I would like the following text to serve as a continuation of the discussion on the economy of the contemporary art world and the place of art and creative labor in the world of capital.
Let’s begin with a simple tale.
Once upon a time there was an artist who was so naïve that he thought that artists, as workers, should receive compensation for participation in shows and screenings of their works. Despite the disappointing experiences he’d had when he’d tried to press these issues in many projects, he thought it made sense to try his best and see what came of it, especially when his art works were invited to spaces marked by the obvious presence of capital (or where one could presume its presence). When he made his modest requests, he usually received the answer that there was no money. Neither for artist fees, nor for travel, nor for production. Curators usually just asked him and his colleagues to send copies of their films or print files of their works – they would do the rest. Most artists thus had little chance to see the many beautiful, important shows that were made with their work and thus to grow professionally.
The artist was a member of a collective. This collective did not have a gallery, and most of the videos they produced were self-financed (or underfinanced) with the vague hope that one day they might be able to raise money for a new production. To make matters worse, they worked under public license.
One day the artist received a polite letter from a nice curator whom he had never met. The curator was pleased to invite the artist to screen a video work at a show. She explained how the video was crucial to the whole concept of the show. She even asked the artist to produce a new graphic piece that would work in conjunction with the video.
The artist was thrilled to receive this invitation. He read the concept for the show and discovered that it was filled with important ideas and stirring expressions that he liked a lot. The emancipatory aspect of modernity as an unfinished project… The question of the contemporary emancipatory potential of revolutionary ideas, of socialism and communism… The role of art in the transformation of society. And so on.
He thought to himself that it was terrific there were curators and venues that worried about the issues dear to his heart. He read the name of the place where he had been invited to exhibit: Pavilion UniCredit in Bucharest. This particular space was renowned for supporting the most radical (even revolutionary) practices and some of the most leftist and socially concerned international artists.
He recalled that this cutting-edge space with its radical agenda was run by a guy he had once met; this man had also invited him to a big biennale he was organizing. He also recalled that this fellow had complained his space was very poorly financed because his country was the poorest in Europe. They had begun to argue about just this fact. The artist felt that since this fellow’s space was named in honor of a big bank, it might make sense to push this bank for more solid support. Otherwise, when local institutions were not treated as equal partners, and their hard work was poorly compensated, you ended up with something that smacked of the neocolonial exploitation of resources and people, of local miseries and inequalities. There was nothing wrong with the bank’s sponsorship itself, he thought, but there was something perverse about featuring the bank’s name without securing enough funding to run a decent program and treat artists and contributors right.
The artist recalled all this when he got the invitation. He Googled the name of the bank’s Romanian branch and within minutes he learned that UniCredit, one of the most powerful banks in Europe, was also well known for its social responsibility and support of culture:
The banks who united their forces to create UniCredit Group have a long tradition in promoting culture and local artistic manifestations, in the countries where they are present. This involvement is proved by UniCredit Group’s vast art collection and by the tens of initiatives within the UniCredit & Art Project.
Being very close to the communities where we are present, we try to maintain a strong relationship with them, by encouraging all the initiatives that contribute to their cultural enrichment. Thus, we encourage cultural diversity, by supporting music, literature, film and plastic art projects.
As part of a banking group with a tradition in supporting the arts, UniCredit Tiriac Bank has a strong interest in cultural artistic projects. We already have a tradition in supporting social and environment protection projects. We believe in the power of example, and this is why we involve our employees in the various projects that we support.
Beyond its main objective of making profit, we think that a private company has a responsibility to give something back to the community. Without this, we cannot speak of sustainability.
[The UniCredit Integrity Charter] encourage[s] the growth of shared feelings and experiences among all our colleagues.
Our artist was not a purist. As long as UniCredit had such good policies, that meant it should respect artists and cultural initiatives, particularly when its name was on the marquee of the art space it sponsored. How could it show its respect for artists? By supporting their work with serious funding and providing decent working conditions for guest curators and everyone involved in their projects.
He imagined what it would be like if he ran a project space in Petersburg called Sberbank Chto Delat or Gazprom Chto Delat and then sat around complaining that there wasn’t adequate funding for its programs. Wouldn’t other artists expect to be paid for their work if they exhibited at a space with such a solid-sounding name?
After mulling over all these things, he agreed to participate in the show at Pavilion UniCredit.
In his letter, he modestly asked the curator whether a fee would be paid for his work and for screening his collective’s video.
The curator sent him a rather detailed reply. There was no money for artist fees: all the money had gone into building a new wall and dimming the windows and so on and so forth. There was no money left for anything else, but still it is a great space, etc. In short, it was the same old story.
This was no great surprise to the artist. But as someone who had been developing a class consciousness and who saw artists and other creative and intellectual workers as a new kind of exploited proletariat, he couldn’t help thinking that it was irresponsible to go on making his peace with this business as usual.
So he again modestly asked the curator whether it wouldn’t make sense for all the participants involved in this project (the organizers included) to raise in a general way the issue of financial support from rich corporate sponsors. Maybe it would be a good idea to challenge them to extend their nice-sounding concept of social responsibility to artistic workers – that is, to themselves and their colleagues? He merely wanted to spark a discussion in the good old spirit of institutional critique. He didn’t want to cause a scandal – just to get folks to start thinking.
And because the piece the curator wanted him to exhibit was a video about Brecht and the dialectic, the artist thought it would be great to bring this message into their present working situation and try to prove that things didn’t have to remain the way they were. He also thought that the graphic statement he had been asked to produce for the show should likewise reflect these questions.
The guest curator liked his idea a lot. What could be wrong with it? Radical spaces like Pavilion UniCredit usually savored these kinds of tough issues. It would be possible to organize a discussion of the precarious conditions of artistic labor. They could then publish a radical newspaper with support from UniCredit in which dozens of brilliant precarious contributors would ponder this business of not getting paid for their work. Of course they would do so for free (or, at very least, for the nice food stamps called per diems in the art world). There was no money to finance this important debate, which in reality would cost almost nothing, perhaps a millionth of the budget for a run-of-the-mill corporate dinner.
The artist’s dialogue with the curator was going well until the folks at Pavilion UniCredit got wind of what he was proposing. They informed him (indirectly, via the curator) that their board couldn’t permit anyone to exhibit an attack on their institution (even in the form of an artwork) within the institution itself. And that was that: the artist’s piece, allegedly so crucial to the concept of the show, was disinvited with amazing alacrity and without any further discussion.
Why? The artist could only guess at the real reasons because the managers of Pavilion UniCredit refused further contact with him and thus foreclosed the possibility of a real discussion. Was it because the artist was a greedy egomaniac with a passion for scandal? Or was it because artists could not be allowed to raise questions of any sort about production? Or was it because the artist had mildly challenged the grey economy of sponsorship?
What is the moral of this story?
We might say that this story is too local and too bound up with personal peculiarities and emotions to have any general significance. This is true to some extent. The artist, however, believes that such cases should be made public. If today’s undeclared status quo is that artists are expected to keep their mouths shut and let institutions decide how things should be done and what things should be discussed, then this is wrong. Radicalism in art, culture, and thought should not be the exclusive property of institutions backed with power and money.
In short, institutions should not be free to abuse artists with their arrogance and incompetence. They should face the consequences of their behavior, even when they are located in Europe’s poorest country and backed by the richest corporate sponsors.
– Dmitry Vilensky, Saint Petersburg, 17.02.2010
P.S. The exhibition Comrades of Time opens at Pavilion UniCredit in Bucharest on February 18. Angry Sandwichpeople, or In Praise of Dialectics, a work by the Chto Delat collective, was disinvited from the show by the board of Pavilion UniCredit because, in discussion with the curator, Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat collective) suggested raising the issue of the project’s funding and artist fees. The work can be viewed online at: http://vimeo.com/6879250