What Labor Day Means for Working Artists
What does Labor Day mean for artists in the United States today? In times past, the holiday symbolized leisure — the bittersweet end of summer, reflections on the year thus far, and a respite before fall. But nowadays, our work is seldom over; in every season, we struggle to make ends meet within a culture that seems to value us less each year.
We know now, thanks to diligent labor historians, that capitalists invented this holiday to supplant May 1st, which is the true International Workers’ Day. As such, we as Americans are encouraged to take pride in what we have outside of work. But as artists, we seldom consider our labor to be separate from our personal lives. For that reason, increased precarity within our industries has created a collective awareness that our free time can be used productively.
This summer, New York artists rarely rested on their laurels. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, actors and writers came together on the picket line in the largest entertainment industry strike since the 2008 financial crisis. Unionized workers at city institutions like the Guggenheim, Brooklyn Museum, Film Forum, and Hispanic Society continued prolonged negotiations with management to ratify first contracts. Beyond the creative industries, city artists have joined labor and tenant organizations in fighting for a better future across the five boroughs.
None of this is coincidental. While arts employment was on the rise pre-COVID, the state shed 50% of jobs and the city 72% during the pandemic. Moreover, the gig economy, in which so many of us are forced to participate, makes no promises beyond uncertainty — making it difficult to keep up with consistent payments like rent, and otherwise budget our income. Despite Mayor Eric Adams claiming imminent improvements, our industries have still not recovered, and no help seems to be on the way.
All of this points to the undeniable reality of this moment: Without economic stability, the labor of art will be relegated to the limited free time we still have. As a writer in the arts, I have never been able to secure stable employment despite writing for nearly every major industry publication. As a journalist, too, I am in a double bind, caught between two industries intended as public goods but utilized as private coffers for the uber-wealthy. On one hand, I dream of robust government efforts akin to CETA in the 1970s, when artists’ involvement in a guaranteed jobs program fostered democratic participation in city politics. On the other hand, I wonder what might happen if workers and tenants continue to take matters into their own hands. At this point, it seems likely that each year will bring a ‘hot labor summer’ until conditions improve for everyone.
The ancient Greeks believed the artist’s responsibility was in building and maintaining the physical universe. For artists, this should be the true meaning of Labor Day — to recognize the power of our labor — and to demand the compensation, benefits, and rights necessary for us to bring art into the world.