- The Work of Art: Value in Creative Careers by Alison Gerber
By Alison Gerber.
Stanford University Press. 2017. 192 pages. http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=26885
The IRS tells people wishing to file their taxes as self-employed individuals that an "activity qualifies as a business if your primary purpose for engaging in the activity is for income or profit." While that may be a straightforward rule for a self-employed lawyer or plumber, it is not so clear that artists can take advantage of the tax deductions available to the self-employed. Those who pursue arts for self-actualization or as a hobby may not qualify. Thus Alison Gerber closes her insightful monograph The Work of Art with a discussion of the tribulations of Venus DeMars, a multidisciplinary artist who battles for two years with the Minnesota Department of Revenue over the question of whether she can legitimately claim artistic expenses as business expenses.
DeMars' case encapsulates the core questions tackled in Gerber's book. Namely, how do people, and artists in particular, value artistic production? Working in the tradition of Viviana Zelizer's classic Pricing the Priceless Child, Gerber extends our understandings of how, in a society largely overrun by neoliberal concerns about putting monetary prices on goods and activities, people put a value on something that may not always or ever provide monetary compensation to the producer. In other words, why do people do things or produce works of art that are not recompensed via the almighty dollar?
In the art world, Gerber situates this as a particularly problematic question given a now-longstanding tradition that art should be produced without concern for remuneration—hence common tropes like "art for art's sake" or the "starving artist." Gerber shows how artists have been pushing back against these tropes since the 1980s, with various artists' organizations working to advance a narrative that artists deserve monetary compensation for the services they render (if not the actual works they produce).
But more pointedly, Gerber advances the argument, based largely on interviews with eighty visual artists, that artists mostly use four narratives to account for the value of their artistic activities. Pecuniary accounts are rooted in the investments artists make in their work through their time or materials purchased, and tend to closely resemble how people talk about investments and returns on more conventional commodities. Gerber adds the caveat that these narratives also tend to break down upon scrutiny—with many artists barely recouping investments even on works that sell for rather high prices. Credentialing accounts posit artistic labor as valuable because of the reputation such labor may accrue to the artist. Having a well-regarded body of work may open up further opportunities for commissions or exhibits, or act as a signal that an artist would make a good teacher or designer for an organization like an engineering firm. Vocational accounts describe artists' narratives that they simply have to produce art—that the act of artistry is in itself rewarding (we might also compare this account to Weber's description of the "calling" in Calvinism, though Gerber does not make that argument). Finally, relational accounts are given by artists who value connections to other artists and art world operatives, as well as the contributions they believe their art makes to the wider community.
These categories are quite plausible and useful to understanding artistic activity. While the contours of these categories should be familiar to sociologists who have studied the arts, Gerber's specification of them will prove useful to further investigations. Gerber also notes that these categories may bear similarities to those used by people in valuing other kinds of non- or under-paid work, from community volunteering to unpaid household labor.
Though Gerber does admirable work in demonstrating the vigor of numerous artists' uses of these four narratives frames of valuation, the reader may at times be frustrated by the somewhat inconsistent attachment of narratives to broader dimensions of social structure. While we get a sense for certain respondents' place in the art world, for others we are left to guess at whether they...