In the March issue of e-flux journal, Luis Camnitzer tells the story of being invited to give two talks at Harvard and earning a paltry sum for it. Although Harvard has an endowment in excess of $36 billion, Camnitzer was paid a "symbolic honorarium" that worked out to less than minimum wage, when taking into account the time he spent preparing the talks and traveling to the university. Camnitzer writes that the tacit assumption on the part of universities that artists will work for almost-free reveals the low regard they have for the arts and humanities, which aren't nearly as lucrative for universities as the STEM disciplines. Check out an excerpt below, or the full piece here:
In this sense, the collection of objects we inherit from the past is a legacy of values, and so becomes part of our education at the hands of history. Although such collections are often designed to flaunt power, they also demonstrate what value looks like for rising generations, shaping the way they think. Therefore the parameters that separate what will be preserved from what will not are as important as the objects that exemplify them. This problem is not limited to Ming cups or mechanical toys; it also extends to ideas. Ultimately, the parameters used for the preservation and elaboration of ideas are probably more important than those that apply to objects, since these precede them. Ideas determine if we see more in a Ming cup than the ability to drink from it, and they decide if the toy should be restored and conserved, and why.
This is why the disciplines emphasized in our educational institutions are at least as important as any content. For example, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM curricula—have an ideological weight that affects institutional education long before a student even has a chance to decide if such an education is right for them. STEM, as the rhetoric around it tells us, is designed to secure a competitive advantage for the countries that embrace it over those that don’t. For obvious reasons, the humanities are understood to be less useful in this competition. Students are therefore educated not for their own betterment, or to leave a formative legacy for the future, but as foot soldiers in a national-corporate struggle. The number of universities in the US identifying as liberal arts colleges is down 39 percent from what is was twenty years ago, and the humanities—in particular, art programs—are shrinking for lack of funding and job prospects. In this landscape, the study of art is increasingly seen as a luxury associated with the leisure class.
The effect of this association is not hard to see. A couple of months ago, Pablo Helguera, another friend, posted on Facebook that he was invited to perform at an event that would require him to spend more money than he would receive as an honorarium. The post elicited an outpouring of sympathetic comments and other artists’ complaints about underpayment. Artists invariably receive a letter offering a “symbolic honorarium” which they are expected to accept with the understanding that the institution is embarrassed for the exploitation that they are nevertheless about to engage in. It’s true that not every institution is like Goldman Sachs. It’s also true that not every artist has the recognition value of Hillary Clinton. Therefore the term “symbolic honorarium” may be appropriate. On the one hand it reflects the lack of funds for this purpose even as those extending the invitation recognize that the arts are important to keep humanist cultural parameters in motion. On the other hand it also reveals an expectation on the part of the hosts that the artists, particularly younger and emerging ones, will feel honored by the invitation.
Image of Harvard via alumni.harvard.edu.