The Limits of Leftist Thinking about Artists Making a Living

A couple of days ago, my partner Alexandra brought this article, “Culture isn’t Free,” in Jacobin Magazine (July 2, 2015) to my attention. What is remarkable is just how it shows, in nuce and with such concentration, (i) the limits of leftist thinking as well as (ii) many of the doxa (i.e., the unquestioned, commonly received stock of beliefs) of the left. Because of (i) and (ii), (iii) the author’s recommendations are decidedly marked by the very institutional thinking that we need to extricate ourselves from. Because I have just released a report on the economic situation of artists, I find myself quite fascinated by the leftist orthodoxy.

Miranda Campbell, an Assistant Professor of the School of Creative Industries at Ryerson University in Montreal (I believe the title is relevant to my subsequent remarks), observes that artists are having a great deal of trouble earning a living during this period of neoliberalism. She goes on to show the fruitless attempts some artists have made to voice their concerns, the unsympathetic replies often being that “art is a luxury.” She concludes the piece by seeking to shift the conversation from the status of an individual artist to the social structures with a view to urging us to reform our social institutions so that they make it easier for artists to earn a living.


This standard argument marks out the limits of leftist thinking with respect to an artist’s role in society. The basic assumptions are as follows:

1.) Artists are those who produce art in well-specified media (music, writing, painting, and so on). Thus do leftists speak, without pausing, about artistic production.

2.) Making a living = earning a living = making money. It’s not for nothing that favorite idiom–“earning a living”–is employed so often. The reason is that she, like other leftists, assume that money-making is precisely at the heart of the matter.

3.) Artistic production is a form of work, not a form of leisure.

All of these assumptions need to be contested and not because they are off the mark but rather, as Hegel would say, because they are “one-sided.”

Take 1.). I don’t believe that the way of thinking about being an artist today is to attach him or her to a specific craft or medium. When someone says, “I am a musician who plays in a band,” then he is already committed to using many of the channels and institutions that no longer work today. He is screwed from the get on. Worse, he fails to understand that what he is after is not being a musician but, as I argue in “How an Artist can Hack a Living: A Report” living musically.

Take 2.). Although making a living in a high-scale society may require making money, making a living is not identical with making money. (Here, again, see “How an Artist can Hack a Living: A Report.”)

Take 3.). This assumption is highly debatable. As Josef Pieper shows in Leisure: The Basis for Culture, art until very recently has not been construed as a form of work (he scoffs at the term “intellectual worker” with good reason). Now maybe Pieper’s arguments no longer hold in the current economic climate, but we cannot take for granted how very novel and non-obvious it is to claim that artists produce and what they produce is a product and that product is exemplary of work for which they should get paid.

The Standard Leftist Argument (SLA)

Given what Campbell has already assumed, it becomes easy for her to make (call it) the Standard Leftist Argument (SLA):

1.) The production of art is not a privilege but a kind of work.

2.) Therefore, art must be grasped in labor-terms.

3.) The plight of artists must be grasped at the current institutional level.

4.) Art has non-instrumental value of all kinds.

5.) Things of non-instrumental should be supported at the institutional level.

6.) So, the existing institutions should support artists financially.

Why This Argument Fails

There are three main reasons. The first can be gleaned from the work of David Graeber. In a short, very popular article, “Bullshit Jobs,” he argues convincingly that most jobs today are “bullshit”: unnecessary service and IT positions that have no relevant to social good. Most jobs, it would be said, are “unmeaningful” and, he points out, this is so according to the estimation of those working in bullshit jobs.

Under the conditions of neoliberalism, we observe (a) that more and more people are doing bullshit jobs and (b) that more and more of our thinking (see Michael Sandel, What Money can’t Buy) has been transformed into market thinking. Given that (a) and (b) are true, I don’t see how individuals in bullshit jobs who read about the “plight of artists” would likely have any sympathy. Their first response would be contempt. Their second response would be envy. For most, the thought that art is a privilege has become unquestionable. If this is so, then how compelling would the above argument be for most people living today? I would reckon: very uncompelling.

The second reason the argument fails is that it leaves individuals living today in the dustheap of history. The 60-year-old writer who used to earn a living but now is scarcely about to do so: are we going to tell him, “But wait for our existing social institutions, which are already defined by market thinking, to turn back to their midcentury roots in civic thinking and provide ample funds?” All of those persons–individuals–who want to live artistically are left high and dry, and this is precisely the feeling of alienation one should have upon reading the Standard Leftist Argument. It’s, in the end, a case of “bad luck.” That guy is just screwed, and there is nothing that he can do about it. (I beg to differ.)

The third reason is that SLA isn’t radical enough. Colleagues such as Jennie Winhall at The Banff Centre are rightly arguing that if you’re going to go for it, then you have to go whole hog: if you are going to speak of social change, then you need to get into system change. The oft-heard inspiring quote is from Buckminster Fuller (which I paraphrase): “Don’t fight against system X. Create better system Y, which will inevitably make X obsolete.”

In the case of artists, you would need to rethink and create a radically different system in which it would make sense for artists to (in a broader sense) make a living by living artistically. Thinking in these terms would also require artists to think about themselves in much different terms.


We live in a time when much needs to be rethought, and current institutional thinking–on the left and on the right–will do us no good. Nor, despite its best intentions, will it do artists any good.