A young woman suffers sexual misfortune upon leaving the domestic sphere for the urbane world of waged work? We’ve heard this one before. #MeToo is a pulp genre, the progeny of William Hogarth’s 1732 A Harlot’s Progress and George Loane Tucker’s 1913 film, Traffic in Souls. The characters and tawdry details are so predictable by now, the articles practically write themselves. (Indeed, from the perspective of many media companies, these uncompensated, freely given stories literally do write themselves). Rather than diminishing the significance of each case, the coalescence of #MeToo incidents into a genre is precisely what has allowed the hashtag to outlast each frantic news cycle. Genre and narrative are conventions by which we make sense of the world and imbue events with meaning. They also direct our attention in specific directions, and in the case of #MeToo, our gaze has fixated on individual actors, especially the bad ones, and personal testimony, especially from the glamorous.
The superficially progressive, often transgressive politics of much of contemporary art give the sub-genre of art world #MeToo – most visibly led by the #NotSurprised movement – an extra dose of irony. The social milieu in which individuals are supposedly at their freest to engage in provocative critiques of gender, sexuality, even capitalism has been exposed in recent instances to be just another hierarchical, undemocratic shop floor where bosses exploit workers and abscond with the lion’s share of the labour value (and credit) that everyone produces.
Sexual harassment as lived experience is not the morality melodrama that the media sells. It is fundamentally about our powerlessness to determine the treatment we will accept from others. Overshadowed by all the lurid sex details is the fact that many of the bosses making #MeToo headlines routinely bullied and terrorized employees in equally unacceptable, if not explicitly sexual, ways. Even for those fortunate enough to have humane managers, the fundamental question of what your boss can do to you is a nearly universal issue.
Abusive workplace behaviour persists because, as the political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson so sharply elucidates in her 2017 book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk about It), workers exert little to no control over their working conditions and who manages them. Legal apparatuses set up by the state to curb workplace harassment are slow and ultimately ineffectual because they take no account of the fact that the firm constitutes a parallel role to the state in the lives of workers – one with more penetrative control over its constituents’s lives. The pink slip operates more deftly – and swiftly – than the wrongful dismissal lawsuit.
All of this is as true for the art world, despite its luxury and cultural edge. But what if the intern and the caterer, together with artists and curators, had a say in who managed the gallery and how? What if we challenged ourselves to create workplaces that fostered genuine mutual respect? What kind of studios, institutions, festivals, biennials and art fairs – what kind of art – would such priorities engender? I, for one, would be excited to find out. For instance, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a project begun in 1987 that embraces amateur makers and encourages displays facilitated by social institutions, like elementary schools, that fall outside of the professional curatorial circuit, is one example of an arts organization with a broadly democratic purview. A moving monument of love and loss, it also challenges us to establish other arts platforms that engage and empower broadly across society.
People harass coworkers because they have something to gain from it, typically a validation of their own power. Abusive behaviour is widespread because it makes a perverse kind of sense. Let’s make it nonsense. Making nonsense, is, after all, one thing the art world excels at doing.
Of course, for those involved in art making, dealing, curating, and criticism, democratizing the workplace comes with an extra, initial challenge: to start viewing places where art is made and shown as workplaces. As much as the contemporary art world loves to tout the new and the now, it has also happily carried forth centuries-old traditions that imbue the studio, the museum, and the gallery with their own mystiques. I understand that the necessary de-mystification of these venues is easier said than done, that many will resist doing so, and that others will feel a sense of loss. After all, most of us who work in the arts were probably drawn to the sector in some part because working in the creative industries didn’t seem like doing a ‘regular’ job, but rather, a way of expressing and exploring ourselves, letting our creativity take what form it will. But, as Elvia Wilk points out, too many people have been getting hurt for too long under the current conventions. And anyway, how emancipatory and creative can work be when you’re putting in 60-hour weeks for a meagre annual stipend while trying to duck the leering gaze (or worse) of a creepy boss whose reference letter you need?
For all the power that art has to enlighten, expose, unsettle, shock, and stir, art alone will not create for us the material conditions for living a free life, not for the vast majority of art workers anyway. Here it would be good to heed Amber A’Lee Frost’s blunt and correct pronouncement: ‘The hub of political power is not academia; it is not the internet; it is not the media, or comedy, or romance, or friendship, or art, or theory. It’s the workplace.’
The art world orbits around stars and kingmakers. More than 600 years since ‘the artist’ emerged as a social figure, the marquee names of a few individuals still drive the market. Art stars, jet-setting super-curators, and gallerists with global franchises rely on the labour of interns, cataloguers, assistants, copy editors, installers, as well as the service work of janitors, caterers, and couriers. Without these armies of diverse workers, the achievements of those at the top would be impossible. Workplace abuse in all its forms justifies, repeats, reifies these discrepancies in power – it works to make people feel insignificant. But it’s a smokescreen; just as in the ‘civilian’ workforce, these auxiliary workers far outnumber those who reap most of the value that everyone works to generate.
Main image: Andy Freeberg, Mitchell Innes & Nash, 2006, from the series ‘Sentry’. Courtesy: the artist and Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles