‘I’ve built a good relationship with my fears. I take them for a walk, and we pretend to be privileged together; that we’ve built a very long working history together and that, now, it’s all paying off.’ – Maisa Imamović, 1902 Words of Guilt

‘Do artists who earn low incomes sacrifice themselves for their art, or are they being sacrificed by a system that pretends to support them?’ – Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor?

‘Beauty exists only in autonomy. No work that fails to express the intelligence of the possible can be a masterpiece. Poetry is a bridge cast over the abyss of nothingness to allow the sharing of different imaginations and to free singularities.’ – Bifo, Precarious Rhapsody

Manifesto – On Art in Permacrisis: Defending Our Bad Life Decisions

If you are an art worker, you have probably been accused of making bad life decisions by your family, your childhood friends, and a bunch of random people who felt entitled just because you happened to be at the same party. I hate to say it, but they were not wrong. Becoming an art worker is an awful career decision. The art economy is fundamentally unsustainable. Underpayment and unstable working conditions are normalized to the extent that artistic labor is nearly always precarious. A 2018 UNESCO report on the social position of artists concluded: ‘The largest subsidy for the arts comes not from governments, patrons or the private sector, but from artists themselves in the form of unpaid or underpaid labour.’

Forty years of resilience programs focusing on the development of the ‘creative industries’, cultural entrepreneurship, and the instrumental value of art have not managed to improve the income position of art workers. However, we would be wrong to conclude that these policies had no effect at all. The post-Foucauldian research of people like Isabell Lorey, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown has shown that governance through precarization is at the core of the neoliberal project. With its consistently rising numbers of self-employed workers, art and culture have been the perfect testing ground for neoliberal labor market policies. Art workers have ventured deeper and deeper into the realm of gig work – possibly beyond the point of no return to permanent contracts. If any claim to avant-gardism remains today for artists, it is that of being the flex-work avant-garde.

What would happen if art workers, who are ‘the backbone of the art world’, stopped ‘creatively’ hiding the structural nature of their precarity? Can they refuse to keep living on a pittance – collectively? However urgent these questions are, the reality is that many art workers don’t even dare to pose them, because they feel that there are so many more urgent problems. In the words of Maisa Imamović: ‘A precarious worker is always doomed to feel guilty in their own unique way.’ It’s disenchanting to face the harsh economic reality of art work in the context of a never-ending cascade of crises.

In 2022, the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘permacrisis’, defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events’. Is there a better way to describe our present-day situation? We have barely recovered from the Covid pandemic. Russia is waging a full-scale war on Ukraine. Bombs are falling on Gaza. There is more slavery and plantation work today than at any previous point in history. Everyone understands that the next global economic crash will happen soon. The activists of Extinction Rebellion, Letzte Generation, and Just Stop Oil never fail to remind us that there is ‘NO ART ON A DEAD PLANET’. Yes, we are in permacrisis and the ‘stack of crises’ is here to stay. Hopes that every crisis can be dealt with through proper management, bringing back a state of quiet normality, are a thing of the past. How can one even feel entitled to talk about ‘fair’ art production for a small group of privileged people in this fucked-up world?

The popular answer today is that art needs to help solve the crises we face. But hadn’t we noticed that 40 years of creative industries bullshit had not helped anyone? That reducing art to the lube of society is useless? By circling back we are, however, coming closer to the root of the problem. From every side, art exceptionalism is attacked. The political left contests art as a plaything for the privileged, while the right presents it as a leech in the social systems. Appeasing both sides, a creative industries discourse has emerged that turns art and culture into a profitable endeavor for the ‘social good’. Being an artist (as opposed to a go-getter, problem-solver, creative industrialist), as a result, has become a hobby: harmless, but individual, without any claim to societal engagement or government support. So, it is one and the same crisis of imagination, that is, the inability to forego social exceptionalism, that gave birth to creative industries discourse and has also enabled the precarization of art workers through social delegitimization of the profession ‘artist’.

We urgently need a reboot of our ideas around art, work, and income in opposition to the creative industries ideology. Permacrisis is not only a horrible reality, but also an opportunity to recontextualize art practice, redefine autonomy and solidarity, and clarify the role of art in society as an important public good. This is also where we can locate the ideal of economically sustainable art circulation: beyond the idealization of precarious geniuses, beyond fine art exceptionalism, and beyond the instrumentalism of creative industries ideology.

There are many theories and practices to build on in exploring future scenarios. The past years have seen a rise of heterodox economic thought systems, like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, Kate Raworth’s Donut Economy, and even the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, that challenge the dominant norms of permanent growth, GDP-fundamentalism, and the Big Mac Index. It has become mainstream to support concrete utopias like Universal Basic Income and commoning practices. The most convincing book on heterodox economies and culture is Justin O’Connor’s Reset: A New Beginning for Art and Culture. In it, O’Connor argues that art is part of the foundational economy, and should be governed accordingly. But a revaluation of culture, a new ‘social license’ as O’Connor calls it, can only be brought about as part of a broad reform agenda to establish a basic public infrastructure, including universal basic income, good public education, and distribution of resources through citizens’ councils. O’Connor avoids any form of social exceptionalism for culture and proposes to tackle problems such as exclusion, lack of representation, and erosion of democratic control in cultural institutions at the root. In short, a new beginning for arts and culture does not start with culture. It starts with a new social base in society.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should now sit and wait. We can get to work to help bring about the world we seek to create. Our bad career decisions are a good start, but let’s not stop there. Many art workers have developed ways of organizing, sharing, and decision-making that reflect lucidity, intellectual rigor, genuine engagement, autonomy, collectivity, joyful interdependence, and solidarity. In the best cases, these practices are truly prefigurative, which is to say, going hand in hand with the political organizing required to make public and political claims. The objective of Our Creative Reset is to identify, theorize, amplify, and contribute to these prefigurations, using the scope of economic sustainability.