Burnt Out Culture


When I first pitched this column to discuss burnout culture, artistic labour, and exploitation in the arts, little could I have imagined that just one month later I would be writing about these issues in home isolation against a rapidly developing global health crisis. In the last two weeks alone, I have seen peers lose their jobs, festivals and exhibitions postponed or outright cancelled, galleries and museums shut their doors indefinitely, and staff at key art organisations made redundant without warning. How will the Australian arts ecology—nay the world—come out the other end?

Many of these losses to income and opportunities are a direct result of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, but this crisis also underlines existing issues and problematic structures already in place. Rather than giving in to the despair of these uncertainties, I want to consider the place of artistic labour within broader capitalist systems of productivity, output and growth, and what resistance against exploitation might look like in these times of uncertainty.

Most of us can agree that art is important to a healthy society (three out of four Australians, according to a 2017 Australia Council survey, think so), and 98% of Australians engage with art in some capacity. Despite these figures of audience engagement, that does not always translate into a monetary appreciation of the arts in relation to its demands on time, labour and skills. This is not just speaking about artists making money from selling their work, but the entire industry that supports the development, creation and showing of art—including people working for free or for little remuneration. It can feel like the arts is taken for granted as something that will continue to exist because people will continue to make art, no matter how little support is received. And while I won’t disagree that art can and will persist, the other side of the coin is that professional artists’ income continues to fall behind the national workforce average. Nothing grates on me more than the problematic stereotyping of the ‘tortured/starving’ artist that fails to acknowledge the insecure and inconsistent renumeration artists receive, as well as the intersections of class, race and gender that makes this industry inaccessible for many. Everyone is struggling to be seen, making work while also competing with their peers for the same limited opportunities, and that trickles down into an expectation for artists and institutions to keep working, keep delivering, keep innovating, keep increasing audience numbers. To take a break within this expectation of constant output can feel like a failure.

Last year I experienced my major ‘burnout’ moment. It was looming: my friends had warned me about the direction I was heading in while I struggled to stay afloat with my day job, board commitments, writing deadlines and independent projects. It is concerning how normalised the discussions around burnout are: it looms on our horizons almost like a rite of passage, a sign to prove you’ve done the hard yards and now you deserve to be here. I recall a moment when I was at an exhibition opening listening to my peers compare how long it was since they last had a meal at home with their partners. At that moment I felt something turn in my stomach, but not before I voiced up to share my own example.

The resilience demanded of artists and art workers pursuing creative professions generates a space that is ripe for self-exploitation.

Because we love our work, the boundaries between work and life are increasingly blurred and this is further exacerbated by the personal nature of artistic output. The arts are an extractive industry, but instead of extracting resources from the ground they are drawn directly from people. The dual burden of creating ‘relevant’ output while also needing to pay for food and shelter creates this expectation to use more of ourselves than is sustainable. The ‘hustle’ is the price we pay for ‘doing what you love’. And when you burn out, you feel this is your fault.

But how quickly things can change—how quickly we are confronted with the failure of our systems in protecting the most vulnerable—how quickly we see the precarity of industries built on the back of this gig economy. Moments like this remind me that burnout culture is not the fault of individual choices we make, but of how these expectations are normalised through institutions and the relentless cycle of the annual arts calendar. When an entire industry is decimated by forced closures and lockdowns, who are the ones feeling it the most?

I hesitate to speak of silver linings at this time of crisis, but the pandemic has indeed forced us to slow down, and with that perhaps can come some clarity and resistance. I see artists making work with no deadline in mind, and I see others relish the time they have to read and research. I see community and grass-roots action such as artists sharing resources with each other online, organising online exhibitions, but also extending that solidarity into offline spaces (while practicing social distancing). I also see political activism and a deep commitment to solidarity, support and care. While the global pandemic has confronted us with what is ‘essential’ and what is not, I believe that art is indeed a form of survival in these dark moments.

With rest, we can recover. With rest, we can re-evaluate. We can come together, advocate for policies and systems that offer greater support not just for artists and arts workers, but for all workers. By demanding more support for the arts, how can we revolutionise not only our industry, but ideas about work more broadly? How do we take care of the most vulnerable members of our society? And how does rest, without the guilt of ‘failure’, play a part in shaping this?

In moments of isolation, our connection and care for each other is more crucial than ever. We are not alone.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Opinion Words by Sophia Cai