Eona McCallum: ‘Art/ Work’

Advisor/tutor: Marina Vishmidt
Independent reviewer: Stewart Martin
Arnhem, July 2015


This is a discussion around arts relation to value, specifically its incongruous association with paid work, and the emancipatory potential of the contradictions that lie therein.
Alongside historical and contemporary reflections on a society in which life would seem to be subordinated to the pursuit of money through work, it poses as its central question, ‘Should we perceive and relate to artists as workers?At a time when work and life have become difficult to distinguish, I argue that it seems vital we maintain and cultivate those ambiguous activities that have the capacity to exist outside of productivist demands.
Included here is the proposal that, as well as being fundamentally self-determined—and therefore exemplary in their very nature—artistic practices may go further and activate this paradoxical position of purposeful purposelessness, as point from which to generate critique of the commodity form and of value production itself. In introducing observations as to the detrimental effect on social bonds of waged work as we know it, alongside theories that envisage post-work utopias, or at least significant reductions in working hours, I highlight art as a crucial activity through which we might foster meaningful collective struggle beyond the art world.



The central questions addressed by this thesis – ‘Should we perceive and relate to artists as workers?’ and ‘Is it really in the interest of both artists and the society in which they operate that their practice is perceived and treated as paid work like any other? – go the heart of a debate about contemporary art, which has become increasingly widespread and urgent. Besides recognizing and engaging with this, the author should be commended especially for finding a methodical and illuminating path through the forest of concepts and positions that have grown up around this debate, and without loosing sight of how this might be experienced in an artwork. I consider the approach to this debate in terms of the opposition of ‘work’ to ‘non-work’ – with both understood as alienated forms of ‘free non-instrumental activity’ – to be as insightful here as it has been during the long tradition of its deployment. It is particularly useful to ground the latest journalistic discussions about art and work with some fundamental reflections on the terms at stake, and this is what we find here. Marx, Arendt, Gorz and Federici provide a powerful set of tools for grasping what work might be and how it might relate to art. The consideration of art in terms of Marx’s law of value is a formidable task in many respects, but the conclusion drawn here – that art cannot be subject to this law as Marx articulates it – is drawn with clarity. The fact that, despite this conclusion, the author persists in considering art’s relation to capitalist forms and conditions of employment, is where the thesis begins to really push at the seams of received debates, and the resulting interpretations of artworks are novel and illuminating. The conclusion that art or artists should assume a politically informed engagement with how art can contribute to a free society – a society of ‘free non-instrumental activity’ – is all the more compelling insofar as this politics has been demonstrated to be pervasive and integral to art practice, even if implicitly or inadvertently, and so not something that can be simply excluded from art. All in all: an enlightening confrontation with the conditions of being an artist today.