Artists, Housework and Learning to Unsee

Had a fascinating conversation with a student about business training for artists. As we all know the real problem in the development of artists careers is that they have no business skills. Which of course is a handy way of shifting the responsibility for the failures in the arts sector onto the shoulders of the artist, and making sure that the artists know that they’re not as grown up as the business folk. As the leading cultural economist Arjo Klamer points out the heroic figure of the Cultural Entrepreneur is primarily a fictional character in a very particular economic narrative.

There are however other economic narratives that we can consider.

The school of feminist economics poses a range of fascinating questions that strike at the heart of the dominant neo-classical model and sheds light on the fundamental errors in so much government arts policy.

As some in the feminist school point out Adam Smith, when he wrote The Wealth of Nations, moved back in with his mother. She washed his clothes, cooked his meals and kept the candle wick trimmed. Without this labour (and the years spent raising and supporting him) his foundational work of modern economics would probably never have been written. And yet this essential labour does not figure in The Wealth of Nations and to this day remains outside the accounting practice of economics as it is practiced by government policy makers.

Interestingly a study of domestic work undertaken at the university of Maryland (I think) two years ago asked the question what would it cost if we contracted all domestic labour out at market rates. The cleaning, the cooking, the washing, the driving of children, the reading of stories etc. They arrived at a figure of just over $100,000 per annum.

And yet this work – of raising and preparing the next generation of workers – is not factored into any national accounting. It is deemed to have no economic value or significance. You’d have to ask why?

I would argue that it’s because the people who do this work have neither significant wealth or a discernable employer. Consequently the work is unseen. Like the overlapping cities in China Mieville’s wonderful novel. There but not there.

Think about that in terms of artists.

No significant wealth and no discernible employer.

Artists don’t have jobs. They have occasional contracts, commissions, and – if they’re very lucky – royalties. Like the housework that is the bedrock of every society their work is done out of a sense of personal responsibility and offered as a gift. They will do the work even when it is neither acknowledged or paid for. Like the work that is done in the home the work of the artist will remain unseen, undervalued and unpaid for. And yet, like the laundry and the food on the table and the drive to the football match we expect the art to just be there, to just happen.

Both sides of this metaphor need to change.

3 thoughts on “Artists, Housework and Learning to Unsee

  1. Many respondents also mentioned the lack of flexible affordable childcare as having a negative effect on their business, as the unpredictable nature and jobs at short notice made it difficult to use conventional nurseries and childminders that need to be paid upfront.
    Paying up front for childcare when invoices go out after work has started and often take weeks to pay. Fortunately I have several rolling contracts but if I was moving between jobs as a designer/ performer it becomes impossible.


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