Why we do cultural work in spite of it all…

To be a cultural worker, either on a voluntary basis or trying to make a living off it, has in the last couple of years become an increasingly precarious life plan – not just in Austria. The terms under which the huge majority of free and independent forms of cultural work are forced to operate are constantly deteriorating. In times of economic crisis – which is no longer a recurring intermezzo in the economic development, but has become a permanent condition – budgetary policy can always make effective cuts in the cultural sector without having to face any substantial resistance. So art funding is slashed or discontinued altogether. As a result, free culture, operating wherever it can still manage to get by at all, is facing aggravating constraints, and not just financially. There are also constraints of communicability and event standardisation, as well as dependence on third-party funds.

Taking all of this into account, it is certainly no longer a particularly glamorous life plan to work in the independent cultural sector. You can not expect to make a lot of money, nor are the typical working conditions for freelancing sub-contractors without employment and social benefits attractive in any way. So the question is: why do so many people still choose to work in this field?

For people working in the cultural sector having a regular pay check is usually not a priority. The image we have of the cultural worker as financially undemanding and wantless has been established centuries ago as being an integral part of “the artist” as bourgeois art theories have depicted him. Ever since the free and autonomously art subject has been established, it needed to be distinguished from the everyday citizen whose life was totally under control of a capitalist economy. In opposition to such a trivial life artists were supposed to only live for their art not for the living they made out of it. Such an image is still perpetuated by the media today. And the cultural workers themselves have internalised this cliché as an imminent part of their self-perception. This image is rooted in a narrative conveying that cultural production is not triggered by external incentives (like money, prosperity, or security) but by internal motives. These motives are supposedly most pure, genuine and undisguised when they outweigh the negative effects of impoverishment and social marginalisation. The reward for making art, according to this narrative, is individual fulfilment in a sphere of autonomy which is conceived as radical (and sometimes presented as being entirely uncommunicable). This promise of an exceptional and – for the bourgeois society – unique autonomy still constitutes the prevailing appeal of the cultural sector as a work field.

Günther Friesinger ( 2013): Why we do cultural work in spite of it all…. In: p/art/icipate – Kultur aktiv gestalten # 02 , https://www.p-art-icipate.net/why-we-do-cultural-work-in-spite-of-it-all/