A Call to Artists: Support Parecon

A Call to Artists: Support Parecon

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.



Worker Councils:


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


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."