A Conversation with Judith Adler
January 2020
Judith Adler is the author of Artists in Offices: An Ethnography of an Academic Art Scene, a study of the academicization of art practices based on her fieldwork carried out at California Institute of the Arts between 1970 and 1972. From its inception, Cal Art’s mission was to provide innovative arts pedagogy, and included such faculty as John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Charlemagne Palestine, Mel Powell and Miriam Schapiro. The strength of Adler’s research is in her astute analysis of the paradoxes of artists working within institutions. Published in 1979, the insights and predictions of Artists in Offices remain relevant forty years later. Craig Leonard contacted Judith Adler, who has been teaching in the Department of Sociology at Memorial University for over forty years, to discuss Artists in Offices and to explore its applicability to the present.
Craig Leonard: I am grateful for having discovered Artists in Offices completely by chance while looking for something else in the library of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The matter-of-factness of the title was so strange that it was irresistible. After reading it, I felt it offered an approach to analyzing, in your words, “artistic production as another form of labour” that was ahead of its time.

Judith Adler: I do remember that when I determined to approach art as “work” it still seemed a fresh and even somewhat daring approach though it has since become quite routine. There was still little written about art in that vein, and though I took qualifying exams in sociology on the sociology of work, there was even some resistance from one of my supervisors (educated in German philosophical traditions) to taking an approach to art that risked denigrating its “spirit.” But I was fortunate in having been exposed to the sociology of E.C. Hughes, whose approach to the study of occupations sought insight by comparing, in his words, "the humble with the proud.”

CL: As you said, since the time of your research, much more attention has been given to art as work. From the activities of the Art Workers Coalition up to more recent examples like Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Art Workers (2009), the e-flux anthology: Art You Working Too Much? (2012) and many examples of art in the context of immaterial labour by philosophers like Maurizio Lazzarato, Juliane Rebentisch, McKenzie Wark, Béatriz Préciado, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, and others. As a sociologist, have you continued to research the topic?

JA: No, I have not sought to keep up with literature on art worlds. And I was not aware of the Art Workers Coalition at the time of my writing. Still, the social world in which I was immersed at the time of writing Artists in Offices, and by which many of the artists studied were at least touched, was very much one shaped by the "coastal movement" of the Sixties, with reference to art collectives, dreams of alternative spaces, expectation that all manners and rules were on the cusp of radical change was common.

CL: One of the main themes of your book was the adoption of the term “art worker” as a replacement term for artist. I wonder if the term, which has become more standard for many now, has unintentionally enabled the opposite of what it had intended: the embrace of the “artist-entrepreneur”? I say opposite because of the art worker’s original alignment with socialist collectivism against entrepreneurial capitalistic individualism. Yet, with the neoliberal expansion of “work” into almost all areas of human production, “art worker” comfortably slips into either paradigm.

JA: That may be true, but the terms worker, labourer, entrepreneur all have very different connotations. They might even be usefully seen as “claims” for belonging to different sorts of social worlds. In the case of “art worker,” it claims to belong to a series of occupations holding prestige for a certain movement in a certain epoch. Recently, in academia, the effort to tie music schools to business programs, for example, promising training in entrepreneurial skills, makes claims to belonging in a different “set.”

CL: What factors do you believe led to the development of an artistic “set”, which I understand here as professionalization, such that some artists began to prefer the label of “art worker”? As you pursued in Artists in Offices, can you elaborate on how art schools in general, and Cal Arts in particular, developed with the aim of professional legitimization? Was this a reactionary development happening alongside the growing commercial art market (which saw, for instance, the number of art dealers double in the US from the start of the sixties to the end of the decade) and increasing governmental, corporate, and foundation support (which of course is never stable)? Additionally, was the purpose to call oneself an “art worker” a means to call attention to the growing population of artists and their systemic challenges to earn a living income?

JA: The interesting thing about art “occupations” is that they combine some features of the classical professions while inevitably and always lacking others with some paradoxical results. They present—like the classical “professions” of law, theology, medicine—as callings, or vocations, which are idealized as being pursued with some degree of noble disinterest, as well as ethical commitment of serving humanity. On the other hand, no one can be sued for producing art without a license, or for selling their services as an artist without having passed exams or received a degree in an institution of higher education. Artists have little or no control over the market for their services in comparison to other professions.

CL: This makes me think of Bryan-Wilson’s distinction between work and labour—based on Raymond Williams "Keywords"—a distinction I don’t think you develop in Artists in Offices, but an interesting one, especially since the terms are often used interchangeably. Bryan-Wilson summarizes the difference as being one where “work refers to jobs and occupations in the broadest sense” and “labour designates organized labor or union politics.” She draws on Williams’s distinction that “work stands in for general doing or making, as well as all forms of paid employment, while labour is more explicitly affiliated with the organization of employment under capitalism.” In comparison “art labourer,” which would entail collective organizing toward alternative socio-economic structures. In your opinion, has the professionalization of the artist led to the condition that creatively productive individuals who do not participate in the professional artistic social world mainly receive the label of “amateur” or otherwise reframed as an “outsider”?

JA: This is one of many paradoxes. In practicing as “amateurs,” without care for remuneration, some artists may be best able to fulfill one of the hallmarks of professional occupations in comparison to others—that is, performing according to standards satisfying to professional peers and indifference to appeals to satisfy a public. A physician who satisfies the demands of patients while violating the standards of peers is deemed a quack. One of the hallmarks of classic professionalism is performance governed above all by peer standards rather than simple marketing considerations. However, some artists are best able to do this by making a living at other jobs, allowing them to do only the work meeting their own highest standards of performance and that of a few peers. Amateurs or professionals? An interesting hybrid.

CL: Based on your years of experience in academia—which you have called the “academic bureaucracy”—what predictions could you make about the “rules and manners,” to borrow your terms, that artists working in art institutions most likely have adopted today? In other words, although you have not continued to research this area, could you speculate about how artists working within institutions today may have changed their artistic production, in comparison with Cal Arts in the seventies, to fit within the current system “in such manner” (again, as you phrase it in Artists in Offices).

JA: When I began teaching there were no computers in every university office. No email. At Cal Arts, and at Memorial University where I teach now, there was far more face to face interaction. The only communication alternative to popping into someone's office, going for a coffee or a beer or attending meetings (which tended to have a rather exciting social and dramatic tone—they weren't run by Robert's Rules of Order) would have been a memo typed up by a secretary on a typewriter. This gave communications a warmer, sometimes memorably “hotter” dimension. I can remember word for word remarks made in such gatherings a century ago. With the replacement of this form of institutional communication by email, each faculty member and student glued to a screen, at home or in an office cubicle, manners have become blander, cooler, less personal. In a word, flat. Students email professors, and instead of a buzz, they are to be seen sitting side by side in public spaces scrutinizing their iPhones. I am sure this over-all change in institutional manners has implications for art and music departments as much as for other parts of educational institutions. I also see another significant change: a cultural one. Educational institutions have become more risk averse—one might also say, more aware of patterns of interaction once tolerated and now considered abusive. There are patterns of relationship, of behavior, or career advancement, of manners longstanding in Bohemia and other art worlds that I would expect risk-averse employees of educational institutions to be motivated to avoid. Artists who secure steady employment in such institutions are unlikely to have attractive alternatives if they lose it. Faculty and students drinking together? Taking drugs together? Deliberately provoking public scandal? I'd expect these ways and manners, hardly rare in many art worlds, to endure longer in art worlds outside academia.

CL: Ironically, from another angle, a significant group of the artists from the late sixties/early seventies associated with conceptual art, who did not teach in art institutions, have been described as practicing “administratively” (as Benjamin Buchloh expressed it). The administrative art strategies of conceptual art were considered institutionally challenging at the time. Since then, however, artists in educational institutions have increasingly become true administrators out of employment obligation, not artistic choice, which is a trade-off for financial security. As a result, to speak again of risk, artists practicing within art institutions seem increasingly more conservative in their practices, often shaped by institutional policies or expectations of funding bodies, while survival in the commercial art world relies on formal and conceptual experimentation, which mimics the market’s demand for product innovation. This is an oversimplification, for sure, since it is impossible now to untangle the commercial art world from the art institutions that support one another, although much more so in the US than in Canada.

JA: I'm not surprised that you suggest the commercial artworld may be developing more interestingly than the academic one. It has a different public—may still place more value on art that moves, pleases, attracts rather than teaches. And I'd certainly expect different manners in commercial worlds—of which there would be many variations. With any art, for that matter, with the performance of any work, the important question is, "Who is the reference group? Whose opinion of the work does the artist or worker care about?" With some artists (depending on geographical placement) the reference group might be a few gallery owners, dealers, in a major art hub, more important than faculty and institutional peers. With others, the reference group might be department chairman, the tenure committee or a granting agency staffed by academics. Or even colleagues in other departments, in other disciplines, whose esteem for the “seriousness” of one's work is desired and demonstrated through “academic” forms. And what manners do these different reference groups, patrons and publics require? Undoubtedly, higher educational institutions will encourage productions and manners that reward a facility with words, reference to theory, tradition and concept.

CL: With institutional values in mind, what do you think have been the effects of the academicization of art on art students—on what is taught, encouraged, expected, repeated?

JA: I wonder what the long term occupational aims of art students in various arts, and arts institutions, are these days. I think of students working for an advanced degree in a university school of music while waiting to get accepted to medical school, believing a degree in music is helpful in such applications. I don't think there were any such students in the school of music at Cal Arts at the time of my study. There are probably other interesting anticipated adaptations and career trajectories to explore. The precarity artists have long faced in now faced by so many others graduating from university with an arts degree of any kind. I have long been very uneasy at the glaring fact that faculty in university arts and humanities departments of all disciplines continue to seek to expand graduate enrollments, and to award advanced degrees to ever more students who aspire to positions such as they themselves enjoy, but have little—and that’s an understatement—chance of securing anything comparable. What kind of work, and life, are such teachers modelling? I don't think anyone, students or the teachers themselves, know much about the future lives of these arts graduates. For many students, including some of the best, attempted careers in art will end in a relatively early “retirement” and concentration of effort in some other occupation. For some there may be continued family patronage of full time work in art that cannot support a family…

I think one of the big quesitons is the place in the arts of CRAFT, honed over years, to the point even often of molding the body as well as mind and...certainly life of the practioner and craft has implications for the tradition into which work is, or is not inserted. In what other occuaptions, after all, are some craftsman still using exactly the same instruments and tools as their 18th century forbears!?? Academic art redefnes art in a way that, I think, makes less of such inimitable craft. And to that extent may shape the 'worker,' over the full course of a lifetime, less. Many occupations rely less on craft than in the past, but certainly, a draftsman, painter, sketcher, violin player....molds life and body to a craft skill not to be found in many other kinds of work. (A conceptual artist, or one who delegates production to others, probably less so.) I'm talking about eyes, hands, body shaped by some kinds of art production....the dent, for example, in a cellist's chest, the hammer fingers of certain musicians, the eye/ hand coordination of certain traditional visual arts. there are long term implications for a human life and training, or absence of training in such. So it is important to see where different forms of institutionalized arts education stand with respect to this. I suspect "masters" in the traditional sense of that word, of longstanding respected "crafts" HAVE experiences of work and self-identity that winners of entrepreneurial artistic markets, with shallow or no sense of tradition, do not. So I'd be interested in the relationship between different forms of art education and these long term life prospects. to take this perspective can give a very different sense to "precarity".... How precarious is an occupation in which training might allow meaningful work in one's nineties, long after practitioners of other kinds of work have been barred from participation.

But potentially, and on the brighter side, if work, and even professionalism, is not identified with “making a living,” education in the arts may prepare some for the most long-lasting work of all. This may even be called a form of professionalism. When writers look for models of creativity lasting life long, into old age, who provides the examples? Not the lawyers, the doctors, the accountants, the businessmen—but the painters, the musicians; in short, the artists. Old Monet, Renoir, Michelangelo, all endlessly cited as creative until the last breath. If one were to look at arts education from this point of view, it would be important to ask what kinds of art, and what kinds of craft, have the potential for being engaged in for an entire lifetime. If the art making requires grants, large scale funding, or other resources requiring institutional access, it will be unlikely to be able to enrich and sustain the life of a 90-year-old retiree. But a painter? A musician? One can well imagine their becoming more and more "professional," more and more serious and uncompromising, once their work is severed from the struggle to make a living. Of course as soon as I say that I also recall your remarks about commercial art, and agree with them—and in that case the very struggle can be a goad to achievements more interesting than are likely to be found in the world of academic artists. In any case, I find myself interested by the question of what kinds of work can last an entire lifetime, delivering the work satisfactions that fully engaging meaningful work can deliver. Not all occupational training prepares people for such work. And as a corollary, what kinds of "retirement" are characteristic of different occupations? There may be retirement from some occupational performances but not others...dancers, surgeons, no longer doing some tasks and undertaking others. Moving into administration? Teaching? But particularly intriguing, there may be retirement from the struggle to make a living through the practice of an art even as its actual performance is stepped up!

CL: With the way work has changed since the period of your research—specifically, in terms of the neoliberal revision of precarity as "flexibility"; individual freedom as "entrepreneurism"; and collectivity as "networking"—how might you approach writing a book titled Artists in Offices today?

JA: It is apparent to me, that the experience of art educators and art students was inseparable at the time of writing Artists in Offices, as they would be at any time, including today, from other aspects of the period—foremost among them, the economy. Not only were the sixties a period in which an entire generation, in part for sheer demographic reasons, was feeling its power, but jobs were plentiful. And I suspect, despite an occupational and generational culture of risk taking, there was more confidence then, than now, that it would be possible to have a good life and get by without securing an occupational sinecure. No one spoke of precarity as a problem. Conversely, there was considerable pressure among the young, and certainly among the artists I knew, to not shrink from risk of any kind.