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Eye Exam: Making Art Work for You

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By Nate Lee and Jason Foumberg

Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson’s recently published book “Art Workers” looks into how artists, critics, museum guards and art professionals consolidated in protest, in the 1960s and seventies in New York City, against the Vietnam War. In process, a short-lived Art Worker’s Coalition successfully increased the opportunities for “art workers,” a term that was animated to perform heavy political and cultural work, circa 1968.

Art workers incite action, and challenge the armchair status quo. Provocative techniques abounded, like Piero Manzoni shitting in a can in 1961 and selling it on the art market for its weight in gold. Less cynically, the feminist movement acted as labor unions to push for progress.

Today, the legacy of art-as-work, of art in the service of social good, continues. The publication of a new newspaper, titled Art Work, by the Chicago-based group Temporary Services, celebrates and rallies the community to continue the spirit of the sixties. But this is not a call to radicalism, nor does it promote the gallery-dependent and depraved Manzoni approach. Rather, the art workers ethic concretely targets the assumption that artists are only nourished and edified by their search for eternal beauty, and therefore do not require monetary compensation. The late-sixties ideals are once again galvanizing artists to reassert professionalism in the arts, demand fair compensation and work opportunities, in light of the current economic decline and the bloated art market. The newspaper Art Work is this movement’s updated manifesto.

Art Work, a forty-page, black-and-white newspaper, with an accompanying website, contains essays, articles and personal testimonials from dozens of writers, and a variety of other writing collected on behalf of undervalued, disregarded, and generally marginalized artists everywhere.

The nature and tone of the contributions oscillate between two poles, between action and reflection. On one hand, there are the practitioners of so-called “social practices,” like Chicago’s Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and the Everyday (InCUBATE), who propose alternative strategies for art-making, including discussions, research and community work, often in ephemeral forms, not as discrete art objects. On the other hand, there are practitioners who illustrate the difficulties that come with trying to carve out a place for oneself within the rigorously competitive market for artists. Art Work is peppered with anonymous testimonials, titled Personal Economies, that detail personal hardships. These short inserts, together with strong contributions such as Holland Cotter’s “The Boom is Over, Long Live the Art!” reprinted from the New York Times, and Gregory Sholette’s “State of the Union,” reprinted from Artforum, spell out a dire situation for the everyday art worker: infrequent revenue, low-paying and time consuming teaching gigs, and very little attention, for anyone attempting a professional life as an artist.

Art Work hopes to incite action, and is being distributed to events and locations through the US. The Free Store is cohabiting Gallery 400 alongside Temporary Services’ exhibition, and is a barter depot open to anyone wishing to donate and/or rescue someone else’s used household items, which are 100-percent cheaper than Manzoni’s can of feces. The Free Store is based in an art gallery, and so it is positioned to critique the gallery system itself. It makes clear that the reality of artistic livelihood depends on sanctioned dumpster diving. The message is not uplifting.

Will future issues of Art Work be even more successful in community organization? There are many organizations that perform very real, art-based educational tasks (The Stockyard Institute), support art in the community (Chicago Artists Coalition, Chicago Artists Resource), and left-leaning theoretical platforms (the Platypus group) that already exist to make fruitful the messages printed in Art Work.

While Art Work rallies action, it shortchanges the word “work,” which is both a verb and a noun in the art world. What will the work of an artist, or group of artists, look like when attempting to create a more inclusive economy? Will we be too busy promoting social justice, recycling and gardening interventions to realize that the art object has disappeared, once again?

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