Labor Issues in the Arts – Post by Anabel Roque Rodriguez

This post is part of Anabel’s newsletter which I read last week. The subject is very dear to me and it is one of the reasons I started the Munich Artists project.  I asked Anabel if I could share her words with you and she agreed to allow the reprint.  If you like her words, you can subscribe to her newsletter by following the link at the bottom of this post.

Labor Issues in the Arts – Post by Anabel Roque Rodriguez

Last week we celebrated International Women’s Day. I got to open the exhibition I curated for GEDOK in Munich “Art as Labor or the Myth of the poor female Artist” and focus on issues around labor, professionalization in the arts, empowerment, women and success.

For centuries the question of how to find one’s purpose and make a living out of meaningful work has preoccupied not only the young, not only aspiring artists, but people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life.

While working on the exhibition, through observations of the past years in the art world, and the work ethic of young professionals in other areas, I came to the conclusion that there is a misconception with toxic working attitudes. There is a work ethic that tells creative workers to sacrifice themselves for the purpose of art, as if a certain amount of despair and pain would lead automatically to success.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that working hard and continuously will lead to mastery and, eventually, to noticeably success, but if you loose sight of your work values, tasks that make you happy or rewards that come from within, all the pain might leave you burnt-out and numb. I became recently very skeptical about the glorification of unhealthy routines, like sleep deprivation, consummation of body boosting substances etc. It seems that there is an almost religious belief in the work world that we have to do penance in order to get on the path of the neoliberal definition of perfection, which then leads automatically to success. Women, in particular, seem to have become a center of this dogma. But seriously, how can we make negativity the center of any valuable success?

The relation with success is difficult, as Alain de Botton puts it beautifully:

“One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Success is nowadays usually measured through the power to shape public opinion, a high salary, and I guess through the number of clicks in social media. These are indeed measurable parameters, but they do not tell anything about the long-term impact of actions, the person’s integrity, the values and attitudes, or anything about the contribution to a community.

Work and creative Labor
There is an essential difference between work and creative labor that we should honor and create a safe space for. Lewis Hyde put it very eloquently in his 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World:

“Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

…There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.”

Creative labor is embedded in a process, sometimes uncertain when we get to the outcome we wish for. The ideation process is as an inherently ambivalent one, oscillating between creation, destruction, and purging. As Pablo Picasso stated, “inspiration finds you, but it has to find you working”. I think we have to overcome the idea of the suffering genius in the arts, in order to lead to a professionalization of the creative sector. The focus has to be to honor the process of creation and to set a pleasant environment up, where this labor is valued. Most successful artists develop daily routines to create a work rhythm and do not wait for ideal working conditions. The creative process is shapened through endurance, probably more than through mere talent. Pushing your own limits further for the purpose of an idea is a celebratory act that can be, without any doubt, exhausting, but the glorification of suffering has become an indicator for a sort of hidden productivity level. A certain level of thriving for more can be motivating, but not to the expense of loosing lifelong joy and devaluating a profession.

About Boundaries and Money in the Arts

  • Practice to doubt opportunities: Be careful if someone refers to a task as a prestigious opportunity. Usually that is a good indicator that the task or event is worthless; otherwise they would not need to sell it as prestigious opportunity for exposure. Think about if the thing is really aligned with your values and with what you want, if not, do not buy into the BS and say NO. Do things for love, passion, integrity or because you really believe in them, not for exposure.
  • Do not lower your expectations because of a status someone attributes you. Unjust treatment might be a way of negotiation, so ask for more if you feel underrated. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed. Professionalization is shaped through your clear communication of what you want.
  • A paycheck is a compensation for your time and an acknowledgement of your knowledge, it is never a thank you for all-nighters, over-commitment or extra-input. You motivate people with respectful treatment and honoring their excitement.

The complete newsletter can be read here. If you liked this post, you can read more by Anabel Roque Rodriguez by subscribing to her tinyletter newsletter.



  1. Hi Emmy Ann, thank you for your support always on your write-ups and all the opportunities that you offer us relentlessly. Your write-up and that of Alain de Botton Anabel Roque Rodrigues only confirms all that we Artists have to learn if not the hard way. I am really looking forward to our get together in Quiddencenter in München on the 23. April.Ssee you then.


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