The Artist as Debtor: A Conference about the Work of Artists in the Age of Speculative Capitalism

The Artist as Debtor: A Conference about the Work of Artists in the Age of Speculative Capitalism

New York City
January 23, 2015

Within the law there is a type of debt, incurred through wickedness, that cannot be dissolved—debt that arises from fraud, willful and malicious injury, or wrongful death cases, for instance— transgressions meriting court-awarded restitution. Strangely snuggled within this otherwise criminal realm are student loans, debts that, at present, cannot be forgiven or discharged for any reason, including bankruptcy. Far from being a harmless legal quirk, this iron-clad debt signals one of the larger structural evils into which a new generation is being delivered, part of what some are naming a “culture of indenture.” Artists Coco Fusco and Noah Fischer recently organized a daylong conference at Cooper Union to address the deeply interwoven effects of debt and advanced capital on artists and art education today.

Young artists, argued Fusco in her opening remarks, are particularly vulnerable to the worst excesses of this debt trap: seven out of ten of the most expensive nonprofit schools in the United States are art schools, where a student can graduate with a BFA and $120,000 in student loans, only to enter an oversaturated job market in which they are routinely expected to work for free, with the rationalization that they are making connections, gaining experience, getting their foot in the door. One of the reasons artists as a group are so easily exploited this way, explained Fusco, is a deepseated belief that art, as an endeavor, has value beyond mere money. And the truth is, there is no incentive to properly pay someone when you know they will do it free anyway, out of love.

The day began with cultural critic Andrew Ross of New York University expanding on his recent book Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (2014), and detailing the worthy work he has been doing on debt resistance with Strikedebt and other groups that rose out of Occupy Wall Street. Artists such as William Powhida and members of collectives including BFAMFAPhD and Debtfair gave presentations on various projects attempting to visualize and intervene in the issues of debt, education, and the booming art market. Most exciting was Lise Soskolne’s talk on the work of W.A.G.E., a group that has worked tirelessly to create standardized guidelines for minimum compensation for the various tasks artists do (give talks, produce exhibitions, publish texts, etc.), scaled to the general operating budgets of nonprofit institutions. Beyond giving artists a standard to ask for, W.A.G.E. is also certifying institutions that agree to meet all minimum honoraria for the many types of labor they’ve identified. To date, there are ten arts institutions pending certification.

The day culminated with rousing speeches by Fusco and Martha Rosler. Fusco sketched out the structural dynamics of art schools versus other institutions of higher education. Art schools emerged from a technical school model with very small endowments (few major giving alums), utterly dependent on ever-rising tuitions. She outlined art school as a culture of financial precarity, where more than ninety percent of the teaching faculty are adjuncts who are contracted semester-to-semester without benefits or job security, and paid a mere pittance, ruled by the whims of an “imperial administrator.” Given the pervasiveness and perniciousness of these entrenched forces, the two main categories of response, she tells us, are open protests and shaming, both of which might begin to wake us from the “collective hallucination” of today’s art world. Rosler situated our present state within the slightly longer trajectory of her life in New York City, starting in the 1970s, when there was no expectation of money or support for “young” artists (which she said then meant “under forty”), along with cheap rent and a city in turmoil—a bygone age now nostalgically viewed as a bohemian artist’s paradise. Back then, she argued, artists moved to the gritty city to escape the oppressive tastes, aesthetics, and ideals of small-town America. However, it seems that the many aspiring artists filing into today’s New York are bringing their suburban mores with them, resulting in an embourgeoisement of the art world. The conference’s organizers plan to publish the proceedings in full as the premiere issue of their new magazine, Art and Debt, which promises to be a valuable resource, a bold first step, toward a more equitable future.


Jarrett Earnest is a writer and teaches at Bruce High Quality Foundation University, the free experimental art school in New York City’s East Village.

Photo credit: Diane Roehm

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