Artistic work through a working-life-research lens: A preliminary introduction to a possible research project

A story about what can happen when ideas meet across fields

This essay is based on my encounter with the art-scene in Trondheim, and the reflections I have made both personally as well as through my academic lens as a researcher in the field of working-life studies. I will present my personal rationale and interest in artistic work, and show an outline of what a study of artistic work might look like from the fields of sociology of work and organizational theory. This involves looking at structures and practices that form and define artistic work. Core questions are: What is “work” in artistic work? How does artistic work compare to “regular” work? Which structures and activities shape artistic work? How does this look from a sociological perspective?

There are two main rationales for undertaking this task: Firstly because sociological theory of work has a strong bias towards the industrial sector and such an investigation can challenge and further the development of sociology. Secondly because artistic work represents a model which in many ways indicates how future working-life might look like, if the current trends continue. In addition there seems to be a need for a study that goes beyond the reports on working-life-conditions within artistic work in Norway. But there is one important premise: I am not an art-sociologist, I am a working-life sociologist. I consider artistic work as principally equal to other types of work. My definition of work is not based only on economic activity, but rather activity which is geared towards any type of value 1. Housekeeping is work, begging is work, accounting is work, gardening is work, wrestling with ideas is work. The only difference is that in sociology work has traditionally 2 been defined as that which gives measurable economic output. I disagree with this position. Nevertheless, this distinction has real effects on society, and does lead to social inequality as well as unequal distribution of rights and resources. As I will argue in this text, I believe that if we aim to transform anything, we must also accept our own fields and the contributions we can make within them. Change requires movement from within as well as pressure from without.

I am a working-life researcher, and I want to contribute to wrestling with ideas which go beyond the categories of art, sociology, economy or politics, while still respecting their inherent perspectives and positions.
This is not an academic article, and as such you will not find references, correct formatting according to journal requirements or sufficiently analyzed data. It is my reflections and observations based on approximately five years as a “hangaround” to the art-scene. Therefore, there might be factual errors and statements that can be stronger than there is academic ground to directly back up. I welcome any feedback, corrections or input. The art-scene has influenced me to be more critical to the straightjacket of academic writing, and I think it is huge challenge that the form of the scientific article is limiting the possibilities for sharing subjective positions, styles and political perspectives. This text is at times polemic and exaggerated since I find that this can be a very useful way of provoking reflections and discussions 3. Many of these points will be further addressed in the following text.

On the need for changed assumptions

The sociology of work has, in my opinion, been based on an assumption of work as that which is paid and regulated. The classical image is of the blue-collar worker, in a factory or similar organization of work which is stable and predictable. Of course there is research on work that does not fit these descriptions – air-stewardesses, managers, prostitutes (or body-workers), and now there is also the concept of the precariate which is gaining momentum. But even much of this research is still based on the assumption of the classical image of work:one might perhaps exchange one or two of these assumptions, such as stability for chaos and within the sociology of work, these alternative approaches are often firmly placed within “critical studies”, and thus in a place of relative obscurity. They are less cited, and as citations are so important in academic work (that is how the value of our labor is measured), and thus less important.

I must admit that I am also a child of these assumptions. In fact, it is only quite recently that I’ve realized how strongly these assumptions have guided my understanding of work. It is mainly through three encounters that this has become clear to me.

  1. My theoretical education failed to give me a realistic understanding of actual working-life challenges. In other words, the map given to me did not fit the terrain it was depicting.
  2. Getting introduced to the local art-scene and those who work within it: realizing that there were almost entire continents missing from the atlas of work.
  3. Introduction to meta-theory/integral theory. The core learning of this is simply the necessity of multiple perspectives in order to gain a more complete understanding.

I see a need within the sociology of work for broadening the perspectives and approaches, and indeed the assumptions that it is based on in order for it to have the impact sociologist often want, and that I personally hope for. This is based on my first encounter. We need a broadened perspective of labor, we need multiple approaches, even though sociology is a field much more defined by the types of questions asked rather than the approaches taken. To paraphrase the introductory text to the seminar which this text is written in connection to 4 We need to stop seeing work as an entrepreneurial activity within a restrictive framework conditioned by an expanding market and hegemonic political agendas prescribing the usefulness of work.

I see the field of artistic work as a promising area for this undertaking. Through my second encounter, that with the local art scene, I saw a field where work was nothing like the theories and descriptions I had learned to know. As I will return to later, there were huge discrepancies with the classical industrial work which was the basis for much of my education, but also striking similarities. This is restricted to the organization and structure of the artistic work which I saw undertaken. In addition, the richness of approaches, both theoretical and methodological was almost stunning. Although the explicit form which regulates academia into an all too often boring article-oriented output was lacking – no need to explicitly state the page of which book where which idea was found, or the minute details of how and whom one has spoken to or observed – it was clear to me that artistic work was equivalent to academia at its best. Artistic work and academic work is idea-work. Idea-work is about going face to face with an idea, wrestling some sort of understanding out of it, and giving it form.
Following this, dissemination is the most important aspect of the work. I do appreciate intellectual challenges for my own satisfaction, but I believe that what we are striving for is impact beyond ourselves 5. This requires that the idea I work with is spread in some way or another. This is something which can only be partly under my control, both because I require outside structures in order to reach others, and because the interpretation of my idea is subjective to the recipient. Dissemination is a distinctively social activity, and if our goal is change, then dissemination is of the essence. A point which leads to the core of this essay, and what can be my contribution; how can a sociological approach to artistic work be supportive to working with the idea of transformative art production?

On the possibility for transformation

Transformation is only possible through reciprocal change. Sociology cannot transform art to sociology, and art cannot transform sociology into art. When art influences sociology, it becomes sociology, and vice versa. Sociology of art is not art. Art can be sociologically influenced, but it is not sociology 6. This is mainly because of the categories by which we make sense of the social world, and not necessarily because of the contents with which we fill these categories. So how can these different approaches meet? This is where the third encounter comes in, with meta-perspectives and integral theory. These approacheshave in common that they aim to work with ideas that are recognized as crossing one or more categorical borders. They are in a way multi-disciplinary, although they often in practice end up being dominated by one discipline or approach.
However, this “trap” is avoidable. Firstly, by rejecting the statement that it is a trap. When working with an overarching idea, many approaches are necessary, and in order for the idea to disseminate to a broader public than that one can reach within one’s own field one has to accept that in order to communicate with other “systems” one must use their language, or let somebody else do the communication. I must do what I am good at, and try to influence those I can reach. I must also let others do the same. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and ideas travel slowly. Idea-work requires trust and cooperation, especially cross-categorical idea-work. Secondly, by seeing the idea worked upon as content, and not it’s category. The idea of transformative art production is not an artistic project, it is not a sociological theory or analysis, it is not a political project, it is all of these, and more. Working with the idea, developing it, giving it forms and disseminating it requires that we reciprocally and in collaboration wrestle with it. In such a way the idea will become stronger, and our mastery of it will improve.

A preliminary study of artistic work by the perspective of a sociologist of work

So far I have only presented my perspective on how to approach the idea at hand. Now I must present some of the content I can bring to the table. I will entitle this: a preliminary study of artistic work by the perspective of a sociologist of work.
Adhering more closely to a standard article, I will firstly tell you a little bit about how this study has taken place, and from which perspective(s) I’ve looked at the phenomenon at hand. I will then present some of my findings – differences and similarities within artistic work compared to an ideal-typical stereotype of a Norwegian employee. I shall thereafter put these findings into a larger perspective, and more specifically relate them to the issue of transformative art production and coalition building.

I will again emphasize that this is not a rigorous study; it is rather reflections I have made as an observer in the local art-scene in Trondheim. This approach is ethically dubious at best, as none of those I’ve spoken to have been informed that I have secretly been thinking about what they are doing and speaking to me about, in a sociological manner. It has been an explorative study, based on participatory observation. It is explorative in the way that I haven’t had any clear hypothesis and haven’t been looking for anything in particular. It is participatory observation because I’ve been attending openings, been to various studios, cooperated with artists and a curator 7. I’ve also gotten to know a lot of artists within various fields, and have had informal and friendly talks with them where the issue of artistic work has either been a specific topic, or I’ve interpreted it as such. In other words, I’ve been a ‘hangaround’. I have in no way attempted to become an artist, nor have I ambitions to do so.

My main perspective is based on sociological (Scandinavian) institutional theory, systems theory (mostly based on the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann) and the more specific lenses of industrial relations and critical management studies. In other words, I look at the structures and activities that shape and recreate modern working-life. Such structures can be the economy, access to resources such as information, rules, regulations and norms as well as more ideological structures such as politics, religion or science. The activities observed can be meetings, exhibitions, openings, preparation, research and discussions. It is about what the daily tasks are, and the context in which they occur. It is again of importance to mention that this stems from a perspective largely based on assumptions and theories developed from research on blue-collar industrial workers, predominantly from Taylor to Mayo (ca 1920s to 1960s). This is important because they still influence teaching, theory-development and identified challenges today. These perspectives can be valuable – either as examples of how artistic work can be seen from that perspective, or as an alternative perspective.

The Differences between Artistic work and Blue-collar work

When I first was introduced to the art-scene, it was like entering a totally foreign land. The language was different. Or rather, the language, Norwegian or English, was of course the same, but the meaning ascribed to the words, as well as the way how they were used was different. For example, ‘post-modern’ didn’t mean for them what it meant for me and the word ‘structure’ was a word that held many different meanings. But these are simply linguistic issues. The form the language took was the truly major difference. I mostly used written language and speech to communicate, at least those were the forms I was most conscious about. The form of communication in this new world was much richer, using many more senses: Sound, imagery, touch, feelings, time, smell – all were acceptable carriers of information rather than just context. I am now of course talking about the art, and not the artists.

It was also interesting to see that the art-scene had been right in front of me all the time, I just hadn’t noticed it before. There were suddenly galleries and studios where I before had walked right past. There were exhibitions, shows, lectures, and parties. A fairly thriving scene I had been oblivious to. It is worth mentioning that Trondheim is a fairly small town, and there is much interconnection between the various cultural and art workers. Poets, writers, musicians, actors, riggers, carpenters, light and sound technicians, curators, painters, sculptors, contemporary artists etc. are all to be found. In other words, it is somewhat puzzling that as a working-life sociologist I hadn’t noticed this scene before. The analysis of this fact is simple – most people are limited to their own sphere, and the rest of the world is of little direct importance to them. In systems-theoretical terminology this would be stated as their psychological system not having been sufficiently irritated by an external system.
After the initial acclimatization I could start making sense of what I saw. Those I met often lived quite different lives compared to most “average” Norwegians. Politically most were well to the left. Many were critical of capitalism. Quite a few had low and unstable incomes. A lot had strong personal opinions and tastes, and seemed comfortable to resist social pressure to “normalize”. Most of the artists are not related to the art market business and rather situate their artistic practice in non profit or communal activity. This type of stereotyping probably occurs to anybody who meets a new scene, such as Wall Street, the gym, the police or politics. But beyond the stereotype there are actually quite strong structures.

An important difference between the blue-collar worker and the artist is the lack of of the kind of regulations for the latter which enables the blue-collar worker to lead a fairly stable and predictable life. Yes, many artists pay their dues to a union, but this union doesn’t do the same thing as the industrial unions do 8. It also works differently. Where the blue-collar union is focused on regulation of rights and the enforcement of these, the artistic unions are seeking the implementation of rights in the first place. Blue collar unions have paid union representatives at the local level, as well as full time union employees (lawyers, accountants, consultants etc.). Artist unions are to a larger degree based on volunteers at the local level (with little or no pay). But most importantly, Blue collar unions have a direct counterpart, such as the company, or an organization representing the employer. This also means that the blue collar union is much more professionalized. Artist unions are a general representative body with no direct counterpart.

I was quite baffled to hear about some of the differences between the organizing of representatives in the art-world compared to my experiences in the university or elsewhere in organized work. I’ve personally held many positions as a representative myself, chaired boards with union representatives as well as interviewed many union representatives as a part of my research. This has therefore also been a topic which I’ve discussed with several artists, both holding such positions themselves as well as being the represented party. In broad strokes I would say that there are two storylines which this can follow: the more or less randomly recruited, and the long term engaged. The randomly recruited representative “happens” to be at a meeting where new representatives are elected and lacking other candidates they agree to (or are encouraged to) take the position. Without much further information, a month or two later they are called in to their first meeting. When I’ve asked what has been given of information or documentation before this, they often say that they have assumed that this would be given at the meeting. On occasions, they haven’t even been called to the relevant meeting, as the body which held the meeting wasn’t aware that the representative had been changed.
Although I’ve not attended these meetings myself, I know that most decisions made in any board are based on ongoing discussions, developed over time, and being cast into such decision-making processes can be bewildering. If you do not know the background, premises and positions on the topic held by your predecessor, it can be very hard to change the direction of a decision, and if you are only given a few minutes to scan the documents the safest route is often to abstain or ‘go with the flow’. If the representative finds this experience disillusioning (as is understandable), they will often hold the position for their allotted term, and with a sigh of relief hand over the responsibility to the next person. Since they had no briefing themselves, they don’t see the necessity to brief their successor. Based on what I’ve been told I would say that about half of the representatives write a report of their work, but the fate of such reports are somewhat unclear (either sent in but not shared, sent in and added as an appendix to a board-meeting or delivered to the successor).
The long term engaged representative on the other hand has often started as randomly recruited, or been politically engaged for a longer time, and therefore know more about the governing structures. They demand papers and documents to be delivered at least a day or two before the meeting, they know what their opportunities and rights are, and some of the procedural standards which should be held. They demand (or produce) written minutes, insist on putting topics on the agenda and follow up on previously made decisions. But even in most of these cases (out of those I’ve spoken to) these individuals have had to figure these things out for themselves, or have relied on previous training or experience. Not a single artist I’ve spoken to, who held a position of any sort, said that they have been given any such training. However, when discussing such issues, those I’ve spoken to haven’t addressed this as a critique to the artists unions, most of the time where artists unions are explicitly discussed it usually based on content, such as which positions a union should hold on any given issue or which topics needs to be addressed. Formal or procedural topics are rarely addressed. Hopefully I’m wrong, and my selection of informants is most certainly skewed, but the image I see is not a positive one.

All representatives should have access to some form of training, as well as access to relevant rules and regulations. Important documents and files should also be handed over to the one who is taking over a position. In short, there should exist a basic bureaucratic structure as well as the basic support-functions for this structure. This is a safeguard for the representative, as she/he might be legally accountable for the decisions made, but also a safeguard for those who are represented – it gives a basic transparency to the activities which are taken on behalf of those who are represented.

Unionizing and the function of unions is one of the classical “guardians” of a regulated working-life. But unions aside, and continuing the comparison of the Norwegian blue-collar worker and the artist, there are also other structures that differ. The amount of working-hours is strikingly different, both in terms as what counts as “work”, and what the total amount of time spent on activity related to work is. I have still to meet an artist who follows a regulated work-week. There is no “working nine to five”. There is no overtime-payment. Often it seems like artists are lucky to make money at all – and even those who have “made it” wouldn’t compare to anyone who has chosen a “regular” job. Often there is a “bread-job” 9 or two, which often seems to be too small to give any permanent benefits such as social security, pension-savings or sick-leave. The stereotypical artist who drinks wine and waits for inspiration has surely no real manifestation.
Every single artist I have met spends much more time working than any average employee. This is also perhaps a reason for the survival of the stereotypical artist. Most non-artists meet the art-world at openings or exhibitions. There they see artists who are drinking, nibbling on free snacks, and chatting with friends. What they often don’t see is that these artists are actually at work. Many times I’ve overheard artists talking about an upcoming exhibition stating that they do not have the time or surplus energy to go, but they have to in order to stay up to date, catch up with contacts who are in town for the exhibition, see and be seen. The drinks are often one of few possibilities to save some income and enjoy a glass of wine anyways. This is not to say that openings and exhibitions aren’t important arenas for socializing and meeting friends, only that they are much more. Likewise a CEO rather wouldn’t attend yet another business-lunch in favor of relaxing and doing what she wants, and a researcher would quite often rather not attend the conference-dinner because it is a chore, but they do so because it is relevant for work.

There is no clear demarcation line between what is and what is not work in terms of artistic activity. In a traditional working-life work is spatially and temporally delineated. Work is all activity which goes on at a specific place at a specific time. It is also formally accepted as work, both by regulation as well as by appreciation by others. Work can be counted in some way or another (or at least to the degree where your superior could identify if you are working or not). Work can also be disconnected from productive output, such as maintenance, supervision, or the repair of equipment. If a factory-line breaks down, and the factory workers spend two days repairing it, nobody questions whether they have been working or not, regardless of the fact that nothing has been produced. In artistic work everything except the outcome is largely invisible. Planning, research, maintenance, repairs, freight, accounting, marketing – almost any activity which you can find a department for in large companies is activity which the artist must do, but stands solely responsible for. Yet once the final product is shown, all this is invisible. My personal view is that this is also frequently invisible for the artists themselves. Not that they do not do these activities, but they do not consider it work.

According to the traditional understanding of work responsibility and especially value-adding activities are valued extra. If you have additional responsibility you get more money. If your contribution is vital to the end product, and in addition is difficult to replace, you get more money. This seems to be turned upside-down in the art-world. Organized support-functions like gallery maintenance, required professional assistance in the construction or creation of an art-work (such as carpenters, metal-workers, councilors etc.) require a regulated fee. This fee is based on pre-agreed rates, and regulated in terms of hours and where and when it is supposed to be done. The artist, who carries the entire responsibility, is vital to the end result, and in practice irreplaceable, gets the leftovers. Even when there is a pre-agreed amount of money to be given as payment to the artist, my impression is that this sum nowhere near allows the artist be left with a larger hourly rate than the support-workers. Often it seems like the artist considers this sum a “buffer” in case some unexpected expenses occur (as they often do), and end up spending much of their “income” on wages for those who are employed or on material costs. In this manner the only fair comparison to the artist is the entrepreneur – with the important difference that the entrepreneur has an end goal of profitability. My core point here is that from an industrial sociological perspective artistic work does not work. My point is to show how this looks from this perspective, and it is not to say that artistic work should become more industrialized – that is a completely different discussion. But needless to say, no project-manager or blue-collar worker would accept such wage-conditions. The end result would not be a strike, or quitting the job, it would be a court case on the grounds of illegal working conditions, exploitative structures and lack of rights.

From the traditional perspective it is clear that artistic work is faced with severe challenges, and to a large degree these descriptions do not fit with the safe and regulated picture which Nordic working-life is often is presented as. The Nordic welfare states, and perhaps Norway in particular, has had a very strongly regulated working-life, and the regulations have mostly been in favor of the workers: strong protection from exploitation, high degree of permanent employment, high degree of unionization, long traditions for union-owner-partnership and cooperation, mutual trust and a very well developed and universal security-net for those who lose their jobs. But this map is not up to date with the globally influenced changes in the actual terrain. Even though we are only seeing indications of the precarity which is hitting the global working-life, the direction is clear. We are also seeing an increased use of temporary employment, decreasing union membership, loss of rights and increasing unemployment. Where the precarious condition has been the norm in artistic work, it is now also the direction “regular” work is heading towards. Precarity is becoming a common denominator for artistic and non-artistic work alike.

On the Similarities

Concerning the interrelationship between artistic work and general working-life, the comparison often has the direction of comparing artistic work against the stable measuring unit “regulated classical working-life” (as largely done above). An alternative perspective is that artistic work is becoming more and more a model for “regular” work, as has long been recognized in art-related social theory. Although I’m not familiar with this perspective, it is interesting to note that this conclusion can also be reached from a sociological perspective, based on the growing economic and social individualism, in which the individual is considered to be solely responsible for his or her own situation. In addition, the pressure for unique-ness and apparent individual success creates a highway to precariousness. Artistic work can be seen as the promising mirage on the horizon.

Individual, creative, self-regulated and inherently rewarding work is the model of modern working life. This mirage is a working-life where you decide yourself when and where to work. You use your creative and intellectual capacities. You are master of your own fate, and you get to share it on facebook. You don’t work for pay or security, you work for the inner feeling of mastery and happiness your work gives you. You don’t work for the gold-watch given after 25 years of service, you work for your golden CV; your own personal badge of honor. You don’t have a permanent contract (it is way too restrictive), you have a website with your great projects, a linked-in account and a personal development coach (these two last ones aren’t my findings from the art-scene, rather the modern CEO). For example, if we look at unions without clear counterparts; there is a growing number of unions who explicitly do not offer wage- or rights-based advantages, rather, they offer “membership”-advantages such as cheap insurance, good banking-deals, travel offers, telephony and internet-rebates and such. The union membership cannot in an individualistic economy come in the way for individual wage-bargaining, and thus it changes its form and contents. Furthermore, union membership is declining in most sectors, while in industrial and public sectors it still remains the highest. But even in these sectors there are changes. In industry the blue-collar worker is becoming replaced with white-collar workers due to automation, and traditionally those “above the shop floor” have been unionized to a lesser degree. The public sector is becoming privatized, and the private sector is traditionally less unionized. In short, more and more workers, as well as managers who have mostly never have been unionized, are in the same situation as the art worker: being without a strong regulative union behind them.

There is also an anti-bureaucratic tendency, in which individual treatment is valued above collective and equal treatment. This individualism shakes some core structures found in traditional working-life. Transparent wages, clearly defined authorities and responsibilities, equal rights and predictable contracts all require a certain degree of collectivism.
Concerning flexibility, or the self-regulation of the context of work (where, when and what), it is quite clear that the independent worker is the new role model. Home-office, smart-phones, flexible hours, video-meetings; this makes the boundaries between work and private life disappear. Accessibility 24-7 is the norm in many professions today. This has also been addressed by some German unions, who restricted the possibility for employers to require that their employees answer emails and phones after working hours. There is a battle going on between collectivism, and the structures supporting it, and individualism (which grows by tearing down collectivist structures).
But the comparison between the new worker and the art worker is striking. Most artists I know identify themselves by their work, it is an intrinsic part of them. Most would frown upon the idea of a 40 hour regulated working-week, saying it would be impossible to be an artist under such conditions. The same situation can be found in any classical vocation-based work – work which is based more on an individual calling, rather than just a “bread-job”. Farmers, academics, architects, doctors, priests. But this model is also being applied to new groups of professions: real-estate, nurses, engineers, teachers, even bureaucrats. Not that you can’t find examples of academics working nine to five, or doctors who think of their job purely as a means for money, or that you cannot find nurses that have a vocational calling. But take a look at how these jobs are marketed 10: “Become a part of creating tomorrows so-and-so. Flexible working conditions. We are looking for a creative, independent new colleague. We offer personal development and the possibility for shaping your own future. Do you master the art of caring/farming/selling/teaching/etc.?”

The boundaries between work and non-work are blurred also in contemporary working-life. I’ve attended dinners where I have felt out of place because I do not master the lingo of ski-preparation, bike gears and dietary recommendations for doing a 20 mile run. Not only have such activities (it actually also includes salary-drinks, after office-hours parties and less physically demanding activities) been occupied by a career-logic, but you are also required to fund these informal job-demands yourself. To be successful you have to be at the right place, see and be seen. There are exhibitions and openings in most fields, but what is exhibited are careers and CVs. And these openings do not take place in a white cube, but in a new office location, a friends new start-up business or at the local conference centre. Many of those who were actively engaged in sports or activities ten years ago, did so because they found it intrinsically rewarding. Today they argue that it makes them perform better at work, or it has become an arena for “team-building” and networking.

But there is a slight difference when it comes to what is valued as work and what is not. In some jobs this is still quite clear, especially as project-based and short term contracts are becoming more and more common (even in academia, where tenure or lifelong employment has been the norm, this is eroding). Such contracts require a fairly clear definition of what is supposed to be delivered at the end of the project, and the content of this is still quite clear. Of course, you have to compete with others to get these projects, and you should preferably be cheaper and better than your competitors. This probably leads to under-reporting of actual costs, which again leads to making cost-driving activities invisible. You have to cover such activities out of your own pocket. However, for those in the fortunate position to sit with the upper hand, such costs are added as necessary expenses. CEOs, workers with unique skills (a rare position to hold today), or workers in high demand can still require such costs be covered. Indeed they can often add more expenses to their proposed project and this will make the proposal look better. More expensive equals better. This situation often leads the latter to positions where they can influence structures, and they see individual bargaining as a strength for themselves. Those who are in the former position must believe that this development is what secures their golden futures, and further support it. Individualism erodes collective structures. I think this is also quite similar within the art-world, once you are “up there”, you can add to your demands and your price-tag. The more expensive the better (at least by the economic logic). If you are not one of those you cannot expect to get reimbursed for your costs.

Art workers and blue-collar workers unite?

I see a world where the model for the working-life of tomorrow is inspired by a field where stability, equal rights, predictability and communality is very bleak compared to the traditional sociological image of the industrial blue collar worker. However, as I stated initially, this image has probably been based on false or skewed assumptions. Probably blue-collar work was not as idyllic as some of the models depict (indeed much of critical sociology has shown this very clearly). But I also believe that much of the structures regulating working life, still today make a huge difference in strength and value between those working in regulated industrial and public jobs and those working outside of them. The only difference is that I do not believe that it should be confined to those established categories. We need to look beyond the categories, identify the core values and ideas we find important, and disseminate them. And in order to do this, we must recognize that if we are to collaborate and cooperate across category-boundaries, we must find a way to translate our ideas into a form which can be understood by the recipient. Such ideas must transcend art or academia. We cannot reject or destroy any of these categories, be they economy, art, science, religion or even family. But I believe we can sufficiently irritate them in order to initiate transformation from the inside. At the beginning of this essay I stated that I have had to let go of some of my assumptions, and only through that been able to identify overarching tendencies or ideas. This is also how I see a possibility for achieving change. It requires that we not only identify the other systems which fill the environment around us, but that we are able to, and willing to, treat them on equal terms. There is no place for an enemy. Each must be strong where we are, and trust in the strength of those around us.

Notes:

  1. In a systems-theoretical perspective the goal of the economic system is based on the operational logic of profit/no profit. This logic is dominant in most definitions of work, and as such does not recognize activity based on other systems-specific logics, such as religion (immanent/transcendent), the legal system (wrong/right) or science (true/false).
    When I state that I see any type of activity geared towards a specific value, I mean that for instance what you do for love, idealistic reasons, self-development, altruism, art, friendship or whatever else could also be seen as “work”. It should also be noted that an individual can be undertaking activities which are structured by the economic system without doing this with a goal of generating profit for themselves (they can even be exploited and receiving less than what is considered as a basic need), but by the logic of the economic system they are still contributing to creating profit (or loss). An example can be a veterinary who is driven by a care for animals, but it is still considered “work” as it is creating profit for the company who has employed this person.
  2. This position is heavily influenced by classical economics.
  3. This position is also based on a strand of post-modern sociology, for example represented by Mats Alvesson, where it is considered that a vocabulary encouraging defamiliarization and friction can uncover new insights and perspectives.
  4. The original text is as follows: “Since the neoliberal attack on public institutions of art and art education, artistic work has become an entrepreneurial activity within a restrictive framework conditioned by the expanding art market and hegemonic political agendas prescribing the usefulness of art.”
  5. Undisseminated academic work as well as artistic work, refers to work which we do not share the output of with any others and is inaccessible and as such only possible to discuss on a meta-level. That is not to say that such undertakings do not have their own intrinsic meaning, or that they do not have value. But it is at the very least not of direct sociological interest, as it does not enter the realm of the social. Discussion of such work is however a social undertaking, although again only on a meta-level.
  6. This is based on systems theory as described by Niklas Luhmann, but I will not present this theoretical backdrop in this text, rather try to let it influence my analysis. Instead of stating the background and interpretation of what I want to share, I will simply try to share my thoughts.
  7. My thanks and appreciation goes to Edvine Larssen, Anne-Gro Erikstad, Rena Raedle and Vladan Jeremic amongst others.
  8. Norwegian union membership has traditionally been very strong, and the Norwegian unions have held a very important and influential role in local as well as national working-life issues.
  9. When I had heard this expression before it was meant as a job that one isn’t really interested in, but that still makes enough to get by on, or even live comfortably on – no other job needed in addition. For artists it seems to mean a job necessary to cover basic needs, which is done in addition to artistic work.
  10. These are ficticious examples.
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