional work like artmaking, it also systematically disenfranchises artists from seeing themselves as able to demand equal rights: to whom would we call for recognition? What would a call to equal rights for artists even look like? What could a contemporary artists’ union do to make a career in the arts more accessible for people of color? For people from low-income communities?
Public funding, both for the arts specifically and through welfare, is one solution to the US art world’s inequity. Early in this chapter, Jaffe interviews an Irish artist named Kate O’Shea, who comments, “There is no way I could have justified becoming an artist if it involved the kind of money it involves in America.”
Whether or not you believe artists can or should unionize, Work Won’t Love You Back is a provocative, fascinating read. The conversation such an idea elicits raises fascinating questions about the pursuit of art, the nature of work, and the necessity for radical change. For artists, one of the more primary stumbling blocks are the opposing ideas that work sucks and that we’ve chosen to pursue what we love as work. How can both be true? Moreover, what if — I ask quietly — I like to work? What if work gives me meaning?
In her conclusion, Jaffe asks, “What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to work?” I was comforted to discover that, in an interview with Dissent, Jaffe herself described using her imagined free time to write a screenplay about labor leader Harry Bridges — something she quickly admitted “would also definitely be work.” But, she continued, “That’s the thing […]: do these things have to be work? What would a society look like if we had space for people to be creative in all sorts of ways that didn’t require it to be your job in order for you to do it?”
Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (Bold Type Books) by Sarah Jaffe is now available on Bookshop.