Who do artists work for?
An introduction to the second annual Printemps des Laboratoires, by Alexandra Baudelot, Dora García, Mathilde Villeneuve
The question “who do we work for?” is one that continues to be asked. It has already been brought up and discussed at les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers on numerous occasions, with polarisation on the issues of audiences and the negotiations that take place between artist/institution/audience, without any answer to the question seeming possible other than a statement of the relationship that is created among and by artists, institutions and audiences. We arrived at the answer that audiences do not exist before projects, rather they are invented in conjunction with the projects. We therefore work for and with a temporary audience, mobilised in the restricted timeframe of the artistic work and production, and not solely the timeframe of the work being handed over.
But this question could be formulated another way, meaning something entirely different: who is behind the demand that generates artists’ work? In what way do artists respond to this demand, using what? This question can no longer elicit a single response, it must be multiple, and open up new questions in return – where is the artist located in the production system? More on the side of capital, or on the side of workers, the dispossessed, the victims of capital? What does an artist’s work consist of? Why is the artist often pointed to as the model, in both form and function, of “immaterial work” in neoliberal capitalism? And do artists recognise themselves under this title? Is the artist by nature an entrepreneur in constant competition with other artists, who, as such, would be incapable of leading coherent group action? What examples of political action collectively led by artists can we find in the history of art in recent decades? And of course, the eternal question: to what point can art be political without losing its essence, without dissolving into something else?
Before asking all of these questions, before making all of these attempts to arrive at definitions and delimit them as if they were social or political models, are not the work, the practice, the activity of the artists the point of departure, and something which would never accept predetermined definitions?
Finally, another question underpins the first one (who do we work for?): if you doubt what artists’ activity and work consist of, then can we even think about teaching art? Questioning the nature of artistic work and the position of the artist as a worker necessarily means questioning the training of artists in general and art schools in particular. Today’s art schools are for the most part constructed around a model of the artist or art worker that is certainly questionable, because it is often obsolete and innocuous and is implicitly reliant on structures that wield the political and economic power.
We are aware that we will never arrive at entirely satisfactory answers. And yet no one can take away our enjoyment in trying.
Who do artists work for?