I am thinking about work.
There are two reasons for this, one of them being that as I write this, Johannesburg – the city where I make a living – is busy lurching into action as the working year begins anew. Around 7 AM, through the window above my desk, I can already hear the coughing and spluttering of taxis, buses, trucks, and cars filled with people on their way to their daily destinations. Johannesburg is back to its usual pace.
The other reason I find myself preoccupied with the idea of work is due to a collection of essays I picked up in a second-hand bookstore this past December. A product of The Swedish Arts Grants Committee, the 2010-published ‘reader on art and labour’ is simply titled Work Work Work and very quickly became my holiday read, because what better time to reflect upon the nature of work than when you’re doing as little of it as possible? I was also curious: How do we make sense of art and creativity in a world of work? Similarly, how do we engage with work in an age of creative commodification, artistic entrepreneurship, and late-stage capitalism? And importantly, how, when, and should we draw the line between art and labour?
In the opening essay titled ‘The Paradox of Art and Work: An Irritating Note’, curator and art historian Lars Bang Larsen assumes two opposing positions: Art is work. Art is not work. For the former, he argues that, because work is central to all we do as living subjects, art is a form of labour. For the latter, he argues that because art is, essentially, a refusal to partake in that which already formally exists, art cannot be labour. Finally, he adds that, in the absence of these ideological conflicts, things inevitably gravitate to the common element of capital.
Johannesburg is a city that’s known for both art and labour – a city to make money and a name for oneself. It’s arguably the economic and artistic capital of the country and so I suppose it’s the case that art and labour will inevitably maintain a close relationship, be it beneficial, antagonistic or otherwise. The South African Cultural Observatory (SACO), a Department of Sports, Arts and Culture-initiated organisation that charts the socio-economic impact of the arts, culture and heritage sectors, reports that SA’s cultural and creative industries contribute about R63 billion a year to the GDP. Job creation is estimated at just over one million.
‘So where’s all the money going?’ is usually the question that follows those statistics which, honestly, is a fair question. Because in the art world, things are generally quite dire when it comes to money. Talk to just about any arts practitioner in the city and you’ll hear the same matters being raised: Limited funding and resources; issues of accessibility; exploitative galleries, managers, and record labels – the list goes on. As is always the case with the arts, however, South Africa has an artistic output that’s competing at a global level, despite low levels of support from government and private sectors. In this sense, art is a form of labour that’s crucial to the development of the country in ways economic and otherwise.
I am thinking about work.