Artist Burnout: The Inevitability of Burnout in the Contemporary Socioeconomic Context
The History of Burnout
While “burnout” may seem like a relatively new buzzword, a 2022 article in The Washington Post outlines the decades-long history of the term. In it, the author Jonathon Malesic describes how “burnout” was coined by a US psychoanalyst working in a free medical clinic servicing mainly young people, in the wake of a broken countercultural idealism. By the 1980s, burnout had become a key term to describe the widespread condition of frazzled and defeated US workers.
Burnout as an Issue of Mental Health
In contrast to its historical roots, contemporary conceptions of burnout tend to view it as an issue of mental health. Work-related burnout is a strong contributor to “allostatic load”, a term that describes the cumulative burden of chronic stress on individual health, and which is associated with an alarming range of physical and psychological impacts. Many books and articles offer advice for burnout prevention, typically advocating for self-care and adjusting expectations around productivity.
Artist Burnout in the Contemporary Socioeconomic Context
Artist burnout in the contemporary socioeconomic context has a particular dimension to it. Much of this has to do with the fact that artist work is largely immaterial, which makes it hard to quantify and set boundaries around. Artists labor not just with their bodies, but with their subjectivities, communicative abilities, identities, cultures, and communities. These elements of artist labor are not generally valued by ideologies of budget-balancing austerity.
The Attention Economy and Artist Labor
The attention economy has increasingly defined the terms by which contemporary art is commissioned. This incentivizes a constant flow of disposable artistic activity, which puts pressure on artists to remain socially and creatively visible. In this production paradigm, artists are generally independent gig-workers, and their creative communities are easily instrumentalized as “professional networks” for the purposes of production.
The Inevitability of Burnout
When artists have little control over the structures that produce art and face precarities in terms of stability, remuneration, and community support, burnout becomes an inevitability. The industry needs to be fundamentally reorganized to address this issue urgently. Advocacy should focus on creating a stronger collective voice, reevaluating the value of artist labor, and implementing changes to commissioning and funding structures.
Shifting our Advocacy
If the industry advocacy around artist well-being shifts to a labor-focused lens, it would mean moving beyond responsibilizing supports and superficial adjustments. Instead, the industry should be reorganized to prioritize the well-being and support of artists. This could include long-form and iterative practices, accessible and generous funding processes, employment of local artists, fair taxation of entities profiting from artists’ work, and the establishment of artist unions.
A Stronger Collective Voice
By recognizing the value of artist labor and demanding a more artist-centered industry model, artists can create a stronger collective voice. This may involve going on strike together and advocating for fundamental changes that prioritize the well-being and support of artists.
This article is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.