Axon: Creative Explorations, Vol 6, No 2, November 2016

The academic critique of the conditions of creative work has always been slightly disingenuous. In the name of a ‘workerist’ critique – one which highlights the poor returns to artists according to normative models of labour market analysis – the study of creative labour has de-emphasised the fact that the modern notion of ‘work’ is itself placed in question by artists. But the artistic critique of work, as Luc Boltanski an Eve Chiapello usefully describe it, has been central to the vocation of the artist since at least Industrial Modernity. Despite the rise of a commercial cultural economy in the twentieth century, it is hard to imagine an arts sector without the prolific moral economies which, although enabling of appropriation and exploitation due to the weak formalisation of exchange, sustain alternative models of value that contest the commodification of creative activity. Indeed, it is this critique that has in recent decades placed the artist at the avant-garde of discussions of changes to work in general.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that contributors to this issue of Axon emphasise concerns around the moral and affective economies of cultural work. Notable issues raised concern the work of cultural representation, exchange and facilitation (Chi Vu, Robyn Higgins and Cara Kirkwood), of public participation and vocational belief (Hoang Tran Nguyen and Owen Bullock), and of social memory and cultural tourism (Shane Strange). Like some in-house staff surveillance video (or perhaps just a YouTube site for bored office confessionals), Laura Hindmarsh and Claire Krouzecky’s mesmerising Light Work documents the everyday identity work for artists in administrative and largely casualised roles in the visual arts sector. Their digital video documents the affective tension of straddling the ‘weightless’ space of digitally mediated international collaboration and the office-bound gravity of arts administration. The notion that food production is a form of cultural work – i.e. a labour in which cultural values are paramount – is an emergent area of focus, and is represented here in Laura Fisher’s essay on emergent modes of community-based environmental art (‘Land, labour and food: art and the recovery of ecological livelihoods’). Such an approach reminds us that work can never be a discussion in-and-for itself, but is implicated in more fundamental issues of human (social, environmental, economic) reproduction.

Since at least Honoré de Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions it has been clear that artists are at the forefront of discussions about creative work. At the start of the twenty first century it seems even clearer that the scope of this discussion is broader than any focus on labour might sustain.

The Editor of this issue would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people as the traditional owners of the land on which Axon is produced.

Scott Brook is Associate Professor of Writing, University of Canberra, where he leads the research theme ‘Cultural Vocations and Creative Communities’ at the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research.