Now Can We Go? Refusal and labour in the art world

Reckitt, Helena. 2015. 'Now Can We Go? Refusal and labour in the art world'. In: Labours of Love, Works of Passion: The social (re)production of art workers from industrialisation to globalisation. AAH2016: Annual Art Historians Conference, Edinburgh, United Kingdom 7-9 April 2016. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Social-reproduction theory demands that attention be paid to the mostly overlooked and undervalued people, activities, and things that generate and sustain life. This paper explores what such a shift in focus might mean within the art world. It looks at a range of tactics and strategies being developed across curatorial, artistic and critical projects: from activist efforts that question the art world’s reliance on dubious corporate money and private donors, to reformist efforts to agitate for improved working conditions for arts employees and arts workers, and exhibition practices that generate vast carbon footprints. Highlighting debates around affective labour and resistance, the argument begins from this question: what would it look like for arts workers to refuse to provide the excess surplus emotional as well as physical work, upon which the art system has for too long depended?

Exploring possible answers, Reckitt reflects on the collective project ‘Now You Can Go’ that she developed with a group of feminist curators and researchers in London in 2015. Inspired by the process of ‘deculturation’ that Italian feminist Carla Lonzi (1931–82) staged at successive moments in her life, the project explored Lonzi-esque tactics of affective withdrawal. In reviewing ‘Now You Can Go’ – from the issues it raised to the behind-the-scenes dynamics it entailed – she questions how the programme approached the issue of affective withdrawal, especially given its demands on work that was largely unpaid, self-valorising and potentially self-exploiting.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

Additional Information:

The talk was given as part of Labours of Love, Works of Passion: The social (re)production of art workers from industrialisation to globalisation, a daylong panel organised by Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd, both of the University of Edinburgh.

The programme was contextualised as follows:

A term that emerged in feminist thinking in the 1970s, ‘social reproduction’ refers to the ‘labour of love’ traditionally performed for free by women in the home. Despite the crucial role it plays in sustaining and replenishing the working population, this work is usually excluded from accounts of ‘production proper’ and the economy at large. In viewing its worth as other than economic, this labour of love connects with accounts of artistic labour which is also seen as simply ‘self-rewarding’.

Arguably, the values associated with a gendered sphere during the rise of modern art and 19th-century industrialisation have transferred to artistic production within the 21st century finance- and service-led economy. Is art, then, the exemplary case study in the socio-economic order of feminised labour widely encountered in globalisation? How might we connect this to the thesis that artistic critique led to precarious labour (The New Spirit of Capitalism, Boltanski and Chiapello 2005 [1999])? And, do the above compel a rethinking into what connects modern and contemporary art?

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



10 December 2015Accepted
8 April 2016Completed

Event Location:

AAH2016: Annual Art Historians Conference, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Date range:

7-9 April 2016

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

04 Apr 2017 10:13

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:25


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