Expanded Description of the Artist Collectives PhD Workshop
Artists work in groups. This is a primary fact of artistic production. Collective work is an a priori, a reality of creative life. At nearly every moment artists are working together in one way or another and under many different arrangements. Without the others no one can succeed. Artists’ groups have helped them to survive in a capitalist system which values art primarily as branded commodity, and in which agents seek to accumulate art as cheaply as possible. The history of artists’ collectivity describes a flow of both resistant and protective cultural formations that moves through time. These contingent collective formations change shape according to the necessities of artists’ lives – maximizing their chances to live cheaply with time to work on their art, and to escape alienated labour, first in the industrial shop, and now in the service and information industry.

Despite the commonsense understanding of artists as independent entrepreneurs, the economy of artistic production does not conform to the model of most kinds of business. Artistic production is supported by a mixed economy of which the market for commodity art is only part. Artists rely heavily on gifts – of time, space, materials, opportunities, and ideas – to make their work. Among artists, mutual aid is as important as competition. The process of production is continuously or intermittently collective as artists come together in teaching situations and workshops, sharing ideas, techniques and processes. In the workshops of major artists production is more or less collectivized, as many artist assistants work to realize the designs of one.

The social organization of artistic production is generally considered to be extraneous to the forms of art. Indeed, the analysis of each has come to concern different scholarly disciplines, with formal criticism at one end, and the sociology of art – and increasingly arts administration and management of creative production – at the other. The question of artistic collectivity per se cuts across disciplinary lines. Different adaptations of the collective formation within artistic production have diverse outcomes, generating institutions, programs and works of art, as they have ever done. The ways collectives function and what they can accomplish vary according to their particular conditions.

This PhD workshop engages analytically with the question of collectivity among artists. A materialist point of view on the question might find that collectivity among cultural workers is contingent, circumstantial, and practical – an outgrowth of cultural economies and a necessary condition of many kinds of cultural work. Working collectively is about making a living. But modalities of collectivity are also a prime concern of those who want to remake the world, to join the great issues of the day, and to find a reason to work at all. Collective process then is a key question in political organization. Writing on artists’ collectivities considered almost as political epiphenomena, the Zagreb group What, How & for Whom which curated “Collective Creativity” (2005) undertook to describe “figures of resistance” that they considered “immanent to the collective artistic practice.” These several features are: autonomy from the art system; critique of bourgeois public space and separation of public and private spheres; non-hierarchical processes and politics of the collective; and “self-valorization,” that is, resistance to dominant market mechanisms.
A familiarity with the workings of artists’ collectives is helpful but not required. This workshop will connect shifts in the nature of collectivity among artists with similar processes occurring more generally through the working of the creative and cultural economy.

Artists’ work within groups in the fine arts is very different than work within most businesses, and even most cultural institutions. While the results may seem the same – exhibitions, installations, spectacles, publications, recordings, films, designed objects and architecture – the processes of self-organized collective work proceed from different premises and toward different goals. The organizational structure of artistic work in groups has not been much studied. This may seem surprising given that collective situations are continuously present in nearly all artists’ lives, from studio education to production and exhibition. Yet the idiosyncratic nature of artists’ individuality and the very different ends their many group formations pursue make the question slippery. Moreover continuous capital investment in “branded” individual names within the world of art makes this kind of study inconvenient for academy and market alike; a close examination of the collective nature of artistic production could destabilize the mythos of the product.

While cultural production may be collective, consumption of cultural products and its marketing is often organized around brands. The brand in art is traditionally authorial; the author is stood up in proud opposition to the committee, which smothers innovation and invention in compromise. Working for the brand is in the realm of “forced cooperation,” the kind of collectivity which stands against what Christoph Spehr calls “free cooperation.” It is the art labour-related kin of what Markus Miessen generalizes as the “nightmare of participation” that increasingly informs our lives.
The unique benefit of this PhD workshop is bringing together areas and issues of concern both to students of organization studies and those of art history (as well as cultural studies and the sociology of the arts).