Home / Dance / How far for art’s sake?

How far for art’s sake?

Artists and culture workers often make huge personal sacrifices in the name of art. But, asks dancer Marisa Cabal, why should we accept appalling working conditions in the name of someone else’s profit, just because we are supposed to love what we do?

Marisa Cabal by Giannina Urmeneta Ottiker

Marisa Cabal by Giannina Urmeneta Ottiker

Any young person who decides to study or work in the arts knows that it is not the most profitable set of professions. In general, it is not an option you choose from an economic perspective.

There is a multitude of reasons why a young person might develop an artistic vocation. For creative or personal growth; the desire to explore a particular artistic medium; fascination in the work of another artist. The satisfaction of working on something you really like; the ambition to create a world in your own aesthetic language; creative critical questioning of politics and society. But these reasons are often in confrontation with the reality of the capitalist art market.

In Europe, the cultural and creative industries, in the broadest sense of the terms, employ 7.1 million people – 2.5 times more than the automotive industry, and above the metallurgical and chemical industries. They produce €536 billion: according to financial services giant EY, 4.2% of Europe’s ‘gross domestic product’, a measure of how much economies make.

Between 2008 and 2012, the peak period of the most recent economic crisis, the number of jobs in the cultural industries apparently increased by 0.7%. But this growth has gone hand in hand with great vulnerability and economic precariousness for its workers. Ours is also one of the first sectors to suffer cuts to hours, paid work, facilities and so on – which crude general statistics can sometimes hide.

Today, the rhetoric in some countries of a ‘new creative economy’ hides extreme precariousness in the arts – never mind the failure of the rest of the economy. Some commentators even call artists and culture workers precursors of a new ‘creative class’. But reality for artists is getting harder, not better.

Long-term contracts, for example, are an exception in a mainly casual industry. But the insecurity we face goes beyond the insecurity of temporary contracts. In general, the hours that employers demand are extremely flexible. Often the amount of work exceeds the number of hours paid. Some artists even pay out of pocket in order to work!

To this we must add other disadvantages. Low income, no paid holiday, no overtime pay or bonuses. Little protection against unfair dismissal. Barriers to getting health insurance, life insurance and pensions. Little union representation, and often-timid union leaderships where there is a presence.

Is it not time that artists should start taking seriously our status as workers?


Economic roles

In the arts, as in any other industry, there are different economic roles. One is being an independent creator – just by yourself or within a collective. Another is being an artist who is employed to help create someone else’s artistic vision. A third role is employing others to create your artistic vision – or more often, the vision of directorial artists in your employ.

Artists can move up and down between these economic roles throughout their careers, even on a daily basis. But most of us spend our time in the category of worker of one sort or another.

The category of the employer, who may or may not be an artist, generally owns the whole ‘intellectual property’, even though at best they only created part of it. When working for an artistic employer rather than ourselves, our relationship with the boss is complicated. This relationship is at once artistic, between ‘creator’ and performer, or interpreter, or assistant – and economic, between employer and employee.

However, culturally, the arts industry encourages us to ignore the economic relationship, to pretend there is only the artistic relationship. Some even see it as bad to choose an artistic job just for economic needs. This means that any dispute arising on wages or working conditions is much more difficult for us to tackle. Thus, “for art’s sake,” we accept really bad working conditions. The precariousness of the many is used for the benefit of those who profit from it.

Art should not be conditioned as it is today by exploitation and market logic. Its existence should not be justified by commercial profitability. Everyone should have access to freely create and enjoy art, in the same way that all should have access to free healthcare and education. But the suffocating logic of capitalism will never fully let that be the case.

Gently asking the ruling capitalist class, or their politicians and bureaucrats, will not change that. They do not want the facts and figures; they do not simply need to hear a convincing argument. The fact is that the avalanche of cuts, privatisation and precariousness we live under has a very clear objective: exploitation of many to ensure the ongoing super-wealth of a few.

Workers in the arts and culture sector have everything in common with public-sector workers facing government cuts, with private-sector workers whose bosses are using the crisis to attack their pay and conditions, with precarious workers everywhere, with the unemployed – many also artists. We need a general movement of those suffering austerity, with the perspective of breaking with the logic of the capitalist system which demands it. Workers need common ownership and democratic control of what we produce, so we can end the contradiction between capitalism and art, and between capitalism and human society itself. That means socialism. The more we are, the stronger we’ll be. Join with us.


Marisa Cabal is a dancer from Spain, working in Belgium, and a member of Linkse Socialistische Partij / Parti Socialiste de Lutte, Belgium

Scroll To Top