Issue 1/2012 - Bon Travail

The Precarity of Culture

On the Role of Artists in Flexible Capitalism

Pascal Jurt

When the debate on precarity reached its height in the mid-2000s, one would increasingly encounter the term in the field of art. Over the past years, a series of remarkable essays have appeared about the increase of precarity in culture 1 and the role of artists in flexible capitalism.2 Contrary to other major topics these past years, for instance the »idea of communism«, »speculative realism« and »upcoming uprisings,« which often got stuck in the philosophical idea firmament,3 the debate on the phenomenon of increasing precarity focuses in on the heart of capitalism: on labor and production conditions.
Germany’s Künstlersozialkasse (KSK), which offers freelance artists, among others, low-priced medical and pension insurance with the help of state subsidies, cites a significant increase in freelance artists registered with the agency – most of them living in precarious financial conditions. In 2010, 59,507 visual artists were registered with the KSK, whereas in 2001 the number was only 45,180. In 2010, a female visual artist earned an average of 11,103 euros per year and her male counterpart made 15,169 euros. An irregular income was evidently not enough to secure the livelihood of a significant number of artists.4
The fact is that only a small percentage of artists (about two percent of art academy graduates) manage to live off their art. Most work multiple jobs or are involved in economic self-exploitation and are under time pressure that offers few opportunities for free, self-determined artwork. The situation is becoming increasingly difficult especially for artists working in the sub-field of »limited production« (Bourdieu). Precarity is a fate that threatens even when the artists are highly visible, present and involved.5

[b]Evolving into precarity and a new definition of labor[/b]
Apart from the classic sociological surveys by Serge Paugam, Patrick Cingolani, Pierre Bourdieu and Robert Castel, reception in the field of art has mainly focused on concepts from the realms of »immaterial labor,« »governmentality studies,« post-Fordist knowledge work, »capitalisme cognitif« and the »new spirit of capitalism.«6 A common thread among studies in this sector is their choice of the dissolution of the boundaries between work and life as central theme. They ponder the problems of merging work and leisure time as well as the actual sites of production and reproduction, and focus »attention on conditions of precarity that go beyond the immediate wage-labor condition and now potentially encompass all living conditions.«7
In their book »The New Spirit of Capitalism« – which has meanwhile become a standard work describing contemporary society – Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello use painstaking content analysis of management handbooks and textbooks to present a precise study of reticular capitalism as a connexionist »projective city« that draws its legitimation from the co-opting of artistic critiques and demands for autonomy, creativity and self-determination. They were able to assimilate critical counter-concepts and lifestyles of a non-conformist bohemian milieu with the general principle of flexibility, individual responsibility and a mobility linked to the metaphors of nomadism, but also with the buzzword of neoliberal creativity.
Paolo Virno, who compares the activities of post-Fordist laborers with the work of artists in »A Grammar of the Multitude,« pointed out that capital not only requires the potential of the worker but also the potential of the creative working process, and thus makes an effort to regulate the entire process of an individual’s life. He speaks of the political aspect of production.8 Virno assumes a substantial homogeneity of labor and non-labor: »Working endlessly can be justified with good reasons, and working less and less frequently can be equally justified.«9
Referring to Virno, Kai van Eikels recently added the term of non-labor to the debate on the blurring of boundaries between work and life. He describes non-labor as the Other in labor and demands that non-labor, too, should be recognized as an exercise in political action. 10
In his essay »On (Surplus) Value in Art,« Diedrich Diederichsen also underlines that the self is no haven of retreat, but has become a productive force. It is not just the average socially necessary labor, but also all the investments made by artists in training, in experimental extremes, visits to bars, exhibitions and concerts that add to the value of artistic work. Artists create surplus value »to the extent that, as employed cultural workers, they are able to take unpaid and often informal extra knowledge away from other daily activities – some of which are economic and essential for survival – and invest them in the conception, development and production of artworks. The more of this extra time is invested the better, following the rule that living labor as variable capital generates the surplus value, not the constant capital. The more they develop a type of artwork that calls for them to be present as continuously as possible, often in a performative capacity, the larger the amount of Mehrwert they create – even if it that Mehrwert cannot always be automatically realized in the form of a corresponding price.«11
The fact that the lines between labor and leisure time are blurring is also noted in German-language social sciences, mainly in labor market sociology that is not interested in postoperaist theories. In sections of German-language labor market research, artist markets are regarded as a possible model for other part-time work markets. The traits typical of labor organization in the cultural sector, such as great flexibility, mobility, a readiness to assume risk, and the artistic subjectivities of an uncompromising bonding with one’s own work based on rational value are to be transferred to other areas of labor and production.12

[b]Forms of resistance and articulation against increasing precarity[/b]
What forms of articulation and resistance exist against practices of self-realization such as flexibility or individual responsibility and late-capitalist discourses of legitimation? What contemporary forms of (artistic) social criticism are there that can be understood as counter-hegemonic answers to the new projective form of capitalism?
In France, the increase in precarious living and working conditions led to a heightened consciousness and a rallying call to action as early as 2006. The numerous massive protests against neoliberal first-time job contracts (CPE) without job protection forced the Villepin government to rescind such contracts. In an interview with the pop left-wing magazine »Die Beute« in 1995, Toni Negri euphorically welcomed the strikes at that time against the Juppé government’s deregulation plans; early on, he regarded the fight as »a profound identification of the common interests among the metropolitan proletariat, part-time workers, people in precarious employment and those ›sans papiers‹ who live flexibly and precariously on an international level.«13 The forms of resistance employed by part-time workers in the cultural sector at theater and music events (»intermittants du spectacle«14) who resisted reforms targeting their unemployment insurance and boycotted numerous festivals in the summer of 2003 also led to new coalitions among people affected in different ways by precariousness. Culture workers who had gotten better organized since the actions in July 2003 and had in the meantime become specialists in labor law issues participated in the numerous general meetings at universities in 2006. Thus, new framework discourses and collective positions were developed surrounding the conflicts, meaning that the workers were in a position to put pressure on political decision-makers in a coherent fashion. What was decisive was that the new alliances among those with different forms of precarity didn’t want to limit their social battles to any pre-determined sector. Student strike committees, for instance, called themselves »coordinated students, young workers, members of the culture precariat and precariously employed.«
In the course of the widespread student protests in 2009 in Austria, Switzerland and Germany that emanated from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, new practices evolved for self-organized production as political criticism of the ideological concept of a »knowledge-based society.« Reflexively, a »Vienna Collective« of teachers at the Academy of Fine Arts stated that one must »if part-time and precariously employed, take the initiative oneself and arrange for one’s own financing, organize third-party funds and distinguish oneself as a mobilized networker under self-management.«15
A similar constellation resulted from recent debates on gentrification and the »creative city« as an ideological concept. The urban researcher Klaus Ronneberger pointed out that Hamburg’s Artists’ Initiative made a smart move when they linked their intervention with the »creativity metaphor« associated with artistic action as well as with entrepreneurial productivity. The artists also managed to articulate the discourse of a »creative city« as a conflicting relationship, thus breaking with the dominant meaning associated with that term. The initiative’s political interconnectedness with other groups and organizations, allied under the label »Right to the City,« has played a part in its success.16 The situation in Berlin, however, shows that the coalition of artists and political activists doesn’t work everywhere: in the course of the discussion on gentrification, quite a tense relationship between left-wing activists and the critical arts scene still prevails (manifest in actual terms in the »devastation« of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien artists’ residence.) The reason for this is not merely that those affected in various sectors are exposed to different sets of rules; it also has to do with the sensibilities of a political faction that, as Andreas Siekmann reflexively sums up in connection with »art as a sign-draining machine,« are in general suspicious of artists who, »for reasons of political or social involvement or some other issue take a cheap vacation in other people’s misery (Greil Marcus).«17

[b]A sociological approach – militant surveys[/b]
Diedrich Diederichsen recently came up with the following demands versus the co-opting by the capitalist creative economy and the »economization of culture«:18 »The fresh objectification of personalized techniques, having opportunities to retreat that are not devoured by the necessity to reproduce, the fresh acquisition of the self by the self, the de-economization of the soul, the body, of presence, of sexiness; re-politicization, re-objectification, re-reification of capabilities, skills and knowledge.«19 How can these demands be implemented in practice?
To date, there are still very few empirically dependable studies in the discourse on precarity among people engaged in the cultural sector that include the subjective dimensions of artists’ working and living conditions in their analysis. On the other hand, there have been several efforts that comply with Pierre Bourdieu’s socio-analytical approach in »La misère du monde.«20 As the editors of »La France invisible,«21 sociologist Stéphane Beaud and the two journalists Jade Lindgaard and Joseph Confavreux, write in the introduction, the collection is meant to give those discriminated against, cast out and belittled, a face and a history. An essential aspect of »La France invisible« is that invisible France should not only make visible the situation of the poor and the underprivileged but should also try to expose the system that creates them. The book isn’t content with merely gathering together subjective testimonies and interpretations; it also points out gaps in the representation of social reality in different fields.
In 2001 in France, Anne and Marine Rambach made a splash with their book »Les intellos précaires.« 22 They take a similar basic approach, but their study looks only at precarity among people engaged in the cultural sector. In a report (as of yet unpublished), they describe their approach and insights as follows:
»When we launched our study, we had a concept in mind that we called ›les intellos précaires,‹ intellectuals living precariously. That became the title of our book. Intellectuals living precariously – first and foremost, that was us: people who work in the cultural and intellectual field and conduct their lives in a manner regarded as unusual, without a set job, without a set salary [...]. According to our definition, the group of culture and media workers who are neither employees nor state officials constitutes intellectuals living precariously. During this conceptual phase of our study, we had in mind journalists fallen prey to precarity, the many people in the publishing sector, writers like us, contract teachers, workers in the multimedia and the non-profit sector. And researchers without a permanent job [...]. We are not sociologists and we have no manner of scientific qualification to deal with this subject; we are writers. Our central qualification is that we are personally involved in the issue: where precarity is concerned, we are, without a doubt, ›experts‹ – in the sense that, for example, organizations called on AIDS patients to provide an expert opinion on their disease. Thus, our approach was meant to be decidedly subjective and empirical. Our research was forced to adhere to empiricism all the more due to the dramatic lack of benchmarks.«23
The surveys inspired by Bourdieu rarely pose questions regarding the potential of political subjectivities that point the way beyond adverse conditions. Since precarity of subjectivities with a post-modern and post-ideological habitus is definitely also experienced as emancipation from rigid Fordist routine (one need only think of the affirmative »digital bohemians«; from among their ranks, there were even short-lived fantasies of a »left-wing neoliberalism«), analysis and criticism were aimed at preventing the perception of artists living precariously as isolated and fragmented victims of neoliberal policies. This would too strongly de-subjectify the individuals concerned and again set up a »view from above.«
Most of the studies on precarity refer neither to the concepts of »témoignage« coined by the group Socialisme ou Barbarie surrounding Cornelias Castoriadis, Claude Lefort and Daniel Mothé,24 nor to the »militant study« of operaism. 25 This may have something to do with the particular fields from which the studies arose, and with Bourdieu’s conception of the intellectual (which is fundamentally different from militant conceptions), but also may be based on difficulties in reception and on misunderstandings within the international circulation of ideas.
At the same time, awareness of »con-ricerca« (co-examination), a concept Communist and Socialist Party dissidents developed in post-war Italy in the wake of operaism, contributed to the expansion of the debate on precarity. The roots of »operaism,« too, lie in the beginnings of sociology, more to the point, of Italian industrial sociology. Around 1960 Olivetti, a left-wing liberal entrepreneur, invited young sociologists and psychologists to study working conditions, including with regard to the »humanization of labor,« in his company. That was the starting point of studies by early operaists such as Romano Alquati – studies that supplied excellent descriptions of the industrial work process and related forms of thought (and resistance).26
However, in contrast to the classic sociological approach, the participatory and politically interventionist position coincides with the theoretical analysis in the »militant studies.« The dissociation from classic examinations of a scientific-objectivist bent and analysis of the severely altered living and working conditions of factory workers could offer important impulses for practices and articulations of cognitive proletarians: issues concerning the composition of the places where people work, the fragmentation of the social component, political attitudes and the possibility of autonomous (self-)organization are at the center of »militant studies.«
In his most recent book, »La societé du malaise« (The Society of Discontent), Alain Ehrenburg pointed out how »disparities« are handled as »personal failures« and »precarity, exclusion and unemployment [...] inflict narcissist wounds whose main characteristic is a decrease in self-esteem, shaking up the individual’s self-confidence.27 Although he doesn’t demand organization or call for collective forms of resistance, he addresses a sore point with his contemporary diagnosis, which shows quite vividly how problems experienced collectively are often individualized when it comes to therapy.
It is evident that it is extremely difficult to defend oneself against forms of control based on technologies of the self in a field that demands extremely nomadic, transnational forms of existence and work from its subjects coupled with corresponding compulsory mobility and flexibility. That said, a (not merely idiosyncratic) debate about production and working conditions in the cultural sector could help fight policies of »de-thematization« of social battles, and it might even unleash collective resistance potential across class and partisan boundaries against the impositions of flexible capitalism.


Translated by Jennifer Taylor


1 Cf. Isabell Lorey, »Vom immanenten Widerspruch zur hegemonialen Funktion. Biopolitische Gouvernementalität und Selbst-Prekarisierung von KulturproduzentInnen,« in: Gerald Raunig/Ulf Wuggenig (eds.), Kritik der Kreativität. Vienna 2007, pp. 121–136 ff; Sønke Gau/Katharina Schlieben (eds.), Work to do! Selbstorganisation in prekären Arbeitsbedingungen. Nuremberg 2009.
2 Cf. Angela McRobbie, »›Jeder ist kreativ‹. Künstler als Pioniere der New Economy?, « in: Jörg Huber (ed.), Singularitäten – Allianzen. Vienna/Zurich 2002, pp. 37–60.
3 Cf. Comité Invisible, L’insurrection qui vient. Paris 2007; Alain Badiou/Slavoj Žižek, L’Ideé du Communisme. Conférence de Londres 2009. Paris 2010; Levi Bryant/Nick Srnicek/Graham Harman (eds.): The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne 2011.
4 National inventory of those insured under the artists’ social insurance plan on January 1, 2011, according to professional category, gender and age: National average income of people actively insured on January 1, 2011, according to professional category, gender and age:
5 Cf. Ulf Wuggenig, »Künstlerin: ›Ich kann sagen: Nächstes Jahr ist okay! Mehr kann ich nicht sagen‹«, in: Franz Schultheis/Berthold Vogel/Michael Gemperle (eds.), Ein halbes Leben. Biografische Zeugnisse aus einer Arbeitswelt im Umbruch. Konstanz 2010, pp. 509–510.
6 Cf. Oliver Marchart, »Auf dem Weg in die Prekarisierungsgesellschaft. Zur Analyse des Definitionskampfs um die zunehmende Prekarisierung von Arbeit und Leben,« in: Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 36 (3), 2010, pp. 413–429.
7 Ibid., p. 415.
8 Cf. Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles/New York 2004, p. 84.
9 Ibid., p. 45.
10 Cf. Kai van Eikels, »Nichtarbeitskämpfe, « in: Jörn Etzold/Martin J. Schäfer (eds.), Nicht-Arbeit. Politik, Konzepte, Ästhetiken. Weimar 2011, pp. 16–39.
11 Diedrich Diederichsen, »On (Surplus) Value in Art.« Rotterdam/Berlin/New York 2008, pp. 35.
12 Cf. Carroll Haak/Günther Schmid, »Arbeitsmärkte für Künstler und Publizisten – Modelle der künftigen Arbeitswelt,« in: Leviathan, 2, 2001, pp. 156–178; Sophie-Thérèse Krempl, »Paradoxien der Arbeit, oder: Sinn und Zweck des Subjektes im Kapitalismus.« Bielefeld 2011.
13 »Verlangt das Unmögliche, mit weniger geben wir uns nicht zufrieden.« Interview with Toni Negri, in: Die Beute. Politik und Verbrechen, Winter 1996/97, pp. 101.
14 Pierre-Michel Menger, Les intermittents du spectacle. Sociologie du travail flexible. Paris 2011.
15 Wiener Kollektiv, »Spät im Wintersemester,« in: Unbedingte Universität (ed.), Was passiert. Stellungnahmen zur Lage der Universität. Zurich 2010, p. 39.
16 Cf. »Es geht um ein urbanes Rauschen. Klaus Ronneberger im Gespräch über die Proteste im Hamburger Gängeviertel,« in: Jungle World, 41/2010;; cf.. Christoph Twickel,
Gentrifidingsbums oder Eine Stadt für alle.
Hamburg 2010.
17 »Auf der Suche nach den Keimen des Möglichen. Alice Creischer und Andreas Siekmann: Interview mit Klaus Ronneberger am 25.10.1999,« in: Andreas Siekmann, Aus: Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung. From: Limited Liability Company. Cologne 2000, p. 451.
18 Pierre Bourdieu, »Kultur in Gefahr,« in: Pierre Bourdieu, Gegenfeuer 2. Konstanz 2001, pp. 82–99; Gilles Deleuze, »Postskriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften, in: Gilles Deleuze, Unterhandlungen, Frankfurt am Main 1993, p. 260.
19 Diedrich Diedrichsen, »Kreative Arbeit und Selbstverwirklichung,« in: Christoph Menke/Juliane Rebentisch (eds.), Kreation und Depression. Freiheit im gegenwärtigen Kapitalismus. Berlin 2011, p. 128.
20 Cf. Daniela Böhmler/Peter Scheiffele: »Überlebenskunst in der Kultur der Selbstverwertung,« in: Franz Schultheis/Kristina Schulz (eds.), Gesellschaft mit begrenzter Haftung. Sozioanalyse alltäglichen Leidens in Deutschland. Konstanz 2005; Pascal Jurt, musician: »Ich habe zwei Jahre nur von der Band gelebt,« in: Franz Schultheis/Berthold Vogel/Michael Gemperle (eds.), Ein halbes Leben. Biografische Zeugnisse aus einer Arbeitswelt im Umbruch. Konstanz 2010, pp. 397–411; Wuggenig, »Künstlerin: ›Ich kann sagen: Nächstes Jahr ist okay! Mehr kann ich nicht sagen‹« (see note 5).
21 Stéphane Beaud/Joseph Confavreux/Jade Lindgaard (eds.), La France invisible. Paris 2006.
22 Anne et Marine Rambach, Les Intellos précaires. Paris 2001.
23 Researchers living precariously, lecture held on December 6, 2002, at an event organized by the IG Externe LektorInnen und freie WissenschafterInnen (syndicate of freelance editors and scholars), »Intellektuelle zwischen Autonomie und Ausbeutung. Zur Prekarität wissenschaftlicher und kultureller Produktion.« Translated by Eva Krivanec.
24 Andrea Gabler, Antizipierte Autonomie. Zur Theorie und Praxis der Gruppe »Socialisme ou Barbarie« (1949–1967). Hanover 2009.
25 Cf. Christian Frings, »Organisationskritik im Operaismus. Zum Andenken an Romano Alquati, 1935–2010,« in: Michael Bruch/Wolfram Schaffar/Peter Scheiffele (eds.), Organisation und Kritik. Münster 2011, p. 185.
26 Cf. Romano Alquati, Klassenanalyse als Klassenkampf. Arbeiteruntersuchung bei FIAT und OLIVETTI. Frankfurt am Main 1974; Steve Wright, Den Himmel stürmen. Eine Theoriegeschichte des Operaismus. Berlin/Hamburg 2005.
27 Alain Ehrenburg, La societé du malaise. Paris 2010, pp. 429–430.