Art and Labor

We have organized this daylong conference to explore the status of the art object in relation to how things are now produced. We are positing that labor is of central importance to art making. Labor can be explored as a popular and very juicy subject of art, and as the work of the artist and the many other laborers (artists assistants, curators, installers, writers, designers) that contribute to the manufacture of the object of art, or, in some cases, the moment of art. The act of making mediates between our inside and the outside, for each of us and for society as a whole. That we make things is driven by biology and necessity; like breathing and socializing it is part of being human. Each one of us grows into the history and culture of making that we are born into; our making is always transforming that culture even as it is determined by it.

We would like the conversations generated by this conference to contribute to the understanding of Art and Labor through various frames of reference. First, there is the labor it takes to make art; both the labor of the artist and/or the labor of others who produce the work. It is important to explore how this labor is valued or devalued. Labor and its value raise questions about the place of craft and skill in our valuing of art—if they have a place at all.

Second, we might also consider the laborers who work within the infrastructure of art: curators, art handlers, writers, dealers and museum directors. Thinking about the artist and the art object in relation to these people and the power structures they inhabit raises issues of class that are inextricably part of fine art’s value and the labor relations that support it.

Third, the artist occupies a peculiar place in class structure. Working with our hands we are laborers. And yet, by expending a great amount of time and materials creating ostensibly useless objects, we are wastrels, dilettantes, connoisseurs. The artist functions at once as a déclassé laborer and as a decadent god. Either way the discomfort associated with mucking about in the dirt is pushed as far away as possible.
We often find ourselves in the position of a boss supervising laborers who are working for us. Unlike curators who rarely get their hands dirty rooting around in the physical world, artists often do. As we gain recognition, we artists often end up, by choice or necessity, keeping our hands clean as well. Historically, art making has been tied to working with materials. Working with materials involves intelligence and thoughts that are rich in ways quite different from the thoughts that are generated while seated at a desk. Desk thinking floats free from the resistance and logic of time and space in the material world; and yet desk thinking is no less fraught with the time and space of the material world. Freud has described thinking as the practicing of action. In fact, desk thinking is even more fraught than material thinking in that we are capable of expending much more time and materials by giving commands from our desk than we ever could if we had to execute those commands ourselves.

The two kinds of thinking need not be divorced from one. Our question is: why has the thinking that grows from physical labor been relegated to the lower status? What effect has this had on art, not only on the ways in which it gets made but also on the values that get ascribed to these various kinds of making?

We wonder, does art reflect our means of production? Artists used to be understood as craftspeople. Art was an object made by hand. Perhaps art was the repository of more eccentric impulses than those generated by the making of life’s necessities—soap, toys, furniture, houses—all made by people locally and with available materials. Now we are aware of very little, if any, of the making of the things we need. It happens elsewhere, often overseas. We are able to have many things because they don’t cost what they would if we ourselves were the makers. Where Marx worried about alienated labor—the effect of workers making things that they themselves could not afford to buy—today we experience the opposite (but no less alienating) phenomenon of being able to buy things that we could not afford to make. It is of course a great pleasure to have all these things and to be able to engage with such an enormous pool of significance and stimulation. But it is also painful and numbing to be so divorced from the making of things and from the people who make them for us.

Our art today reflects this distance. And so, a lot of art, on the face of it, seems to be not about making but about currating. To collect things and re-arrange them is a widely respected form of activity. Art mirrors our lack of production or, more precisely, it mirrors how acceptable modes of production—what we are willing or unwilling to do—have changed. Just as many of us are not willing to mend our clothes or clean our homes and are willing to pay other people to do those things for us, art conflates the luxury of choosing what we want to do with the menial tasks that make that luxury possible: painting, keyboarding, stitching, sanding, editing.

Art making has traditionally been the placeholder for the continuation of learning through making that we all engage in as children and which some of us continue to engage in as artists and tradesmen. Do we need this part of ourselves to be reflected in the culture we live in? Or are we happy to be rid of such reminders of the physical world together with its awkwardness, its frustrations, and its mortality?

Jessica Stockholder
Joe Scanlan
June 2004