A couple of years ago, while working on a piece about artists not being paid when their work is displayed in museums, I reached out to a handful of people who were participating in the Whitney Biennial. I wasn’t able to get in touch with as many artists as I hoped, but in the interactions I did manage to have, it felt like there was a bit of hesitancy on the part of my correspondents to talk about compensation. Eventually I learned that no one I was in touch with who was showing in the Whitney galleries that year had been paid.
After our initial exchanges, a couple of them sent me emails asking if others had been paid. I sensed slight hints of fear in those messages—Am I the only one? Did everyone else get paid except for me?
Opacity serves to isolate. It’s like a poker game—very few people show their cards in the end, and there’s always only one winner. Each player is left guessing, strategizing based on what they think the others are holding, but they have no actual knowledge. Fear plays an important part in a game where the majority of the players will have to voluntarily take themselves out of the game, leaving only a couple of people to duke it out for the prize. Is it really worth it? Is what I’ve got really good enough to win? The power lies in the situation, the structure of the game, and that structure gives the advantage to people who believe themselves to be winners or to have the superior strategy, not to ones who doubt.
When I was an undergrad I did a handful of things to make extra cash, and one of them involved tromping across the river from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in order to participate in economic and game theory studies being run by the Harvard Business School. It wasn’t great money—$20 here, $40 there—but after doing it a couple of times purely for the cash, I started to like the competition. It had quickly become clear that while everyone got a low base rate of pay, you could earn more if you did better at the game. I liked to believe that I could figure out the puzzle, and I liked that there was a prize if I did.
These games were filled with opacity. Not only was it clear that the researchers weren’t telling us exactly what it was that they were actually studying, we were also told explicitly not to share the information we were given with the people we were partnered with—our competitors. The reason was clear—my opponent might gain the upper hand if I shared my info, they might know more than me, and then I might lose. Would that I had been less selfish and obedient, and more of a punk, and I could have tried to convince my partners to share everything so we could rig the game to the best advantage of both of us. But that’s not the choice I made.
I willingly served as a lab rat for a bunch of Ivy-coated researchers for a measly hunk of shitty cheese. I was an undergraduate, they were counting on my lack of experience and my need for ready cash. Not only had they figured out the minimum amount required to get me to cross the river, they had built a construct that thrummed in just the right way with my personality. They got me to enjoy their game, at least for a little while. But without fail, even if I was sure I had done well, as I was walking back over the bridge to head home, I would feel the sting of doubt—Had someone else gotten more than me? Had I just been a dupe all along?
There’s a lot about the American system of compensation that mimics these opaque games. Even in non-profits or government agencies where it’s required by law to report some employees’ salaries, a huge number of workers have no idea what their colleagues really make, or what decisions or factors came into play in choosing those salaries. I’m hardly the first person to point that out, but seeing the fallout from that among the artists I was interacting with for that article was a painful reminder of how deeply rooted and fraught the relationships between money, output, and construction of the self are in American society.
Close behind fear there is often shame. If opacity isolates, it also trains us to be opaque with one another, leaving us hiding our feelings, believing we’re the only ones. Isolation can exacerbate raw insecurities and feelings of inadequacy or otherness. Fear and shame don’t always go together, and certainly not everyone feels this way, but in my personal experience isolation really works on feelings of vulnerability and can wear away even the strongest sense of confidence.
Back in 2008, I attended and wrote about an event where Lilly Ledbetter spoke about learning that for years she had been receiving lower pay than her equivalent male colleagues, many of whom were less experienced and had worked fewer years. In 2009, her name appeared on a new piece of legislation, the very first piece of legislation signed into law by the then-brand-new President Barack Obama: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Two of the major points in that legislation are, 1) you no longer have to file a claim for discrimination within 180 days of receiving your first discriminatory paycheck—you can now file claims within 180 days of receiving any discriminatory check, and 2) employers cannot prevent employees from sharing information about their compensation with one another.
The main focus in most articles about the Ledbetter Act is on the first point. But I’ve never stopped thinking about that second one. It hardly seems necessary for employers to forbid people from discussing their salaries with one another, as there is already such a strong cultural taboo around talking about earnings. And even when people do talk about their salaries with one another, there is still such an ingrained determination to couch differences in terms of meritocracy that I suspect most people who hear they’re earning less react first with shame and embarrassment. In other words, part of why we don’t share this information is fear—a fear that you might be found out as earning less, or even fear that people will find out you earn more and hate you for it. We still believe, despite knowing otherwise, that there might be a link between payment and worth.
Since leaving college, save for the time I was in grad school, I’ve had a handful of salaried jobs largely unrelated to my writing and creative work. Salaries have come up rarely in conversations with my colleagues, but I can’t think of a single instance where those discussions weren’t focused on whispers about those who were believed to earn the most. Those conversations were almost always filled with feelings of envy, dismissiveness, or disgust.
Politics and money are off the table in “polite” conversation because they stir up powerful emotions, and emotions are rife with difficulty, discomfort, and unresolvability. Capitalism and American myths of “meritocracy” run so deep in me that they literally inform my gut reactions—the way my body reacts, the way I feel about money.
Internalized capitalism. Internalized America.
A lot of people have been writing about the negative aspects of money, debt, and capitalism since 2008, since the floor fell through. People were writing a lot about it before then but it got less airplay for the 20 or 30 years prior to the latest market crash. Last month I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby and in it she posits two very brief but clear summaries of a couple major points that keep coming up about money:
“The gifts to [the nurses caring for her mother] and the head of nursing were also meant
to acknowledge that although people get paid to do their jobs, you cannot pay someone to
do their job passionately and wholeheartedly. Those qualities are not for sale; they are
themselves gifts that can only be given freely.”
“Before money, [David Graber, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years] wrote, people didn’t
barter but gave and received as needs and goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred
the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the
ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by
completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older system, but
existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it
teaches us that we should be separate.”
Much has been written about “affective labor” recently—labor that demands we engage our emotions or those of the people we’re working with or for. Nursing, home care, childcare, customer service, restaurant work, sex work, and on and on. These jobs come with an expectation that the emotional and/or physical needs of the “client” be met, regardless of the worker’s emotional or physical state. They represent complicated relationships in which things that in other circumstances are part of everyday human interactions become something somewhat different when done for pay.
We take the need to be present with other people out of the equation by inserting transactions centered entirely on the exchange of cash, where things like emotion, need, or degrees of advantage or disadvantage are not welcome or permitted. I pay you for that thing, you give it to me; the boundaries are clear, the interaction is finite and sanitized. The money is an accepted blinder around our easily spooked horse eyes, it creates an equivalence in which things are rarely equal.
Flipping through a copy of New York Magazine the same week I was reading Solnit’s book, I came across a fashion spread in which a white woman wearing some high-end clothing was laying stomach-down on the ground with building rubble and dust scattered around and on top of her. She had a smile on her made-up face. It was crass and offensive. But maybe I just don’t look at enough magazines any more. I’m well aware that these kinds of jeers at violence against women, as well as poverty, addiction, and race or ethnicity are all too regular. But seeing that spread was nauseating with the thought still in mind of the 1,127 people killed last year when a factory responsible for producing garments primarily for North American and European clothing chains collapsed. And the sickest part is that calling them out for their grotesque mockery was likely the precise conversation they were hoping to drum up with that shitty ad. Fuck them for the cynicism they’re peddling. Whose affect is being paid for there—my reaction? I can’t even get it up to be indignant anymore.
In January, Miya Tokumitsu wrote an essay for Slate on this pernicious and persistent idea that passion and work can and should be synonymous. She points out how problematic it is to believe that the next logical step after finding something you enjoy doing is to figure out how to make money at it. That people who do pay their bills “doing what they love” are quite often the beneficiaries of many privileges bestowed on them because of their class, race, gender, or otherwise. While the business of working in non-artisanal fields or delivering mail or cleaning up are largely invisible in these conversations or trotted out with nostalgia-laden and rose-hued condescension.
Conflating passion and work also diminishes the enjoyment of and time spent doing things for which we don’t earn a wage. Hobbies, being an amateur, and some kinds of volunteering (the kinds that are actually voluntary) can be freeing precisely because they aren’t predicated on earning a living or the expectations that come with ideas of productivity and profit. One of the things that pisses me off most about all these singing competition shows on television is that they reinforce a notion that if you have a good voice you should be able to hustle a living out of it, and that you’re a failure if you don’t. Changing something you enjoy into work changes your relationship to it and that piece of the conversation seems to often go missing.
Those of us in the US have perhaps the most complicated relationship to work because it’s at the core of the myth of self-actualization in almost every American ideal. “The self-made man.” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” The American Dream isn’t just the picket fence, it’s the “honest labor” that means you can afford to buy it.
“…once you’ve accepted total obscurity you may as well do what you want.”
—Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
The past few years of economic crisis, watching friends and family deal with unemployment, and catastrophic natural disasters have given me a brooding sense of certainty that I will likely lose everything at least once in my life—my possessions, my health, people I love, my job, whatever money I have. My task, then, seems to be to build up a psychological and social grounding that will allow me to weather those storms without shattering my sense of the value of living and doing, regardless of those loses.
About three years ago I was going through a bit of a rough patch with my writing, I was willing myself into all manner of tasks and would-be-accomplishments and I burned myself out. At that moment of burn-out an old friend came over for dinner. After I laid out the food and our conversation warmed up, as only an old friend can do, she proceeded to break my heart, spoil my illusions, and take away almost all the ideas of success I’d been desperately clinging too. In that moment, I wanted to cry in shame. I felt small for wanting what I wanted. I felt small and stupid for not having a clever response or philosophical perspective on my ravenous desires.
I haven’t let my ambition go, nor do I think it’s inherently evil or negative. I refuse to discard it completely, particularly in a world that rewards so few and those few so often fit a certain demographic pattern. But I recognize too that very few of the models of success that filled my youthful fantasies are or ever were available to much of anyone in the first place.
Alexis Clements is an arts writer and playwright based in Brooklyn, NY. She founded the multi-disciplinary arts project New Acquisition, and co-founded Private Commission, a queer writing group and publisher. Her creative work has been produced and published in both the US and the UK. Her articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in publications such as Salon, Bitch Magazine, American Theatre, The Brooklyn Rail, The L Magazine, Nature, Frontiers, and In the Flesh. She is a regular contributor, focused on art, performance, and the arts economy, to Hyperallergic. In addition, she leads workshops for artists focused on arts and labor. www.alexisclements.com