The Artist As Public Intellectual

Art strike. The unfinished work…

Sofia Bempeza

‘It is essential that the minority advocate the necessity of going on an ‘active art strike’ using the machines of the culture industry to set it in total contradiction to itself. The intention is not to end the rule of production, but to change the most adventurous part of ‘artistic’ production into the production of revolutionary ideas, forms and techniques.’

Alain Jouffroy

What is an art strike? The question was first posed by Alain Jouffroy in his 1968 essay ‘What´s to be done about Art‘.1 Already at that time, it was obvious that an art strike constitutes a special type of strike. A decade later Gustav Metzger, the artist who wrote the Auto-Destructive Art Manifestos (1959-1961), called upon his artist colleagues to support a three year Art Strike between 1977 and 1980. Metzger proposed a production cut-off, in which artists should stop producing, distributing, or selling their art work, as well as participating in exhibitions. But there was no response to his call and the strike was a failure!

Art workers_SB

Another decade would pass before Stewart Home brought back the art strike idea in the context of his ‘Art Strike Papers‘ and the Neoism movement. Once again, a three-year strike was proposed. Home´s 1990 Art Strike was called as a means of encouraging a critical debate on the concept of art.2 By reading the printed version of YAWN, a fanzine that came out during the ‘art strike’ of 1990-93, one can identify the strike’s aims and specific characteristics: ‘It consists of a paradox. – Sure, the proposition of an art strike is paradoxical, incredible, illogical, bizarre, incoherent, extremist, masochistic, unrealistic and pretentious, but it is a social action that has as its primary goal the deliberate provocation of annoyance.’3 Home himself argues in the Art Strike Papers that, ‘while certain individuals will put down their tools and cease to make, distribute, sell, exhibit or discuss their cultural work for a three year period beginning on 1st January 1990, the numbers involved will be so small that the strike is unlikely to force the closure of any galleries or art institutions’.4 However, according to Home the strike could demonstrate that the socially imposed hierarchy of the arts can be aggressively challenged. As far as we know, the call fell flat a second time, despite the resonance of the Art Strike Papers across the US, Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. Only strike organizers Stewart Home, Tony Lowes and John Berndt actually participated in it (staying productively ‘inactive’ during those three years).
What happened along these different attempts to strike within the art field? Can artists and by extension cultural producers in general go on strike; in other words, can one disprove and boycott one’s own art practices, which are directly linked to the production of images, sounds, words, objects, or situations? How are art production and/or art labor currently conceived? What could an art strike mean today?


Refusing to participate in art production mainly implies the logic of a strategic preparation set against a macro socio-political horizon: one that might bring under scrutiny the creative spontaneity contained in the historical avant-garde or neo-avant-garde movements. Metzger’s perception of an art strike drew attention to the fact that it can neither be understood as a naive denial of the art field, nor as a final break with the production system of art. The art strike can be more than a bare negation or a simple negative gesture. Metzger argued that a temporary production cut-off involves abstaining from the immediate experience of art for a short period of time and ‘delving into theory’ instead, with a view to critically questioning production mechanisms. Today, however, given the ubiquity of theoretical and curatorial discourse, one should be more cautious. What exactly does it mean to delve into theory and which specific theory(ies) can contribute to building anew theoretical ‘arsenal’ for the artist?

Taking his cue from Metzger’s argument, Gerald Raunig poses the following question: how could one break with the post-fordist time regime in the art field, which is normally characterised by discontinuity and frequent disruption?5  With Raunig we can argue that an art strike would not imply some kind of adaptation of the general strike idea to fit the art field. Rather,it would mean a radical negation of post-fordist production mechanisms. This negation, in my opinion, is not to be identified as a complete systemic inertia, though it might prove as ‘productive’ in fashioning new theoretical tools or consolidating social alliances. The essential condition for that would be to reconsider the notion of time within art production. The concept of time, as underlined by Raunig, is essential in order to examine the art strike in socio-political terms, not to mention its theoretical shifts that arise from within the strike idea as such. We ask: how might one call for a different concept of time through which to focus on the notion of cultural and, more specifically, artistic production and its processes? What form might a focus on art production and its discourses assume? Raunig speaks about ‘intensifying theory production’ and the critical potential of theoretical production, which is related to art production. Intensifying theory production also means engaging with its contexts, and institutions, as with discourses of theory formulation and art production.

Going back to Metzger’s point of view, that is the suggestion to cut off art production and regain a strategic theoretical perspective on socio-political matters: we could argue that the goal of the art strike serves a double necessity: the emergence of new forms of deterritorialization and reterritorialization (Deleuze/Guattari). For example, on one level, deterritorialization can take place along the negation of compulsive time, which firmly establishes an hyper-activeness rooted in ‘the anxiety of visibility’ within the post-capitalist model. An art strike would question the voice of a superego that that impels you ‘to be present’; it would demand a different time. On another level –not necessarily parallel to the previous one – deterritorialization as a process may be complemented by one of reterritorialization: that is to say, for example, shifting production to a different time, a different place, a different discursive context by focusing anew on the socio-political dimension of the art. It is clear though, that the art strike cannot take place in vacuo (out of nothing) – let alone be another perspicacious joke among white male artists from the 60s. What is needed is a transversal rearrangement along contemporary precepts. During the process of reterritorialization the art strike needs to be linked with and ‘dispersed’ within social and political forms, such as social movements, citizens´ or non-citizens´ action groups, activist groups etc.6


Let us see now which subjects might be interested in an art strike today. The art strike concept seems ideally suited to precarious art and cultural producers as well as precarious creative workers in Greece, Europe and elsewhere. Within the contemporary matrix of post-fordist accumulation regimes, cognitive capitalism, or, ultimately, semiocapitalism,7 art production and, beyond that, labor as such have acquired different qualitative attributes compared to previous times. Whether the focus is on precarious art and cultural producers or on other precarious laborers in different sectors, these attributes seem almost the same. To be more specific: art production is linked with the worker’s body (see for example a musician, actor/actress, dancer, or performer), but also with the production of articles (for example objects, images, films, situations) whether these have a symbolic value or a real financial one. As Isabell Lorey aptly observes, artists (art producers as corporate identities, or freelancers) are not exactly what Karl Marx would call productive labour. ‘However, Marx should not be accused of banishing cultural producers in general to the realm of unproductive labour since he does not tie the distinction between productive and unproductive labour to the content of that labour. (…) Marx defines productive labour, rather, through a relationship: though not a relationship with money in general and with the question of whether an activity is performed for financial reward or for free.’8
What needs to be stressed about the current situation is the almost canonical phenomenon of art laborers accumulating symbolic capital or at least this is the hanging carrot to keep on. That is to say that in some cases art producers earn the value of their work only on a symbolic level (for example: enriching one’s CV with self-financed art projects, or other participations). There are more than a few artists who participate in exhibitions or other projects without receiving production costs or travel expenses, let alone an honorarium. Unpaid art labour is apparently part and parcel of working conditions across off-spaces and galleries, as well as bigger art institutions.


In the marathon for visibility and recognisability, not to mention survival, some of us (art workers) may have already noticed the increasing antagonism among art and cultural producers for a piece of the same cake that is becoming smaller by the day. Exploited and self-exploited young precarious art and cultural producers are being added to the bigger part of the creative industries. Such cases seem to be the focus of “Working Artists and the Greater Economy“ (W.A.G.E), a group of artists, performers and independent curators based in New York City. Drawing on their experience of working with art institutions, and specifically on the common practice of non-payment, W.A.G.E. aim their attention at critical actions against economic inequity and precariousness in the art field. The “Carrotworkers Collective” in London, a group of current or ex-interns, cultural workers and educators primarily from the creative and cultural sectors share a similar agenda. The Carrotworkers speak up against unpaid internships or compulsory free work in museums, galleries and other organisations. Recently affiliated with the“Precarious Workers Brigade“, a group of precarious workers in culture and education, the Carrotworkers have broadened their focus to include conditions of precarious work and life in the creative and cultural sectors. Such groups or collectives may be slowly expanding, but are still very much a small part of the art and cultural fields. That is to say that a larger mobilization among art and cultural producers on different levels is still an issue.
However, one should once again examine the position of art producers within their field. It is clear that many art producers are often (self-)trapped and some times negate or reject themselves within processes that they have mostly (supposedly but also in fact) chosen themselves. The issue on the one hand is being aware of how the current creative industries operate, and, on the other, of the controversial conditions of self-confinement within this operation. One could not neglect the fact that the creative industries put a stress on continuous creativity, innovation, and authenticity, as well as on ‘imperative autonomy’ as the best ways to success. Constant floatation from one short-term project to the next, fluid interconnection among creative sectors, open networks, cognitive processing – not to mention the ultra profit-oriented models of the new entrepreneurs: these are the main axes of a continuous creative capitalist development. Within this framework the black spots are already clearly visible: temporary employment, ephemeral, almost unofficial contracts, unpaid or black market labor. More specifically, unstable or ultra flexible working conditions in the art and cultural field seem to be the canon; let alone the fact that many artists or art workers try to ensure that they will continue to work in their field by taking up other jobs or occupations, which are just as precarious. If we add to these last remarks the fusion of working and living space, the indiscernible boundary between labor-time and leisure-time that tend to become two almost identical levels of time occupation, we have somehow a clear image of the art producer in the late capitalist model.


Let us go back to the art strike idea. What is at stake is the desire of art producers to break with the hegemonic and, so to speak, mechanic rules of the broader cultural industry. Such a radical rupture requires that producers as subjects be reset, keeping in mind that art and cultural producers are still very much ‘under the whip’ of their particular characteristics or symptoms: fragmentation, personal responsibility, self-realization, self-control, self-management, and self-precarization. Eventually all these symptoms are created around the myth of being completely autonomous. But while an immersion of new types and forms of collective subjectivities is already underway (see W.A.G.E, The Carrotworkes – as a result of increasing consciousness raising in the art field – we are at the same time confronted with a widespread sense of embarrassment among artists, at times an obsession with anachronistic, almost romantic perceptions of the artist’s figure, at others a certain ‘blindness’, a conscious refusal to reflect on common issues. However, one could not deny the typical contradictions emerging during the formation and identification of creative individuals through their art practice, a process in which individuals define themselves as artists, thinkers, doers, and act as such; although, a critical art practice (at least this is how many an artist would like to define their work) should remain a field of continuous confrontation within the art discourse but also outside of it, within the broader socio-political realm. Finally, we can argue of the necessity to reformulate the art strike concept, which could be summarized as follows: i) Scrupulousness or critique of the self. An inevitable duality, which makes artists bullies and victims at the same time, seems here to be the core of their actions. Well, if we admit that the power dispositive is in the main imposed by and through our relation with others (family, society, nation state), while bearing in mind that power dispositive are not necessarily an objective state that cannot be challenged, we should promptly claim that individuals and subjects can practice self-criticism and eventually assume responsibility for their actions. ii) Reclaim a different concept of time. To make use of a concept of time that helps transform the ‘inertia’ of not producing to a state of strategic preparation. The latter may generate new forms and dynamics. One key dynamic is the awareness of the radical affinity between art producers and the rest of the precarious groups and/or productive labour. This affinity is crucial if we want to draw a common line on an agonistic level in order to enact politics in the art and cultural fields. iii) Rupture the established rules of production within the production system. The key premises for this move are to collectively defend the possibility of radical change within the art institutions and to scrutinize the monadic substance of the current systemic structures, for example the absolute punditry or the immutable sovereignty of existing art institutions.

We suggest that art and cultural producers who are engaged with practices of negation, radical debate, and confrontation inside and outside of the institutional frames of art are embodying the idea of the art strike as a radical project. If we follow Gerald Raunig in his book A Thousand Machines we may trace these practices within the collective machine. Raunig conceives of the machine as a social movement.9 Such an organic collective machine, whose parts are not necessarily connected to each other in place or space, is taking different shapes and forms on different levels. The machine operates on more than two or three levels – it is linked to different kinds of struggles. The collective machines are eventually competent in challenging the current cultural and political hegemonies. The foolhardy idea of the art strike could also have a part in the collective machine.


Goldsmiths, UK 2011.

To conclude: the art strike keeps us alert; it is a process of vigilance and strategic preparation for current and forthcoming conflicts. However, the reformulated model of the art strike that we suggest here is slightly different to those proposed by art strike pioneers in the last decades. What we must never lose sight of is that the art strike may only be articulated by those subjects who actively attempt to re-examine, reform, or profoundly change their constitutional core. In the end we may ask ourselves and be in turn asked by others, in the manner of Precarias a la deriva: what is your strike?


1. Alain Jouffroy ‘What is to be done about Art’, in: Art and Confrontation, London: Studio Vista, 1970.
2. Stewart Home, The Art Strike Papers, Stirling: AK Press, 1991.
3. ‘Four Billion People Can’t Be Wrong’ in YAWN No. 6 – November 24, 1989.
4. Stewart Home, The Art Strike Papers, Stirling: AK Press, 1991.
5. Gerald Raunig, Industrien der Kreativitaet, Streifen und Glaetten 2, Zuerich: diaphanes 2012.
6. See for example Precarias a la deriva, W.A.G.E., Arts & Labor.
7. Semiocapitalism: the capitalism that makes signs, effects, attitudes and ideas directly productive. See Franco Berardi Bifo, After the Future, Edinburgh/Oakland/Baltimore: AK Press 2011.
8. Isabell Lorey, ‘Virtuosos of freedom. On the implosion of political virtuosity and productive labour’,
9. Gerald Raunig, Tausende Maschinen, Wien: Turia + Kant 2008.


First published in Λεύγα, Issue 7, Summer 2012 (

Sofia Bempeza is an artist, theorist, performer and cultural symptom currently based in Zurich.
She graduated from the Athens School of Fine Arts and holds a Master of Art in Context (University of Arts in Berlin). She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Her thesis explores contemporary art practices and strategies within an agonistic public sphere, especially the relation between art, public spheres and conflict. As an artist she works with installations, performance art interventions and photography focused on themes such the politics of public spaces, the field of art as place of work and cultural production in the post-fordist era. She works as a teaching assistant at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), Department of Art and Media.

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