Does Art as Social Justice Lead to the Artist as Unpaid Social Worker?

Rachel Swirsky • December 14th, 2009 @ 5:21 pm • Uncategorized

Yasmin Nair, guest blogging at Dakshina, examines the connection between art and social justice with a skeptical eye, suggesting that the connections are not as straightforward as naive writers often want to believe. She also looks at how the idea of writing as a social justice project feeds into the undervaluing of writing-as-labor:

The notion that the production of art is separate from the nitty-gritty of art as labor. While I would never blame artists themselves for their woes in terms of getting paid, the truth is that many of us have a hard time seeing ourselves as laborers who ought to be fairly compensated. Most of us have been trained to think our work is sacrosanct, that our work is not labor, that it is above petty commerce, and that we must make art only for nobler causes. When you add on the patina of social justice, many of us are reluctant to or unable to negotiate with those who are supposed to pay us, in part because we do care about the issues and the people affected by them. And, in part, because, frankly, too many of us have assimilated a deeply privatized notion that our art is so profound that it can and should directly effect social change – monetary value be damned. The result, as Andrew Ross puts it in a seminal essay, “The Mental Labor Problem,” is that “…the new profile of the artist as a social-service worker is coming to supplant the autonomous avant-garde innovator as a fundable type, increasingly sponsored through local arts agencies.” In the case of the Artivist Coalition events, artists were deployed as semi-mystical healers, responsible for shining a light on matters that should be the purview of social workers and politicians.

Which is, of course, interesting in terms of the pay rate flap, as another one of those excuses which comes up for the fact that writers are not compensated for their labor is that art is unlike real work and should be done for love not money. (I note that the problematic form of this argument is not “I write for love” but “I write for love, and that’s pure, but you are tainted because you write for money.” We once had someone write into podcastle that if we accepted their submission, they would refuse payment, because they didn’t believe that writers should get paid. This is certainly a decision they were entitled to make for themselves, but the indictment of all payment-seeking writers is problematic. Why should love and money be mutually exclusive reasons?) Nair goes on to say:

writing is profoundly devalued to the point where it is seen as work without labor – anyone can write, the argument goes. Just build a website, and pound away.

To be clear, I think it is always a good thing if people want to write more. The problem is that the apparent democratization of writing today comes along with a profound devaluing of its worth as labor that ought to be fairly compensated. Take, for example, the notion of the “citizen journalist.” Someone once had the bright idea that all it takes for a robust and civil society is to turn a group of citizens, armed with little more than basic web access and digital cameras and the ability to pound keys, to make society accountable for its ills. In return, they usually get little more than a free byline. So, what the term “citizen journalist” should really refer to is “unpaid schmuck who will work for free in hopes of a byline.” I also happen to be a professional journalist. I once covered an event and got some exclusive photos as well. When I returned home to file the story, I found that a local website had already “reported” on it. The citizen journalist in question had simply cut and pasted a press release from one of the organizing groups, without even acknowledging that the words were taken verbatim from the document. A reader who assumed that the reporter actually talked to people at the event was unlikely to see the inherent bias in the article. As as activist who has written a fair number of press releases, I know that they are always written ahead of time, regardless of what might actually transpire at an event, and about the careful crafting and messaging that goes into projecting events as spectacular successes. Without important information about the source of the material being divulged to the reader, the “citizen journalist” was able to pass off a cut-and-paste job as journalism. In the end, this is what brings down the quality as well as the expectations of what good journalism should be and it makes the work of journalists look like something that requires no effort and, hence, something that can be done for free or very little.

Let me be fair: I am also a blogger, and that work is entirely for free (a fact that escapes the notice of irate readers who summarily call for my “firing” by editors who are themselves making just enough to keep the sites up and running). I understand the value of producing work that might entice and create a reader base for my writing. But all of this goes on in a social and political environment where people assume that it is not only okay to underpay writers, but that writers should, if worth their salt, be willing to be exploited…

The situation is hardly helped by the fact that artists like me are expected to function without the basics like health care and that, as a freelance writer, I cannot seek unemployment. I have sprained the same knee twice in two years, leading to a drastic reduction in my earnings. Intrepid journalism is hard or impossible if you have to ask a fast-trotting subject at a political rally to please slow down so that you can keep up with them. I live with the knowledge that a slightly more serious accident could wipe me out. I do various gigs around town to make what I can and I try to carve out chunks of that most precious commodity, the drug of choice for writers: Time…

Most people unacquainted with the reality of a writing life cannot grasp the fact that while writing is not taxing in the same way as hard physical labor, it is draining, and not something you do on the fly… For writers, our work is not our reward; the amount paid for our work is the just reward.

I’ve cut a great deal of the connective tissue to try to highlight some of the article’s main points, particularly as they relate to artists who may or may not also think of themselves as activists. (I do consider myself to have an activistic purpose with some of my work, but obviously not all SFF writers do or should — it’s good for the field to have writers with varying motivations.) Her article also approaches the topic from the point of view of artists who are trying to make a living from their work, which again is a connection between her and me, though obviously not all artists are seeking to make a living off of writing and I do not mean to imply that all artists should be.

But ultimately, whether or not it’s also a hobby, writing is also work. It deserves respect as labor. Nair’s analysis of writing-as-exploited-labor is thought-provoking. It does concentrate on certain manifestations of writing, but that’s because she’s writing out of her own experiences, and the article is more interesting for that.

Go to Dakshina to read Nair’s whole article.

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