ParEcon and Artists
This page includes below first some basic q/a from our forum system, some q/a based on an excerpt from the book Realizing Hope, and an article by the artist Jerry Fresia…
Wouldn’t parecon limit individual artistic creativity by deciding what art to produce by referendum or committee?
Do you think this because artists, like producers of vehicles, get resources to work with (outputs of other people’s efforts) or are allotted income for their work (and a claim on the social product) only insofar as their work, overall, is respected in the economy? I don’t see why.
In fact, quite the contrary. By (1) elevating diversity and self management parecon greatly promotes exploration and attitudes conducive to it, and (2) by allocating resources and tools and time self-consciously, it removes the impact of power or misdistribution of (voting rights) on the allocations, reducing the built-in tendency for “popularity” to outweigh “innovation” without any real assessment being made of the value of innovation.
If you mean to point out that it would be within the purview of society to decree that some type innovation is unwanted or unlikely to be successful and that resources shouldn’t be given over to it – yes, that is true – for art as for innovation in, say, how to electrocute people better, or for that matter, how to make better ladders, say, or whatever. But the assumption that in a parecon the population would not want musical and artistic innovation pursued by those with talents and creativity, in their own manner as they evolve their dispositions and talents, seems to me very very dubious. I should think the opposite would be true, overwhelmingly.
What people currently like would be part of the issue in parecon – for sure. But it isn’t the whole of it, as you are about to indicate, I bet. For one thing, smaller groups can like things a lot, making them very worthwhile even though not widely appreciated. But also, at a moment in time, much of what is pursued – not only in art, but in many dimensions of life, say science, engineering experimentation, etc. – is not yet appreciated beyond those who are trying to explore it (maybe not even entirely by them). Art is not special in this respect, in fact. So there is need for exploration and elaboration of art, music, and ideas and information and innovation more generally, that moves out beyond where taste currently is. Sure.
But there is nothing about parecon that precludes or even impedes this relative to any other model I am aware of, much less capitalism…quite the contrary.
Imagine a workplace for musicians. Society respects this workplace and includes it as part of the economy because it values music, including innovation. To work at this institution (and in different parecons we can imagine different instances, etc.) one has to be hired which likely entails demonstrating certain knowledge, talent, etc. The institution’s budget is allocated internally to various activities, by its members, and therefore certainly not only to what a mass audience outside already likes.
It really isn’t much different in that respect than a workplace investigating new products, if you think about it.
But aren’t artists with such public controls not really artists anymore?
This notion that an artist is some special unique creature with special rights, etc., entirely eludes me. This is a claim made by all intellectual workers – folks in or wanting to be in what I call the coordinator class – each seeing it as valid for themselves but not always seeing it as equally valid for others, but it is true for all and for none, in fact, depending on what it means.
There is a difference, that is, between being controlled publicly, what you fear, and being part of a society, operating in its norms, etc. and thus having a say over outcomes in proportion as they affect one, but not more – a big difference.
The whole idea of being an artist seems contrary to the notion of producing “popular” art for mass appeal. What happens to an artist who makes unappealing art in Parecon?
Suppose I happen to like some kind of weird arrangement of items in my living room, and I like the setup changed daily, and it takes me an hour each day to do it, and it is hard work. Should I be able to earn my living in part doing that? It has no value for anyone else in society whatsoever…let’s say.
I think not. I shouldn’t be forbidden from doing it, of course. But it is my private pursuit and it is more consumption than production, and it isn’t worthy of being called part of a job complex, I should think. Now this isn’t by definition in a parecon – which could decide otherwise for reasons I don’t yet or maybe would never personally agree with. That is a parecon’s participants could actually allow and incorporate this type activity as work though I doubt one ever would would…
Something similar happens for art, music, and also engineering, science, etc. Insofar as society is going to allocate pay (a claim on income) to any activity, it is going to want that activity to “count” as work, which means that overall, on average, it has socially beneficial outcomes. (There may be lots of misses on the road to some hits, or benefit may have many meanings…but still…)
So if I want to pursue some science, or engineering, or music, or writing, and I want this activity to be part of my balanced job complex, the activity has to be regarded by the economy as worthy…yes.
But how does the economy do that?
Most likely, for art as with engineering, etc., by budgeting whole institutions that in turn incorporate people who do this type work, and by then taking the employees collective view as to the worthiness of pursuits undertaken.
Could it be that some genius will propose to a music workplace or an art workplace or a research center, pursuits that others feel deserves no time, energy, and resources – sure, it could happen. But parecon is far far less vulnerable to such problems, having removed profit and power differentials from the motivations, than is capitalism, say.
Ignorance may still have an impact, or just outright error, of course, in parecon as in any system at all. But, as well, one can account for the likely distribution of ignorance and try to guard against it having ill effects – which is just what elevating the value “diversity” to such a prime position is meant to help achieve, in part (other techniques include things like tenure, etc.)
The following long answer is an excerpt from the book Realizing Hope…
Okay, so what is the attitude of artists to parecon, and what are the implications of parecon for art and artists?
One could easily anticipate that people who own factories and have great wealth would have a negative initial–and perhaps long term–reaction to participatory economics. Factory owners have, after all, benefited from capitalism’s most aggressive inequalities and have generally developed rationalizations of those features, coming to feel that they personally deserve their great wealth and power rather than that they hold it only by virtue of institutional economic injustice. When capitalists look in the personal or collective mirror they typically do not recoil in horror due to seeing a beneficiary of elite domination that’s based on monopolizing ownership of productive assets, but instead they preen and celebrate due to seeing a superior breed of person deserving great influence and luxury for its socially valuable entrepreneurship.
Similarly, those who are currently in the coordinator class or who even aspire to it will, in many instances, predictably be at least initially and sometimes over the long haul hostile to parecon. They typically feel they are smarter and wiser, more capable and more enterprising then workers below, rather than that they are the beneficiaries of (a) a relative monopoly on training and empowering conditions that raises them up and pushes others down vis a vis capacities to participate and make decisions, and (b) a morally bankrupt criteria of reward and decision making.
When coordinator class members look in the personal or collective mirror, in other words, they typically do not see a beneficiary of elite domination of others based on monopolizing economic roles and circumstances of empowerment, but they see a superior breed deserving disproportionate luxury and influence for its intelligence and skills and even its greater capacity to enjoy a rich and varied life.
Oddly, it turns out there is another group that seems to have a more or less reflexive initial tendency to reject parecon–artists. In my experience, at least, this sector worries greatly on hearing about parecon’s features and tends to lash out against it without even considering possible gains for others or even for themselves. Something deep seems to be threatened, and they respond with vigor.
So what is the situation of art and artists vis a vis the economy? Can/will a participatory economy be advantageous for artists and art, or will it reduce the lives of artistic practitioners and also delimit their product? Put in reverse, would having an ideal environment for people to partake of artistic labors consistent with others having comparable conditions and opportunities impose needs and implications on the rest of economics that a parecon could not abide?
It seems that artists’ reactions to parecon are like those of coordinator class members more generally, but with a twist. Artists don’t think all lawyers, doctors, engineers, and so on are like them. They think, instead, that there is something grand and great about art that distinguishes them from the rest of society’s actors. And they fear, at least on first hearing, that parecon will interfere with their endeavors.
What is this special-ness? Creativity, they say. We create. We bring into existence. We dredge from nothing something. And, more, we not only see what isn’t and nurture it into existence, we do this in advance of others, only to their later benefit. Our work takes time to even understand much less appreciate.
And so what about participatory economics worries artists? Partly it is that they will have to do balanced job complexes. And partly it is that they will have to operate in the participatory planning system, which means that others will have an impact on whether they can do their thing or not.
So how will art transpire in a parecon, and what will be the implications for artists and their creations of having to partake of a balanced job complex and the planning process? And, finally, is there anything special about their worries?
Artistic labor in a parecon–painting, sculpting, designing, writing, filming, directing, performing, dancing, conducting, etc.–will be subject to the same structural impositions as all other labor in a parecon. There will be workplaces for different types of product, workers councils of those involved in the production, consumers who benefit from the product, self managed decision making, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning of allocation.
In capitalism the artist of one kind or another attempts to get work which means appealing to a source of financing. Ultimately this will be property owners–capitalists–whether when they themselves finance movies and plays, or when their publishing houses or their foundations produce books or support a public symphony, or whatever else.
The owners or administrators will hire the artist if they think they can make profits off the artists’ labors, or, in some quite rare cases, out of literally liking the product and being willing to subsidize it regardless of losses to be incurred. The artist’s income will depend on his or her bargaining power, which will be affected by many variables, including the popularity of the output, the artist’s relative monopoly on the talents that go into its creation, etc.
What all this leads to in capitalist economies is that most artistic labor goes to selling commodities for owners or sometimes designing or prettifying their domains. More prose and poetry is written for jingles and manuals and ads than for audiences reading novels. More pictures are painted, photos taken, films created, and sculptures carved for purposes of sales leading to profit than for edifying or inspiring or uplifting audiences much less expressing the true desires and perceptions or artists.
What about in a participatory economy, then? What would be the difference for artists and art?
First a worker producing art of one sort or another will work with a workers council, as do all other workers. He or she will get hired like other workers, be remunerated like other workers, have a balanced job complex like other workers, and influence decisions like other workers, meaning he or she will do all this through workers and consumers councils addressing production and consumption and also allocation via participatory planning.
This means the artist has to convince other artists that he or she is a worthy worker in the field so as to get a job. The criteria is producing desirable art. This would seem like a gigantic improvement from having to convince a sponsor or owner with the criteria being profitability to him or her.
It also means the artist’s income will reflect the effort and sacrifice expended in socially valued labor, which is just and also, while it is less than a few artists earn under capitalism, it is likely considerably more than most earn–a moral improvement in every case, a collective improvement for society in overcoming inequity, and even overwhelmingly often a material improvement for the individual artist.
It also means the artist will have a combined job complex that is of average empowerment effect. Artists typically take considerable responsibility for all sides of their activity in any event. As to how much other work they would wind up incorporating in their overall job complex, I doubt we can say now. That it would generate an un-alienated existence, remove class division, etc., we have argued repeatedly. There is nothing new in all this due to it being artists we are discussing as compared to any other producers. The change from corporate divisions of labor to balanced job complexes is not only better in the large, but for all but a very few elite artists, it would likely mean considerably more time doing the type of art they most desire to do, even if there is, predictably, a shorter work week and time going to other responsibilities as well.
But what about influence over the artistic product? And what about the art that emerges?
The artist hearing about parecon starts to worry–will others be telling me what to paint, carve, write, etc.? And will the population at large be deciding whether my art is worthy or not, via the participatory allocation process?
Artists as a group are like all workers’ councils. They don’t get workplace inputs, electricity, equipment, clay, paint, and so on, unless their workplace is producing consonant with social needs. But within that constraint, again like other workers, they self-manage their own activity.
The population will negotiate with artists how much of the social productive potential should go to art, given what art seems to yield for people’s lives and society and given artists’ inclinations regarding their labors. But, once this is established, it is workers councils in art workplaces that hire and also fire artists, for being worthy and working appropriately.
So it is your fellow artists that you must convince of the efficacy of your activities. Might you fail to do so? Yes. But surely it will be easier and less alienating to convince fellow artists than to convince an owner. And if you do fail, does it mean you can do nothing about it? No. You can try another council or you can produce on your own time and demonstrate the validity of your proposals.
The idea that the population will be unable to see that there is merit in artistic work that escapes the bounds of current preferences, that diversifies the bounty of product and exploration, is as elitist and unwarranted as the idea that the population won’t support science, or engineering, or innovation in all other walks of life. And the idea that for top current artists to have to do a balanced job complex will take away from society’s total art product is no less elitist than the idea that the 80% of the population currently denied means and opportunity to develop its potentials could not generate sufficient scientific or medical or athletic or other product to replace anything that might not get generated due to some scientist or doctor or athlete or other talented person having to sweep up, etc.
In fact the claim is more ridiculous for artists than for the others on two counts. First, artists generally sweep up quite a lot now, even top ones. And second, more to the point, most people doing artistically creative work are not, in fact, now generating worthy art but, instead, packaging, advertising, etc., all of which distraction is reduced to near nil in a desirable economy like parecon.
So the bottom line is that parecon does to and for art what it does to and for other pursuits. It removes class differences. It guarantees that social assets are used in accord with social desires. It inserts self managing methods, remunerates justly, and makes the criteria of decision making meeting needs and fulfilling potentials. And it removes elitism while retaining quality and standards.
For purposes of rounding out this chapter, here are three question put to parecon explicitly by artists, and short answers. It is redundant, but the question/answer format may help clarity.
(1) Wouldn’t parecon limit individual artistic creativity by deciding what art to produce by participatory planning, as if by referendum or committee?
My reply is, does the questioner think this because artists, like producers of vehicles, will get resources to work with (outputs of other people’s efforts) and in turn be allotted income for their work only insofar as their output is desired in the economy?
I don’t see why these accurate perceptions lead to the worry.
If the questioner is worried that it would be within the purview of society to decree that some type artistic innovation is unwanted or unlikely to be successful and that resources shouldn’t be given over to it–yes, that is true for art as it is also true for innovation in, say, how to build better bicycles or make better ladders, or fly to Mars. But the assumption that in a parecon the population would not want musical and artistic innovation pursued in the artist’s own manner by those with talents and creativity, seems to me very dubious. I should think the opposite would be true, overwhelmingly.
What people currently like would be part of the issue in parecon–for sure. A parecon isn’t going to produce massive amounts of avant garde books and disks and films for audiences that don’t exist. But that isn’t the whole of good policy in this regard, of course. For one thing, smaller groups can like things a lot, making them very worthwhile even though not widely appreciated. It is a small group that likes advanced physics texts or even heart transplants, but that doesn’t mean society doesn’t produce these.
But also, at any moment in time, much of what is pursued–not only in art, but in many dimensions of life such as science, engineering, product design, etc.–is not yet appreciated beyond those who are trying to explore it and maybe not even entirely by them.
Art, despite the contrary intuitions of many artists, is not special in this respect. There is need for exploration and elaboration in art, music, and ideas and information and innovation more generally, all of which moves out beyond current popular taste. But there is nothing about parecon that precludes or even impedes this exploration relative to any other model I am aware of, much less relative to capitalism…quite the contrary.
Imagine a workplace for musicians. Society respects this workplace and includes it as part of the economy because it values music, including innovation. To work at this institution (and in different parecons we can imagine different approaches to all such issues) one has to be hired which likely entails demonstrating certain knowledge, talent, etc. The institution’s budget is allocated internally by its members to various activities and therefore certainly not only to what a mass audience outside already likes. It really isn’t much different in these respects than a workplace that is investigating new products,.
(2) But aren’t artists with such public controls not really artists anymore?
This notion that an artist is some special unique creature with special rights eludes me. It is a claim made by all intellectual workers who are in or wanting to be in the coordinator class–each seeing it as valid for themselves but not as equally valid for others, In fact, however, the claim is true for all and for none, depending on what it means.
There is a difference, that is, between being controlled by an external public or other authority, what artists and others reasonably fear, and being part of a society and operating in accord with its norms and thus having a say over outcomes in proportion as they affect one, but not more than that.
Parecon gives everyone in the economy self managing influence over economic outcomes, and this includes people who do science, engineering, administration, building, serving, and also art as a part of their balanced job complex, each like all the rest. The artist has to function in society, impacted by it, but not, on that account, without his or her own wherewithal.
(3) The whole idea of being an artist seems contrary to the notion of producing “popular” art for mass appeal. What happens to an artist who makes unappealing art in Parecon?
Suppose I happen to like some kind of weird arrangement of items in my living room, and I like the setup changed daily, and it takes me an hour each day to do it, and it is hard work. Should I be able to earn my living in part for doing that? It has no value for anyone else in society whatsoever…let’s say.
I think not. I shouldn’t be forbidden from doing it, of course. But it is my private pursuit and it is more consumption than it is production, and it isn’t worthy of being called part of a job complex, I should think. Now this isn’t by definition the case in a parecon–which could decide otherwise for reasons I don’t yet or maybe would never personally agree with. That is a particular parecon’s participants could actually allow and incorporate this type activity as work, though I doubt one ever would.
Something similar happens for art, music, and also engineering, science, athletics and really all pursuits. Insofar as society is going to allocate income to those doing some activity, it is going to want that activity to “count” as work, which means that overall, on average, it has socially beneficial outcomes. (There may be lots of misses on the road to some hits, and benefit may have many meanings…but still…)
So if I want to pursue some science, or engineering, or music, or writing, or building, or landscaping, or architecting, or constructing, or teaching, or ball playing, or cooking, or whatever, and I want this activity to be part of my balanced job complex, the activity has to be regarded by the economy as worthy.
But how does the economy determine worthiness? Most likely, for art as with engineering, etc., it will do so by budgeting whole institutions that will in turn incorporate people who do this type work, and will then take the employees’ collective view as to the worthiness of pursuits proposed to be undertaken.
Could it be that some genius will propose to a music workplace or an art workplace or a research center, pursuits that others in the field wrongly feel deserve no time, energy, and resources? It could happen, of course. Einstein’s PhD submission was initially rejected. But parecon is far less vulnerable to such problems than is capitalism, say, due to parecon’s having removed profit and power differentials from the motivations of actors.
Ignorance may still have an impact, or just outright error. No system can be immune from that. But, precisely because every system is vulnerable to such error, one can at least roughly account for the likely distribution of ignorance and try to guard against it having ill effects–which is just what elevating the value “diversity” to such a prime position as parecon does is meant to help achieve.
As a last point, suppose we come at the problem in the opposite direction and ask what does having the ideal system for artists demand of an economy?
Of course the problem is arriving at what we mean by “ideal system for artists.” Some might think the phrase is fulfilled if the system simply lets artists do whatever they want, giving them anything they want, both to do their art, and to enjoy and explore existence as well.
But if we instead say that artists should have what will benefit their lives and their art consistent with all other people equally having what will benefit their lives and their preferred ways of expressing their capacities–then, interestingly, it seems that pareconish values arise quite directly, and in turn so do pareconish institutions.
Surely artists need to control their endeavors and their interactions in the world which provide fuel for their insights and communications. But to have this option consistently with others having it too, means having self managing say.
For the artist to be appreciated and to have a wide range of choice and for there to be high standards and access to needed tools and conditions–all, again, consistent with others having the same benefits and costs regarding their pursuits–militates for remuneration for effort and sacrifice and balanced job complexes.
The point is, artists are people. Economically they produce and they consume. What they produce and what they do to produce it is different from what others and from each other, as well. But what everyone does is different from what others do. Artists conceive and originate–but so do all other social actors in the economy, at least to some degree, and some do it very much as in people coming up with product innovations, new techniques, new analyses in changing contexts, new basic theory, and so on. Artists are worthy and inspirational and valuable. They are not unique in these respects, however.
So, in sum, parecon creates conditions conducive to society benefiting from artistic talent and conducive to capable artists expressing themselves as they choose. More, parecon does all this consistently with economic equity and justice for the artists and equally for all other workers and consumers as well. Parecon is an art friendly, even an artistic ecnomy.
Finally, here is an article by an artist, Jerry Fresia, about parecon…
A Call to Artists: Support Parecon
December 15, 2004 By Jerry Fresia
Jerry Fresia’s ZSpace Page
A history of art over the last 100 years, not as the history of the product, the piece, but as the history of decision making within our industry, is the history of investors acquiring greater control over the distribution, the definition, and the making of art products – and thus over who we are. It is the history of power slipping further from the people who make the piece to the people who profit from the piece. Yes, there are individual art stars aplenty. But as workers in an industry, we are being ground into dust.
I would argue, at a minimum, that our responsibility as artists is to help invent institutions that protect and then expand the opportunity for autonomous creative work. Our responsibility, in light of our current situation, is to help build an economy sympathetic to the notion that art, as access to a creative life, is the province of every human being.
With this in mind, let the following commentary serve as a call to artists to endorse the idea of a participatory economy and in particular the institutional design laid out in Michael Albert’s Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso 2003).
Unless we make building socially just institutions part of our understanding of what it means to be an artist, all the verbiage about “content” and all the pieces of art dedicated to peace, equality, and a better way of life, will, in the end, serve only as evidence that we got it wrong, that we fundamentally misunderstood what it is we do. All that stuff will serve as evidence that when we needed to and when we were called upon to build better ways of being creative as a people, we thought that art was simply about things.
A Commentary and A Call to Action
For the past 15 years I have made my living entirely as a visual artist. I have been able to do this only by exhibiting outside of the institutionalized academic-museum-gallery system. I exhibited out of doors in the parks of San Francisco so that I could control the distribution of my work and enjoy direct and personal relationships with my audience. In addition, for a ten year period, I worked with public and private officials and artists in re-inventing this mode of exhibition to the point where it was something quite unexpectedly professional, wonderful, enchanting and lucrative – as opposed to the conventional “swap meet” set of exhibitions that one might expect to find outside of established venues.
However, the model was impossible to sustain for a simple reason. Too few artists wanted to take time from their work to build an organization. Most artists had only one set of interests: making their art and promoting themselves within established institutions. In other words, the dominant modus operandi of the artist, as I know it, is the artist as individual and as entrepreneur. However, within the art industry today, entrepreneurialism cannot lead to ownership of any consequence. Decision making with regard to distribution (exhibition), what counts as important art, and what gets funded is not in our hands no matter how “good” any of our art might be. The decisions that structure our life chances are in the hands of an investor class, an oligarchy, that exercises substantial influence over boards of trustees, both academic and museum, non-profit foundations, public art commissions and the galleries and auction houses that follow in their wake.
The individualist/entrepreneurial approach cannot lead but to utter dependency – a dependency on those who own galleries and control exhibition spaces, on critics, on those who control foundations or access to education, on those who direct competitions, on curators. This list is endless. And because we have become so thoroughly dependent on the institutions within the art industry, we are compelled to adopt as our own, the very ideas, assumptions and practices that the oligarchy uses within those industries that require our marginalization in the first place.
If we provide free inventories to galleries before they take 50 or 60 percent of any sale, we say that that is the nature of things. If the work we make following art school is not saleable it is because the public is uneducated. If the cognoscenti define important work as conceptual – that is a non-visual visual art – we make an effort to understand not to challenge. When we are told that only 12 of us in a city of nearly one million people (San Francisco) can make a living in the gallery system because we have chosen a difficult way of life, we believe it.
But it gets worse. According to these cognoscenti, art is not a thing of value, it is the thing of value. We produce that incredibly valuable thing and yet we are tagged, as a class of workers, with the moniker “starving.” And we accept it! Unlike other trained professionals, we have no expectation of having health insurance, a modicum of security, the ability to buy a home, have kids, send them to college, go out to dinner regularly or even travel comfortably. Instead our expectation is that we will have a second job or a partner to support us in order to do the work that transforms the filthy rich into better people.
My argument is that we toil in isolation and buy into the notion that the average person cannot really understand our noble sacrifice or that it is beyond the intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the public because we have lost touch with the history of our profession particularly as it relates to our life outside the studio. In order to become free artists we need to become free from the institutions that require our marginalization. We need to get back into the game of defining art ourselves, of teaching art independently of universities, of building movements with other members of the community and other artists, of controlling exhibitions, and of enjoying direct and personal relationships with the public that artists from Micheangelo to the Abstract Expressionists enjoyed. In short we need to build alternative institutions that permit us to have some important say over what we do, what we make and how it is distributed.
Let’s take a look, then, at Michael Albert’s Parecon, a well thought out proposal for a participatory economy that would better serve the interests of artists as artists and as living, breathing members of communities. Briefly then, I would like to touch upon his concept of Worker Councils, Balanced Job Complexes and Participatory Planning and how each might impact our lives.
Another word for participatory economics is democracy. Together with other artists and members of the community in which we live, we would decide what work would be produced and for what purpose. I can hear artists screaming bloody murder as I type: we don’t want a “big brother” telling us what to do. Agreed. But we haven’t been doing too well with the director either. In fact, it would be a bit hypocritical to inveigh against a workers council without first doing something about how we are bossed around right now. Consider this:
Following WWII, a tiny handful of economic elites, by virtue of their right as property owners, together with their political and cultural allies were able to direct and shape the lives of visual artists in the following ways:
- Important art and important careers – read a modicum of remuneration – had to be divorced from European influences.
- Art that suggested political commentary had to be displaced by art that suggested psychological angst – read abstraction.
- The teaching of art had to be removed from the studio and the jurisdiction of the master artist and placed into the hands of corporate representatives or boards of trustees and into the university.
- The studio itself, once a locus of social and public activity and a place of exhibition and distribution had to become the studio of the isolated, angst-probing artist. By the 1970s, the studio, as the workplace of the individual artist, was transformed further. It now resembled a factory, where the studio floor was the work site of artist assistants who followed the direction of artists who in turned collaborated with the investor/collector.
- By the late 1960s painting and easel painting, as far as “important work” was concerned was declared “dead,” thus weakening the individual artist’s access to and control over his or her means of production.
So the question is this: what is it that we want? With worker councils we, as participant decision-makers, would enjoy far more power over our work and our lives than we have yet experienced.
Balanced Job Complexes
The principle central to this concept is a principle that most artists probably already accept: creative work is the province of every human being. As an artist interested in finding more people responsive to what I do, I find it a terribly exciting possibility that everyone might have the opportunity to engage in creative work themselves. Indeed, if my chances of making a living as a creative person are under assault, as in fact they are now, it is in my interest to have involved as many people as is possible in creative work; that is, work not only where workers also make decisions but work where the creative process is central to the work process.
In helping to design balanced job complexes we would have much to contribute. Our work is not governed by the clock. We make time for reflection. An aesthetic dimension is always paramount. Mind and body is not separate. Could it be a rewarding experience to play a meaningful role helping to construct ways of working rooted in a good deal of the knowledge we possess? Might it be fulfilling to have this kind of on-going discussion with the broader community? Might it not broaden the interest in what it is we do? Would these types of personal contacts be a welcomed balance to the isolation of the studio?
Besides, artists are already deeply involved in what could be described as a balanced job complex. If we are painters, we are already photographers, web designers, mailing list managers, marketers, promoters, frame-makers, grant writers and expert application makers. If we have jobs in addition to making art we are even more extended. In a participatory economy, much of the competitive work, such as making applications, might be reduced in favor of teaching and the sharing of our knowledge of design, color, writing, song, dance, theater and various other aesthetic considerations with a population who has not had the opportunity, in their everyday life, to explore the various ways they could creatively and rewardingly accomplish socially useful tasks.
Participatory Planning is the negotiation among workers and consumer councils that is intended to replace the market system of distribution, a system of distribution based upon price and one’s ability to pay. It is important to recognize that while various market relations have existed practically forever, for most of human history social relations (kinship, communal, religious, political) existed apart from the relationships of the buying and selling. But we happen to live an a very unusual period, historically – one where virtually all our social relations are embedded within the market, where decisions about what we make, who gains access to it, how we live and use our time is determined by the impersonal imperatives of price and profit. But this is an historical anomaly, a convention that can be changed.
Second, the irony for artists in this regard is that the market relations into which we enter in order to gain access to the means of life are skewed to the advantage of the very wealthy largely because planning mechanisms already have been inserted within the market. But these planning mechanisms, unlike the participatory model that Albert advocates are exclusionary and elitist. If you have strong misgivings about challenging market forces of distribution, as an artist you ought to be quite upset already. The investors and owners of culture are quite adept at using an array of planning mechanisms – art commissions and auction houses that utilize market forces, for example, to control the goose that lays the golden egg.
The question becomes, if market planning mechanisms are already in place, why do we permit them to be controlled by a few whose interests run counter to ours? And arguably against the interests of many? If we are the goose that lays the golden egg, how does it come about that our precious golden egg is taken from us? With our cooperation?
My suspicion is that we are too busy making art to take a good look at the institutional matrix that has us by the short hair. One good example, along these lines, is our acceptance of one planning mechanism that was designed to mitigate against popular influence in the arts: the public benefit corporation, better known as the non-profit.
Non-profits are planning mechanisms. They are run by community elites, generally with artist representation, for the purpose of protecting culture within a market environment from popularizing influences. Sociologist Paul DiMaggio notes that non-profits, while claiming service to the entire community actually function to mystify art and separate the community from the world of art and artists. Alice Goldfarb Marquis concurs and points to the “high-art” worlds of museums, operas and symphonies where financial and social elites use the non-profit planning mechanisms for the same purpose. She notes that this capturing of culture is often accomplished by “pasting an altruistic, morally chase veneer over basically self-serving activities.” Wealthy donors and trustees, she explains further, have long aligned themselves with “liberal, reformist intellectuals and critics who see themselves as guardians of high culture” and who have campaigned “against almost every artistic innovation of the past two centuries.”
The non-profit as planning instrument by the investor class may be most visible in the creation of “art centers.” In the creation of the Lincoln Center in New York City and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, for example, redevelopment interests together with cultural elites and non-profits use the rhetoric of public access around art to acquire monopoly control over the distribution of the art product. Their “art centers” then become the sites for glitzy chic-chic art events in order to anchor the array of upscale hotels, restaurants, and retailers that return competitive dividends to real estate investors. Many of us work with non-profits and do our best to make them function in a way that serves the community. But I must ask, is it not the case that we are always poor? That we are always beseeching the rich? That our non-profits are not dedicated to challenging the starving artist paradigm or amplifying public involvement as decision makers?
Artists today cannot have it both ways. We cannot run from parecon-type market alternatives in the name of artistic freedom and at the same time play our role as side-kicks within existing planning mechanisms that permit the wealthiest among us to direct and control all that we do.
I am not criticizing the intention of artists. We contribute much to rallies, marches and the numerous exhibitions, plays, music and stories that inveigh against war and injustice. My concern is that this art spirit is not part of an institutional critique. We need a critique of our institutions so that we can develop a concrete strategy to build new ones. Artists opposed to the war, to use one example, might be more effective by using their creative talents to build institutions that make the kind of war in Iraq impossible. The good artist and the justice good artists seek cannot exist unless we first create the institutions that require both.
Our history is replete with such transformations. While the Impression period is often referred to as the movement where visual art was first ridiculed and later accepted as prescient, let us recall that it was ridiculed not by the unsophisticated masses in need of education but by the educated and powerful whose control over culture had to be eliminated. Impressionism was a frontal assault by artists upon art institutions that in the words of the rebellious artists erected artificial barriers between themselves and the public.
Ditto jazz, rock’n roll, and Beethoven. Recall also that Michelangelo said of a statue that it was only by the “light of the public square” that it could be judged. The point is that we as artists are of the public and we are of the community. No better. No worse. And together it is necessary for us to regain control over our lives in order to become the artists we wish to become. Our best chance is to create the institutions necessary to give our voice best purchase. Democratic institutions. Participatory economics. Parecon.
Finally it is important, I believe, to explore further the artistic sensibilities that were wide spread 100 years ago, sensibilities that suggested revolutions required dancing, that suggested that if what we create is not a better world, what is the point of our work? Creating better institutions, ones in which our voices are heard meaningfully is both our responsibility and a pragmatic solution. It must also be our art. As Bertolt Brecht has said, “canalising a river, rafting a fruit tree, educating a person, transforming a state… are instances of fruitful criticism and at the same time instances of art.”