The Paradox of Artistic Labor: An Interview with Katja Praznik

The Slovenian sociologist and performing arts theorist Katja Praznik recently published the study The Paradox of Unpaid Artistic Labor: the Autonomy of Art, the Avant-Garde, and Cultural Policy in the Transition to Post-Socialism (Ljubljana: Založba Sophia, 2016). Before coming to the United States, she was long active in the independent Slovenian cultural scene. Today she teaches cultural policy and sociology of art at SUNY Buffalo, and deals with questions of the “autonomy” of arts and the social conditions of cultural production. The following interview was conducted on the occasion of Katja Praznik’s lecture at Zagreb’s Multimedia Institute.

Jasna Jasna Žmak: Let’s first talk about the supposed autonomy of art. Although it has long been unmasked and denounced in the theoretical field, it seems that the lesson regarding art’s necessary heteronomy hasn’t been absorbed by a wider audience. It appears that art is still suffering from the same prejudices of spontaneity, inspiration and creativity because, which is why it is seen as a field separate from material and concrete everyday life. How to get around such a view?

Katja Praznik: My suggestion is that one needs to take on the perspective of art as labor and demystify its exceptional status. What I mean by this is that art is work, and since the field of art production is inherently connected to the capitalist mode of production it is part of its economy and structured by wage labor. Since art as an autonomous field has traditionally been established on the basis of artistic value connected to the art object rather than on artistic labor (process), this poses a problem for the labor’s value and its remuneration in the context of art production. Or, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has it, art is marked by a “denied” or “paradoxical” economy. The labor of artists is invisible, or at most ascribed to artistic genius, talent, or creativity, which is crucial for the mystification that conditions the compensation for such labor. I term this the paradox of unpaid labor: although the field of art has secured relative autonomy for artists in determining the parameters of their work as a specialized profession, it has fostered an exploitative system characterized by irregular employment, wage inequality, and unreliable job security. The prestige and perceived exceptionality of artistic work tend to eclipse the injustice of the precarious, often unpaid labor that sustains art as an institution. Put in another way, the field of art mystifies the economic aspect of its production because it is encompassed by a separation/distinction between artistic talent and artistic labor. The paradox of unpaid artistic labor thus rests on the presumed artistic talent or creativity, which obscures the labor itself. For the love of art and/or self-expression of artistic talent, artist and cultural workers often relinquish all payment for their labor as if they did not belong to the wage economy, i.e. to the world in which the majority of the population earns its living by working and being paid/compensated for that work. Hence, to take on the perspective of art as labor means to recognize that it should be valued in economic terms and recognized as labor and not as some divine intervention offered for the benefit of society as a free gift.

JJŽ: Following the unmasking of the autonomy of cultural production, in your book The Paradox of Unpaid Artistic Labor: the Autonomy of Art, the Avant-Garde, and Cultural Policy in the Transition to Post-Socialism (2016), you present an intriguing hypothesis about the proximity of art production and unpaid, female housework. Of course, not in the sense of their concrete, practical manifestations, but in the sense that they are both often characterized as “calls” that don’t require material remuneration because they respond to a desire, rather than a need?

KP: Yes, in this sense I find the tradition of Marxist feminism and their 1972 International Wages Against Housework Campaign especially productive. The denied economy of artistic labor or the disavowal of the socioeconomic context in the field of art production is similar to the context of unpaid domestic or reproductive labor in capitalist societies. Italian feminist Silvia Federici makes the very important point that the fact that domestic labor is unpaid is the most powerful tool through which assumptions that domestic labor is not work are being perpetuated. If such work is being performed because it is an inherent desire of female subjects it becomes acceptable that it is not remunerated. If by the same token we consider artistic labor as a gift or talent – which is parallel to the way domestic labor is considered an inherent natural calling for women – that is, as “the labor of love”, then artists don’t need to be paid. The absence of payment is making this labor invisible in the capitalist production where the wage nexus is what would recognize the artist as a worker who needs to be paid. So my investigation reveals how in both cases the absence of payment makes labor invisible in capitalist relations and situates the worker outside of the dominant social contract.

JJŽ: You presented your idea of a parallelism between artistic work and house work for the first time in a text about the feminist cultural festival Mesto žensk/City of Women (Ljubljana). You analyzed the functioning of this parallelism in the wider context of the transformation of the cultural field that was part of the transition from socialism to neoliberalism in Eastern Europe, and the repercussions this had for the structural conditions of the whole system. What was the impulse behind identifying this parallel?

KP: This was a small serendipity; however, the parallel seemed to me to be particularly productive to explain the contradictions of the post-socialist reality of the independent art scene and at the same time the position of women after the deconstruction of Yugoslavia. The festival promoting women artists, which has its origin in the continuation of struggles for female equality in a post-socialist reality, can be viewed not only as a symptom of the deploring position of the female artist, but also of women in contemporary societies on the territory of former Yugoslavia more generally. In this light, the destruction of socialist Yugoslavia and the postsocialist transition offer a poignant example of how liberal ideals of the individualism and empowerment of marginalized identity groups, which have also been at the heart of alternative social movements during the 1980s (for instance, for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, etc.), can easily be used in the neoliberal battle against economic equality and emancipation. The problem of the City of Women in post-socialist reality is thus a larger problem for an independent art scene caught in the hierarchies of the cultural system, which continues to reproduce economic inequality. The City of Women as it has emerged with the support of the liberal political elites that wanted to promote the so-called women questions and equal opportunities, has become a site where two marginalized groups come together: women and freelance cultural workers. While the festival opened a platform for women artists, the working conditions from which that platform was created are unsustainable. The promotion of women artist rests on the self-exploitation and underpaid labor of cultural workers in the independent art scene. This situation furthermore demonstrates the failure of the political struggle of alternative culture for more just production conditions for art in the post-socialist era.

JJŽ: It’s interesting that as far as Slovenia is concerned, you find the origins of todays’ precarity already in legislation of the 1980s…

KP: Yes that was indeed a surprising finding of my research. As I analyzed the changes in how cultural policy regulated artistic labor during Yugoslav socialism, I discovered that a special law regulating freelance cultural work was grounded in an entrepreneurial logic. In 1982 Slovenia passed the Law for Independent Cultural Workers, which redefined artists and art workers as an enterprise, or what we today call “self-employed”. The law it in principle transferred the responsibility of the state to the cultural workers who now had to pay the social security cost. However, during socialism the government subsidized the cost of social security of some independent cultural workers. As opposed to the art workers employed in cultural institutions, these independent workers did not only have to compete for the public funding of their projects, they also had to self-fund their own social security. One of the main reasons for this new legislation was of course to reduce the pressure on regular employment in art institutions, hence the number of independent art workers increased. The new cultural policy regulation in the arts treated independent cultural workers like outsourced labor that was structurally deprived of reliable social security and funding. For sure, since the mechanisms of the socialist welfare state were still operating during the 1980s, the working conditions were not as grave as they are today, when the neoliberal attack on the welfare state has finally completed its mission and redefined the welfare state as an entrepreneurial state. The implementation of competition within the cultural labor market, which was the consequence of transforming art workers into cultural entrepreneurs, is in this respect an exemplary form of the neoliberal transformation of the socialist welfare state. Furthermore, the new post-socialist government in Slovenia responded to the artists’ critique of socialist cultural policy and cultural institutions by integrating the production of alternative art practices in an unequal way, and by placing more emphasis on the entrepreneurial logic. Thereby the new post-socialist order managed to politically undermine the former alternative art scene and to extend the contingent of underpaid and impoverished art workers. Hence, the paradox of unpaid artistic labor has taken on a new shape in the neoliberal post-socialist era: while the state funds cultural production as a public good, it regulates artistic labor by employing exploitative techniques, which manufacture entrepreneurial subjects.

JJŽ: You belong to a growing contingent of young people from the Balkans-including Slovenia–who decided to “try their luck abroad.” Considering your long working experience in the alternative scene, I am interested in how your transition into the institutional sphere came about, especially into academia? Knowing that the working conditions in the field of art are the primary focus of your interest, how did you contextualize your “case” within the wider geopolitical field?

KP: First, let me say that I completely agree with your inclusion of Slovenia in the Balkans. Perhaps even more telling in the context of your question is Slovenia’s part in the legacy of self-managed socialism and its destruction, which has a lot to do with my transatlantic transfer. My decision to take on a job in US academia has, I think, less to do with my personal choice and more with the fact that as a self-employed cultural worker I belonged to the ever growing contingent of the reserve army of (cultural) labor. The same reserve army that today represents the majority of underpaid and impoverished cultural entrepreneurs struggling in precarious working conditions in the realm of the former alternative art scene. Taking a job in the academic system was one way out of this precarity. I was fed-up with breathing the air of the post-socialist entrepreneurial spirit, and of practicing cultural entrepreneurship glossed over with ideas about the creative class, with autonomy… Ironically, I ended up a public servant in the country of progressive neoliberalism, as feminist scholar Nancy Fraser recently defined the dying political system in the United States. Though I work in academia, which has, at least in the US, a lot of similarities with the art world–competition between intellectual rather than artistic–ideas; relentless self-promotion; and finding a niche for your brand of intellectual research), I am still connected to issues of cultural production. While my political struggle for better working conditions in the arts in Slovenia was limited by my position as a self-employed worker caught between finding jobs and changing the system of art production, academia has given me a fairly privileged position where I can “corrupt” future generations of art workers and producers with questions about the inequality of the existing institutional order of the arts, including unpaid labor (such as internships) and beyond. However, the price I pay for this “privilege” is that I am surrounded by the same issues of precarity and injustice that structure exploitation in academia.

JJŽ: Thank you.

Zagreb, June 2017

Katja Praznik’s research is focused on the politics of unpaid artistic labor during the demise of the welfare state. Before coming to the United States, she worked as a freelancer in the Slovenian independent art scene. She was the editor-in-chief of Maska, performing arts journal (2007-2009), and was engaged in the struggles for improving working conditions of art workers at Društvo Asociacija (2009-2012). In 2010, her book Ideologies of Dancing Bodies was published as a volume of Chronotopographies of Dance: Two Inquiries with Slovene publisher Emanat. Her latest book The Paradox of Unpaid Labor: Autonomy of Art, the Avant-Garde and Cultural Policy in the Transition to Post-Socialism was published in 2016.  photo credit: Jaka Babnik

Jasna Jasna Žmak is a dramaturg, playwright and scriptwriter from Zagreb (Croatia). Since 2012 she has been working as an Assistant Researcher at the Department of Dramaturgy, Academy of Drama Art, University of Zagreb. She is currently a PhD cadidate at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, her thesis dealing with lecture performance as genre. She has published one book of prose (My You, Profil, 2015), two performance texts (Solitaries, Istrian National Theater, 2011; The Other at the Same Time, 2012), several short stories and essays. Her writing deals with issues of queer love and queer language. On the stage she has collaborated with directors Matija Ferlin, Borut Šeparovi? and Oliver Frlji?. Since 2010 she has been a board member of the Center for Dramatic Art in Zagreb, as well as the performing arts journal Frakcija. photo credit: Mirta Jambrovi?