Labours of Love: Women’s Labour as the Culture Sector’s Invisible Dark Matter

Still from ‘In Search of Pat Larter’, Sunday School (Kelly Doley & Diana Smith), 21 May 2016. See more here.


by Macushla Robinson

Excerpts below. See the full essay here.

“Contemporary artist and essayist Hito Steyerl says ‘apart from domestic and care work—art is the industry with the most unpaid labour around. It sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function. Free labour and rampant exploitation are the invisible dark matter that keeps the culture sector going’. This labour, as Steyerl points out, is largely performed by women.

There are two ways in which women’s labour is undervalued in the creative industries: the visible, calculable pay gap, and the invisible, unaccounted for labour that keeps this luxury market afloat.

That women are paid less for their work than men is well documented: many outspoken advocates for women in the arts, most famously the Guerrilla Girls but more recently Pussy Galore and CoUNTess, have pilloried museums and galleries for their lack of representation of women artists. It is not simply that museums are biased, but that they are part of a biased ecosystem.

Where price tags and inclusion in major exhibitions are quantifiable, the free labour and rampant exploitation that Steyerl speaks of is, by its very nature, undocumented: it happens in the realm of interpersonal relationships; in the studio, the gallery or late at night on a laptop in bed; in long, unaccounted for hours and work brought home from the office on maternity leave. It happens in conversations and meetings where women must appear subtly more humble, more efficient, more dedicated than any of their male counterparts. Such labour cannot be accounted for by statistics alone.”

* * *

“In her essay Love and Gold, feminist theorist Arlie Hochschild conceptualises love as a resource that the first world currently ‘mines’ from third world women. Elsewhere she details that while first world women have moved into the paid labour force, first world men have been notoriously reluctant to take on the unwaged work previously performed by housewives. To fill in the gaps, first world capitalism has turned to third world, migrant labour forces. ‘It is as if the wealthy parts of the world are running short on precious emotional and sexual resources and have had to turn to poorer regions for fresh supplies’. Her description of the flow of care workers from third world countries to first world countries reveals how widespread assumptions about women’s capacity for love are. She says, ‘we can speak about love as an unfairly distributed resource—extracted from one place and enjoyed somewhere else’. She calls this situation, poetically, a ‘global heart transplant’.

When women performed this labour as part of their married duties, it was justified as an act of love. Caring first for her husband and children, then later for the elderly within extended family groups, the work that women have traditionally performed is bound up with assumptions about their biological predisposition to loving. As Silvia Federici phrased in her 1975 manifesto Wages Against Housework, ‘They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work’. Having been culturally constructed as an act of love and nurture inherent to the female gender, housework (and similarly care work) has not been considered ‘real’ work. The logic behind this is that love is its own reward—the fulfilment of a ‘natural’ drive, which is inherently pleasurable and therefore does not require monetary compensation.”








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