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Art at Work

Class Consciousness and the Transformation of the World

“What does freedom mean to you?”

This is the question I ask to digitally gathered cohorts on the first day of an eight-week course called Intro to Anticapitalism for Artists. There’s a somewhat giddy silence followed by what I perceive as a small shock: the realization of an absence of surety. I hold for around thirty seconds before it’s apparent nobody is going to answer.

From then on, I mostly deliver a spiel about the importance of class politics and make a case for why artists ought to reckon with it, both as creative people and just plain workers, if they’re going to get the change they’ve taken to talking about so often. I’ve taught the course three times over, reaching about 130 artists of various stripes—mostly actors, writers, and directors, but also designers, stage managers, creative producers, DJs, visual artists, poets, dance-makers, graphic designers, and multi-hyphenates. I’ve taught, but also learned, in hearing from (generally out-of-work) working artists and their needs and curiosities. I don’t teach from the position of an expert academic (in truth, I’m largely self-taught), but as a fellow artist and member of the working class. Theatre is my first and greatest love. As both an art form and an industry, it is the well from which I draw inspiration and the reservoir in which I store my frustration. I created the curriculum to meet a need that catalyzes both into a transformation of our working conditions as arts workers as well as the world.

I’ve come to find this moment of asking what freedom means as a reliable starting place before trotting out the sentiment of working class heroes like Karl Marx and Fred Hampton. I’ve come to enjoy how the question renders “theory”—the point of the course—as more than a trivial pursuit: what you know, or don’t know, isn’t necessarily a given. And you can only do what you know. Locating our collective lack of confidence around what exactly freedom means both frames our time together and sets it aside from other interrelated inquiries.

Unpacking freedom requires participants to start from the place of their individual identities and push past them to ask what restricts and/or guarantees freedom among the collective. It is my view that artists are probably more likely than other working people to be grappling with—to various degrees of success—the implications of race, gender, sexuality, and ability in our industries. Artists are a motley crew with lofty goals, and much of our existence is predicated on wearing those ideas on our sleeves. We might even reference intersectionality and talk about various combinations of identity and oppression, and yet class—a dimension legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw deems essential to intersectionality, the term she coined—is generally left out of these discussions. Holistically defining freedom requires the definer to have a robust, integrative politics that can take the full view of things. Beginning the course by accessing our inability to articulate freedom raises the stakes for our time. In the end, our problem isn’t which identity marker is more or less important, but what they all add up to, and why. The first question guiding our efforts of making the world a more just and equitable place (and thus our study toward that end) must be of how to procure emancipation. But how can anyone get to that if they can’t even define freedom?

The author, Chris Mayers (left), and Rachel Nicks (right) in a hospital scene for the play WAR.

Chris Myers and Rachel Nicks in WAR written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Set designer: Mimi Lien. Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting designer: Matt Frey. Sound designer: Bray Poor. Stage management: Charles M. Turner III. Photo by Erin Baiano.

So, in the course, we spend our time unpacking class analysis, which means talking about capitalism. Class politics is, ultimately, the dissection of laboring, from the point of view of the laborer, not the boss. I like to say it’s as simple as being frank about who has what, and why. While popular discourse around race and gender can show you disparity, all too often the ultimate prescription is integrative “seats at the table” outcomes like Black capitalism and #girlboss feminism (neither one will free us). In the New York theatre scene, for instance, recent discourse has centered around a certain off-Broadway company that engaged in well-known exploitative labor practices, despite being led by someone from multiple oppressed identities. A separate, more well-funded company was recently called to task for programming mostly male seasons, despite being led by a woman. These issues represent not just crises within identity politics, but crises of laboring compounded by identity. Solutions that propose that integrating oppressed identities into capitalist systems will necessarily produce liberatory outcomes fail to recognize that we cannot passively reform an economic system predicated on exploitation of the least of us, principally Black people and women. Instead, we should demand leadership of all identity backgrounds to take up class politics and thus become accountable to our material conditions, not just our visibility or representation within power structures.

While popular discourse around race and gender can show you disparity, all too often the ultimate prescription is integrative “seats at the table” outcomes like Black capitalism and #girlboss feminism (neither one will free us).

Struggle without class analysis results in the many empty institutional statements and surface-level concessions we’ve seen across the United States this past year. Class politics is less concerned with pushing for that first Black or female artistic director as it is in asking why we have to constantly fight so hard to include those people in the first place. Class politics requires all of us to be radical in the way that Marxist theorist and organizer Angela Davis defines it, “simply grasping things at the root.” The root can feel scary, because it often necessitates a shift in so much of what we take for granted about our material lives. We’re made to feel afraid of our power as workers. We’re told, instead, to be grateful for the normalcy given to us by our system, even as we struggle to make ends meet. But there is nothing to be afraid of. As Fred Hampton put it, “Socialism is the people. If you’re afraid of socialism, you’re afraid of yourself.” Class politics shows us that we, as workers, create all value. Thus, our workplaces and our state alike have a responsibility to us. In going to the root and starting with our immense value, we are able to demand appropriate benefits and protections for ourselves as workers. From this point of realignment, there emerges an uncompromising path to that freedom that is otherwise difficult to articulate. We become no longer content to accept nearsighted concessions and instead can collectively work toward a holistic reorientation of the systems that govern our lives.

In a curriculum reckoning with class, we encounter Marx and his fundamental critique of capitalism, then expand on him to heed the call of Cedric J. Robinson’s intervention of racial capitalism, the queer communist revolution in Rojava, and other embodiments of class. We engage with documentary film essays, lost feminist relic Born in Flames, and Indigenous interventions on domestic progressivism. We learn from the past and present—from to the Black Panther Party to the ongoing class struggle at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We don’t disregard identity politics. In fact, we embrace them for their full potential. (Did you know that the very term itself, “identity politics,” comes from Black, Marxist, lesbian women? That would be the Combahee River Collective). We heed the call of the poet and anti-capitalist Audre Lorde, who tells us that “divide and conquer must become define and empower”—but we never take our eyes off the questions of class: Who has what, and why?

The author, Chris Mayers (left), and Paige Gilbert (right) in the play BLKS. Their characters faces are serious as they converse in a kitchen.

Chris Myers and Paige Gilbert in BLKS by Aziza Barnes. Director: Robert O'Hara. Set designer: Clint Ramos. Costume designer: Dede Ayite. Lighting designer: Alex Jainchill. Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan. Hair, wig, and makeup designer: J. Jared Janas. Intimacy and fight director: Claire Warden. Photo by Deen van Meer.

What does all of this have to do with theatre?

Between failing political leadership during an unprecedented public health crisis and yet another surge of uprisings in the name of Black lives, I wanted to help theatre artists make sense of the world and catalyze national movements into a moment for their art and professions. As an actor who has worked primarily in the American theatre, I know there’s a huge gap between activist-led movements and their ability to be realized within our arts institutions. There’s often a lot of talk and little substantive action. While this dynamic might be upheld by management (and their donors), it is all too often enabled or abetted by the arts workers most affected, who make up a large chunk of their labor force. Without a careful analysis of what’s going on, arts workers risk internalizing the same destructive ideologies that ultimately undergird the problems we cry out against. Without the integration of class politics and its attendant awakening to our situations as workers within a capitalism that viciously neglects us, the demands we theatre artists make will continue to be diffused into token gestures and surface solutions.

Besides, most theatre, especially the good kind, tends to stake a claim on saying something meaningful about the world, right? Institutions that present theatre have missions that assert their own value by arguing the art they produce helps humans and their social environments. But if the looking glass of class politics are missing from both the work and the institutions, how could they have a shot at living up to their own expectations?

Also: How could this not have everything to do with the theatre? It’s high time we acknowledge that the politics of all artworks, including theatre, are not just the content of the art—the characters and the story, in our case—but the values of the institutions that present them, the behavioral norms of those on stage and especially in the audience, the finances of access and influence, and who’s in the physical building and how they were invited in, not to mention the building itself and the land on which it stands. These are all matters of class.

Further, theatre artists, and artists in general, are workers just like everybody else. So many of the issues we think are unique to our industry—say, healthcare—are clearly national political issues or working-class issues. Class politics and the critique of capitalism allows us to reframe our struggles as collective ones and forge a way toward solidarity both within and outside our industry. Sufficiently developed in our class consciousness, arts workers can join workers across the country and engage in the beautiful struggle of mutual liberation.

Class politics and the critique of capitalism allows us to reframe our struggles as collective ones and forge a way toward solidarity both within and outside our industry.

“Production” is a central focus of capitalism and “labor” is an essential concept of anticapitalism. One proposal of Anticapitalism for Artists asks us to decide which we think is more foundational. In my experience, the vast majority of theatre artists have had a tough go of things in their profession at some point (if not always). They’ve internalized many a “starving artist” or “hustle culture” ideology to assure themselves that soon after their next under- or non-paid gig they’ll move from undiscovered or emerging to that illusive arriving and it’ll all be worth it. But what if they didn’t have to cope? What if they worked in a field with wages that hadn’t plateaued in the mid-seventies? What if they lived in a city with rent control? What if they inhabited a nation that saw healthcare as a human right? What if they had an artistic work culture that understood quality of life to mean shorter rehearsal days, longer rehearsal periods, and two days off just like many modern unions have had for decades? These are labor issues, and labor has never won any protections without engaging in class politics. How long will we suffer for our art? What if it could be better? Because it can.

Now, maybe there’s some actor out there thinking, I’m not a pleb! This is all doom and gloom! I just walked off a set that paid me $10,000 for a day’s work selling hamburgers on camera. That commercial gig allowed me to work my theatre gig without qualms! I worked hard, made my sacrifices. Life is good even if it ain’t always fair—this is show business, after all.

My question for students is always one of whether we’d rather win the race to the bottom of ever-worsening labor conditions or raise our expectations of what a just world looks like. Because when you look at almost any sensible metric, things for workers have been getting worse, not better. We call the state of laboring under capitalism “exploitation.” Even though certain individuals may, at some times, enjoy pleasant work experiences and uncommon success stories, exploitation centers the declining health of the collective. We can observe that between two factors: 1) to what degree high-end success for some depends on exploitation of the low and middle sections, where most arts workers dwell, and 2) what arts workers’ pay looks like compared to administrators and owners. This is why class politics focuses on labor over production: without that frame, such curiosities are clearly—as the record bears out—an afterthought.

While arts and culture institutions are often nonprofits, their administration and boards seem content to borrow from the playbook of the corporations. I know more than a few beloved NYC nonprofit theatres that have what is essentially Bezos-to-Amazon-warehouse level pay disparity between administrators and artists. Or those that defy all obvious logic and give new play development less time and money (this is also, coincidentally, where most diversity finds itself relegated). I know too many mainstage productions where the set costs more than the combined salary of every actor on stage—multiplied by ten. At a certain point we have to ask ourselves: Is this the cost of being an arts worker? And why is it essentially coming out of our paychecks?

Precisely at this juncture is where it’s essential to understand class politics, to see ourselves as workers, and to disentangle ourselves from the pleasure of making art or the self-esteem we draw from an identity based on being a creative person. These things are important, but they will never allow us to improve our working conditions. It is here that, armed with a class politic, we must let go of the rugged individualism ingrained in us by the logic of late-stage capitalism and instead take up the age-old responsibility of working-class solidarity. Instead of theatres opening up bars and restaurants and kowtowing more to an ever-increasing array of corporate donors, we should realize our arts institutions are sites of class struggle. Arts institutions, from the missions they espouse to the working-class people they employ, should be at the frontlines of improving our communities by definition.

Our job, as theatremakers, isn’t just about the creative talents of the artists we center, but all the folks in the building: cleaning staff, maintenance workers, security, and operations. What if we saw things not just from the angle of production but of labor? Of people and the freedom they desire but do not yet possess? What if, instead of invisibilizing these folks, we understood the immensity of labor required to make a play, beyond the creative team? Administration and management, out of a democratic listening, can become sites of community expression. Over the course of this recalibration, we would necessarily find that our art begins to reflect the world more as it is or, at least, how we really see it, instead of reflecting the world through the tastes and desires of elites who ostensibly fund and shape art production under capitalism.

In order to start this shift, we need to study. I’ve learned that when most of us are asked to define capitalism, we cannot. How can we have an opinion of a system and whether it’s serving us if we don’t even know how it works? If people study capitalism and end up loving it, then fine. For the rest of us, we need to gather with the expressed goal of raising our class consciousness. I started Anticapitalism for Artists on a whim, without any prior experience with political education. The “success”—insofar as folks joining socialist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, continuing their study through self-organized groups and creating new curricula, and devising new strategies for impacting their art-making industries—has been immense. Soho Rep was influenced by the Anticapitalism course in creating their Project Number One. The Beehive Dramaturgy Studio has a new affiliate program inspired, in part, by this course. A professor in the Ithaca College stage management program now has modules on economics as a result of this work. Who knows what will happen next—we’re just getting started.

Arts institutions, from the missions they espouse to the working-class people they employ, should be at the frontlines of improving our communities by definition.

I’ve learned that all someone needs is the desire to transform the world, the discipline to learn something new, and the company of peers. That said, one of the big ideas I try to drive home is that study without action is incomplete. Ultimately we need to move past mobilizing around single issues of the moment into persistent, sustained, and organized movements, as Pan-African revolutionary organizer Kwame Ture so passionately advised. We need to be in formations that address the “root.” All this begins with class consciousness. Groups like the Workers Arts Project and Hollywood Labor serve as great examples of working from class consciousness into action in the arts. And I cannot deny the influence of likeminded artists in the UK, such as those part of the World Transformed and A Good Night Out Reading Group.

My work has been motivated by two truths which are expressed, respectively, in two quotes: the writer, filmmaker, and activist Toni Cade Bambara has given us the wisdom that “the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible,” and the activist/writer Emma Goldman proclaimed something akin to “if I can’t dance it’s not my revolution.” Both of these notions illustrate areas of possibility for artists to engage in the work of shaping new worlds alongside our study of what currently exists, with clear parameters for strategy and impact. Furthermore, the Slovenian theorist and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek has said that cinema teaches us how to desire, which points to how art has the potential to help push our hunger for more: for more justice, for more freedom, for higher expectations among working people—if only we articulate the nature of the problem to our greatest ability within our art and lives.

"Anti-capitalism for artists is a mixed-media study group for artists to engage with a radical class education in the service of enriching their lives as both artists and revolutionaries."

A brief definition of and an introduction to Anticapitalism for Artists.

So-called common sense today tells regular working people to not demand anything that seems unreasonable and, worse, to not articulate a desire unless you can back it up with plenty of data and graphs. But if it is true that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism” (attributed to both Zizek and Fredric Jameson), then working people must reach beyond what is apparently reasonable, and artists—practitioners of the imagination—are uniquely equipped for this task. In fact, daring to demand the utopian—that which is inherently beyond the pale of expectation—has immense value in that it can retrain our desires, teaching us that we do, in fact, deserve more. Radical art can awaken the part of us that is encouraged to accept the drudgery of capitalism. At once, our working lives and artistic creations are engaged in the process of disrupting the stranglehold of what we falsely believe is possible. There is an implicit call to action.

We are in an unprecedented moment. In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in over half a million—and counting—largely preventable deaths. The mortal and material impact of the virus has fallen disproportionately on minority populations, as expected. On top of this, theatre artists, like all artists, have faced record-high unemployment. Of course, for many, these are double impacts. Ecological disasters combine in states like Texas, which see elected leadership literally abandon ship. The country’s new executive branch tweets less but has yet to fundamentally acknowledge, materially, the centrality of the same arts that, in a time of immense physical isolation, is the exact place we turn to, in the form of streamed music, film/TV, digitized theatre, and video games, in order to spiritually survive. Meanwhile, the unions built to protect arts workers have been revealed as potentially unreliable bureaucracies, more content to go to war with each other than save their drowning membership. Some might have come to the conclusion that nobody is coming to save us. The good news is that this is exactly the time to make seemingly unreasonable demands as members of a class: the working class. The truth is, we are the solution. And our greatest asset is collectivity.

It is only through the process of integrating a fully inclusive class politics into our analysis of problems that we can do anything about our peril. From the way we produce our art, to the content of it, and in connecting our art to the class struggle around us, arts workers and arts industries have a vast, untapped potential in transforming the conditions of the world. Central to this beautiful struggle will be our uniquely individual voices and their intentional union. If we can dare to imagine something greater, educate and raise the expectations of our peers, and demand a future where there is dignity to our work and lives by pulling on the fulcrum of our indispensable labor, surely there is no need to go back to normal or back to anything else. Surely we will choose the alternative forward: an emphatically articulated and fervently pursued freedom for the least of us through an irresistible revolution, with a dance party to boot.

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