By Enos Nyamor
July 17, 2020
This week, Degree Critical continues with the second part of a two-week mini-series highlighting the work of Enos Nyamor (Class of 2021), a current student in the MFA Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts. Through his summer online residency with L’Internationale, Nyamor has chronicled life during the Covid-19 pandemic with both striking sensitivity and a gimlet eye. This week, we feature his piece from June 14th, “Cultural Work as Parasitic Labor,” which considers the role of the artist among the categories of “essential” and “non-essential” workers, as we now have been classified, and where cultural work may—or may not—fit within the future of capital.
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
From the outset of the Scientific Revolution, five or six centuries ago, humans, and to be entirely fair, Western Civilization, have continuously envisioned the possibility of a perfect, universalized society. It is against this background that industries, as processes of reconciliation of humans to nature, have thrived. Still, this single species, Homo sapiens, has conceived itself as the principal manipulator of the great system of life and the environment. And today, at this moment, we enter into a period in which even scientific thought has lost control over a nonhuman agency. The coronavirus pandemic, falling within the contours of nontraditional threats to international order, has not only deflated the optimism in a cybernetic society, revealing alternative scenarios beyond conquest, but also compelled an adjustment of the notion of labor.
Though a reflexive measure aiming to flatten the infection curve, classifying work as either essential or not is unsurprising. However, such classification, despite noble intentions, when applied to the nature of artistic practices, is the beginning of an engagement with the cultural industry’s relevance in what, today, is the threshold of the intelligence age. If we assume that industry, in its basic definition, is a collective human action against alienation from nature, then the form of isolation that artists and cultural producers confront elicit a rapt examination. Two elements are worth examining. On the one hand, there is the process of creating art-works––including performances. In contrast, there are tangible products, such as paintings and sculptures, all of whose ownership, in light of commercialized mass art, is transferable. But it is the actual action performed, on materials and bodies, by those in the art industry, that is the primary concern.
In early March, when the intensity of the Covid-19 pandemic began to engulf Europe and North America, authorities classified some occupations as essential to protect the majority. In the United States, California issued a shelter in place order, which applied to all, except those whose contributions were “needed to maintain continuity of operations of essential critical infrastructure sectors.” And so, a new class of workers emerged, formally labeled as Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers. But this demonstrates the complicated relationship between work and labor and especially presupposes that some actions, such as those performed by artists, are inessential.
But perhaps let us pause and reflect on the utopia—on a perfect human society—that scientists have often suggested. Until a few months ago, the phenomenon of global warming was probably the primary threat, and, in that matter, the chief concern for global capitalist machinery. The future of human civilization appeared certain, and only made imperfect by the lurking danger of irreversible environmental disaster. But the limitations of the projected utopia, as the last few months have revealed, lie in an invisible threat. Considerable focus has been on the influence of powerful technologies, on artificial intelligence, and on big data, and their capacity to modify social behaviors. Each invention has offered not only a strategy for ensuring the permanence of the human race, but also for automating work—for delegating more rudimentary tasks to machines.
It would be a grave injustice to dismiss the long-term impact of the categorization of some form of work as essential. But we must first explore the qualities of the essential workers. With the “stay at home” order in place, and ignoring the privilege that such a directive presupposes, this measure is certainly directed towards protecting the majority. Writing for The Atlantic on the plight of the essential workers in the United States, Annie Lowrey notes that most of “these positions tend to require relatively few educational credentials or certifications. The skills necessary to work at a checkout counter or change sheets in a hospital tend to be easy to pick up and nontechnical.” By this virtue, by the absence of specialization, and by being expendable, essential workers, at least in the United States, are unprotected from exploitation. Yet, when essential work is reduced to educational credentials, even the nature of artistic work demands attention. It is only in our epoch that, for professional artists, formal art higher-education has entered into vogue. Still, there are thousands of self-taught artists, whose work have developed from both experience and consistent interaction with materials.
Despite all the implications of labor relations, between essential workers and their employers, it is the persistent protection conferred on nonessential workers, including those in the culture industry, that is worth further scrutiny. The work of essential workers, in any case, deals with risks, with the preservation of life, and with survival. But, in the technological utopia, such precarious tasks can be dispensed through robotics. So, the roles of essential workers are only critical to an extent, and would cease to be so once mass reproduction of automated machines, including drones, can deliver with as limited human control as possible.
After determining what is essential and what is not, we can surmise that cultural workers are probably accidental workers. If essential workers are those whose functions are critical, then accidental workers are composed of those whose contributions are simply opportunistic and redundant. The issue of whether artists are necessary or not during crises is a persistent question. For instance, in such times, the role of artists can be central in forging an attitude, and in both popularising tastes and elevating audiences.
In place of accidental workers, the term parasitic workers may apply to the culture industry. The reference of cultural work as parasitic, meaning that, in one way or another, it is invasive, is a provocative standpoint. But with the continued reclassification of work, complicated by the social adjustments in place, the place of cultural producers is tenuous. Not because culture has become stagnant, but because the purpose of art, when it is truly needed outside closed spaces, is indeterminable. This emerging distance between cultural producers and audiences has the propensity to mutually reinforce behaviors. Here, the audience is not simply regular gallery visitors, but refers to those who are alienated from art by their daily struggles: the bus drivers, the construction workers, the security guards. And the parasitic nature of culture work, at this moment, is hinged to the dependence on premium online platforms to access art, for instance, and participation in webinars. In other words, not all can afford to subscribe to online streaming platforms. In this context, cultural work transforms into parasitic work, as it is embedded in technologies that are traditionally fashioned for commerce.
It is still the complex relationship between artists, or creatives, and the society at large that progressively unfolds during this crisis. Some nations have responded with impressive packages for artists. Germany allotted more than a half a billion dollars as relief funds for the art industry. But this is a typical case in which the “ideological superstructure—art being one of these—are crucially determined,” Berel Lang and Forrest Williams note, “in content and style by the behavior of a more basic structure which is economic in nature.” With this lens, the artists who are to benefit from such relief funds, are essentially those who practices are either popular or even considered to be beneficial to the status quo.
Berel Lang and Forrest Williams, editors of an anthology of Marxist art criticism, which appeared in the 1970s, write that “art as a human enterprise involves an expenditure of human energy and material goods, and therefore is not exempt from the general necessity of moral justifications.” A question that lingers, extending from this assertion, is whether or not the presupposition of cultural work as inessential work is an adequate moral justification? Culture work, as performed by artists, is work all the same. And if approached from an economic perspective, it involves opportunity cost, consumption of resources, and production of outputs. In the context of the current classification, and extending Lang and Williams’s formulation, then it is the means of converting an art work, for example, into a basic, subsistence product that, plainly, is the scale for determining whether culture and creative work is essential or not.
Whenever the description of essential work appears, as it often does in most conversations today, it compels an adjustment in the relation between art and the economic base. From this base, artistic work can alternatively be reconfigured as existential work. Existential because the creative process, in the words of Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, “is the artist’s existence and the source of his or her life.” Artists then thrive by actively adding specific, individual differences in the creative process. Though adding this difference to the social texture consumes energy, and enriches collective values, it is the monetization of individual will that renders artistic work as existential. It is perhaps too early to judge if this period, the current crisis, has diminished or enhanced the urgency of artistic expressions and productions. After all, creative processes, and their outputs, are only essential when considered as gifts and less as products behind paywalls.
Enos Nyamor is an art-writer, journalist, and cultural critic. He is also a former participant at the C& Critical Writing Workshop in Nairobi, a former cultural journalism fellow at Festival Theaterformen in Braunschweig, Germany, a former digital journalism and new media fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, and a MFA Art-writing candidate at the School of Visual Arts, NYC. He is currently working on a collection of essays on Digital Arts from Africa.