A Return to Sincerity in the Art World: A Review of Michael Albert’s No Bosses

by Jerry Fresia

Michael Albert’s new book, No Bosses: Building a New Economy for a Better World is a book that ought to have wide appeal among visual artists, more so than among most people, I would argue. And I say this as someone who has made a living solely from making paintings and teaching classes for more than 30 years. Whether a visual artist, today, exhibits in a gallery, teaches in academia, relies on grants or some other funding, that artist is confronted with not insubstantial direction from above. Or if visual artists work independently, and exhibit work through outdoor fairs, the internet, cooperative galleries, or galleries of their own, we are still confronted with market imperatives that compel us to make work that gets us through the door but has little to do with expressing who we are. No matter how you slice it, instead of having the freedom to express ourselves as individual authors, where the payoff is found in the process of making the work, as Cézanne, long ago, said it ought to be, we must respond to the direction of bosses, of one stripe or another, or market considerations at every step and in everything we do. Robert Hughes, considered “America’s favorite art critic” until he began criticizing the very art system that produced him, pointed to this problem this way: “…[there has occurred] a giant shift in the art world; that shift is all about money…I’ve seen with growing disgust….the effect of this on artists ….the entanglement with big money and art….has become a curse on how art is made and controlled and above all, the way it is experienced. And this curse has infected the entire art world.” How did we get this way? What helps permit billionaires to control the art system in their own interest and at the expense of artists who struggle to survive? I would lay part of the blame at our own feet, of artists ourselves. If one identifies as a political artist today, it does not mean, generally, that that artists inveighs against the very systems of production and exhibition and remuneration that our art system makes possible. Rather, artists today who identify as political are more likely to make work that consists of social commentary in solidarity with victims of current systems of power – apart from the art system itself. Nothing wrong with that except that the art system remains unscathed, as it rolls along, becoming more entangled with big money, serving the interests of the super-wealthy, becoming more corrupt, and a curse as Hughes suggests. It wasn’t always this way. Parisian artists in the 19th century, aligned with revolutionaries of the period repeatedly organized assemblies (1830, 1848, 1871) in order to advocate for artist self-government in all affairs. The shared common sense then was that the bourgeoisie, taking the place of aristocrats, were a rising class of economic actors whose purpose was to get “their hooks in you” and control your work for their private gain. “Provoking the bourgeoisie was the artist’s glorious duty,” quipped Oscar Wilde. And for a time, control over one’s work by means of independent studios and exhibitions did find traction. But that distance between artists who resisted bosses controlling their work and the bourgeoisie has closed. Visual artists don’t see themselves as managed, or their work directed, their voices repressed. Consequently artists are not organized around analyses or critiques, by them, of the art system itself - it’s freak show fairs, it’s self-dealing auctions, it’s transformation of the studio into Taylorized factories, it’s constant belittling of public sensibilities, or its elimination of painting as a serious art form, not to mention the general impoverishment of artists as workers. And if the art system goes unchallenged, then there’s no vision, articulated by artists, of what an alternative system might look like. This is where Albert’s No Bosses is important. At minimum, Albert offers the artist a critical analysis of the political economy in which we live. This is something, I would argue, that visual artists simply do not get in their educational journey up through the MFA, and the rests of us are unlikely to get a serious dose of critical thinking regardless of our educational level. Critiques of power systems are being vilified and stripped out of mandated education as we speak. So for no other reason, artists ought to pick up this book. But of course, Albert does far more than advance a primer on political economy. First, he puts the resistance to authorities who control our work that was so central to activist artists of the 19th century back to where it should be: front and center. Second, he advances a critique of markets that have undergirded the insane speculation in visual art that has enabled apparatchiks within in the art system to define “important work” exclusively as that work which outstrips all other assets in terms of return on investment. And third, he carefully details his vision of what a “new economy for a better world” would look like: 1) no bosses, that is no agents telling you what or how to make your work, thus creating space for sincere expression; 2) a system of remuneration in which the voices of ordinary people and fellow artists – as opposed to art system elites – are allowed respond to your work, with you, in conversation; and 3) a system of distribution, not driven by the highest bidder, but by the tastes, needs, and thoughts of your larger audience. A term that is used by Albert and picked up on by both Yannis Varofaukis and Noam Chomsky who have written prefaces, is scaffolding. It’s a good metaphor. It would be crazy, if not impossible, for anyone to advance a tight, hard vision of complex, future social institutions. Albert’s work is more like scaffolding: well thought out, but not definitive, a discussion of possible future social arrangements that turn on values such as individual empowerment from work, allowing each person to have a say in decisions that affect him or her, and a deep concern for social value. Imagine an art system where artists placed sincerity above market success, where our work lives were a process of unfolding so that each of us could become who we are most, where beauty was always in conversation with justice. That’s how I think of what Albert has accomplished. His concepts and emphasis may diverge from mine but I believe he has opened the door to a plurality that is urgently needed.