On Labor Day

THIS IS A SOBERING LABOR DAY. We have seen the employment statistics. Somewhere under the rubble of numbers are artists—semi-employed, underemployed—supporting themselves with every imaginable odd job: a part-time adjunctcy here, another there; waiting tables; house painting; dog walking; carpentry—you name it. Yet institutions of so-called higher learning, keep turning out M.F.A. candidates on the false assumption that a faculty position awaits them.

Exploiting popular delusion, Texas Tech University trumpets itself as the first to offer a doctorate in fine art.  [“. . . a one-of-a-kind multidisciplinary program leading to the Ph.D. in Fine Arts.”] In reality, graduates have small hope of gaining any faculty position, let alone a tenure track one. Selling credentials to young artists serves the institution, not the artist.

In Sicily several years ago, my tour guide discussed the licensing system that permitted college graduates to work as tour guides. For a tiny handful of openings—fewer than 100, he said—there were thousands of applicants. [I remember 4,000. My travel partner insists the number was  7,000. Like Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier, we remember it well. But the point stands.]

YESTERDAY’S EDITION OF THE DAILY CALLER ran this headline: “Future Hiring Will Mainly Benefit the High-Skilled.” It opened with this:

Pay for future service-sector jobs will tend to vary from very high to very low. At the same time, the number of middle-income service-sector jobs will shrink, according to government projections. Any job that can be automated or outsourced overseas is likely to continue to decline.

The service sector’s growth could also magnify the nation’s income inequality, with more people either affluent or financially squeezed. The nation isn’t educating enough people for the higher-skilled service-sector jobs of the future, economists warn.

“There will be jobs,” says Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist. “The big question is what they are going to pay, and what kind of lives they will allow people to lead? This will be a big issue for how broad a middle class we are going to have.”

When all academic pretension is cut away, university art departments come under the umbrella of the service economy. They mainly serve themselves in what amounts to an elegant pyramid scheme.  The old atelier system, to its credit, was based on the transmission of specialized skills. It did not concern itself with artistic identities and coddling an 18-year-old’s sense of himself as a special person.

There is nothing very special about cruising the College Art Association’s annual shindig looking for a job. Nothing special, either, about standing in an unemployment line.

DURING THE SUMMER OF 2009, a quirky new zine called Front Porch Republic, devoted itself to a week’s symposium on a then-recent book Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford. The subtitle tells you much: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.

Patrick Deneen introduced the symposium:

The book has been widely discussed in the pages and on the airwaves of a number of major media outlets, and clearly has struck a chord with contemporary readers concerned about the trajectory of the modern American workplace away from knowing how to do things instead toward a dominant role of the kind of work done by what Robert Reich called “symbolic analysts.”

He continues:

In the book, Matt Crawford argues on behalf of the virtues of crafts – those forms of work that require skill of hands, a storehouse of knowledge and experience, patience, improvisational ability, and creativity.

. . . . Matt brings a great deal of personal authority and experience to the basic argument of his book: he grew up working as an electrician and currently owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA, but also holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and a fellowship in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In this book he brings together the two worlds that are often sundered by a modern form of Gnosticism, the privileging of the work of mind over the work of hands.

You can read the entire symposium by following the links at the bottom of Deneen’s brief heads-up. We—artists in particular—won’t find better reading for Labor Day than this.

THIS IS A GOOD DAY TO THINK BACK to Leo XIII. He prophetically remarked in Rerum Novarum (1891), the first great encyclical of modern Catholic social doctrine, that if socialism came to power, the workers themselves would be “the first to suffer.”

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey