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Women’s Labor as the Culture Sector’s Invisible Dark Matter


At the website Runway, which focuses on experimental art in Australia, Macushla Robinson writes about the “invisible dark matter” of labor performed by women in the art world. She notes that, as theorists like Silvia Federici have shown, much labor performed by women (such as child care) is integral to the functioning of the capitalist system yet goes largely unpaid. Robinson observes the same dynamics within the art world, but to a more extreme degree, where “the free labour and rampant exploitation” of women “is, by its very nature, undocumented.” Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The role of muse is something to which many have aspired. Yet like any other fairytale, it is more glamorous in the story than in real life and has typically left women without any agency in the act of creation. In the Romantic tradition, ‘[T]he sublime is specifically a male achievement gained through women as female objects or through female Nature, and so is closed off to women’. Women’s perceived closeness to nature, then, means that they cannot be artists, but only represented by artists.

Women’s perceived proximity to nature has been instrumental in their oppression. The capitalist system has appropriated womens’ labour to support the exploitation of a male waged workforce, including in the romanticised cultural sector. As women have been culturally constructed as closer to nature, and biologically more capable of love than men, their ‘labours of love’ have often been framed as a natural resource. Despite the efforts of many feminists to invert the hierarchy of values that maligns both women and nature, women remain sidelined by this logic.

Women in the culture sector, who genuinely love and believe in their work, often work for free. In fact, perhaps because of the privileged place of love in relation to art and the romanticism of the gendered structure of creator and muse, this undervaluing of women’s work is more extreme than in many other aspects of Western society.

Image by Irina Arellano-Weiss. Originally published in Art Handler magazine, issue 2, Nov. 2016.


First of all, this is a fantastic starting point to a big conversation; unpaid labour, self-exploitation, privilege(s) are not only art world problems, but they are made painfully obvious as they take on highly concentrated forms in the arts. I do not take issue with any of M.R.’s points, in fact I think her points were skillfully laid out and a nice synthesis of ideas many ideas. I’m also reading H.S. “Freeport Art” and this is all so on point. However, a few thoughts that I hope might take us beyond historical analysis:

  • capitalism is just as happy to exploit or appropriate your unpaid labour no matter what your sex or gender is. EcoFeminism and intersectional feminist thought is truly brilliant in bringing this to light and being a source of solidarity across differences. The problem of unpaid labor and self-exploitation extends to all people with less power. I think about students in particular who massively subsidize the arts, the work of their teachers, the exhibitions at university galleries by going into a free fall of debt. We may or may not already be talking about a privileged slice of the population (college art students) but either way, this initial offering of say $35,000 - $100,000 pumped into the arts tends to place these students in a position where they are willing to take poorly paid, precarious jobs/ opportunities. The mental trade off they make is less money for temporary prestige. As long as I can keep pouring my energy into this, that logic goes, I can recoup some of what I’ve lost by standing in the aura of those who have benefitted off of my resources. Building a resume by associating yourself with institutions who may not have treated you well may seem like the only way to eventually pay off your debts. Other artist that I know will go to their grave with their student debts, but this means being locked out of any real sense of economic stability. The art student loan crisis is intimately linked to the myths of the economy and the stories we tell about art that we choose to believe. Institutions need to take the lead in only offering paid internships and always offer letters of recommendation in exchange for quality work. Art teachers/admissions need to be way more real with their students. Alternative schools seeking to get things done without bloated PR and administration would be served to be validated by established institutions as important trends with or without producing singular talents.

  • the link between unpaid labor and the environment is huge. Just think about all the swarms of honey bees who work for you and you do not pay them! On the one hand I truly believe that bringing all of life into the fold of the formal economy is not the answer. (Should my wife and I pay each other for the various things we do to help one another? And pay taxes on it??) on the contrary, I think we should be trying to informalize a lot more of life in more interesting ways. At the same time, those bees need to get paid (ie we need to take care of their livelihood) Artists should be on the front line pushing for a True Cost economy… a system that accounts for the ecological toll that production takes. But I think it should also account for the true cost of labour, including the true cost of providing healthcare and maternity leave, etc., and the true cost of public institutions. It won’t be easy, but we could solve a lot of problems at once, including public health issues near industrial sites, mass extinctions, etc. etc. perhaps climate change at large.

  • artist should also be pushing for the Universal Basic Income and Universal Healthcare. It has been said in many places that more and more artists are the perfect model worker for the gig/sharing economy. The main benefits from a big business point of view is that we do away with the social responsibility of benefits, healthcare, severance pay, and you can be fired and hired at will. The idea we have of what we should be willing to Sacrifice in order to be artists has seriously undesirable consequences for everyone. In much the same way, the Protestant Work Ethic was totally exploited by business owners I think because workers are not fully aware of the sort of profits they generate for the managerial class. Personally I would romantically prefer a world where I can work from a place of generosity, but I need the world to be generous back. UBI is the best way, imho, to sustain that generous spirit and address the deep social ills in countries like the US at the same time.

  • Simon Weil touched on this on her musings about Geniuses: the art that society decides to care about emerges out of a vast field of art that we don’t care about (uncompensated labor). That is partially a function of how our attention works - we have to make choices if we are ever going to see anything - It’s also a function of a celebrity culture, where we pretend that only the tip of the iceberg exists because that’s all that’s visible. somehow visibility and our fear of inadequacy produces the glorification of totally inadequate results. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is to recognize the importance of art communities working without compensation to produce a space in which a relative few are able to monetize their individual contributions. That’s the competitive hierarchical structure that capitalism imposed on the arts… (well, everything). within its logic there cannot be a spiritual function outside of money making/survival, or at least that other function must come second. If we desire a horizontal structure (which I do) we could informalize our activities (in the eyes of the economy… but that means less money, more bartering) which is sometimes a good strategy. otherwise we need to find ways to democratize ownership. UBI is one way that could happen (the need to sell decreases, non profits and co-ops can be more competitive options) W.A.G.E. Standards is a good start. Art Workers Union seems necessary. Perpetual royalties on the auctioning of art should have happened a long time ago. But also the institutional support of super expensive, soulless work that perpetuates hierarchy needs to be called out and alternative curatorial choices proposed. The idea that you can “comment” on problems but need to reinscribe the structures of the problem in order to be seen/heard is misguided.

  • I believe that these internal struggles within the art world have two main, broad reaching implications for all the world …

  1. how does our idea of intelectual property pick away at our idea of private property. (The one being highly indebted to collective labour and the other something that fundamentally exists as natural resource which no one worked to make).

  2. how do we parse and materialize the differences between “quality”, “equality”, and “equity” … can we reorganize, reprioritize, reemphasize and remain visible, expressive beings?

In the era of the privatization of everything both of these questions are vital to the future well being of the public at large… These are public health issues.