In a labour structure where the options are to work without pay, or not to work in the industry at all, arts workers aestheticise the struggle. We all laugh about being overworked and underpaid, but voicing a structural criticism of our industry in any serious way has professional ramifications. At work, we feel we are being observed for signs of struggle. We watch others for signs in turn. We do it out of care, and in an attempt to outsource responsibility. Burnout, like overwork, is not an accident of the arts, but a structure of it. Shadowing every financial and professional conversation is the awareness that when you crack, someone “more” devoted will replace you, in the same untenable financial and affective labour conditions, and burn out just as hard, and just as quickly, and be replaced again, just as easily. The anxiety of burnout precludes discussions of labour by discussing devotion instead: we’re so lucky to do this, we love this. We don’t want to talk about our labour for fear of being seen as lacking the devotion necessary to qualify as part of this world. How do we start to criticise unpaid labour when we are so lucky to do it?
Jini Maxwell on unpaid labor.
When my mother was a Wee Lass, she was one of the first people to work at the then-new Australia Council for the Arts. (So did Dad, incidentally. It was where they met.) Her work meant she knew quite a number of Big Name types in the arts at the time, and one of her most enduring memories is of just how poor everyone was. Even well-known, household-name artists were struggling, financially.
Meanwhile, when I was a kid, when anyone asked me when I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer, “author and illustrator.” Even when I was, like, four or whatever. Author and illustrator. By the time I hit late high school, I’d changed that to wanting to be an animator (Disney had some big studios in Sydney at the time); a career Dad was very much not enthusiastic about me pursuing, always on financial grounds. It kinda occurs to me his expreiences at the Australia Council probably played at not-insignificant role in his attitude on that one…