Thinking about how artistic work is valued and whether artists should be paid at all and if so how much, I find it important to put this question in the larger context of the radical changes the world is undergoing right now. These changes affect all aspects of life, including, of course, the arts.
We are seeing the rise of strong nation-states in the Global South that are not just competing with their former masters for control over the production of culture but also offering a new model of what can be called “culture” and how to evaluate it.
There appear to be two trends. The first is a public and private investment push by the Global South that competes with the Western art system and pulls the production and distribution of values into its own territory and under its own control.
The second trend can be found in the grassroots movements of the Global South, in which Western art activists also participate, which propose a restructuring of the entire global system of cultural production as we know it.
Let’s look at all these aspects to try to understand the direction of change, not only in attitudes toward an artist’s work but also in rethinking who artists are and what art is.
The New Rich
There is no coincidence that new international players (China, the Gulf States, Russia, India, and so on) have taken an active role in inflating prices in the international art market and attempting to influence world cultural politics.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Savior of the World was sold for $450 Million to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by Russian billionaire Dimitry Rybolovlev.
Chinese art collectors have been active in buying and selling art in Western markets and have built an impressive network of contemporary art museums in China. The prices for the work of Chinese artists have risen considerably in recent years.
Rival neighbors Dubai and Abu Dhabi compete against each other in the number of galleries, exhibitions and museums they build.
But let’s ask ourselves why it is important at all for emerging powers to build museums and have their own artists?
More than that, how do we define what “art” is and who is an “artist”?
Let’s look at how these concepts have changed with the development of capitalist relations that separate producers from consumers, public spaces from private ones, and genius artists from the rest of the people.
What Is Art?
When we say “art,” we mean all different sorts of things.
Some of us would imagine masterpieces in museums, others would think of contemporary art, and some of us think about African, Mexican, or other art produced by indigenous people, who preserve and reproduce the cultural traditions of specific societies or nations.
There are about 6,700 spoken languages in the world today, and every fourteen days, a language disappears because its last speakers die. Along with them disappear the songs, the stories, and the ways of life developed over many generations. Probably only the armed uprising of the Zapatistas had preserved numerous indigenous communities and their traditional way of life.
The Zapatistas are not the only people fighting to protect their culture from extinction. The same is happening worldwide, starting with traditional cultures in the U.S., Canada, and the Democratic Feminist Movement in Northern Kurdistan.
The art market does not regard such art production as valuable, classifying it as something halfway between folk art and exotic curiosity.
Occasional invitations to international art exhibitions for the artists from the Zapatista liberation movement or the Rojava video communes are exceptions to the rule.
One interesting project in this regard comes from Renzo Martin, a project that Frieze deemed a “Fraught Attempt to Change the Art World.”
Martin built a contemporary museum in the Congo with the provocative aim of “gentrifying the jungle.”
Local artists produce in this newly built museum and sell their artworks in Western markets. Obviously, without the institutional support of the Dutch artist, such a project would cease to exist immediately.
In fact, his project shows the colossal failure of the Western universalist idea of the “Artist” and the concept’s complete dependence on where the Artist actually lives and who represents them.
In Hamburg, the annual budget for the city’s opera is equivalent to the cost of the city’s subway. If the Hamburg Opera was shut down, the subway would become free for city residents. Will Hamburg residents vote to continue funding the opera in the city budget, given that the opera is attended mostly by people who probably don’t use the subway anyway? In addition, opera plays a small role in the city’s mainstream culture; it is clearly an elite pastime.
It is not difficult to see that the current system controls the valuation of culture on the basis of very strict rules. Everything connected with the production and maintenance of the way of life of ordinary people costs nothing and is destroyed daily, but everything connected with the production and maintenance of the objects and situations circulating in the financial markets, close to the centers of power, becomes priceless.
How did it all start?
In any major museum, such as the British Museum, the Hermitage, or the Louvre, visitors are invited to explore magnificent collections of Chinese, African, and Indian art from the colonial period, which were, in fact, stolen by former colonialists.
Today, many former colonies demand the return of artworks to their countries, claiming that they were taken illegally. One of the arguments of the current Western owners is that the former colonies do not have enough infrastructure to store and handle priceless masterpieces, so returning them to their homeland is premature or unsafe.
But how did this infrastructure come about? Who supports it? And why does it reproduce itself in the West but so slowly in the Global South?
To answer this question, it makes sense to do a brief excursion into art history.
Most of what we call “museums” today were originally the palaces of kings, which were seized during revolutions that transferred power from kings to nation-states.
This is how the Hermitage, the Louvre, and other famous museums came to be. Others were built as symbols of nation-states, along with banks and parliaments. The more power a state has, the richer and more serious its museums look.
It is easy to guess which states were richer and stronger and could afford to build an extensive art infrastructure.
Shortly after liberation, most former colonies became economically dependent on their former masters. Many were plunged into civil wars for years, partly thanks to the bizarre borders drawn for them by their former masters.
Art, education, and cultural production, in general, have become important tools for the continued dependence of former colonies. Where do the Russians, Indians, or Chinese send their children to study? To London and the United States, of course. And that is also where they bring their money, buying apartments closer to the cultural capitals of the world.
Embedded in a system of financial capital, state subsidies, tax exemptions, and bank loans, the contemporary art market has been proving its infinite value in the distribution of power and capital for decades.
It is no coincidence that the world’s largest contemporary art exhibition, the Venice Biennale, is still divided into national pavilions that compete with each other for the top prize. And it is not very often that a developing country wins the first prize, and artists representing countries of the Global South have almost always lived in the West for a long time and have already been formed in the system of the Western contemporary art market.
Artists and money.
During the Paris Commune, Mikhail Bakunin proposed covering the barricades instead of sandbags with priceless works from the Louvre. He argued that works of art had infinite value for the royal army, so they would never shoot at them. In contrast, for the communards, the value was people’s lives and the very idea of the Commune, which, for its brief existence, by the way, produced an infinite number of artifacts––from songs to posters, pamphlets, and so on.
Indeed, the Paris Commune reorganized in a very special way not only the relationship to the value of works of art but also the very design of urban life in a broader sense.
It was they who introduced the 8-hour workday, equal pay for men and women, public lighting, and what we today call public transportation. A large number of the artists who participated in the uprising created popular works––leaflets, posters, and public art projects.
Art created for and by the people emerged, and most importantly, the division of producers and spectators was shattered.
Each member of the Commune, or communard, was a revolutionary and had the right to express oneself.
This division into production and consumption between the artist and everyone else is key to capitalism and was put back in place after the Commune was defeated.
Our production is hidden behind factories’ doors where anonymous workers work, producing everything we use.
Our culture, too, is produced behind the closed doors of universities and art studios by specially trained people, those whom we call “academics” or “artists.”
Both of these figures-antipodes: the proletarian and the artist, exist within the framework of the capitalist nation-state and will probably disappear when this system is gone.
Alexander Bogdanov, the founder of the Soviet Proletkult, which stands for Proletarian Culture, believed that communism is a society in which everyone is an artist, which means everyone has the right, the opportunity, and the resources to actively participate in the production and reproduction of their own culture.
Proletarian culture is a territory where proletarians become artists, and production and consumption are inseparable.
What changes might happen, and should artists be paid?
At Documenta 15, the world’s largest exhibition, held in the German city of Kassel, a group of curators from Indonesia are showing how cultural production might evolve in a new way.
They have invited 1,500 artists, among whom are almost no Western artists or celebrities, but those who almost all work in art collectives.
The exhibition shows different, often unexpected lifestyles brought from all over the world and constantly engages the audience.
There are archives of Chilean feminist activists, tales of African and Asian folk storytellers, and numerous workshops on how to make furniture and food, how to do proper soil care and forest conservation.
Large-scale spaces are given over to public assemblies. The line between folk art, high culture, political art, and everyday production is blurred.
One of my favorite projects created by the collective from Bangladesh is the incredibly beautiful architecture made of bamboo.
It consists of a network of pavilions and passageways decorated with flower beds, where vegetables and herbs are grown: tomatoes, peppers, onions, and mint, ending with a kitchen. Everyone is welcome to offer their recipe and make a dish. The meal will be shared among everyone. It is important that the structure is located outside the enclosed space of Documenta, in the garden outside the building. The audience has to buy a ticket worth 27 euros per day to go in, but here they don’t.
Thus, the Bangladeshi collective has organized an endless potlatch, created jointly by visitors and artists, and shared with all participants.
By participants here, we mean not only artists but also spectators, passersby, and local residents of Kassel.
I saw numerous people signing up in line to cook dinners: from elderly Finnish women excitedly describing national recipes to young people from the Global South.
If anyone has been to international art fairs, they remember that the grueling viewing of endless exhibitions always ends up in expensive and tasteless cafes.
Such expense and the unpleasantness of eating sandwiches and chips seem to be part of any major art exhibition.
Artists from Bangladesh have managed not only to reverse this trend––after all, you can’t say they’ve created a new service, as no one is selling anything to anyone––but also to include everyone in a collective space of sharing the production of ways of life.
Remembering the Paris Commune, they have brought back to the West a tradition that we have lost.
Today, Documenta’s curators are attacked from all sides: the German government, elites of all stripes, and, as is always the case, new accusations of anti-Semitism.
Whenever someone disagrees, it is expedient to call their opponent either a fascist or an anti-Semite. After that, there is no chance for dialogue, and all we can do is ban, shut down, and censor.
I interviewed one of the Indonesian art collectives who participated in Documenta. Their project was about restoring the traditional production of ceramic roofs in one of the towns in Indonesia.
The artists positioned themselves between the city government, which they lobbied to pass laws approving a certain kind of city and forcing it to pass an architectural code that preserves the traditional style and way of life of the city.
They are also working with their fellow citizens to create a people’s radio. Another project attempts to restore the forest that was cut down.
At the end of the interview, my speaker said that when he returns home, where the Western art world with its institutions does not exist, they will need to figure out how to live well where they are.
So, they are not interested in careers but in making a difference and preserving their way of life.
Each of these artists’ collectives has its own economy. Some work as designers and do art projects in their free time, and some organize educational programs and get paid as teachers.
What they don’t have is the model accepted in the West, where an artist, like any other professional, cultivates a career to raise the value of their labor and work, and thus becomes a member of the global financial market, which allows her to survive and keep working.
In his book, ABC of Projectariat, Kuba Szreder describes the bleak world of Western artworkers in which the much-coveted opportunity to make art comes in exchange for their agreement to live in constant uncertainty, competition with one another, nervousness, and dependence on ever-changing rules and sponsors.
The last chapter of the book is called “Y is for you are not alone.”
I will quote a few lines: “in a system that individualizes success, the failure must also suffer in solitude, but when workers partake in an institution of commons, they are not alone anymore.”
Whether we can build a world of care and freedom, where everyone is an artist, and paintings (or cultural situations) are always valued less than human lives, where money is our promise to each other rather than promises printed for us by power, depends on us.
Nika Dubrovsky is an artist and an author who grew up in the unofficial cultural scenes of squats and samizdat of the late USSR. She has written for e-flux, artnet, colta, ХЖ and others, and exhibited at among others the Tel-Aviv Museum, St. Petersburg Manège, GaleriaNova Zagreb, ShowRoom London, Media Udar, Fabrica Moscow and apexart New York.
She works on several publishing and artistic projects, including A4kids.org – an open-source platform that experiments with new educational formats; Visual Assembly – a collective public art project; the Yes Women Group – art-activist feminist community and others.
After her husband David Graeber’s death, Nika and friends organized Carnival4David, which took place in 250 places around the world. Carnival4David evolved into the informal community the Museum of Care, which is creating projects at the intersection of academia, activism and contemporary art.
Her books and articles have been published in Finnish, English, Russian, Ukrainian, German, Japanese and so on. In a series of #artcommunism articles, written in collaboration with David Graeber, she reflects on the possibility of a world in which the very idea of having a resume becomes meaningless: a world where everyone can become an artist.’