Art Is Labor

Excerpt of letter from Hollis Frampton to Donald Richie, Curator of Film at The Museum of Modern Art, 1/7/1973, courtesy of W.A.G.E.

A few posts ago I wrote a bit about trying to sort out where an artist fits in an economy. This week I joined an organization called W.A.G.E. From an email which the org sent to me when I joined:

“WAGENCY is a tool for self-organization grounded in collective mobilization. Its power lies in the commitment of its members to initiate and request W.A.G.E. fees, and whenever possible to withhold labor from institutions that decline to pay according to W.A.G.E. standards. Instead of a coordinated strike mechanism, WAGENCY enables a matrix of individual boycotts that can and will happen at any given time. The pressure these acts apply over the long term is the work we must do collectively to eradicate conditions of non-payment. But because not all WAGENTS have leverage with institutions, it’s up to those who do to operate WAGENCY’s most powerful lever. If you can, we hope you will decline to engage your labor with institutions that refuse to pay W.A.G.E. fees. You are the AGENCY in WAGENCY.”

I have known about W.A.G.E. for a few years, but was finally spurred to join after a collaborative venture from the past year suddenly transformed into a potentially exploitative one. I have done more collaborations for free than I have years of making films. Only one ended up resulting in a check, but for that one my contribution was footage and not an entire work of my own making.

I’ve included Hollis Frampton’s letter above, because like him, I have chosen to make films that are not commercial. What that means, especially if you are supporting a family, is that you will never be in the same earning camp as The Big Boys of Hollywood – i.e. commercial film, and therefore you HAVE to have a day job. But even though this field is not lucrative, it does NOT mean that the work produced is worthless in monetary terms. Or should be had for free.

What shocked me most about this latest collaboration was that the request to acquire my work for free and for a very long period of time (revised from virtually, FOREVER), was made by fellow non-commercial artists. Am I ridiculously idealistic for assuming that, in not making money from your art, you would not try to pull the “no budget” thing with artists who are in the same boat? I mean, I guess “woke” artwork is lip service at the end of the day, and when push comes to shove it’s a dog eat dog world, and you’ll eat your own children if you have to in order to get on the so-called map? Apparently.

It’s nauseating that artists would feel so insecure about their work that they would fall for the “exposure” excuse that is so touted, has been and probably will continue to be – until people recognize that artists are laborers like every other, their work is not easy, it takes skill, time and money to make it – just like any other kind of work. And should be bought like it too.

In a capitalist society, labor is most commonly exchanged for money. We here in the U.S. have a capitalist economy. And there’s no such thing as a free lunch.