Recent debates on work have increasingly incorporated the figure of the artist and forms of political engagement in art. Creative labour has occupied a central place in the critical re-assessment of work, since the publication in 1999 of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s sociological study of the transformation of work via the analysis of the recuperation of avant-garde values into management discourse. Concurrently, artists and other art workers have increasingly embedded the politics of art and the critique of art’s institutions in the strategies of worker activism such as the withdrawal of labour, demands for wages and employment rights.

Theorists such as Angela McRobbie, Stefano Harney, Andrew Ross, Sarah Brouillette, Mark Banks, Miya Tokumitsu, Julia Bryan-Wilson and Greg Sholette have been prominent in a sociologically-informed and politically-charged contemporary discourse that challenges the assumption that artistic work can be bracketed off from the regimes of labour. For some, the philosophical distinction between work and labour no longer holds. For instance, Hannah Arendt’s proposition of work as the production of things and labour as the production of life, can be re-assessed through the post-Fordist commodification of social reproduction. Likewise, attempts by Marxist theorists to distinguish between work as an obligation of capitalism and labour as the self-realizing activity of human beings now has to contend with the anti-work movement that rejects all affirmations of labour as codified endorsements of the work ethic.

Artists have been regarded as exemplars of both new forms of 24/7 labour and the humane workplace. Critical strategies that contest the dominant social imaginary of work have stressed the naivete of treating cultural workers as a special case. Indeed, it is argued today that the modernist vision of artistic labour as the paradigm of non-alienated labour belongs to a discredited traditional left which always affirmed labour and therefore could never fully oppose the capitalist system of production. In some cases, however the old workerism has been replaced by a new workerism which aligns art workers with the micropolitical pragmatics of campaigns for wages, incremental fee structures and tax relief amongst other things.

The political imaginary of the 21st century is marked by the rejection of Herbert Marcuse’s proposition that artistic labour prefigures the non-alienated labour of a society no longer crippled by the pursuit of accumulation and domination, which had been sustained and extended by a Hegelian strand of Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, critical thinkers insist that the perception of artists as free agents or engaged in the labour of self-realization – in which work and pleasure are indistinguishable – has contributed to the intensification of exploitation for the entire spectrum of cultural workers. Debates on artistic labour have been reoriented by presenting the artist as the premier model of the ideal flexible worker, as well as shifting the focus of artistic labour from the mythical image of the (pioneering) artist to the pragmatic arrangements under which studio assistants, fabricators, curators, administrators, support staff and education workers produce, maintain and reproduce the systems of art.

Whereas for the bulk of the nineteenth and twentieth century the coalescence of politics and art was framed in the form of political art, today artists also make art politically, more often than not, by reconceiving of artistic activity as work. This tendency in the contemporary politics of art is strongly aligned with the feminist critique of the politics of work in the 1970s which extended the category of work beyond the confines of the factory to unpaid domestic labour. If it is legitimate to demand wages for housework, then it is politically significant to demand wages for artists and the full range of workers within art’s institutions. Calls to abolish the common practice of unpaid internships has become one of the signature campaigns of art’s current generation of activists.

A further question arises in consideration of the extent to which artistic activism’s affinity with an orthodox politics of work is an exercise in metaphor. Willingness to overlook contemporary art’s actual position in the relations of capitalist production and the actual structure of artistic labour in order to stake a political claim, maintains rather than changes the issues that require new forms of social solidarity today. While an emphasis on class relations in the institutions of art – still a predominantly Western and elite space – is welcome, it is to the extent that this rediscovery of economic inequity can be tied to the systemic crises that at once traverse, are reflected in, and authorise that space that the conjunction of art and work offers a significant potential politics.

The editors hope that this collection will enrich debates at the intersection between art and work and prompt further discussion of what is at stake – both practically and theoretically – when considering art and the politics of work as central to how we think about the contemporary world and how we can change it.