Artistic Activity: Labour, Work or Action?


Artistic Activity: Labour, Work or Action?
A discussion of the value of labour, our being in the world through our doings and artistic activities as labour and ‘play’

MA Thesis, 2012
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Visual Art, Department of Theory & Communication
49 pages, incl. bibliography

Subject matter and interest
A system deciding what value a given work or action has, seems to originate in the space between our understanding of meaningful activities and the fact that one needs to 'make a living'. What tops the hierarchy differs from person to person, from place to place and surely also depends on the salary offered and the time required. Necessity, will and personal outcome shape our understanding of what we do, produce, earn, consume and aim for. As a young visual artist I am rather interested in the working conditions in contemporary art practice stemming from the precariousness of my chosen field. I am intrigued by the precariousness of artistic production and its dependence on its reception and economic possibilities.

In this thesis I reflect upon these concerns with emphasis on the meaning given to the terms work and labour and to the categories and value system they are part of. My interest originates in how in contemporary society our identity and self-understanding is tied to what we do, in other words our labour.

Further I look at how these terms circulate in artistic practice. This I do with the aim to explore what it means to carry out an action in an art context, and with the wish to look closely at the terms work and labour in relation to the late liberal market capitalism seen in Western society. Additionally, I wish to explore human activities, keeping in mind that we manifest ourselves in this world not only through thinking but also through doing, through our actions. Finally, I direct my attention towards present artistic practice in order to explore the dynamics at work and to be able to ask some questions directly in relation to artistic activity.

Method and form
In the thesis I attempt to unfold and challenge my thoughts and questions by using sociology, with an interest in a critical-economic approach, as well as looking at anthropological aspects, philosophy and political theory, in order to introduce an aesthetic and philosophical nerve to the discussion.

I look in depth at some of Karl Marx’s (1818-43) thoughts on labour and wages, something he discusses in the texts Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1844) and Wage- Labour and Capital (1847). Parallel to this I want to introduce Hannah Arendt (1906-75) into the discussion and compare the two authors’ insights on human living and working conditions. I look at Arendt’s book The Human Condition (1958) in which she draws up three different modes of being in a modern society: action, labour and work. Further, I will look at her notion of the artist, which she describes in the text The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Its Political Significance (from the book Between Past And Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought, published in 1961). Finally, I wish to discuss these concerns and questions in relation to the practice of the Spanish visual artist Santiago Sierra (born in 1966).

- excerpt from the introduction