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Organize! What the Artists’ Union of the 1930s Can Teach Us Today

The 1930s was a time of massive organizing, strikes, union activity, and dissent that forced FDR and the New Deal to the left. 2009 does not provide us with such inspiring levels of resistance.

If the 1930s can teach us one key lesson, it is the need to organize. Nothing changes when people do not engage in the long and difficult work of building a diverse, multi-cultural, working class movement from the ground up. This includes artists.

Art Versus Work

In the 1960s art workers theorized how modes of human making are affected by specific economic strictures, the aestheticization of experience, and the production of sensibilities. What makes the coherence of the phrase art worker challenging – even oxymoronic – is that under capitalism art also functions as the “outside,” or other, to labor: a non-utilitarian, nonproductive activity against which mundane work is defined, a leisure-time pursuit of self-expression, or a utopian alternative to the deadening effects of capitalism. While his writings on the matter vary over time and are by no means unified, Karl Marx’s contributions to this subject have been among the most influential.


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