Art in solidarity with itself

If artists are workers and workers are artists, who’s standing in solidarity with whom?

Art should be a welcome contribution to any crisis for its cathartic effects alone. In 2020, we would have benefited from social practice, art’s formal intervention into the realities outside itself, too. Sadly, theatres closed first and it was the community-facing projects that museums and galleries abandoned in the chaos of the pandemic. Institutionally supported social practice made a retreat from the frontlines just when the demand for it was greatest. It thus came down to artists themselves to independently deploy the symbolic and material resources that are at their disposal. After all, plenty of non-art social groups and movements do this without institutional mandates. 

Art, in its recent history of neoliberal instrumentalisation, has hardly ever faced autonomy of such scale with so much at stake. Arguments about the questionable mechanisms of the social and educational turns that deployed artists to create community gardens and children’s playgroups come to mind. How, then, to prioritise now? Hearteningly, solidarity emerged as a solution to this artistic dilemma. New York’s Queens Museum became a food bank. Turin’s Castello di Rivoli turned into a vaccination centre. The Whitworth gallery adjusted its mission statement to directly respond to social inequities emergent in the pandemic. Brooklyn Museum and numerous New York theatres opened their doors and became sanctuaries for protesters. 

Queens Museum Pantry
The La Jornada Together We Can Food Pantry at Queens Museum. Photo: the Queens Museum.

Plenty of artists continue to aid home-schooling efforts with Instagram-live appearances or independently organised Zoom classes. Solidarity itself became a motif in artist interventions like Peter Liversidge and his son’s tribute to healthcare workers in East London that rallied and amplified the community solidarity with frontline heroes. All of these actions are commendable, but it seems important to account for the circulation of cultural, social, and economic capitals involved in the new notions of solidarity in the arts, not least because art has a demonstrable tendency to expand into the domains of civil society whether it is invited or not.

Are we witnessing a solidarity turn in art production that transforms food banks into art projects and museums into healthcare providers just like the performance turn transformed community walks into art events, or the social turn commodified community cohesion as a currency of social practice? When the feminist art organisation Idle Women distributed four hundred food growing kits to families last spring, they insisted that their action was not art. In contrast, the artists of the Artist Food Bank Network couldn’t be more central. Does it matter that Liversidge’s solidarity also produced a handsome piece of inventory for his commercial gallery and more publicity than a careers’ worth of exhibitions?

Solidarity from a pedestal

If this line of inquiry seems cynical, there are plenty of less ambiguous examples. The British sculptor Marc Quinn’s intervention A Surge of Power, the statue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid that replaced slave trader Edward Colston on his pedestal in Bristol caused universal outrage. Quinn was widely condemned for seeking cultural capital under false pretences – to profit from a social and political struggle that was not his own while claiming that his action was an act of solidarity.

In The Rules of Art, Pierre Bourdieu offers an unflattering view of artistic production.[1]Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford University Press. He argues that art joins social struggles not out of altruism, but because such social movements’ needs for symbolic production drive new demand for artistic representation. Put crudely, Bourdieu implies that art as propaganda is profitable regardless of whether the artist believes in its cause, and whether the cause is successful in reaching its goals. Bourdieu caught Quinn red-handed: since the artist’s true intentions are unknowable, it doesn’t matter whether they were underpinned by genuine solidarity with the protests. Quinn received considerable media attention for his action; did BLM benefit?

Marc Quinn, A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) in Bristol. Photo: Sam Saunders/Wikimedia Commons

Black Lives Matter attracted other art allies, too. In December, the movement took the top spot on Art Review magazine’s Art Power 100 list, a place usually reserved for a blue-chip gallery dealer or a powerful institutional curator. The citation suggests that BLM’s inclusion reflects its importance to the art world at large. It remains unclear how the movement (presumably unable to attend the award ceremony due to more pressing commitments) would make use of the power and resources that such allegiance would offer. Who is using whom?

The question of who benefits from the excess cultural capital generated when art engages in social interventions has long gone unresolved, and to ascribe callous motives to all artists would be at best defamatory. A recent study by Eleonora Belfiore portrays social practice that is driven by an army of artists who, willingly or not, often go without recognition or adequate pay.[2]Belfiore, Eleonora. 2021. “Who Cares? At What Price? The Hidden Costs of Socially Engaged Arts Labour and the Moral Failure of Cultural Policy.” European Journal of Cultural Studies. The year-without-museums could have been an opportunity to reconfigure the flow of symbolic capital between social groups according to more noble principles, be that the truly selfless solidarity between London gay activists and Welsh miners striking in 1984 that was nostalgically portrayed in the film Pride (2014), or the unwittingly instrumental solidarity of students and workers in the Paris strikes of 1968. 

One of the reasons this realignment may be difficult in practice is the considerable growth and professionalisation of the arts industry since the publication of Bourdieu’s book. In the UK, a larger and more diverse than ever art worker class was a success story in times of plentiful state funding. But in the austerity economics of the past decade, this same class, still growing due to the ever-expanding art schools, has been surplus to the labour needs of the waning public institutions and became acutely critical of their own industry’s failings. This pandemic has inevitably turned art worker’s solidarity impulses inwards.

#SolidarityAwards

If art can save others, why can’t it save itself? In the Instagram campaign #artistsupportpledge, in which artists solicited art sales by promising to buy further art with a portion of their takings, the pyramid shape of this innocent scheme is uncannily obscured by the accessible price-tag and the democracy of social media. But its motto is clear: help artists to help artists. Weeks later, designer Craig Oldham’s Keyworker Support similarly tried to redistribute social capital between groups: his poster campaign highlighted the contributions made by sanitation workers, migrant healthcare assistants, and delivery drivers by portraying them as equivalent of to those made by a long list that included immigration lawyers, accountants, and, of course, artists and graphic designers. 

In a year filled with calls for allyship, artists make powerful allies through such skilful deployment of art’s powers to represent, signal, and inspire: we’re all artists, we all need help. But are “we”, and do “we”? Are catering assistants as cherished as pharmacists? Or are artists as indispensable as research scientists or as worthy of material reward as intellectual property lawyers, or as deserving of solidarity as essential workers? Oldham’s work featured ‘art curators’ no fewer than three times and is now on display at Manchester Art Gallery.

What emerges is deep confusion in how artists understand and perform solidarity and a blurring of the boundaries between artists’ own identities and those of the groups that are usually the beneficiaries of social practices. In the social turn, artists performed artistic services to create tangible benefits for non-art communities in partial exchange for the cultural capital generated by their work. In this new solidarity turn, however, artists themselves are among the beneficiary communities, and the question of where the tangible and intangible forms of capital come from becomes unavoidable.

A banner from the Tate Enterprises strikes in August 2020
A banner from the Tate Enterprises strikes in August 2020. Photo: Twitter.

The strikes surrounding the termination of some 300 retail, catering, and commercial jobs at Tate last summer illustrate this troubling ambiguity. Ten Turner Prize bursary recipients decreed that “artists are workers, and workers are artists, and we stand in solidarity with each other.” The strikers’ plea to Tate management was more remarkable still: because the workers were themselves likely artists, and because their number included historically disadvantaged groups, Tate owed these workers a double duty of care. In a single picket placard, the strike twinned the precarity of artistic lives with racism and classism. Never mind artists’ solidarity with workers if artists are by definition already underprivileged workers. This bears repeating: artists don’t only represent, empower, or include disadvantaged communities. In solidarity with the underprivileged, artists are the ones experiencing, signalling, or even reproducing oppression. In a sleight of hand, an offer of solidarity becomes a demand.

These examples could continue and include the art critic duo White Pube’s recent billboard campaign whose key message appears to be ‘universal basic income for us and our friends right now’. But it is perhaps the lot of the young dancer Fatima, a fictional character in a UK Government campaign that illustrates the complexities of dispensing solidarity under ill-defined identity characteristics. A rogue jpeg that quickly went viral suggested that Fatima may do well to consider retraining in technology as an alternative to her now doomed career in ballet. This call caused outrage from artistic communities who felt singled out as the sacrificial victims of the impending economic crisis. Accusations of racism and sexism followed.

Except that there was no such campaign. The offending jpeg was, in fact, years old and originally launched to inspire school-age girls into careers in ITC. The evidence is damning: artists might be fabricating evidence of their own oppression. The communal outcry is surely indicative of genuine hardship and justified anxiety, but that so many people without coordination, calculation, or malintent believed that they were being oppressed is indicative of an understanding that being perceived as oppressed solicits solidarity from others.

Poster campaign by White Pube. Photo: Twitter.

Read in Bourdieu’s tone, art’s principled stand in solidarity with itself reflects the fact that artists can now control the demand for social art simply by insisting that they are themselves worthy subjects of art’s attention. In this solidarity turn, a closed and self-referential system, art can judge the worthiness of its subjects and mark the effectiveness of its own work. Replicating the earlier social or ethical turns, art can therefore evade any external markers of value and thus continue to make unverifiable claims about its emancipatory power. 

Such an outcome could only be self-defeating. Solidarity between members of a single group does not generate access to the resources that the group desires, unless, that is, those members of the group who do hold certain advantages are willing to trade it with those who do not, for the group’s overall benefit. This, however, is no easy task, because there is no consensus on where these advantages lie. A recent study by Friedman and Laurson portrays an industry in which advantage and disadvantage intermingle in ways that are often counterintuitive.[3]Friedman, Sam, and Daniel Laurison. 2019. The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged. Policy Press. For example, working-class women experience disadvantage in the performing arts, but see an advantage in the form of above-average wages in journalism. The effects of ethnicity are likewise highly asymmetrical in a way that is usually concealed by data collection methods. A related paper[4]Friedman, Sam, Dave O’Brien, and Ian McDonald. 2021. “Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self.” Sociology. confirms that individuals often signal disadvantage whether it is true or not because being perceived as disadvantaged is understood to be beneficial.

We are not all in this together

A desire for solidarity troubles any existing agreement even further. Since neither the Romantic nor the neoliberal forms of individualised value can be translated into a collective form, art workers are further incentivised to see themselves as oppressed simply to fit into their identity group. There is no suggestion that such subversion of oppression narratives is the result of rational individual choices – this accounting system is genuinely complex – but it does suggest that those who can signal their disadvantage the loudest are not necessarily those most in need. Boltanski and Esquerre suggest a reason for this.[5]Boltanski, Luc., and Arnaud Esquerre. 2020. Enrichment : A Critique of Commodities. Newark: Polity Press. They describe the art world as a maze in which individuals can hardly understand their positions in the industry’s social order. How could resources internal to the discipline be redistributed when the only agreed markers of advantage lie at the extremes of ‘precarious’ and ‘blue-chip’, and the latter is external to the conversation?

Art’s social mission is now key to education and practice, and social practice has doubtlessly generated significant and quantifiable social good. However, in doing so, it has made unrealistic promises not only to their subjects but also to their workforces. How could art turn to a model of social practice that is driven by genuine solidarity, rather than a vicious circle of exploitation and amelioration that’s entirely internal to the practice? The challenges of disambiguating between the claims put forward by the plethora of actors involved, given that individuals are demonstrably as capable of moral grandstanding as their institutions, are considerable. 

This may not be comforting for those who currently place their hopes in the solidarity turn, precisely because even the unquestionably noble motives and historically productive ideas of solidarity are capable of being subsumed by a culture that resists any form of collectivity. When art workers take on the characteristics of other oppressed groups, whether justifiably, or through a gross misunderstanding of the intersectionalities at play, they are proposing that it is art itself is oppressive. This translates into a call for improvement of the material conditions of the workforce as much as it suggests dismantling art altogether. Finding out which of these will appeal to funders of art education and institutions is a game of Russian roulette. Neither result is likely to fairly improve the experiencing of those at a genuine disadvantage.

Artistic solidarity could be a powerful tool in resolving this tension, but only if it is twinned with a careful examination of the claims that art makes about its own needs, desires, and abilities. It must also be accompanied by a fundamental re-reading of historical models of solidarity between identity or class groups whose successes are attributable to the exchange of social capital. In practical terms, this would involve refraining from simplistic identarian rallies and separating art’s interest in itself from its social value claims. If art fails to engage in this debate, its workers may well be left to rely entirely on their own devices come the next crisis. 


This text was originally published by Arts of the Working Class.
It is part of a series that begun with At the limits of representation.
Thanks to María Inés Plaza Lazo for editorial input.

Cover image: Dan Manrique Arias. Photo: Terence Faircloth/flickr

Notes[+]