Dear Lubomír

Dear Lubomír, Artmap, December 2020, Prague, photo: author’s archive

I writing to you in response to your unfortunate statement published in Lidové noviny daily (November 8) and addressed to visual artists. As a visual artists myself, I consider your argument that visual arts don’t need financial help during the COVID-19 pandemic because art works can be sold directly from artists’ studios as simply unacceptable. Some of us can indeed sell works from the studio, but I am opposed to the idea that this is the way of generating a surplus social value referred to as a work of art, which is created by connecting the private aspect – the artist’s work space – with the element of artistic and academic institutions. Although I don’t dispute the commercial nature of some of them, it is really sad to hear these words from a prominent member of the Social Democratic Party, who should, on the contrary, be aware of the complex and intricate social context of labour including the work of visual artists. Since the events of the past few days have led me to believe that your opinion is shared by your entire ministry, I decided to write the following paragraphs and publish several notes on artistic work and the creation of art. I will resort to concepts derived from Marxist theory of the Second International that we both cherish. Actually, this is the healthiest way of communication between two convinced socialists that comes to my mind.

The main ingredient of a work of art is artist’s labour. Artist’s labour is a specific skill known for its capacity to negate formal elements (a cubist sculptor becomes an admirer of social realism), to transgress media forms (I abandoned painting for photography) and to use ideological frameworks and work methods of disciplines that are both closely related and unrelated, such as literary science, anthropology, 3D print and software engineering. In most cases, artists perform the requisite work activities by themselves, at home and in their studio. However, if the work becomes too complex and difficult in terms of organizing, the artist has to become his or her own manager: raising funds, supervising and communicating with people tasked with various activities – writing, translating, painting, sculpting, shooting, taking photographs, editing and post-producing videos, etc. All of this is performed for free, by loyal friends, prospectively in exchange for a favour, or for a fee as hired help. This kind of practice reminds us of a business mindset. Thanks to this often effective and creative management of human and natural resources, artists are mentioned by modern time heralds (journalists and lifestyle coaches) as an example for the rest of the population, namely businessmen and top managers. In the context of this belief they are standing at the top of the pyramid of liberal values; as independent experimenters able to discover new and unchartered territories of human life.

These admirers and promoters (and apparently also the Ministry of Culture) tend to forget that the vast majority of visual artists have more than one job. There are only a handful of artists able to make their living from the confines of their studio – several dozen in each generation, and perhaps even less. Some may say that this is still a lot, but taking in consideration the number of art school graduates these numbers are really small. The rest make their living working for film, teaching, through sharing economy, making installations and creating works for more successful colleagues, investing a part of the funds in their own artistic practice. History and the present offer examples of socially relevant works with interesting surplus value financed by their individual authors from other resources. I dare say that this applies to most art works recognized today by the Czech public.

At this stage, the work of art still exists hypothetically. It only constitutes itself through institutions such as museums, Kunsthallen, art galleries, regional art houses, private collections, non-profit exhibition spaces, commercial galleries, art spaces, and academic institutions. Their social role is to purposefully connect the past with the present. The work that accumulates therein (over the course of their existence) only acquires meaning through the exhibition and presentation of the works of art. Marx came closest to describing this social process in the first volume of his Capital. The section on the Production of Absolute Surplus-Value includes the following sentence – quoting only an excerpt: “...their contact with living labour is the sole means by which they [finished products] can be made to retain their character of use-values, and be utilised...“ This means that workers activate past labour hidden in the instruments and the material utilized through their movements, giving them the desired shape.

This is perhaps the most mystical part of Capital, yet it can help us understand the process through which the work of an artist acquires the surplus value that is called a work of art. The present work (public presentation of the work of art which thus becomes a work of art) activates past labour (social legitimization of the institution). However, the gained surplus value is not absolute, it is relative, it changes according to the intensity of public presentation and the number of citations in journals and in academic context. The moment a work of art disappears from the view of an institution, its surplus value also changes – in a negative way.

It can easily be inferred that artists cannot produce the surplus value merely by selling their art works from the studio. To think otherwise indicates a long-term conceptual problem relating to the way the state approaches visual artists, its grant-making policies and the meaning of their public-benefit institutions. Thus, it devalues both the past labour (of the art community) and the labour of my fellows (artists, curators, theorists, lecturers, journalists, photographers as well as those who share art works, manufacture, and install them, clean art institutions, etc.).

In the past decade, the art scene has become relatively stable, but the current crisis will likely deal an inevitable blow that will only make artistic institutions even more restrained and rigid and no longer being able to constructively and critically combine the past with present labour. It can also herald an end to medium-sized non-profit organizations that more or less substituted the state sector in this respect. Most importantly, the lack of support for artists will open an income gap allowing only cultural and economic to devote themselves to visual arts. As good socialists, we can’t let this happen. Art would be deprived of life experience of people coming from different social classes and the space for artistic work and its surplus value will be dominated by a single worldview.

This is pretty much all I wanted to tell you, dear Lubomír.

And thank you for a few minutes of your valuable time.

Sincerely yours,

Jirka Skála