After “fuck you, pay me’ – Art, Marxism, Reproduction, and Capital

Artists should Women should
Google search suggestions for “artists should” and “women should”, respectively, searched 11.10.13

            Google’s semi-prescient knowledge of my search intentions, while never failing to be slightly creepy, also tends toward the enlightening. Thanks to the ‘search suggestions’ tool, a search can reveal cultural biases, burning curiosities, and trouble on the horizon. In these cases, the similarities between public opinions are revealed: Once again, it is a question of what one group should or should not be allowed to do. However, the overly simplified groups of “women” and “artists” have more in common than their apparent polarizing nature on the Internet. Socially women, particularly the “female houseworker” identified by Leopoldina Fortunati, and artists share their status as reproductive forces in a capitalist structure. According to Fortunati, “reproduction is the creation of value but appears otherwise,”[1][2] and reproductive workers as such occupy themselves with creating value in the form of the subject, the wage-worker, and as such interact directly with capital with the (male) wage-worker mediating the exchange through his possession of the wage. While Fortunati argues for the exploitation of the female reproduction worker in the realms of housework and prostitution, many parallels can be drawn between the houseworker and the artistic worker. Ultimately, capital’s oppression of the artistic worker, like the female houseworker, comes in denying them access to actualization and setting up a cultural system which devalues reproduction work while relying upon it to adequately produce capital’s subjects. In both cases, the unpaid status of the worker is perpetuated by capital and creates further alienation, oppression, and ultimately, furthers the need for both groups to act against the system of capital.
            Of course, this is by no means an indication that women’s struggles against capital and the status quo are not unique or in need of examination in and of themselves. On the contrary, I mean with this analysis to indicate ways in which the struggle for equality can serve as a model for other groups facing oppression by capital. The call for intersectionality is a crucial aspect of any group’s achieving greater autonomy, and both artists and women can benefit from further exchange.

Forms of Reproduction

            Fortunati’s structure for reproduction work in the form of the female houseworker can be seen in the reproduction power of the artist as well. In The Arcane of Reproduction, Fortunati defines reproduction work as that which produces the wage-worker by identifying and attending to his needs, transforming the form of the wage into actual use-values (food, shelter, comfort, etc.), and ultimately reproducing the wage-worker as member of society as well as new citizens[3]. She focuses on two groups, houseworkers and prostitutes, as the major sources of reproduction. Artistic reproduction shares many qualities with these female reproductive groups, particularly the houseworker (though the prostitute framework is accurate as well, especially in artists’ dealings with galleries and corporate beneficiaries, which will not be discussed here). Where housework reproduces the wage-worker, artwork reproduces the subject, the state or community’s ‘culture’, and through these things, the wage-worker as well. Where housework is creative in its ability to reproduce social beings, artwork is a classically creative process for viewers as well, in that art workers create not only the wage workers’ interaction with culture, but simultaneously create the wage workers’ social interactions through the reproduction of state and community culture. In doing this work, the reproduction worker is not subject to receiving wage in the same way as the male worker, but instead being ‘supported’ by his wage. This is justified because she is, rather than a wage worker, “a natural force of social labor”, enabling capital to “transform the male/female relationship from an exchange of living labor into a formal relation of production between them”[4]. This relation of production renders the reproduction worker dependent upon interaction with the wage worker in order to interact with capital through the wage.
            Art workers as reproductive workers interact with capital through the worker (in this case, the viewer) in the same manner that the houseworker interacts with capital, as a natural force of social labor rather than an aspect of industrial production. The transformation of the relationship, then, comes in the form of artwork’s interaction with the wage. If an artist is paid directly for their commissioned labor in the same manner as the wage worker, then they are akin to Fortunati’s category of female wage-workers and this aspect of their work is not reproductive. However, the artist’s unique interaction with the wage, and therefore with capital, furthers the narrative of reproductive forces which capital ultimately uses to receive labor-power as cheaply as possible. These wage interactions come in many forms, both state and individual. Art workers consume the wage, provided in the form of charitable donations, grants, and independent support in order to enable reproduction of culture through artistic work. Alternatively, artists can be offered non-real wage forms due to the nature of their reproduction, including the ever-popular payment forms of ‘exposure’, ‘fun’, and ‘experience’. Like the female houseworker, the artists’ reproduction is seen as auxiliary to the production of the wage-worker, and their interaction with the wage is mediated accordingly.

Production, Devaluation, and the Art Worker

            In both housework and artwork, the reproductive worker is aware that their work is productive, and contributes not only to subject formation but produces real objects as forms of the reproduction of the wage worker. Reproduction work “posits itself as such insofar as it is a precondition and condition of the existence of productive work within the process of production.”[5] As a condition of the existence of productive work, artists and houseworkers have a considerable degree of control – they have access to the wage-worker on the level of thought, ideology, and the real substance of the workers’ subsistence, and as such are a vital part of continuing capitalism.
            To continue its existence, capital must standardize and create undifferentiated labor-power in order to protect itself from the wage-worker’s individualization and ultimate ability to struggle against capital. In doing so, capital must appear to support the individual while standardizing and controlling their production, and accordingly creates a work environment that seeks to simplify and dehumanize the individual’s interaction. Artwork, like housework, “must compensate and ‘re-humanize’ the production worker, creating the illusion that he is more than a commodity.”[6] Therefore, when these groups confront their oppression under the capitalist system, it is possible for their struggle to result in real change due to their affective placement as the sole supporter of the complex individual – as Fortunati states, the struggle for actualization for female reproductive work has resulted in major demographic changes, and women are a key to any meaningful revolution of capitalist oppression. Capital, of course, is aware of this with women as well as artists, and counters the problem with devaluation of the reproductive worker’s voice.

            It is at this point that the determination of reproduction as “a natural force of social labor” becomes crucial. To avoid the potential power concentrated within reproductive workers, capital uses culture to devalue the status of reproduction work, perpetuating the ideas that “the labor-power involved, as a natural force of social labor, is assumed to have a lower cost of preparation and a lower value than that of the male (production) worker… it is the ‘unskilled labor’ par excellence.”[7] Artists have experienced this same devaluation firsthand, as the evolution of capitalism has overwhelmingly altered systems of patronage, public interest and access to the arts, and community responsibility for cultural reproduction. Further, the cultivation of the artist as skilled laborer has been devalued, and the emerging idea that ‘anyone can do it’ and that artwork does not constitute a ‘real job’ is a direct result of capital’s increasing concern about reproductive workers’ ability to alter or even remove the wage-worker as the form of labor power due to their exclusive access to the reproduction process.

Capital’s Free Labor

            In the same way that changing family demographics have altered the interaction of capital with housework and the female houseworker as a subject who promotes the increased hegemony of capital, changes in the structure of artistic reproduction have caused capital to reconsider the implications of artistic reproduction, and ultimately to react more repressively. Enter the unpaid internship which, while present in many sectors of contemporary industry, is absolutely ubiquitous for art workers. By pushing the unpaid internship, the myth of ‘exposure’, and the unaware consumers’ belief that art should be free because artists love to make art, capital furthers alienation, isolation, and systemic oppression for artists in the same way that it attempts to expand oppression of the female houseworker through social pressure. By perpetuating the devaluation of the reproductive worker, both the female houseworker and the artist, capital succeeds in maintaining its control over the subject for the sole cost of the wage-worker’s wage, with the knowledge that the wage-worker will sustain the reproductive worker and will, as a result, continue to be himself reproduced as the ideal subject of capital. By working for free, reproductive workers are forced to perpetuate capital’s cycle of control and are as such unable to self-actualize without the ability to detach themselves from the imposed “inferior” status assigned to reproduction.
            Lately, the backlash against reproductive devaluation in the arts sector has been enormous. As freelance work becomes more recognized, and the role of the artist in exchanges with capital is exposed alongside other problems of capital’s oppression, artists are increasingly calling for changes in the attitudes of their colleagues and their viewers. It becomes apparent that the struggle of artists as reproductive workers is, like the feminist movement, yet another manifestation of the myriad problems of capital’s control. The artist, in insisting upon being paid for their work and therefore confronting capital directly as a wage-worker, is joining the movement of other devalued reproductive workers and attempting to confront capital as an ally and a voice. Fighting the devaluation requires the artist to take a defensive stance in advocating for their work and “rather than going on towards the abstraction, socialization, and simplification of her work, she has to represent it as the opposite, as concrete, individual, and complex.”[8]

            How, then, do artistic reproduction workers reclaim the dialogue, and shift the balance of Google’s search further toward “artists should NOT work for free”? Jonathan Scalzi’s Goodfellas-inspired rallying cries of “fuck you, pay me” for artistic work is certainly tempting[9]. Indeed, in his lucid takedown of would-be favor solicitors, Scalzi’s claim that this attitude “does not make me…the asshole in this scenario – it makes me the guy responding to the asshole, in a manner befitting the moment” focuses accurately on the reproduction worker’s need to confront assumptions of devaluation and forced subjugation as a natural force of social labor[10]. However, it is important for reproduction workers to remain aware of the actual target – the real asshole in art workers’ struggle is capital’s structure of oppression. In housework’s reproduction, the historical change in the structure of the working day and the assertion that reproduction must be seen socially as a vital force has begun to take hold. In artistic reproduction, as well, an increase in valuation represents a beginning, but by no means an end result, of reproduction’s efforts. Perhaps the end goal, then, is not only to change Google’s framing of the debate, but to eliminate the need for debate altogether.

Fortunati, Leopoldina, and Hilary Creek (trans.). The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital. Autonomedia: Brooklyn, NY, 1995.

Scalzi, Jonathan. “A Note to You, Should You Be Thinking of Asking Me to Write for Free”, Whatever. 9 Dec. 2012. (Accessed 10 Nov. 2013).

[1] All emphasis as in the original text.

[2] Leopoldina Fortunati, Hilary Creek (trans.), The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital (Autonomedia: Brooklyn, 1995) p.8.

[3] Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction, p. 20-22.

[4] Ibid., p. 41

[5] Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction¸ p. 102.

[6] Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction, p.111.

[7] Ibid., p. 107

[8] Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction, p. 111.

[9] Scalzi, Jonathan. “A Note to You, Should You Be Thinking of Asking Me to Write for Free”, Whatever. 9 Dec. 2012. . (Accessed 10 Nov.13).

[10] Ibid.


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