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Review: “Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art”

by Joseph Richards
“Thus, the biggest contribution of this book is to put economic and aesthetic theory together, to see what happens when the aesthetic is subjected to a Marxist analysis.”

La Berge, Leigh Claire. Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019)

How do we understand labor – an abstraction that assigns the value of work – during a form or period of capitalism in which wages stall, debt soars, and investment reigns? In other words, what tools do scholars and theorists have that allow us to engage with labor after financialization?

Leigh Claire La Berge’s term “decommodified labor” provides necessary insight into the continued value-extraction of capital added to the diminished and disappearing wage. Decommodified labor specifically illuminates the intersection of diminished wages and increased work that have marked the United States since the 1970s. 

While La Berge has put forth and articulated decommodified labor since at least 2015, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art represents a more sustained usage of the term. Wages Against Artwork maintains the deeply Marxist political economic commitments of earlier iterations of La Berge’s concept. As may be clear from the title, La Berge does reference Silvia Federici’s famous piece, Wages Against Housework. The difference for La Berge between housework, which is affective and reproductive labor, and artwork, is that while housework is denied the wage and never enters circulation for purchase (which of course means denying the paid labor of women of color to take care of the homes and the children of, especially white families), artwork has the potential to earn a wage and circulate as commodity.

The fact that contemporary U.S. artwork does not earn wages or circulate as a commodity is a fascinating and necessary point for La Berge. She makes a valuable addition to Marxist theory by journeying to the island of misfit toys so to speak: Marxists may be familiar with wage, labor, and commodity, but what actually happens when an object or practice moves or is forced out of the circuit of production? When something is decommodified, how does that happen? 

Perhaps even more importantly, La Berge goes where Marx himself did not go: into the realm of the aesthetic. La Berge, against Kant and Kantian theories of art and the aesthetic (and against Marx as well), refuses the distinction between the aesthetic autonomy of art and the labor/work pressure of the marketplace.

While it may seem obvious that wages for workers have diminished or disappeared, especially since 2008-2009, La Berge complicates this reality by not just “introducing” the wage form into art but analyzing art that takes the wage form as its subject matter and functioning mechanism. 

La Berge grounds  her theoretical assertion in four chapters of case studies of socially engaged artists, which are quite compelling. La Berge uses them to reiterate her central claims about Marxist theory, aesthetic theory, and neoliberalism in various sites from artists using debt as a medium, artists creating institutions as art, animals as workers in art, and children as workers in art. 

The introduction to the book lays its groundwork while making some assumptions about the background knowledge of readers. Readers will want at least some understanding of Marx and the ways he has been taken up to get just why La Berge’s notion of decommodified labor is so new and useful. Readers will also want some familiarity with the notion of autonomy (especially via Kant) in art and aesthetics to get just how labor can exist as decommodified, but not in all economic spheres. Otherwise, the introduction sets out the scene and the problem for La Berge. The scene is the United States since 1970, especially the emergence of particular socially-engaged artists. The problem, as she says, is the “ill-defined moment in the social life of artistic commodities – namely, the gap between making art and making money” (3). This is the gap where La Berge spends the entirety of the book. She wants to show just how labor becomes (or became) decommodified in a specific historical era by way of wageless or unwaged art. 

Chapter one begins La Berge’s first of several case studies and focuses on the art student as a site and practitioner of decommodified labor. La Berge homes in on debt and the works of Cassie Thornton. In the muddled work identity of the student (specifically the art student), La Berge puts forth the interesting contradiction that art students are not allowed wages but can receive financial compensation through loans. Loans, of course, imply debt. Students are not workers, receive no wages, cannot sell their labor, but still receive compensation. How then, do artists respond to such a tangled economic web? 

Debt as medium is central to the argument here. What happens to debt when it is the canvas for the artist, when debt is the artwork? Debt and art school are intimately linked for La Berge, especially in Cassie Thornton’s artistic work. The tensions for La Berge are between Marxist real subsumption, “in which all activity is reduced to labor,” and Foucauldian neoliberalism, “in which all activity forms a site of potential investment” (56).  Decommodified labor in and as socially engaged art demonstrates the limits of Foucauldian liberalism because art school gives the lie to the maxim of self-investment. The artist invests in becoming an artist, but all they have to show for it is debt rather than a wage or even a salable commodity. 

As a current doctoral student, I found La Berge’s lack of god-worship for Foucault refreshing. In fact, though it is a bit of a side thread woven throughout the book, La Berge seems to want to wrest Marxist economic theory’s place back from an uncritical allegiance to Foucauldian biopolitics. 

In chapter two, La Berge turns the attention from artwork to art institution as artwork through the work of Caroline Woolard and Renzo Martens. The major takeaway for La Berge is that, while one cannot see the economy and, thus, finds it challenging to offer critique, one can see art. Therefore, if art makes an institution, then the mechanics of economics become observable. 

What for me was the most complicated part of the book was its analysis of Renzo Martens’s work. Martens is a Dutch artist who does work in the Congo. Much like Ruben Östlund’s film The Square or the work of the late Christoph Schlingensief (who La Berge mentions), Martens creates a discomfort between artist, exploiter, and colonial histories. Martens specifically coordinates with plantation workers in the Congo. Through a collaboration with local artists, plantation workers create self-sculptures which Martens displays in galleries, sells, and gives all the money back to the plantation workers. I think that La Berge lets Martens off a little too easily when she begins to press the question of why Congolese plantation worker poverty is Martens’s issue to solve. I understand postcolonial politics is not the focus of La Berge’s book, but the Martens example is still a troubling moment for me. 

Still, what is fascinating is how Martens’s work demonstrates that “[a] wage in Congo seems to be a price in Europe”(113). This is the primary point for La Berge, as Martens’s direct engagement with neoliberalism (by using terms like ‘gentrification’ for instance) reveals neoliberalism. This is the power of decommodified labor for La Berge: it is revelatory and, rather than resisting neoliberal capital, becomes it to undo it. Artistic critique is futile. Only artistic appropriation and confrontation matter. 

Chapter three provides some very interesting ways to put critical animal studies, Marxist theory, and performance studies in conversation. Here, La Berge focuses on the use of animals in socially engaged art via Jacques Derrida. What is most important here is that La Berge takes us through deskilling, reskilling, and art to claim that U.S. society more readily accepts an animal as an artist (say an elephant that paints) than an artist as a worker. What is it about neoliberalism that allows for an art that can encompass the zoological, but resist the wage? 

Reading this chapter on animals as unwageable workers in and as artworks provides interesting parallels with Nicholas Ridout’s work. Both La Berge and Ridout marry Marxism and the arts (Ridout focuses specifically on modernist British theatre) for what they reveal about each other. Both authors also discuss animals and children (though Ridout sidesteps a full discussion of child actors). La Berge asks, “[h]ow do animals in art represent artistic labor?” (123).  In his discussion of a mouse that appears and disappears on stage during a theatrical production, and anxieties about animal performers being exploited, Ridout says, “[w]hat these concerns actually illuminate rather valuably is the reality of theatrical employment itself, irrespective of the status or ability of the employee, as involving a particular form of exploitation”(100). Though not cited in La Berge’s work, putting her analysis and Ridout’s together could provide very useful future research and theoretical areas for Marxist humanities scholars, especially in performance studies. 

Thus, the biggest contribution of this book is to put economic and aesthetic theory together, to see what happens when the aesthetic is subjected to a Marxist analysis. Along the way, La Berge ties in postmedium analysis, a review of debt and Foucauldian liberalism, cites the emerging field of critical animal studies, throws in some Derrida along the way, and, of course, weaves together the work of Italian Marxists. 

Even readers who are not as familiar with their Marxist theory of labor, wage, value, commodity, and socially engaged art will likely find La Berge’s intervention kindling a spark for revisiting these theories and practices. 

As someone who studies performance theory, I can say we don’t always get enough Marxism or political economy mixed in with our study. La Berge’s well reasoned, engaging, and thorough book is a wonderful addition to the fields of Marxism, aesthetics, and performance. In fact, for readers who appreciated the claims made by Shannon Jackson and Claire Bishop, La Berge’s work is a must-read, which adds to and expands to the scholarship around participatory or socially engaged art. 


About the Reviewer: Joseph is a musician and stand-up comedian interested in global practices of stand-up comedy and the ways laughter travels. They have performed stand-up throughout the United States, including at the New South Comedy Festival in Greenville, South Carolina. They are currently a doctoral student in Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where they focus on performance studies. Their first one-person show, Breaking Up With Jesus, is set to premiere in December 2021.


Footnotes:

  1.  For a fuller explanation of the ways La Berge distinguishes decommodified labor from affective, immaterial, or other kinds of labor, see Leigh Claire La Berge, “Decommodified Labor: Conceptualizing Work After the Wage,” Lateral 7, no. 1 (spring 2018), http://csalateral.org/issue/7-1/decommodified-labor-work-after-wage-la-berge/.
  2.  Though Marx does not fully dive into the realm of the aesthetic to the depth La Berge does, he does mention artistic talent briefly in The German Ideology. During the short section, Marx argues that artistic talent is not limited to individual persons, but that the terms artist or painter or sculptor are the result of a division of labor rooted in capitalist professionalism.
  3. She has previously written about Cassie Thornton’s art in Leigh Claire La Berge and Dehlia Hannah, “Debt Aesthetics: Medium Specificity and Social Practice in the Work of Cassie Thornton,” Postmodern Culture 25, no. 2 (January 2015), Project Muse.
  4. Woolard was also the focus in Leigh Claire La Berge, “Wages against Artwork: The Social Practice of Decommodification,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 114, no. 3 (2015), 571-593.
  5.  Nicholas Ridout, Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  6. Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2012).
  7. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2011).

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