There is a fundamental problem with the idea of an Art Strike. Art production is not wage-labour. Normally when workers go on strike the capitalist (or company) who pays their wages loses labour-power and therefore surplus-labour, surplus-value and profit. This is why striking is effective. It uses the latent economic power of labour against those who wield power over labour on a daily basis. And it is because strike action is an effective economic instrument of struggle that the state is often brought in to crush strikes.
No capitalist or firm loses out on labour-power, surplus-labour or profit when artists go on strike. It is not an effective economic instrument of struggle. Gregory Sholette adjusts the idea of a strike (not using the word ‘strike’ but describing the financially successful members of the artworld as dependent on the labour of the least successful in a way that deliberately echoes the class relations of capitalism) in the case of art in order to give it a different economic force. Consider, he says, “the impact on the availability and cost of art supplies if hobbyists, Sunday Painters and “failed” artists stopped producing work. Should the demand for art supplies suddenly become limited to the small group of successful artists, inevitably the cost of canvas, pigments, and brushes would skyrocket.” I’ll let the casual remarks about failure and success pass. Ok, so if artists stopped making art this would have an impact on the retailers of art materials and equipment. And if artists stopped visiting galleries and museums this would hit attendances and income for those venues that charge an entrance fee. Fair enough, but this is not a strike at all; it is a consumer boycott. These two kinds of economic instrument are worlds apart!
A similar case has been made recently by Art Against Cuts. Again, falling short of calling for an art strike (which I hope demonstrates the accuracy of their economic analysis of artistic labour), they have called for artists and other cultural workers and administrators ‘to suspend all cultural programming/work’ to coincide with the strike on June 30th by teachers, lecturers and other public sector workers. Putting the word ‘programming’ before ‘work’ gets on my pips, but I’ll leave it aside. I don’t think we need to go over the question of the economics of suspending cultural production. The point that I think needs addressing here is the politics of suspending cultural work. Now, insofar as the aim of this suspension is to call as many artists, designers, curators, administrators and others to march alongside the unions and students in defense of education and public services, then I am completely in accord with Arts Against Cuts. If you think you have to convince people to suspend cultural work to get them to march, then maybe that is expedient. However, the idea of suspending cultural work is in error, it seems to me. Let me explain.
If culture is affirmative, docile and complicit, then there is certainly a strong case for suspending cultural production at times, or under social circumstances, that are intolerable. If art supports the state, and the state is rotten, then why not suspend artistic production altogether and indefinitely? There are some nihilists, anarchists and ultra-leftists who make this kind of argument all the time, and it has a ring of truth about it. However, if art, or some of it at least, is disaffirmative, activist, politicized and resistant, then there is a compelling case to maintain cultural production, especially at times or under those conditions that are intolerable. Such culture is among those genuine forces that we have to combat the state, the market and their ideologies. If you suspend all cultural works, and those cultural works are among the modes through which resistance, opposition, rebellion, critique, alternative thinking and alternative practices are imagined and realized, then that suspension can only lead to a weakening of the resistance to capitalism and a strengthening of the enemy.
Do not suspend all cultural work. March! But while marching, continue your cultural and intellectual development. Why not have a discussion about Marx and the economics of wage-labour on the march? Plan an exhibition of new work on the march! Create a performance en route! Write poetry and read it out to the passersby as you march! March, but march with cultural work, not against it!