This text was initially published in CUTE magazine #4. Translation by Paolo Lapointe-Miriello, original text by Pierre Luc Junet and Camille Tremblay-Fournier.

On a cold Wednesday in January at UQÀM, students rehearse an Italian-style dialogue by Peggy Pierrot [1]. A hypothetical young artist, a gallerist, an art critic, and a rich friend exchange thoughts outlining the state of free labour in the arts. A portrayal of the artist as a worker, from a feminist point of view: a contribution by Virginie Jourdain, artist, cultural worker and panelist for the occasion [2]. As the discussion progresses, a question emerges: what does artistic and cultural work have in common with the other sectors of precarious work? One speaker dares to answer: "And what if it was the common denominator in unpaid or underpaid work is the idea that a vocational calling implies work done for free?'' Daphnée B., author and poet, trends in the same direction in a heartbreaking plea: "Most cultural organizations can be compared to manipulative lovers. The lover will justify his exploitation by persuading the employees that they do what they love, that they work for love and not because they need to pay rent. But above all, do what you love!" [3].

For the arts and culture community, this criticism directly addresses the issue of wage inequality, racism, gender and the real reasons for valuing or devaluing certain professions to the detriment of others. As Virginie Jourdain admits, "there are myths that revolve around cultural workers, such as the obligation of devotion and the culture of overtime: because we work a passionate job. we should be devoted body and soul to what we do" [4]. At present, it is mainly internships in the fields of care, education, nursing, but also arts and culture that are unpaid. Less valued sectors, which correspond to the gendered division of labour [5], are based on a culture of sacrifice that is more internalized by women and non-binary people. The campaign for paid internships reverses the idea that internships are not paid mostly because they are a form of personal training, an investment in oneself. For if the work related to art and culture is so devalued on the labour market, it is because it is already devalued at school, given the poor treatment that is given to interns within these circles, among other things. Reversing this perspective opens up a novel politicization of school, as well as cultural and artistic circles, by daring to discuss more broadly about the value of work in a fundamentally feminist perspective.

Art is fun

The time is far gone when the artist was seen as a singular creature who produced culture for the elites: with the development of new techniques, we are witnessing the exact opposite. While the singular artists of the past were valued, at least the male artists, the industrial proliferation of culture in mass society has since produced a whole panoply of workers with various statuses. There is some confusion about the differentiation between cultural work and artistic work, as these categories tend to become more complex. What is an artist today? On the one hand, artistic work could be understood in the sense of the fine arts, the production of works of art; on the other hand, cultural work, more diffuse and contemporary, would be defined as the work employed by a specific sector of the cultural industry. In short, artistic work is necessarily cultural work, but the opposite is not necessarily true. It is thus the meaning of the word art which is problematic when it is put in relation to that of the word industry. The challenge for young and not so young future artists that lies in finding a place professionally within the industry is felt most keenly at school, where no path is clearly defined. Often, it is all about opportunities, for whom and why they occur, since the education system does not escape the inequalities of class, gender and race. Artists, because of their status as independent workers, must increasingly develop strong entrepreneurial skills since it is a career, or rather an industry, where competition is fierce.

The education system is dependent on the needs of the market, which allows private businesses to interfere in schools, both CEGEPs and universities, not to mention the omnipresent publicity within these spaces. This interference is all the more marked by the ever-increasing need for interns, an overwhelming majority of which are unpaid, which is a direct consequence of the global transformation of the organization of labour at an international scale [6]. We must not forget that this transformation has its origin in the neoliberal restructuring of higher education and the logic of progressive debt that accompanies it. The ever-increasing interference of private businesses, coupled with growing debt, is part of the same process with regards to the devaluation of the real work done by the students, for which unpaid internships are just the tip of the iceberg. In arts and culture, some programs are more affected than others by the demand for labour that the cultural industry requires: this is the case for the film industry, video animation, or 3D graphics, for example, and more broadly for the programs related to the audiovisual and communications industry. It does not search for those in need of learning but for students already capable of working: their specialization is in demand. The type of internships and the interference of companies are very different from those in other educational programs related to traditional arts.

Fine arts students are more exposed to cultural institutions, such as grant programs, galleries and museums. We could illustrate this by saying that, on the one hand, we are employed by private companies, and on the other, we work in artists' centers and artistic spaces completely dependent on cultural institutions. Yet, what unites these two categories of young workers is, indeed, precariousness, from the moment we start learning, as well as the feeling of exploitation. We seek to improve our resumes by completing unpaid internships in festivals and production companies; we are interns or volunteers in an artist's center or a gallery while hoping that the grant application that we fill on the side will be accepted [7]. A significant problem which persists among students of artistic and cultural programs, and therefore the difficulty of coming together given the importance of the divisions created by such a diffuse cultural industry. This is a central issue of the current campaign for paid internships. By widening the issue of precariousness and remuneration to cultural and artistic work, by applying the same analytical grid which today reaches thousands of interns in education, nursing or social work, it is indeed a profound reflection on the relationship between wage labour and art, and therefore on the value attributed to it by late stage capitalism, which is being formulated [8].

Art is love

In our collective consciousness, we associate the artist's life with bohemia. It seems to be a way of life above all things, rooted in the refusal of social conventions and, historically, in that of paid work. The struggle of artists since the recognition of their social status is one which aims to either emancipate them from or to integrate them into capitalist society. Whether we are independent artists or unpaid interns, we are not necessarily outside of capitalist wage relations, but rather are subjected to them entirely, having no control over the working conditions of our labour. The fact that our work is unpaid does not make it less exploitable and, above all, the power relations, in particular those of violence and harassment, are reinforced: "We will not properly reward the work of an employee who is made out to be a lover: we can call her names, beat her, never call her back, but mostly she considers herself lucky to be with us, walking hand in hand, fish in the sea, you know what I mean. Because if our lover doesn’t do the trick, there’s always other fish in the sea” [9]. Free work is often justified by the difficulty of quantifying it, since it supposedly should be accomplished by dedication, affection, and pedigree. As for interns from artistic and cultural backgrounds who find themselves dealing with an abusive environment or boss, they are told that concessions must be made, that the world of work is without mercy, and that it is better to prepare for it now. But students have enormous power in their hands: unpaid time as a pressure tactic.

Even more so given that artistic and cultural workers are well placed to imagine a better life, as Virginie Jourdain aptly points out: "We are lucky to have experimentation as a tool to reinvent ourselves. Let us use this formidable leverage to rethink the structures, formats and values ​​that guide us, without falling into the trap of emulating the capitalist trends that advocate permanent expansion, prestige and authority” [10]. For it is when free labour emerges, thanks to wages, from the informal and naturalized sphere, that it ceases to be taken for granted and can become the object of demands and a social struggle. And who knows, the general strike of interns might make artists and cultural workers want to question their training and work environment. In trying to come together through the prism of unpaid internships, we are witnessing a coming together between different categories of women workers, who by joining together might well take a liking to this newly gained status, and then finally demand the direction of their artistic production and the means to carry out their work.


[1] Peggy, Pierrot, Le travail - Que sais-je?, date unknown.

[2] Discussion organized by the Unitary Committee on Student Work at UQÀM (CUTE-UQÀM).

[3] Daphnée B. “Plaidoyer pour de meilleurs conditions de travail pour les femmes en culture” (Plea for better working conditions for women in culture), Radio-Canada, May 19 2017.

[4] Pensée Parisienne, “Ressources humaines au FRAC Lorraine : « J’ai pensé cette exposition pour les losers oubliés »” (Human ressources at FRAC Lorraine: "I thought up with this exhibition for the forgotten losers"), August 10 2017.

[5] Regan Shade, Leslie and Jacobson, Jenna (2015) Hungry for the jobs: gender, unpaid internships, and the creative industries, The Sociological Review, 63:51.

[6] article written by CUTE-UQÀM members for the recent G7 summit. (French resource)

[7] To learn more, check out Joshua Schwebel's artistic experiments at his artist residency in Berlin:

[8] This is what led to a reflection by the co-presidency of the Regroupement québécois de la danse (Québécois Danse Assembly): "But this passion is also what brings us so much satisfaction when, at last, we manage to accomplish the project for which we have worked so hard. This is the dilemma we are facing." Jamie Wright and Lük Fleury, Que le spectacle continue… (The show must go on) : (French resource, free translation)

[9] Ibid, Radio-Canada, May 19 2017.

[10] Paroles de féministes, Revue Esse: (French resource)