Labour and the economic subject in contemporary art
John Roberts: Art After Deskilling / Angela Dimitrakaki: Reflections on the ‘Labour Turn’ in Contemporary Art / Marina Vishmidt: Art and Labour as Anti-Matter: Why and Why Not
Art After Deskillingby John Roberts
The absence of would-be palpable skills in contemporary and modern art has become a commonplace of both conservative and radical art criticism. Indeed, these criticisms have tended to define where the critic stands in relation to the critique of authorship and the limits of ‘expression’ at the centre of the modernist experience. In this article I am less interested in why these criticisms take the form they do - this is a matter for ideology critique and the sociology of criticism and audiences - than in the analysis of the radical transformation of conceptions in artistic skill and craft in the modern period. This will necessitate a focus on modernism and the avant-garde, and after, as it comes into alignment with, and retreat from, the modern forces of production and means of reproduction. Much, of course, has been written within the histories of modernism, and the histories of art since, on this process of confrontation and exchange - that is, between modern art’s perceived hard-won autonomy and the increasing alienation of the artist, and the reification of art under the new social and technological conditions of advanced capitalist competition - little, however, has been written on the transformed conditions and understanding of labour in the artwork itself (with the partial exception of Adorno). This is because so little art history and art criticism - certainly since the 1960s - has been framed explicitly within a labour theory of culture: in what ways do artists labour, and how are these forms of labour indexed to art’s relationship to the development of general social technique (the advanced level of technology and science as it expressed in the technical conditions of social reproducibility)? In this paper I look at the modern and contemporary dynamics of this question.
Reflections on the ‘Labour Turn’ in Contemporary Artby Angela Dimitrakaki
In an effort to make apparent the turn to an economic subject in recent art, this paper will open by presenting contemporary artworks, or better art projects, that involve labour, the labouring subject and/or labour relations. Contemporary art’s investment in labour assumes various forms and, as I will argue, it is symptomatic of changes in the economy rather than expressive of a broader left consciousness in the arts. In other words, the rise of labour as a sign-reference in recent art does not amount to a political project, even if it indicates a departure from the staples of postmodernism and, in some quarters, the desire to provide an alternative to capitalist economic relations. Beyond this assertion, this paper wishes to pose a number of questions around these developments. For example, given that the art discussed is firmly embedded into institutional contexts that remain tied to a capitalist market economy, what role do images of labour perform in such contexts? And, to the extent that the labour of the artist is also transformed, does it unsettle the hegemonic features of a contemporary capitalist work ethos or is it in fact an expression of the latter?
Art and Labour as Anti-Matter: Why and Why Notby Marina Vishmidt
In order to determine what makes labour a question for contemporary art we would first of all have to revise the Adornian topology of autonomy and heteronomy. Under the sign of abstract labour, a managed and elite 'creativity' poses the current condition for both labour in general and what was once the opposite of abstract labour - the concrete, individual and unbound art work. Though it is a challenge to retain the ontological dimension of the critical split between autonomy and heteronomy as the condition of art after the 'conceptual' and 'institutional' turns, we can still pursue its political economic implications which identify the material and ideological conditions for the ultimate unconditioned', art, while appreciating the very equivocal resistance that the aesthetic category of the 'unconditioned' can offer to the value-form. The appearance of labour in contemporary art can also be looked at in at least two ways: as mimesis, and as a prototype for the becoming-contingent, guaranteed and 'unconditional' of wage labour in general. From the historical cases that marked the porosity of the art/labour divide like APG and feminist artists like Ukeles, Rainer, Montana and Kelly, to the contemporary audience labour of 'participation' as spectacle, to the infernal post-factory kitsch of Mika Rottenberg or John Bock , labour has always been a symptomatic issue for art. More broadly, the phenomenon of artistic labour can be seen to reflect class and gender contradictions as well as the processing of art into 'culture' as a mode of symbolic and financial accumulation which would paper over those contradictions - what kind of labour is performed here by the category 'art'? Within art production, labour comes up as a kind of dangerously attractive 'anti-matter', an ongoing perversion and inversion of two forms of human activity that the social relations of capital must keep apart. With the 'totalising' effect' of global capitalist relations as discussed in the panel summary, we see a negative dialectics (negative because objects don't go into their concepts without a remainder, without struggle) of reciprocity between the becoming-art of labour and the becoming-labour of art. It is to the extent that art practices refer to or embody forms of temporality, knowledge and subjectivity which do not easily enter the concept of abstract labour while subsisting through it, that labour can be a critical approach to the economic and grammatical subject of contemporary art.