Leigh Claire La Berge

Wages Against Artwork

Duke University Press, 2019

280 pages


Reviewed by Amber Taylor

Leigh Claire La Berge’s Wages Against Artwork offers an economic framework for examining the relationship between wage labor and socially engaged art. As artists feel pressured to generate income through constant social media engagement, and as discussions of NFTs grow ever more current, the questions posed in La Berge’s book offer clarity to the increasingly complicated issue of waged and unwaged labor in the twenty-first century. Author of Scandals and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s, published in 2014, La Berge’s research attends to the economic shifts of the late twentieth century and their ongoing resonances in the world of art and literature today.

However, Wages Against Artwork is not just for those interested in art, but rather anyone concerned with the state of labor and widespread economic precarity in the twenty-first century. This is evident in the title, which is a nod to Silvia Federici’s Wages Against Housework (1975). Written at a time when women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers while also taking care of domestic responsibilities, Wages Against Housework both demands fair wages for all labor and asserts that wages are not enough. Wages Against Housework challenges the notion that anyone receives “fair” wages under an exploitative economic system. Similarly, La Berge asks us to consider how waged, and unwaged labor in the art world is indicative of modern capitalist decommodification of labor. She defines decommodified labor as the “slow diminishment of the wage alongside an increase in the demands of work.” Each chapter walks us through examples of decommodified labor, at times highlighting socially engaged artists who do not want wages for their work, even though it is commodified nonetheless. At others, we see artists who are deep in debt after completing their degrees but cannot obtain waged labor to pay it off.

These binds are not exclusive to artists: the person commodified beyond their will and the worker weighed down by debt is, La Berge suggests, emblematic of all modern subjects. And yet, she reminds us that art is often seen as existing outside of the commodified world. La Berge asks us to consider not whether art can be commodified but whether it should be. Art’s unique position as something that requires labor but is seen as too sacred, intimate, or wild to be turned into a commodity makes it particularly vulnerable to decommodification.

Each chapter of Wages Against Artwork examines this tension between art and decommodification, looking at debt and its relationship to unwaged labor in the art world in its first chapter. Today, art students graduate with crippling debt. And yet, only a small percentage will find waged labor after graduation. While student debt is seen as an investment in their future, a future where they can pay off their debt seems impossible. Chapter One looks at socially engaged art that underscores debt’s role as fundamental to the art world, not as an investment in the artist’s future, but as profit produced by the artist for an abstracted economic system of debt. This abstracted system is further interrogated in Chapter Two: “Institutions as Art,” where La Berge interrogates the relationship between decommodified labor, institutional support, and exploitation of artists.

As La Berge shows us how systems of debt and artistic institutions engage with decommodified labor, she asks us to consider what is seen as existing outside of this modern economic system. Chapters Four and Five examine the child and the animal, respectively, in socially engaged art. Both are seen as free from the restrictions of exploitative labor, as neither children nor animals can receive wages. However, we know that, like art, children and animals cannot exist outside of modern capitalism’s totalizing purview. La Berge cites French scholar Phillipe Aries in her discussion of how modern notions of childhood emerged alongside the capitalist development of an adult workforce. She reminds us that the playground became necessary only as roads and factories began to proliferate the urban environment, rendering the outdoor environment unsafe for play. Like children, animals cannot receive a wage for their labor. And yet, both children and animals can be used to produce art, which can then be sold. Ultimately, we are left questioning what constitutes decommodified labor, not just for the child or the animal, but for all subjects whose labor results in profits for someone or a system other than themselves.

La Berge’s examples in Wages Against Artwork are helpful for reexamining the changing nature of wage labor and commodification under modern capitalism. As artists replace business cards with Instagram handles, their labor becomes ever more abstracted and decommodified through algorithmic data mining. Though La Berge does not examine the ever-evolving role of social media and digital art in her book, she does give us the tools to reinvigorate our analysis of modern labor, which is increasingly intersecting with the digital sphere.