Sustainability is not Solidarity: Superscript & the Economies of Art Writing
For a field without much access to money, we talk about it constantly. What we don’t often discuss, however, are the ways in which our platforms perpetuate the power dynamics of the art world when we are perhaps the corner of it most able to address them. Conversation around art writing is caught in a sustainability fatigue that forefronts our failing economics without rethinking the structural inequities we depend on.
For the Superscript conference, held on May 28-30, 2015 at the Walker Art Center, I was tasked to discuss “Growth, Sustainability & Ethics” in online arts publishing, along with Carolina Miranda of the LA Times, Veken Gueyikian of Hyperallergic and Eugenia Bell of Design Observer. This discussion was meant to forefront the economics of art writing, but only made explicit the discontinuities between answering one of these prompts satisfactorily and answering them all simultaneously.
Based on discussions at the conference and after, the question framing this topic for many was, “How can writers be paid a reasonable wage?” In a field in which low to no pay is the perpetual norm, this question is itself almost impossible to answer. Writers deserve to be paid and there is an obligation to reflect on how this can happen and what pay scales are appropriate. As someone mentioned in passing, a W.A.G.E pay scale for art writers would be helpful in setting guidelines since there is no ‘industry standard’ or much transparency in what a writer should expect. Yet, in its most basic formulation, the question of ‘how’ is stripped of ethics and is just about the growth and sustainability of art writing as a profession. An important, but incomplete question.
When this question is expanded past writers to incorporate publishers and content, it becomes, “Who pays writers, how do they pay them and what do they pay them to write about?” This starts to get to the underlying financial models we depend on: does a publication sell ads, write grants, partner or embed within institutions? What exactly is the mechanism that enables a publication to operate, paying its basic expenses, as well as paying writers and editors an equitable wage? Again, this is a difficult question itself to answer in the current landscape of parity-in-poverty, but it is the third part of the question that was not only left unanswered, but unexplored: what do publications pay writers to cover?
This is important because it is clear that there is an inevitable and observable exclusion of voices within our models: voices of color, of opposition, of geographic distance, voices that make the art world uncomfortable. More abstractly, this can be conceived as voices without access to the economic and attention-machine of the art world, which happens to be predominantly wealthy, white, and based in a small concentration of cities globally. What are we excluding because no one commissioned anyone to write about it? What are we leaving out because no platform exists to discuss it? Who are we excluding because the art world doesn’t properly recognize them? Are we recreating the biases of the art world in our own coverage? There is no outside here – we as critics are complicit in the gaps of coverage and communication. As Coco Fusco states in a recent article in ArtNews, “the nature of the art business is exclusionary.” As an art business itself, it’s no wonder most publications are exclusionary as well.
The precarity of the profession and its economics inadvertently shores up the very structures we need to critique.
In the first session of Superscript, Orit Gat made a short aside that, as a freelance writer, she felt that critiquing institutions is ‘terrifying’ because it puts her often-interrelated positions at risk. The underlying point was never fully addressed: how the precarity of the profession and its economics inadvertently shores up the very structures we need to critique. Beyond the vulnerabilities of the individual art writer, that logic also remains true for publications in a landscape where the economic engines are based on these same structures. There is always a no-fly zone in what is covered, whether internalized or explicit. This vulnerability does not always operate on an overt level, but can be seen in exclusions and absence of coverage. In the new issue of Art Practical on Free Speech in the Art World, Colleen Asper asks, “Why, in the absence of censorship, do we use our so-called freedoms largely to reproduce existing structures of oppression?” For many, the art world is defined through the collected writings of our field, so our omissions as arts writers not only reproduce the art world’s existing disparities, but help produce them.
So, who writes about that which the market won’t pay for? Who publishes it? How are our publications and platforms actively enabling alternate, diverse voices to gain power as a public? Do those platforms exist? Do we need to build them? Can the questions of growth and sustainability, as important as they may be, prevent us from engaging questions of equity and ethics more broadly considered? Perhaps before we arrive at sustainability, we need to work on solidarity.
Can we begin to stake out what this solidarity looks like? Rather than waiting for an imbalanced art world to shift its priorities, can art writing and publishing actually be a place to begin? There were hints of this shift surrounding Superscript as presenters like Ayesha Siddiqi, online commenters like Adrianne Russell and the organizers themselves thoughtfully reflected on questions of privilege and access, folding it into the language of the conference and even positing changes to the conference as the first one was just underway. However, the conversations at the conference never really addressed the agency of the art writer nor the obligations of an art publisher to bring these platforms into being, remaining instead in a state of diagnosis. Speaking of this common dichotomy, prominent #BlackLivesMatter leader Deray McKesson recently tweeted, “conferences are critical, coming together always matters…we must continue to explore the condition…I worry though that there is a ‘revolutionary fatigue’ that sets into place where we begin to reproduce the past instead of building on it.”
Can we advance past the fatigue of persisting in models we are aware are broken in order to imagine new models? In order to consider these models, we have to set aside taking stock of what we as art writers are owed (through payment or otherwise), but consider what we owe. In our race-to-the-bottom mentality as underpaid laborers of the art world, we often overlook the power we do have to address these issues. We owe an attention to that which the market does not value. We have an obligation to include diverse voices, distributed geographies, and counter-narratives to capitalism. To forward counterpublics and to bring Claire Evans’ vision of science fiction into criticism as a “tool for the marginalized to imagine new worlds” into daily practice. The economics of imagining and advancing new worlds is never subsidized by the market. After all, it’s probably unwise to expect the market to pay for its own dismantling.
We don’t have to reset the entire structure, but we can begin to acknowledge our autonomy to create new platforms as well as to use the ones we have towards more equitable ends. Mckenzie Wark’s propositions in a recent essay for DIS seem prescient here. We need to see ourselves in all of our various roles as having a “common project” and that this “common project [is] building a different world…Can this infrastructure we keep building out…actually be the platform for building another one?” He goes on to say that “we need another worldview, one drawn out of what is left of the actually collaborative and collective and common practices via which the world is actually built and run, a worldview of solidarity and the gift.”
We are left here with a scenario in which the logic of coverage must interrupt the logic of capitalism, which will always leave some dispossessed and powerless. How do we interrupt these patterns and insert a worldview of solidarity and collective practice? The precarity of our positions can’t be a reason to allow an unreflective art world to persist. It is necessary to build new, equitable platforms that exceed our present language of sustainability and economics. Not as a horizon, but as a start. Economies come after survival and we’re not all surviving this (art) world.