To Care and Be Cared For
On the myth of passionate work and the imperative of care.
Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.
Good creative work is nurture.
How would you describe your relationship with work?
It’s not a question we tend to ask ourselves outright, but we talk about the answer almost every day. We’re describing the relationship when we talk about how stressed and overcommitted we are. Or when we commiserate with our colleagues over a bottom-shelf pinot noir, nodding along to the familiar tale of how hard it is to live and move forward when we’re working so hard for so little. Perhaps we describe the relationship most honestly when we’re at our lowest ebb, whispering our hurt into a loved one’s ear: we’re not valued, we’re not cared for, we aren’t coping.
Perhaps I’ve just described your relationship with work. Perhaps I have, but you soothe yourself with the reminder that you are doing what you love. This is the myth of passionate labour that motivates workers to go above and beyond, to be working less for compensation than for a feeling of self-fulfilment.
Passionate work is a myth almost every creative, cultural or knowledge worker buys into. It’s a myth that allows matters of pay, working hours and social security to assume a secondary position. It’s a myth that devalues all forms of enjoyable, meaningful or emotionally satisfying work by refusing to acknowledge that these forms are still work. It’s a myth that damages those whom it purportedly raises up, the privileged class who have chosen their careers primarily for personal satisfaction, while simultaneously dehumanising the vast majority of workers who have no choice but to make their living doing ‘unlovable’ work – the repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished labour that allows us to live in comfort.
When lovable work ceases to be thought of as work, it is treated as love only and so becomes boundless
There are two essential threads woven into the myth of passionate work. The first is about narcissism. It’s about an individualist ethic so strong that it renders invisible any and all work that is not done for love, effectively erasing the majority of workers who labour at unlovable jobs. This thread is important, and deserves your attention – I recommend reading this piece from art historian and cultural critic Miya Tokumitsu for a more detailed treatment of it. However, it is the second thread that this essay is primarily concerned with: the thread that describes the ways in which deeming work ‘lovable’ spins it into something else entirely, something that is no longer considered work at all. When lovable work ceases to be thought of as work, it is treated as love only and so becomes boundless. The thing is, even fulfilling work needs constraints and needs to be remunerated. Without the former, we never have time to rest, to attend to our physical and emotional needs, to spend time with our families and friends. We become burnt out, disillusioned, physically and mentally unwell. Without the latter, the already-slim group of people who have the means to pursue lovable work in the first place becomes ever slimmer as only those who are financially supported are able to survive – and to rise in the ranks and assume positions of power.
Like most myths, passionate work does have some basis in reality. Numerous studies (such as this one, this one, and more recently in Angela McRobbie’s 2016 book Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries) have shown that many workers do gain a sense of fulfilment from labouring in creative fields. However, these same studies also highlight the experiences of intense pressure, stress, anxiety, precariousness and individualisation which come alongside instances of pleasure. By clinging to the notion that we are doing what we love, what we are actually doing is self-exploiting, and allowing ourselves to be exploited by others.
This essay is for everyone who could be described as an art worker. I use the term ‘art worker’ to describe everyone who relies on being paid for their labour in the visual arts industry to get by – or at least, tries to rely on it. I’m talking about the curators and directors who star in so many of our art-world discussions, but I’m also talking about the workers on every rung of the ladder: the administrators, publicists, editors, educators, duty managers, technicians, freelance writers, gallery assistants and support staff. Many of these people could be classified as a ‘risk class’ of art workers: those without the security of a permanent role, whose labour sprawls beyond just doing their job and includes the various labours involved in finding and applying for work, as well as self-branding. I should also say that when I talk about art workers here, I’m not talking about artists – although as McRobbie argues, it is precisely the romanticised, self-employed working life of the artist that serves as model for the kind of precarious employment so often enjoyed by the art worker today (and indeed, lacking in regular wages, many artists moonlight as art workers to support themselves until their artistic labour can financially support them, which it may never do).
You may regard insecurity as the inevitable price that must be paid for following your heart and choosing to work in a field that excites you
If you’re anything like me, you may feel as though you don’t have a right to complain. You may regard insecurity as the inevitable price that must be paid for following your heart and choosing to work in a field that excites you. Most of us are here because our love of art matters more to us than making money – or at least it did before we understood how low the pay could be, how long the hours, how precarious the lifestyle. But by the time you have your degree (Honours, Masters, PhD), your years of volunteering, gallery minding and art handling, it can feel as though you’ve gone too far down this path to think of giving up. So you take on a bit of this and that, you cobble together a humble living from numerous different jobs, you make it work because you assume that this is just the way it is.
Of course, this way of getting by is not confined to the art and culture industries, nor is it new. As McKenzie Wark writes, it is essentially “…the old kind of petit bourgeois ‘ducking and diving,’ of trying one’s hand at this and then that, rather than specialising in a trade or profession. Young people function as the crash test dummies for new styles of living this old kind of work, as passionate and involving.”1 However, there’s something about the ubiquity of precarious and uncaring labour conditions in the art world that chafes. In fact, there’s something about the overwhelming dominance and perpetuation of the passionate work myth in an industry that is so purportedly progressive that chafes aggressively.
When expectations of quality are immense yet there’s only so many hours in a day, or so many hours in the life of a project, and there are so many projects
It is the discord between what is said and what is done. It is the hypocrisy of institutions and organisations signalling that they are places of care through their programming, their communications to the public and the way their collections are scrupulously and lovingly maintained. Staging exhibitions of work that question dominant structures and dream of better ways of being. Hosting events titled with words that signal certain virtues: transformative, alternative, collective, radical, future-oriented. Meanwhile, at the less visible levels of management and in their practices of instituting, a lack of care is plain in the ways workers are offered only precarious conditions even after years of work, in the way they are required to perform the affective labour of maintaining that this is fine because after all, they are doing what they love. It is made plain when people have to work well beyond the hours they are paid for, when their plates are piled so high that their work not only encroaches on their family and personal lives but takes them over. When expectations of quality are immense yet there’s only so many hours in a day, or so many hours in the life of a project, and there are so many projects. When a worker’s reputation could be destroyed if they mess up but they aren’t being supported to succeed. When they are being set up to fail and the threats of being called out and publicly humiliated, or perhaps worse, of not being offered more work, loom large. Of course, this is all supposing you’ve landed a job in the industry, where jobs of any shape or size (part-time, full-time, casual, permanent, short contract, long contract, no contract) are few and far between.
Writer and curator Lucy Lopez sums it up well when she writes that “there is no lack of art which challenges existing conditions and makes propositions for new ways of living and working together – yet all too often these practices are strictly supported and celebrated in the realm of programming, while our institutions neglect to learn from the radical practices that they propose.” What if we could, as Andrea Phillips writes, transform our art institutions “into locations where we test and perform practices of equality on a daily basis: not just through the making of exhibitions and events but through equal staffing and pay structures, through fair pricing, through the maintenance of equality within our collegiate relationships and through the recognition of the intelligences of our audiences.”
In his essay Instituent Practices : Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming, Gerard Raunig draws on Michel Foucault to advocate for a practice of parrhesia. In classical Greek, parrhesia meant “to say everything.” It meant to speak the truth unambiguously from a position of vulnerability – even and especially when this could put the speaker in danger. In this original context, parrhesia generally came from below and was directed upwards towards the ruling class. Raunig writes, “the specific potentiality of parrhesia is found in the unequivocal gap between the one who takes a risk to express everything and the criticised sovereign who is impugned by this truth.”
...it means when an institution interrogates the discord between that which they are signalling and that which they are actually doing, they are ultimately practicing "a kind of radical care of the self"
Over the course of time, the meaning of parrhesia shifted. Instead of describing this brave act of speaking openly before powerful people, it came to describe a different kind of courageous truth-telling: that of being able to tell the truth to and about oneself. Parrhesia becomes about self-reflection, learning and growing. It becomes about probing and understanding the relationship between what we say and how we live. In 2016, Simon Sheikh picked up Raunig’s thread and suggested that parrhesia could be used to “consider the connection of care and power in terms of the institution.”2 This practice could involve, as Lopez writes, “...institutions speaking truth of, and to, themselves – by looking at the relationship between their artistic programs, the information they make public, and their modes of governing and instituting.”
What I like so much about this quote from Lopez is that it positions the institution as composed not merely of those in charge of it, but as the sum of all those who work within it and feel its embrace. Its workers, audiences and rulers are all its co-producers. And what is so significant about this positioning is that it means when an institution interrogates the discord between that which they are signalling and that which they are actually doing, they are ultimately practicing “a kind of radical care of the self.”
This is a call for all of us, institutions and individuals, to care for one another
Implicating ourselves within the institution helps us navigate the many problems of institutional critique, in particular the way it so often forgets or refuses to acknowledge the position of the critic in relation to the institution. More importantly, seeing ourselves as part of our institutions should empower us to speak out and interrogate that discord ourselves, for to do so would also be an act of care. The problem is, most art workers are unlikely to feel comfortable doing so – especially those who are the most vulnerable, such as the unsalaried workers who cannot afford to jeopardise their tenuous incomes. But parrhesia is not just about directing your truth-telling upwards. It’s also about examining the gap between our own words and actions, and about doing what we can to look after ourselves and our art-worker peers. One way we can do this is by being open and transparent with one another, by sharing our knowledge and experiences. Telling each other how we’re being treated and what we’re being paid, both when it’s good and when it’s bad, especially when it comes to contract work. By keeping these facts and figures to ourselves, all we are doing is enabling pay inequality and helping our peers to exploit themselves by pricing their labour too low or accepting too little – the trickle-down effect being that we also exploit ourselves by allowing them to undercut our hard-won fees.
This is a call for all of us, institutions and individuals, to care for one another. To place as much value on the people we work with as we do the art, and to care for them accordingly. Sometimes, this might mean slowing down, taking time to ask questions and listen to one another. It might mean taking collective action, or it might mean checking your ambition and scaling it back when it outweighs your resources. It might mean asking for a pay rise, or saying no to extra work, or making your colleague a cup of tea.
The real irony is that when people feel cared for, they actually become better workers. If they feel their work has meaning, if they feel valued by their peers and their employers, they will work harder and produce work of higher quality. 3 We all want our art sector to flourish. We want to do good work because we care. But we, too, need to be cared for.
1. McKenzie Wark, “Angela McRobbie: Crafting Precarity,” in General Intellects, (London: Verso, 2017) 106.
2. Simon Sheikh, “Careful and Careless Power,” paper presented during a public editorial meeting at BAK, Utrecht, 2016, titled Instituting for the Contemporary, commissioned by Tom Clark, Maria Hlavajova, and Lucy Lopez.
3. Niki Harré, Psychology for a Better World (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011) 22. A new edition of this book will be released in May 2018.
Header image: George Watson, anxious garden, 2017.
Installation view at Enjoy Gallery, photograph by Shaun Matthews.