The fourth doctrine of pogo-dogmatism is “Work sucks.”1 Since the first half of the 1980s, the APPD (Anarchist Pogo Party of Germany) has been making politics with this agenda, which, along with a handful of punkers, makes it into the political public sphere every now and then. And they may be right; many people surely perceive their daily grind as a generally shitty thing. Not only in Germany, but all over the world, people get sick or die from their job. And this is not because they consciously take a high risk, as, for example, a racing driver does, but because they have no other choice, because they have to slave away to exhaustion, because they are not provided with adequate safety equipment, or because prevailing pressure to perform drives them into severe depression. Work today can take many different forms, and it has changed again and again over the millennia. Yet it persists, and with it, exhaustion. It is so formative that many people make it an essential part of their self-image. Great utopian designs from the socialist camp are about distributing it and its products more fairly, even abolishing it altogether.
Art is often seen as the realm that deals with the dreamy, the otherworldly, and the utopian. How does it relate to work? How does work relate to art?
When Faust, shortly before he makes the acquaintance of the devil in the form of a poodle, wanders broodingly through his laboratory, he asks himself whether in the Gospel of John, instead of the well-known “In the beginning was the word,” it should not better read: “In the beginning was the deed.”2 In a certain respect, this thought is not implausible, because it seems as if God already has an understanding of active work, which he does when he creates the world. It almost seems as if the logic of work and leisure is superior to creation. After all, apparently the creation of the world was so tiring that God left the seventh day of work for rest, if one can believe Genesis. The consideration of Dr. Faust stands in the context of the philosophical dualism of spirit and matter, because already the willful idea of a creation of the world presupposes the possibility that this is done. What is the precondition of the possibility of creation? Is it the will or is it the act? Yet this consideration overlooks the profane fact that God must rest. Thus, hovering over everything is the dichotomy of work and leisure. Even if one is of the opinion that the story of creation is an invented one, it must nevertheless be conceded that at least the tradition of this story already starts from the obviously very central differentiation between work and leisure.
The transcendental opposition of work and leisure corresponds to the secular motto: ora et labora, which is attributed to the Christian Benedictine order and whose origin is placed in the late Middle Ages. Again, work thus occupies a central role in Christian doctrine. For the purpose of this proclaimed discipline is clearly to lead a fulfilled life through the right balance of contemplation in prayer and manual labor, i.e., earthly creativity. Fulfillment here occurs after death, namely through entry into the kingdom of heaven.
But even with the discovery of the subject in modern times and the relativization of divine power on earth through the Enlightenment and the progress of empirical sciences, the importance of work for the concept of humankind does not diminish. The most prominent representative of a philosophy centered on the working human being is certainly Hegel. The chapter Self-Sufficiency and Non-Self-Sufficiency of Self-Consciousness; Mastery and Servitude is a concise example of a philosophy that makes plausible the connection between self-conscious subjectivity and creative activity.3 The idea underlying the dialectic of master and servant is that self-consciousness can only come about when it reflects on itself. And this is meant literally, insofar as becoming self-conscious in Hegel depends on recognition, which contains the important factor that I recognize myself in the other. This recognition also takes place in the work of my work. Through the externalization of oneself through work, self-consciousness can relate to itself.
But in this analysis Hegel leaves out the fact that work mostly happens in a specific social context. Indeed, work is always linked to concrete property relations, which have a significant impact on the quality of work. The citizens of the ancient polis, for example, could afford to regard physical labor as a stigma reserved for the less privileged, because large portions of productive and reproductive labor were performed by women, simple craftsmen (banausoi), or even slaves. The full-fledged (male!) Attic citizen did not have to get his hands dirty. Labor was externalized property. This was also in the Middle Ages for a long time the prerequisite for prosperity and social influence. Work was laborious and served the purpose of social subsistence. Unlike in Hegel, in such a situation the servant does not triumph in the end, for his possibility of recognizing himself in his labor is taken away from him, since strictly speaking it is not his labor. His labor power belongs to his master, the purposes of labor are alien to him. This does not change in the industrial revolution. Alienated labor remains alienated labor. To the present day, the significant social difference between those who must work and those who live off the labor of others persists. Many so-called “classics” of contemporary literature deal more or less explicitly with the misery of the working class; think of Roald Dahl or Charles Dickens. One of the most beautiful depictions of the dismal misery of energy-sapping work is found in Peter Weiss’s epic: The Aesthetics of Resistance:
“To be a worker meant to go through the unspeakable wear and tear every day and yet to preserve one’s strength so that one day, when the time came, one could seize everything. […] Some days passed in a thoughtlessness that was only interrupted by the moments when we stood between the rounded sheet-metal walls of the privy on the courtyard threshold above the coal shaft and, staring into the smoky sky, let our water run down.”4
The interesting thing about Weiss’s work is that the protagonist is not simply a worker from whose perspective the almost unbearable situation of performing industrial work in exile is described, but that he is simultaneously involved in the creation of a work of art. He is not only, as a protagonist in a literary work, part of a work of art, but in the plot of the work itself he is involved in the creation of a literary work by taking on, among others, research tasks for Brecht, who has fled to Sweden from the Nazis. Thus forming around Weiss’s Brecht is a small group of German communists in exile, who work together to write the next great work under the name Berthold Brecht.
Anyone who has ever been involved in the creation of an artistic work will probably confirm that this means a lot of work. This is no wonder, since the creation of a good work of art also sometimes requires diligence, practice, toil, and effort, be it mental or physical. Milton Glaser even goes so far as to avoid the term “art” altogether, speaking instead of “work” while referring to the laborious and punishing activity of earning a living as “bad work.”5 Equivocation becomes equivalence.
Imitation belongs to art like the proverbial amen to the church. Even Plato addressed the fact that aesthetic practice consisted somewhat in imitating ideals, in the context of a differentiated examination of various forms of human activity.6 This basic idea has not been lost in the course of history, and for a long time the most correct possible representation of the original was considered the standard for judging the quality of a work. Only in the course of their technical reproducibility has the aspect of artistry lost importance. Andy Warhol’s prints are probably the best-known example of the debate on this subject. The long rows of colored copies of the same motif always emphasize the fact of their reproducibility in an extremely concise manner. Nevertheless, Warhol is today generally considered one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Thus it is not so far-fetched to make this irrefutable circumstance of artistic practice, namely that it makes work, itself the subject of a work. In the endless repetition of the random or deliberate arrangement of small colorful beads on pegboards, the tediousness of industrial assembly line work is repeated. The repetition, boredom, and meaninglessness of classic wage labor here ironically become a meaningful feature of the collective work. One might object that the sublime work of the artistic genius differs from the drudgery of the industrial worker. But this difference is leveled out by the fact that in the capitalist present works of art must also bow to the logic of the commodity form in order to secure the artist a living. The market does not care whether the worker maintains Excel spreadsheets, bends steel pipes, or prints Campbell’s soup cans. The unpleasantness of work is suspended in the work of art, which has work itself as its theme, because the work is self-sufficient. Boredom is parodied precisely because external determination is omitted. The ostensible purposelessness of the unbeadable space becomes the counterpoint of meaningless work in capitalism.