Response: Andrew Spragg on J.T. Welsch’s ‘The Promise of Professionalism’

And why should you want to “stand out”? What’s so important about one’s writing? […] I’ve never found (except in the depressing ‘literary scene’ sense) poetry to be a competition. Don’t you, if you find someone’s work interesting, recommend it to your friends? Organic (or perhaps now viral) growth. There’s no tape you break after which you can relax […] I always remember something Val [Raworth] said: “It seems to me fame is just a load of arseholes thinking you’re all right.
   – Tom Raworth, interviewed in Misosensitive (2011)

J.T. Welsch’s article, ‘The Promise of Professionalism’ (Audit, 108:3), has the tone of an employee trying to convince themselves that the latest innovation from head office has their best interests at heart. The assertion that we have arrived at a new time for poetry, thanks to a new “creative entrepreneurial” spirit, rings false. It glosses over the notion that the production of art and professionalism have been inherently linked through the ages, the subject of more in-depth analysis by Adorno in the essay ‘Culture and Administration’ (1978):

The rigid opposition of culture and administration in thought, the product of a social and spiritual situation which attempts at the same time to force the two together, has nonetheless always been a questionable matter. In art history, it is well known that wherever the artifacts of the past manifest the demand for collective labour – and this extends deep into the individual production of significant architects, sculptors and painters – administration spoke with a decisive voice. For that reason even in the past administration by no means lived in a happy harmony with those who today unhesitatingly call themselves the creators of culture – a romantic desire fondly projected backward into history.

Characteristically, Adorno keeps the problem a live one, neither comfortable with the two in opposition nor fetishising art as a sacred or reified object. Welsch quotes Alison Gerber – “artistic practice has undergone an occupational turn” – suggesting that artists now see their work as serious, or as a job. When has it not been serious for those compelled (through whatever motivations) to write? Were Dickinson, Genet, Lispector or Rimbaud less serious about their writing as an occupation than the young artist Gerber invokes?

Welsch’s essay makes little reference to how the broader world of work is shifting, in particular its emulation of the cultural industries. Cultural labour has some troubling and familiar features, as Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt’s article ‘Precarity and Cultural Work in the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work’ (2013) attests:

Studies have highlighted a number of relatively stable features of this kind of work: a preponderance of temporary, intermittent and precarious jobs; long hours and bulimic patterns of working; the collapse or erasure of the boundaries between work and play; poor pay; high levels of mobility; passionate attachment to the work and to the identity of creative labourer (e.g. web designer, artist, fashion designer); an attitudinal mindset that is a blend of bohemianism and entrepreneurialism; informal work environments and distinctive forms of sociality; and profound experiences of insecurity and anxiety about finding work, earning enough money and ‘keeping up’ in rapidly changing fields.

How much of this is applicable to your own situation? The careers of colleagues and friends? With the exception of passionate attachment to the work (one assumes) much of the above could describe any person engaged across the strata of the gig economy, whether a sessional lecturer or an Uber driver. As Richard Florida comments in his book The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (2002): “As paradigms of entrepreneurial selfhood, ‘creatives’, as they are now labelled, are the apple of the policymaker’s eye, and are recipients of the kind of lip service usually bestowed by national managers on high-tech engineers as generators of value.”

Not only are these syndromes of creative labour, they also become the model for late capitalism, as more companies seek to tap into the kind of socialised selfhood that engages workers in their own exploitation. Welsch juxtaposes a traditional view of professionalism, “a top-down process or policing of behaviours”, with “savvy individuals” and the possibilities of the “creative ecology”. In doing so, he leans heavily into those “paradigms of entrepreneurial selfhood” that find themselves locked in a form of self-policing, through a combination of material deprivation (at no point does Welsch or anyone he cites suggest you can make a reasonable living off poetry) and anxiety about reputational standing. How compelled are you to write and act freely when your income depends on grasping the next tenuous opportunity?

In making his case, Welsch employs the same language that proved so terminal for that great American salesman Willy Loman, without considering the inherent competitiveness it engenders, the cost demanded from that form of professionalism, and most crucially the great appeal art has in eluding what is easily measured and contained. If you want poetry to be, in the words of Jo Bell and Jane Commane’s How to Be a Poet: A Twenty-First Century Guide to Writing Well (2017), “more fulfilling, life-enriching and creatively satisfying”, my advice is you find something else to do. As Blanchot asserted of Kafka’s work (in The Space of Literature, 1982), “Art is primarily the consciousness of unhappiness, not its compensation.”

Welsch suggests that the language of the professional could be weaponised to promote a greater diversity in the poetry community. Initiatives such as the excellent Ledbury Emerging Critics Programme should be applauded for the efforts made to disrupt the established order. However, I would contend that one does not solve inequality by aggressively pursuing a form of self-exploitation, or embracing the language that enables it. We should be resisting at all points the professionalism of anything as gloriously unauditable as writing, embracing instead all its radical possibilities. Leave fame for the arseholes. The best way to be a writer in real life is to be in real life.

The Poetry Review 1084 Winter 2018Andrew Spragg’s recent publications include Now Too How Soon (Contraband, 2017) and, with Beth Hopkins, Dogtown (Litmus, 2018). This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:4, Winter 2018. © The Poetry Review and the author.