THE BLOG

Sole Traders and Subordinated Artists

05/02/2015 13:03 GMT | Updated 06/04/2015 10:59 BST

The notion that art might provide an escape route from the circular productivity that drives so much else in the world is part of the freedom it's supposed to grant. The need to escape from such repetitive productive action, where use value have become the only values that is recognised, is perhaps felt most keenly in the face of the biological cycle that is procreation.

The idea that art might provide a way out of cyclical reproduction may be spurious, and at this moment is anything but the case. Any of the art fairs are a reminder of the product-based system that underpins so much of our art culture at the moment. There is variation in the quality of the flooring, the air conditioning systems and the fabric of the booths that divide and create the galleries, but whether the quality of the art exceeds these differences is another question. So, is presentation and productivity all we have left?

Beautiful websites of artists, both of the slick variety and of the messy-but-in-the-right-way, abound. Like the clothing we wear, they are the place where artists can show that they know and understand this subtle language. Websites are a way of silently hailing other artists, gallerists and curators - and situating oneself within the social order. It's the use of visual language that is primarily concerned with design and conformity.

Performance- once a way to escape commodification- suffers in these circumstances: reduced to beautiful snapshots or edited videos, where once was an encounter, as with the rest of our mediated lives, documentation takes precedence: what matters is that practices are recorded, made clean to sell themselves for the next show. In art fairs, performance becomes the thing that proves that the rest is art - you know - because it can't be sold. In art language we would talk about signifiers and the signified.

But all this productivity doesn't mean the rest of us should give up, toss in the towel and leave art to the investors and providers of the products that satisfy speculative purchases.

It was suggested at a recent talk that artists are sole traders, like widget makers, and as such should get in touch with the widget merchants. While this analogy may be useful, as a way to embolden the shy, it overlooks the social codes that bind the gallery-artist relationship. But what really got me thinking was the idea of artists as sole traders. The most successful of these sole traders are often heavily reliant on the work of others, in most cases other artists, to produce their widgets.

The solitary artist as lone figure is a relatively new archetype. The most dominant form of artistic production, a version of which thrives in this hungry market, is the studio workshop with apprentices and journeymen galore. Though the striking difference between today's production lines, and those of the Renaissance, is what is learnt and gained by the workers in the process. One can imagine that the painters of Damien Hirst's Spot paintings might learn something about supply and demand and their own alienation. Similarly the painters of Bridge Riley's paintings will learn about the machinations of the market as well as the qualities of paint, how it moves across a surface and the way colours work when they sit next to each other. I have no doubt that this will bleed into their own practices, sometimes in unhelpful ways. The hitch is that these workers, these artists in their own right, will remain subordinate to those they serve - they cannot be journeymen, there is no journey. Furthermore it is not rare for master/mistress artists to take credit for ideas that are not their own, realising suggestions made by their workers while leaving them nameless. Hearing your own words or ideas come back at you without your name attached is a strange sensation: a cruel reminder of what it is to be a producer of cultural content with a valueless name. Ideas, I guess, don't belong to anyone.

So how about we call a strike? Call a halt to the production of these master's and mistress's art works, just so we can see the lay of the land? Or even just call for credit where credit is due? Money is a great silencer, we pay people so we don't have to acknowledge their cultural inputs: any collaborative element that exists in a studio workshop is whitewashed out by wages. Maybe these master/mistress artists could learn from Phyllida Barlow, who not only thanked her studio assistants on the wall of the Tate, and but also gave their names. Here is a person who understands the trials of labouring namelessly, the machinations of cultural power, and the simple courtesy of saying thank you.