“Art labour rights are not taught at law schools”
Freelancing seemed miles away from academia. But that was decades ago. Nowadays, precarious contract work is the norm in academia. The proximity of the artistic and academic spheres is very well known to Milena Dragičević Šešić, a renowned university professor and researcher who holds the UNESCO chair for cultural policy and arts management at the University of Belgrade. However, as a professor she favors knowledge more than skills in teaching cultural management, be it at home in the Balkans or around the globe, from Cambodia to France, where she often gives lectures and lends her expertise. Skills are what one learns in the process of working, knowledge is what one gains by studying, one hears her say often.
In late spring when this interview took place, ECoC Rijeka 2020 was already another sad story in the papers. As an advocate for artists’ rights, Dragičević Šešić mentioned idleness as one of the artists’ core rights in the artistic process. It seemed there were no artists and cultural workers that would be left to idle as their freelance contracts wouldn’t provide for that. The hasty politicians that had withdrawn funding turned their back on Rijeka’s year-long event that had been just about to start.
Dare Pejić: If we had any illusions during the lockdown, it seems that the illusion of owning or having control of our time is the strongest. Would you say that time was on your side during this period?
Milena Dragičević Šešić: I don’t think so, in fact, in spite of the fact that most of the events have been canceled, even our working organizations like the universities and so on, had limited working hours. Limited only to what is necessary: lecturing, teaching, while everything else like meetings between the department chairs and committees and debates about procedures and so on – everything else was postponed. However, we couldn’t spend our time as we liked because some other, let’s say, incidental events ended up framing our day, and new tasks have come up because of online teaching (reading and correcting work by individual students which has replaced work by teams of students, for example). Thus, my work with students at the University of Gdańsk became much more complex, as they had to individually develop four different tasks in written form (instead of discussions during classes, where they would have been able to come up with a model as part of a team, etc.). So, it took more time for me to review them...
Also artists, on the other hand, were feeling that they needed to continue to be creative, or produce art, even if conditions for this seemed impossible during the quarantine or lockdown.
I think that this crisis revealed to what extent the cultural system is unjust. First of all, we have to say that the first to react by way of contributions have been artists. And, I have to say that, both cultural workers and artists from the public sector and from the independent scene (civil society), artists and art collectives – they immediately started to self-organize, even at a distance, and to offer different kinds of cultural products, even for free! It was not expected from those who are active in the commercial art world – film artists, film production companies and so on, which are really market-based companies. However, they started creating film festivals that are available on YouTube or other platforms for free.
Indeed, we are overwhelmed with free content. How did the art institutions respond to all this in your opinion?
The other side of the story is that most of the art institutions didn’t behave ethically. They were forced to continue to pay salaries because they had gotten money for permanently employed artists, but they stopped paying artists that were engaged on a contractual basis. Of course, they didn’t have any more ticket sales and usually they paid contract artists through box office revenue, so they just stopped paying them. So, the artists that used to have seasonal contracts were not fully employed and stopped receiving any kind of reparation. For example, in Germany on the 11th of March, this first call for a joint emergency fund for culture started when the German Orchestra Association asked for specific aid for freelance musicians (this solidarity among artists has been very present during these time of the Covid-19 pandemic). In our own Balkan countries, the association of artists, musicians, etc. also started asking the City Government of Belgrade to provide resources at least for those who had contracts with ten city public theatres; thus, the public city institutions were obligated to fulfill those contracts and to continue to pay them. Then advocacy action went further, the pressure was widened, and the Ministry of Culture had to lobby the Government to provide resources for a minimum of three-months payment for freelance artists.
But many artists, and this is a very interesting story, fell somewhere in between and therefore they don’t belong to any category that would be eligible for remuneration. Among them there are even very famous ones, for example the Serbian actress Hana Selimović, who is not fully engaged in any theater, but had “permanent” (seasonal) contracts with the two major Serbian national theaters, one was the National Theater in Belgrade and the other is the National Theater in Novi Sad. She does not have the status of a freelancer or a permanent engagement, nor contracts with Belgrade city theaters (as the city government of Belgrade accepted this proposition that artists with contracts should be paid and city theaters got money from the city budget devoted for the independent cultural scene, to pay contracted artists with the city theaters). So, there are only two national theaters in Serbia and they didn’t get the money for contracted artists, consequently the group of artists who had this kind of contract was invisible in the system.
In this gray zone of working and not working, we see the right to idleness as being a crucial part of the artistic process. How does this relate to other professions?
It's difficult to see that in all professions. It means you have to be fully employed, to be a professional, with the right to idleness from time to time. But, in professions that are based on freelancing, or even on entrepreneurship, you have to work all the time to survive. However, in IT companies, where many people can earn quite a lot of money, they could take a year off, a kind of sabbatical year. This kind of thing we can also see on Wall Street among bankers, but only among those who stop being greedy. So it's more an exception than the rule, but I personally know of at least 20 people that felt so tired and exhausted after working in such a hectic manner for several years (in marketing agencies, IT companies, etc.) that although they earned such a huge amount of money, they didn’t have time to spend it. Some of them realized how absurd it is, to diminish your well-being and quality of life for professional and the financial success.
In other professions people overwork too, right?
A long time ago when we were living under socialism, one of my family members, a medical doctor, went to the US to have a heart operation by Michael DeBakey, the famous heart surgeon. And when he came back from the US, everyone at the family gatherings, was curious to ask about DeBakey as he was a very famous doctor. His response was – I would never ever trade my life with his. He doesn’t allow himself to take a vacation, or even a weekend off, he is 100% devoted to his job, to being the best in the world, to getting the best results in the world because that’s what counts and so on.
Like in Japan, high-level professionals don’t allow themselves a vacation, even to take a day off. The State had to take some legal steps to forbid, for example, female staff from staying on the job after 19 hours. It is difficult to leave work if your boss is still there, and loyalty to your job is expected from everyone, which leds employees burning out. There is even a special word Karoshi, “death by overwork,” to talk about suicide that results from total exhaustion. The person can be so overworked that she or he is not effective anymore. Then, they feel ashamed that they are not effective at their job, but because they are devoted they just blame themselves for not having enough strength. In Japan, it is an extreme situation (on average a Japanese worker uses one week of paid holiday, in spite of the legally guaranteed two weeks), but pressure on white collar workers is growing and growing everywhere in the world. With the development of the neoliberal economic system and new public management, in the private and public sector the cult of “success,” evaluation of “performance,” and competitiveness have become key values. So, idleness or leisure have become a bad word from the ‘80s onwards.
Does this mean that we, paradoxically, are living in a society of overworked professionals where even those who are well-off cannot afford to be idle?
Joffre Dumazedier in the second part of the ‘60s wrote several books about the Sociologie du loisir, (Sociology of Leisure). I was his student in 1978, and then he was so certain that social progress was getting better and better, that the life standards of society was getting better and better, and that it would be normal for everyone to be fully employed working five hours per day, only four or three days per week. French society started to develop along these lines and the government, in spite of the protests of the CEOs of the private sector, proclaimed the 35-hour work week, the right to lifelong learning (not only learning linked to continuous professional development, but also to development of personal cultural needs and skills) in spite of the predominant tendencies of Europe within Thatcherism and neoliberalism. My peers from the theater departments (Paris VIII) and of the sociology of popular education department (Paris V) had developed a lot of programs of animation socio-culturelle and lifelong learning (that enabled for example, factory workers to use a week in a year to learn anything they want, from playing guitar to reciting poems).
All these ideas of quality leisure time became very suspicious in neoliberal political systems, as people were respected only for how much they were committed to their work. White-collar workers became more exploited than blue-collar workers. Blue-collar workers had trade unions. The working class defended their right to eight hours but could not ask for less; at least this achievement was kept, but that was not relevant for white-collar workers employed, for example, in marketing agencies. Most of them started working twelve hours per day, rushing after deadlines.
So, why did idleness become seen as something which is anti-productive, although it is obvious that it should be seen not only as a “rest,” but as a period of accumulation, of reflection, self-reflection. Daily free time, weekends, and holidays are periods when a citizen–worker, was expected and was “allowed” to practice activities, hobbies, but only on the condition that these hobbies provided them with an extra skill, that it might be useful, again, in their work, for example, to help them deepen their concentration so they would be able to multitask. Even this word – multitasking openly demonstrates the intention of overexploiting the labor force. Dumazedier’s ideas were that daily free time, weekends, and holidays are “cultural rights” of citizens, to be used according to their needs and interests, and not according to the interests of their employers.
In this sense you mentioned doctors, lawyers, economists, they all have unions, most of them in one way or another, or they have some kind of body representing them. It seems as if freelance artists are the most atomized when it comes to self-organizing.
Freelance artists are only well-organized in unions in the US, due to a necessity, as there is a lack of public cultural policies there. Thus, they have very powerful artistic unions. But of course, they have a weak position on the market and the innate competitiveness of the industry. Like in theater: every freelance artist is in a competitive position towards one another and so on. This, in fact, makes those kinds of unions relatively weak; their employers are also atomized, Broadway producers, for example, or The American Art Presenters Association. This is an association, not a strong one, let's say an organization of employers of those that are engaging artists.
The interesting issue is that art labor rights are not taught in law schools. Why? Because there is no money in it! On the other side, there are patent laws that are taught at every law school, and within that syllabus, a small part is devoted to the art copyrights. Less about performing arts, as being too “ephemeral” are not of great interest. At the same time, even the English word copyright clearly signifies – it’s not about protecting authors’ rights, it’s about protecting “property” over one art object. And this property belongs more to agencies, companies, and less to the artists themselves.
To come back to labor law for artists – if we look at cultural management books, and those from similar areas, not even touching on general management books, you can’t find any distinctive research about management differences between cultural organizations that employ artists and cultural organizations that do not employ artists. Usually, examples are related to museums, cultural centers, libraries – theaters with ensemble and Philharmonics are rarely studied. These issues are not easy to study and discuss – Austrian Theatre Law even in the 19th century had paragraphs discussing actors’ rights to refuse to accept a proposed role, etc.
How neglected this research area in the legal studies is can be seen by the fact that the last PhD dealing with the labor law for artists was defended in Belgrade in 1962, and nobody after that has conducted any research in this area. The world changed after that, cultural policies have changed, artists’ positions within institutional system, but nobody cared.
That might also be the case with the European Capital of Culture. This year it moved to Europe’s periphery: Rijeka, next in Novi Sad, in 2025 to Slovenia. Do you see a trend in this positioning?
The next one is out of the EU in 2024, actually, it’s not going to be in southeastern Europe. It’s going to be in Norway. The European Capital of Culture is allowed now to take place also on its peripheries because the EU has finally allowed it. That was one of the contributions of the project “Belgrade 2020”: to allow Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina etc. at least to compete for the title. Novi Sad was the first to get it outside of the EU, but Banja Luka failed for 2024 (Bodø, a Norwegian city had won, on the northern edges of Europe).
But, the experience with Rijeka, for me, is totally tragic. Why? It has shown that the idea of a joint European project, such as the European Cultural Capital should be, does not exist. There was no solidarity – neither on the level of Croatia, to have Rijeka survive this epidemic crisis, even less so in Europe. Basically no one cared.
After the opening the crisis came. The state immediately announced that they are going to withdraw their funds, so basically, the Rijeka European Capital of Culture (ECoC) 2020 ended up firing 50 people. For me this is not a debacle of Rijeka, the ECoC, it’s a debacle of the European project as such. There were a lot of things and possibilities that could have been done in this Covid-19 time. Even the conferences in Rijeka have been canceled, the conferences that could be happening online as many conferences now are happening online. I participate every week in at least two conferences. UNESCO has already organized several discussions, ENCATC, ELIA, IETM are organizing regular virtual gatherings, so Rijeka might and should go on.
There were so many possibilities to continue with the actions of Rijeka 2020, but the fact that there was no money for salaries of the ECoC employees, stopped all the work. Many of them came to Rijeka because of the ECoC and left their cities and their previous jobs as they wanted to be part of such an important project. Although it was clear that it’s not going to be employment “for life,” but they could expect two year’s employment, now they have found themselves without a job, away from their homes, and so on. No protection for them, and it’s only 50 people, it’s not thousands of people.
The government of Croatia gave more money to save jobs in the gambling industry, than for artists. It seems that all jobs in society are more valued than jobs in the cultural sector. Why are these jobs not treated equally? At least like jobs in small businesses, for example? Small business (gyms, hairdressers, etc.) got support money from the state everywhere, and I think it’s good. But somehow, not the small not-for-profit organizations in the cultural sector, not artistic collectives.
In fact, looking at the situation it seems to me that the largest support again is going to be given to the largest enterprises and the small ones, especially cultural ones, somehow will get passed over.
The Rijeka representatives of the European Cultural Capital even wrote personal letters responding to a group of artists who asked to develop an underground Rijeka 2020 project basically saying “I don’t have the means, I can’t do anything, I’m helpless.” At the same time, it would be very interesting to see and compare if in Rijeka there were enterprises employing even more people, but whose working places and jobs were safeguarded, although they could not work in this period of three months either. So, to sum up, these people, working at Rijeka 2020 didn’t get this three months’ time for idleness, for self-reflection. Not even time to make the transition to another type of job. They were just fired.
In many countries, and also Poland the term projektariat is used for people that live the way they work: hopping from project to project. Would you say that an end to this kind of project-based existence would bring some change?
That would be a huge success, but I have some doubts – there will be even more project-based funding in culture. It’s going to be worse and worse, because when we look at budgets for cultural policies, the budgets of ministries of culture are cut more than some other budgets within the same government. It shows that the government still thinks it’s possible to take from that budget, the cultural budget, although it was always a small one, and they don’t want to take from, or to call into question some other budgets. Thus, it is going to be even less funds for projects, and present projektariat is going to depend only on European funding and some philanthropic organizations. And thus, the time to write project proposals is going to be bigger and bigger, but the percentage of success on calls will be less and less as more competitors will enter every year. One possible solution would be a long-term funding (4-year funding like in Netherlands), so that the art organization might have certainty for a longer period, and time to develop, implement and evaluate the project, reflect on it, not to rush from one to another. In this very moment it is not institutional routine and rigidity that are killing the art scene (as the public system was often accused of), but the project logic of cultural financing that is making both independent cultural organizations and artists – this projektariat – rushing from project to project and losing a huge part of their time and creative energy in writing project proposals according to administrative rules sometimes demanding to a huge extent the self-instrumentalization of artistic practices.
*Cover photo: (c) Nebojša Babić. Courtesy of Milena Dragičević Šešić.