Artists as Workers: A Response to John Bellamy Foster

Kate Oakley (2017) “Artists as Workers. A Response to John Bellamy Foster“. Blog post to the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, March 29.

Any vision of sustainable prosperity must include a notion of better work, not just more work (and less unemployment) and John Bellamy Foster’s essay is to be warmly welcomed for putting the question of what constitutes ‘good work’ on the table. But I fear that by arguing – at least in part – that good work looks like creative work or artistic work, it risks perpetuating certain ideas about artistic production that will harm, rather than aid, the struggle for good work. In drawing on William Morris (and indeed Marx’s) ideas of artistic production as unalienated labour, we risk idealising a model of work which is individualistic, self-exploiting and ultimately, exclusionary.

In his seminal essay, “The Mental Labor Problem”, Andrew Ross compared conditions of artistic and academic labour at the close of the twentieth century. These were fields which had been historically resistant to industrial-style organisation, had retained a commitment to forms of craft labour and ideas of autonomy which were being threatened by managerialism and the growth of neoliberalism and which, just as conditions were being degraded and casualised, were simultaneously being held up as models of good work in the ‘knowledge economy.’ As writers such as Richard Florida celebrated the go-getting entrepreneurialism of the ‘creative,’ and the bohemian flex-worker was promoted as the answer to every declining city or town in the global North – actual conditions of labour in the arts, in the media and wider cultural industries were getting worse, and the growth of what would become known as the ‘precariat’ was apparent.

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