Breaking Up with the Arts




I CAN’T REMEMBER when I first heard it, but I’ve carried in the back of my mind for a long time the idea that a marriage often has to get truly horrible before it ends in divorce, particularly for those with a deep investment in the institution as an attainment or life goal. It’s a death by a thousand cuts — a slow and steady series of adjustments you don’t even realize you’re making until something happens to show you just how far you’ve twisted yourself up in order to hold on to the thing you thought you wanted.

It feels like an appropriate metaphor for what’s been happening over the past year and a half for many people who make their life in the arts. Not surprisingly, those who perform live in front of audiences were the ones whose disaffection peaked the earliest. The Creating New Futures project, initiated by Yanira Castro, Laura Colby, Sarah Greenbaum, Emily Johnson, jumatatu m. poe, Brian Rogers, Michael Sakamoto, Karen Sherman, Amy Smith, and Tara Aisha Willis, was one of the first instances of collective refusal that caught my attention. The group started to coalesce through social media posts and conversations, primarily among dancers and choreographers commiserating with one another over suddenly losing most, if not all, of their income as COVID-related cancellations flooded in. To top it off, they were not yet eligible for unemployment, nor was it clear they ever would be. An Instagram post by choreographer and dancer Miguel Gutierrez on March 21, 2020, touched a nerve with its call for those in leadership to recognize the position they were putting artists in:

Aren’t you still getting paid? You got paid while we sent all those emails back and forth to organize this gig. I didn’t. And I know every single independently contracted worker/artist is going through the same shit right now. There is literally no job protection for us. No human resources office and no union.

While the onset of the pandemic was the immediate crisis that sparked these calls for an end to the broken relationship between artists and the institutions that commission, exhibit, produce, and/or distribute their work, countless conflicts were already deeply entrenched by that point. In addition to job insecurity and endless demands for unpaid labor, the obvious lack of equity in the arts at all levels — whether it be underrepresentation of BIPOC artists and leaders, the staggering lack of class diversity (which ties into who can choose the arts as a career to begin with), or the dearth of opportunities and resources for disabled artists and audiences — is a problem so longstanding that it’s impossible to point to an origin date. Artists have been agitating and organizing around these inequities for decades now, often in small, targeted cohorts. But the past year and a half has brought more people to the table than ever before, increasing the urgency and shifting some of the methods being used.

One of the most recent efforts exemplifies a prominent new method, and also does a remarkable job of teasing out the complexity of the different economies and networks that contribute to artistic production. This effort comes in the form of a book, titled No Play, published this summer by playwright Ife Olujobi. The book is the result of Olujobi’s tenure as one of the eight artists chosen to be part of Soho Rep’s Project Number One. Soho Rep is one of just a few small independent theaters operating and producing work in their own space in New York City, and their Project Number One, which ran through the 2020–’21 season, placed eight theater artists on staff, giving them a salary of $1,250 per week, plus health insurance — a novel undertaking in its own right.

No Play consists of nearly 400 pages of testimony and comments from artists, administrators, and critics working primarily in theater and live performance, who were responding to survey questions and interviews conducted by Olujobi in the first few months of 2021. Such forms of testimony have played a key role in a number of organizing efforts in the arts over the past year and a half. A huge chunk of Creating New Future’s first public document was made up of testimonies from countless artists responding to the group’s aim to not only address “concerns regarding cancellations and what future work, funding, survival might look like” but also to look “beyond the present moment to address longstanding inequities, deficiencies, and power imbalances in the field.”

Creating New Futures and No Play are hardly the only projects since spring of 2020 that feature cultural workers giving voice to their frustrations. The Instagram profile Change the Museum, which first posted on June 16, 2020, is made up almost entirely of anonymous accounts of the ways in which museums engage in racist practices, both within the staff and collections, as well as in engagements with the visiting public. The Photo Bill of Rights, which launched on June 22, 2020, was preceded by a survey of over 700 “lens-based workers” that drew together a number of personal statements elucidating how such workers had been treated before and during the pandemic, both in terms of working conditions and instances of bias.

Even more targeted organizing efforts made use of testimony from numerous artists. One such example is the open letter sent to the Whitney Museum after it organized and then cancelled its “Collective Actions” exhibition, which was due to include the work of over 70 artists, many of whom identify as BIPOC, whose pieces were unethically acquired by the museum, in most cases without consulting the artists themselves. The ethical concerns surrounding the “Collective Actions” show came to light due to Twitter posts by photographer Gioncarlo Valentine (his account is no longer active). Soon others were sharing their own experiences, which in turn revealed the entire story, not only to the public but also to the artists involved, who weren’t even aware of one another because a list of featured artists was never made public by the museum, though it was eventually leaked to the press.

More traditional forms of organizing — of which there has also been a groundswell recently among cultural workers — have always relied on personal storytelling, usually selecting a few compelling narratives to drive organizing campaigns. Lately, however, litanies have come to carry a particular resonance. From the stories and videos of violence against Black Americans that have circulated on the internet since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement to the thousands of social media posts that drove #MeToo into popular consciousness, the point is not to highlight one particularly harrowing example. Instead, the seemingly endless litany of examples is the point, drawing attention to the fact that these are not isolated incidents, or the result of the behavior or predilections of individuals, but rather are endemic to a white supremacist patriarchy.

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The arts, however, being a false meritocracy under capitalism, have generally been resistant to large-scale organizing among artists (save for the unions that formed in the early 20th century, primarily in the entertainment industry). Artists are taught to see each other as competition, to believe that there is only so much opportunity to go around, and to believe that failure to achieve status in their chosen field is solely due to a lack of individual talent. And so, artists rarely talk to each other about economic issues, such as how much they’re getting paid, how they managed to get a gig, the conditions under which they are expected to produce work, or what they do to make ends meet. As writer AJ Clauss, one of the respondents in Olujobi’s book, notes: “I have always hid my day jobs in New York from people.” Thus, seeing thousands of testimonials from artists and cultural workers marks a significant public shift.

No Play goes on to add a couple of extra layers of nuance to the project. It’s not simply a refrain of people telling stories of poor treatment. In the book’s front matter, Olujobi lists each respondent’s gender pronouns, age, race, and chosen job title, encouraging readers to cross-reference the list throughout. Nor is No Play solely a critique of neoliberal capitalism. What kept me reading page after page of testimony were the ways in which her questions kept asking about something bigger than just capital controlling labor. To borrow Olujobi’s words: “My inquiry, broadly, was work — employment, creative work, domestic and personal work, and the idea of ‘doing the work’ of racial and social justice.”

A while back, I came across the scholarship of J. K. Gibson-Graham (the pen name for Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham), who, in the 1990s and 2000s, expanded on earlier feminist thinking in an attempt to decenter capitalism as the primary lens through which to understand labor. Their stated goal, from the 2006 edition of their book The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, was to “reinvigorate our economic imaginations and also to enact alternative economies.” It was a provocative prompt, and one that Olujobi’s book brought back to mind, because the reality is that the vast bulk of artistic production in the US does not easily or exclusively fit within a capitalist framework, primarily because many of the ways in which people engage in artistic practice are created outside of solely profit-driven or extractive models.

Certainly, capitalism can and does co-opt anything and everything, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always the right frame to start with. Also, to draw on Gibson-Graham’s work, if everything is already contained within capitalism, then there would be no possibility for an alternative. This is a point echoed in various ways by some of Olujobi’s correspondents, including the artist and playwright Jillian Walker:

I’ve done a lot of reclaiming the word “work” from not just a capitalist sense, because everybody loves to harp on the capitalism thing, which I understand, but it’s not just the system of capitalism, it’s also this distortion of work. […] I’m in a place right now where I’m thinking a lot about Black traditions. African-American tradition has the Rootwork tradition, the Hoodoo tradition, the way that a lot of African traditional religions view work, it’s part of the sacred. There’s no separation. Everything that you touch, that you do, that you breathe, is a part of the work that you’re weaving.

By saying that much of art is produced outside of a profit-driven model, I’m in no way suggesting that “nonprofit” institutions are a viable alternative to capitalism. As many others have pointed out, nonprofits rely entirely on excess extractive capital — i.e., the money rich people have to throw around — and the real product they’re selling is not the artistic work but rather social capital, reputation management, and, with museums in particular, the opportunity to stockpile, preserve, and/or increase wealth.

What I mean by artists operating outside of capital, and what Olujobi’s book deftly explores, is what labor means in different contexts. Making work for oneself, making work to learn something, making work you have no expectation of profiting from, bartering, gift economies, home economies among couples and families laboring for and with one another, laboring among neighbors and volunteers, laboring toward a more just society — these are not idealized forms of labor; there is no special sunlight that shines on people doing these kinds of work — quite the opposite. People understandably get salty and express righteous anger in this book (and in life) when obvious imbalances exist even when there is no expectation of being compensated — think of labor in the home (fights about who does the cooking and cleaning) or in political contexts when certain groups of people end up being the ones doing all the grunt work. What I like about the testimonies in No Play is that they don’t reduce everything to a single takeaway or frame; they recognize that the economies and networks we operate within are messy, and not monolithic. There’s some hope in the messiness because it’s a reminder that everything we do is not alienated labor.

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No Play’s focus on the world of theater gives it a specific context. Theater is and has been under a unique set of stresses for some time now. In the US specifically, making theater requires enormous labor and resources, but the audience size for most shows means there’s really no chance of recouping those costs from ticket sales alone. Unlike film and television, which is seen by millions and uses advertising to supplement ticket sales or subscriptions, theatrical productions, on the whole, have audiences in the hundreds or thousands.

I got my start in the arts in theater, and also got into arts writing through reviews of theater, dance, and performance art. But I largely left the field about a decade ago. My disenchantment with houses full of older white audiences and artistic directors focused on catering to the tastes they believed those audiences carry was not unique to me: many in the field have found these things tiresome. Then came the double-whammy: publications, including major and regional newspapers, no longer offered consistent coverage of theater, and the advent of demand-driven ticketing for major shows famously saw prices for the musical Hamilton soar to nearly $1,000 per ticket. This all contributed to theater losing some of its credibility as a contemporary art form that people could access, or even easily maintain a general awareness of.

Artists have been leaving the field for some time now. To give one small example, of the 11 playwrights with whom I participated in the WP Theater Playwrights Lab back in 2008–2010, the majority have taken on television and film work since that time and two have published novels. I have spoken with countless other writers and performers who started off in theater and have since taken a step back or dramatically altered how they think about and engage in live performance over the past 10 years.

Yet while the context is unique, the pressures on theater are not wildly different from the pressures on other art forms today. Most require enormous resources and labor to reach audiences, particularly if the goal is to reach large audiences. The state of affairs in theater may seem bleaker than in other fields, but I don’t know a single area that isn’t struggling with this core challenge, especially when placed within a capitalist frame — i.e., what resources are required to make a thing and what are the chances of profiting from presenting or distributing this thing?

Artistic production doesn’t fit neatly into a capitalist framework because, on the whole, it’s not profitable and cannot easily be scaled — i.e., mass production is not feasible. But most conversation about art and the economy centers on easily commodifiable forms — primarily the visual arts, but also music, with film slipping off the pedestal lately in favor of the smaller screen. So where does that leave the actual people struggling to make sense of the work they do as artists?

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The first section of No Play, which includes people responding to the question “What do you do?” and describing how the pandemic has shifted their working lives, is a lesson in the uneasy mix of economies within which we operate. Here’s a representative sample:

• “Before I was ever making any money doing theater […] I’d been convinced that what defines you and what is your most important job is the thing that pays you money.” — Jack Wakely

• “People are either asking, ‘Are you interesting?’ or they’re asking, ‘Are you solid?’” — R. J. Tolan

• “I lead with the identity that I want my life to be about. I guess that comes from being an immigrant and needing to hide part of my truth.” — Benjamin Viertel

• “COVID shut everything down, and when I couldn’t work I found myself losing my purpose. Losing my identity. Which made me look at my creative work differently. It was difficult. Lots of sleepless nights.” — Alana Bowers

Inevitably, a huge portion of the book touches on the fact that artists in theater (as in other fields) are forced to self-subsidize their careers, endure untenable working conditions, and provide services and labor on top of their actual jobs. This last point was emphasized in the responses of numerous BIPOC artists, including these two:

• “There’s a thing about being a person of color in this space. You know there’s not a lot of you, of people like you, and you know that you’re providing something that’s not being provided in the current space, and that expectation to continue providing feels overwhelming. […] I still have people saying, ‘Where are you? I would love to hear your take on this,’ or, ‘Can you cover this?’ Trying to be okay with feeling guilty and not overextending myself has been a challenge.” — Diep Tran

• “Often as a Black femme dramaturg, people are essentially asking me to read their work and tell them if it’s racist and if so, how do they fix it? Or, essentially asking me to fix it for them without crediting me as a writer.” — Jillian Walker

Perhaps the most intriguing observations about the ways in which capitalism and artistic labor don’t sit easily together appear in the final section, in which Olujobi asks respondents to talk about “doing the work” of social justice. Here, again, the differences between the respondents are, predictably, thrown into focus. There is a lot of posturing, particularly from the white respondents, but some of the strongest statements in the section speak to the core point that laboring for justice is complex and multifaceted, not easily slotted into existing frameworks:

• “Increasingly, being able to be like, This is the political movement building work that I’m doing over here. You’re not gonna make me do that while I’m being employed by you as an artist, has actually been a really important line for me.” — Janani Balasubramanian

• “It is different because this is the work that I don’t expect compensation for. It does differ in that way. […] It is a work that I don’t expect to finish.” — Omar Vélez Meléndez

• “It’s emotional more than task-related, and the success metrics cannot be used to cross the items off the list at the end of the day.” — Lee O’Reilly

• “This idea of wholeness is really important to me. I don’t take that shit lightly. In all aspects of my work I’m trying to make sure that people are whole, because that’s one of my non-negotiables. I will not cut myself up to exist in your presence so I do not want anyone to do that for me or do that in my presence.” — Nissy Aya

Ultimately, like many others trying to survive during the pandemic, everyone quoted in this book experienced some questioning of the value of the different kinds of work they do, for money and otherwise. For a number of the respondents, as with many precarious and low-wage workers, expanded unemployment (when it was accessible) was a lifeline and a game-changer, showing them, if only temporarily, what some degree of economic stability feels like. For some, that stability and extra time created new non-negotiables that some speculate may end their theater careers altogether; as writer Monica LaBadia observes: “I feel completely numb, as if it is something I once wanted but no longer care about. Theater is my ex-boyfriend.” Others have taken the change in circumstances as a call to action, as in the words of playwright Nadja Leonhard-Hooper: “I truly believe that all theater people should be like, ‘Universal healthcare, fucking now. Minimum wage now, rent control now, all empty office buildings in New York, we’re squatting in them. We’re gonna work in them, people are gonna live in them now.’”

Despite this stirring call to arms, what I love about the book is its refusal to give a single set of marching orders. Instead, it takes the first steps of simply calling attention. By featuring so many voices, it gives readers a chance not only to locate themselves but also to listen in to what others are saying. There is so much power in having a better view of the landscape: it reduces the sense of isolation or the belief that circumstances are purely the result of an individual’s talent.

While Olujobi acknowledges that her sample of respondents could have been bigger and more representative, the point is that so many did respond. Editing down what must have been thousands of pages of material into a digestible, accessible 400-page book is no small feat, and Olujobi managed the task with remarkable speed and dexterity. No Play is an important contribution to conversations about the structural barriers to making a life in the arts, but it is also a repository of insight into the complex ways people navigate their working lives and the position and utility of their labors. We need more of that, because it opens up possibility and asserts a refusal to be trapped within broken systems. As Jillian Walker remarks in the book’s last section:

Yes, if we actually used all of that world building as an opportunity to try out some of these insane utopic ideas. There’s so much possibility in theater. Literally a bunch of people who don’t know each other get together and build a world and then live in the world and then take the world down and move on to the next world.

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Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. A regular contributor to Hyperallergic, her writing has also appeared in The Guardian, SalonBitch Magazine, American Theatre, The Brooklyn Rail, and Nature, among others. She recently started a podcast, The Answer Is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are asked to work

 

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