Over the last two decades, John Roberts has established himself as probably the most original Marxist critic of the contemporary visual arts around. It offers an unusually thoughtful, and genuinely radical, alternative to dominant ways of understanding the nature of art in the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first. Alex Potts The Intangibilities of Form proposes nothing less than a powerfully original labor theory of culture, highlighting the prominence of a context shaped by the readymade, to account for the constitutive interlacing of contemporary art and technology, skill and deskilling. By situating the instance of conceptual art within an environment of production marked by the structuring logic of the commodity form and social division of labor, he has both restored to art criticism and art history a lost vocation, and delivered to cultural studies and its current explanatory ambitions a demanding challenge. Harry Harootunian A profoundly original approach to the fate of the aesthetic and the avant-garde in contemporary society through the labour theory of culture
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In this the writing involves less a discussion about specific artworks or their interpretation , than an analysis of the kinds of labour contained in artworks, as a reflection on a wider debate about artistic labour and productive and non-productive labour and the limits and possibilities of authorship.
Why is it that artistic labour is taken to be an exemplary form of human activity and, as such, is judged by some writers to be the basis for the emancipation of all labour? How have productive labour and non-productive labour impacted on the production of avant-garde art challenging traditional accounts of aesthetic value and expression?
In The Intangibilities of Form, I have made these relations explicit, by insisting that it is impossible to explain the ideals of the early avant-garde without stressing the overwhelming importance artists have placed on how they have laboured, in contradistinction to, or identification with, how they perceived others non-artists labouring.
For the early avant-garde — as much as for the post-Second World War neo-avant-gardes down to the present — the identification or misidentification with various forms of productive and non-productive labour has determined what kind of function and use-values art might best possess in order to secure its critical identity or autonomy. This process is reflected from the s onwards, of course, in the increasing withdrawal of the notion of artistic value from the mimetic capacity of the expressive hand in painting and sculpture.
With the rise of the readymade there emerged an irreconcilable displacement of the link between handcraft and skill.
This initiated a huge explosion in revolutionary thinking about the social form of art beyond the artisanal production of the conventional studio. Indeed, the use of non-artistic labour in the form of delegated work or the incorporation of productive labour in the form of the readymade defines the broader political horizons of the early avant-garde: the dissolution of the division between intellectual labour and manual labour as the basis for the future dissolution of art into social praxis.
For example, Productivism emphasized the assimilation of the worker into the artist and the artist into the worker in order to transform the alienated character of both, just as Constructivism stressed the importance of the need for the artist to incorporate the technical results of productive labour into artistic practice if art was to find a place beyond its own alienated aestheticism.
The introduction of the readymade into art, in this respect, represents the impact of a more fundamental set of cultural changes: the increasing interaction between artistic skills and the social relations and material forms of technology artistic technik under the increasing incorporation of technology and science into production general social technique.
This raises an important methodological question: what kind of theory of authorship do we want after the displacement of the author from the centre of his or her artisanal labours in the twentieth century? This distinction is crucial because, despite the general cultural assimilation of the avant-garde and acceptance of the readymade in contemporary practice, there is much intellectual confusion about what constitutes skill in art after the readymade and the critique of productive labour and art in the early avant-garde.
If today there is a notional acceptance that the readymade, and later Conceptual art, have irreversibly changed the value of what artists do, there is little understanding about why — on the basis of the alignment between artistic technique and general social technique — this is the case, and therefore, a limited understanding of why deskilling in art after the readymade does not represent an absolute loss of artistic sensuousness.
Yet, because art is not wholly subject to the law of value to the discipline of the technical division of labour and necessary labour time , the subordination of handcraft to technique does not result in the stripping out of skill from art in the same way sensuous artisanal skills have been stripped out of productive labour since the nineteenth century.
The absence or presence of skill in art, therefore, is not derivable from a model of handcraft as such, because art does not experience an incremental process of deskilling which leaves producers at a lower level of capability than previously attained, otherwise we would only be able to designate certain kinds of handcrafted objects as art.
Deskilling in art, rather, is the name we might give to the equalization of artistic technique after art enters the realm of general social technique. In other words, deskilling is what happens when the expressive unity of hand and eye is overridden by the conditions of social and technological reproducibility; it is not a value judgement about what is or what is not skilful according to normative criteria about art as painterly or sculptural craft.
Accordingly, the split between artistic labour and the conventional craft-based signs of authorship which follows from this split, necessarily links artistic skill in late capitalist culture to a conception of artistic labour as immaterial production.
Artistic skills find their application in the demonstration of conceptual acuity, not in the execution of forms of expressive mimeticism. The readymade may have stripped art of its artisanal content, but this does not mean that art is now a practice without the hands of the artist and without craft.
This is why I stress the importance of the emergent totipotentiality or multifunctionality of the hand in artistic labour in contrast to the operative hand in productive and non-productive labour. As the mediator of best practice, the emergent totipotentiality of the hand remains central to the social destruction of the real subsumption of labour and the technical division of labour in any post-capitalist system.
Without the qualitative transformation of the relations of production the hands of productive and non-productive labourers will continue to be subordinate to the machine, even when machines are taken into collective ownership — as the history of Stalinism amply demonstrates. That is, the agency of this emancipation is not secured simply through an imposition of aesthetic labour onto heteronomous, productive labour.
This is a form of art-led idealism, inherent to many kinds of aestheticized politics, on both the left and right. In this way, by emphasizing the production of art within a dialectic of skill and deskilling the defence of artistic value is divested of its common confusion with traditional forms of painterly and sculptural sensuousness.
Indeed, the virtue of the dialectic of skill and deskilling in thinking about art after the readymade and Conceptual art is that the problems of making and talking about art are grounded in the indivisibility of technical issues and social questions.
This is why there is such a general air of melancholia in much contemporary art criticism and art history, radical or otherwise Benjamin Buchloh, T. Clark, Thierry de Duve, Hal Foster , because there is an overwhelming attachment in this writing to loss of affect in front of the artwork at the expense of any deeper understanding of the technical conditions of modern and contemporary practice. Consequently, this book establishes another topology for modern and contemporary art: one in which artworks, after the readymade and the craft of reproducibility, become focal-points for the redefinition of skill within a socially expanded understanding of the circuits of authorship.
My primary concern in The Intangibilities of Form, therefore, is with the process of deskilling and reskilling as it bears on the exchange and collaboration between artistic labour and non-artistic labour, artistic hands and non-artistic hands. In the introduction [Replicants and Cartesians], I explore artistic technique and general social technique in relation to the issues of reproduction, reproducibility and copying.
This reading of Duchamp as a theorist of artistic labour differentiates my position from much of the new Duchampian scholarship, with its emphasis on Duchamp as an artist of consumption. In my reading Duchamp is always an artist of production.
In this respect this half of the book offers a more generalized picture of where artistic labour and non-artistic labour are conjoined in post-Conceptual and contemporary practice, and what distinguishes the labour of the contemporary neo-avant-garde artwork from the early avant-garde artwork.
What function does the dialectic of deskilling and reskilling perform in art after the immaterial transformations of productive and non-productive labour and the expansion of intellectual labour in art? What are the dynamics between art and general social technique today in conditions of the age of the hyper-museum?
Is there an actual convergence between the immaterial skills of post-Conceptual art practice and the immaterial labour of some sectors of the new economy? And, if so, how does this form of the skilling—deskilling dialectic equate with the circuits of authorship developed in the early avant-garde? In short The Intangibility of Form reinstates the dialectic of deskilling—reskilling in art as a way of explaining why the question of authorship has been so fundamental to avant-garde art and neo-avant-garde in the twentieth century.
For, without addressing this dialectic the avant-garde remains incomprehensible as a revolutionary critique of both art and productive labour. The first part of this revolutionary critique is, no doubt, more believable today than the latter part, given the present utopianism of the aesthetic critique of productive labour. But, nevertheless, the emancipatory horizons of this critique continue to assert themselves in both political philosophy and artistic practice.
This makes my claims for the centrality of the deskilling—reskilling dialectic less obdurate than might first appear. For even in a period of extraordinary corporate control of culture, and the heightened efflorescence of the capitalist sensorium, the effects of this critique continue to form the political horizons of artistic practice in all kinds of public and subterranean ways.
As such, The Intangibility of Form is not only concerned with recovering a history of the hidden labours of the artwork, but also with setting this history in the context of the critical demands of the moment.
Introduction: Replicants and Cartesians In the s the debate on simulacra, copying, surrogacy and authenticity dominated Anglo-American art discourse.
Touch and manual dexterity had lost their place as markers of artistic taste and authority. What largely united these earlier anti-Cartesian moves was a theory of montage as social praxis.
We regarded ourselves as engineers, and our work as construction: we assembled [in French: monteur] our work, like a fitter. The post-gendered monteur was now merely an ensemble of techniques, functions and competences. In the s much critical art and much art theory under the banners of postmodernism and post-structuralism was produced within this framework.
Where once the expressive skills of the male artist were existentially inflated, now they are deconstructively deflated. Indeed, the critique of authorship is now the template of contemporary neo-Conceptual art and post-object aesthetics from Glasgow to Manila.
Yet, despite this would-be theoretical displacement of the artist from the privileged scene of his or her production, the issues of simulacra, copying, surrogacy, virtuality and the readymade remain largely one-dimensional in art theory and contemporary cultural theory. This is because the theoretical moment of the debate on authorship in the s has come down to us through a discourse of apocalyptic anti-humanism, unnuanced anti-aestheticism and undialectical social categories.
But, unfortunately, this simplistic historical elision is what has usually stood for thinking in art schools and cultural studies departments in the s and s, dominated as they were by versions of post-structuralist simulation theory and deconstructionism. As such, hyper-simulationism has come to be seen less as the ideological impeachment of all other art, than an end-game style akin to s monochrome painting, which is why Levine herself soon retreated from the extreme implications of her work.
Nevertheless, questions of appropriation, copying, replication, simulation, and so on, have become the necessary terrain on which art after Conceptual art continues to pursue its sceptical skills. There is no value or critique of value in art without these forms of scrutiny. Furthermore, the notion of the artist as a monteur in the broad sense is now one of the key moves identifiable with the dissolution of the boundaries between fashion, style and art in our consumerist-led culture.
Many younger artists see their identity as linked to the execution of tasks across formal, cultural and spatial boundaries.
Commitment to one method of production or form of distribution, one set of cognitive materials, one outlook, is decried. One of the consequences of this is the emergence of a historically novel tension between a received and depoliticized older notion of the avant-garde critique of authorship, and the reinvention of the artist as creative entrepreneur under the increased glare of celebrity culture.
The idea of the artist as an ensemble of functions, becomes a set of multitasking career opportunities. Rather, it is further evidence of how the laws of exchange operate on art in the epoch of its technological expansion and diversification.
The acceptance of some aspects of the critique of authorship in early avant-garde art and Conceptual art in current art has become the means whereby the new administration of art has reinvented itself in order to secure its access to the new, entrepreneurial, technologically driven culture and to new areas of cultural capital. In the absence of the pressures of the traditional artistic and cultural hierarchies, artists are freed up — indeed encouraged — to become curators and critics, and curators are freed up to be artists and critics, in ways that benefit the multiple commercial ventures of the mass distribution of art.
As a model of the artist-as-entrepreneur the notion of the artist as an ensemble of functions turns largely on the pursuit of market opportunities. The militant, destabilizing, uncomfortable aspects of the critique of authorship have been written out of the reckoning, or treated in a cursory and peripheral fashion.
The allegorical complexities of the intentions and competences that underwrite the critique of authorship — in fact sustain its logic of negation — have been dissolved into a cultural studies model of semiotic consanguinity. This has led, overwhelmingly, to a critique of authorship without the discomforts of ideology critique and the critique of the capitalist value-form, as if attacking the myth of self-expression was in and of itself a critical strategy.
Indeed, the deconstructionist attack on authorship as an intertextual version of bricolage, is perfectly compatible with the most conservative views on what artists should now do to define themselves as modern. This means retheorizing what we mean by the artist as critic and representor in a world of proliferating doubles, proxies, simulations, etc. For what is increasingly clear beyond the recent moments of the radical negation of authorship in Conceptual art and critical postmodernism is the need for a model of the artist which is unambiguously post-Cartesian, that is, a model of artistic subjectivity which refuses the bipolar model of interiority and exteriority on which modernist and anti-modernist models of the artist are usually based.
In the s, this reemerged in the form of a conflict between neo-expressionism and a photographically expanded neo-Conceptual art practice. The crucial question, then, is how the self-evident collapse of older models of expression and critique in art might allow us to continue to discuss questions of criticality, expression and representation in the twenty-first century. How is it possible to think critique and critical difference in an extended world of neo-artefactuality and neo-visualization?
To answer this we need a model of the modern avant-garde artist that is already beyond the binary opposition of interior and exterior. This model of semiosis is not exactly news. It can be described as materialist semiosis, which has a long and venerable history. Essentially, since the s the self-identity of the artist has become detached from the traditional hierarchies of artistic media.
Artists may continue to work as painters, photographers and sculptors, but painting, photography and sculpture are not in themselves privileged sites of expression and meaning for the artist. Rather, specific media are staging areas for the warping and weaving of the process of semiosis across forms, genres and non-artistic disciplines. Yet, in most accounts of the critique of authorship, from the readymade to digital technology, there is an unreconstructed tendency to adopt the Cartesian model of the artist as the self-bound manipulator of such devices, props and strategies.
Technique, technology and artistic subjectivity — art and social technik — are separated. This is because simulacra, copying, surrogacy and replication are not seen as the superstructural conditions of art under advanced capitalism, but as simply modes or devices of artistic audaciousness. Second-order is first-order. Consequently, the early and late twentieth-century critiques of authorship is the site where the dissolved category of art and the reconstituted content of artistic technique meet, the gateway through which new artistic identities and relations might be formed and the critique of ideology and the value-form sustained.
It is not where the identity of the artist is lost or to be mourned. There is no point, no place, where the artistic self is free of the constraints of prosthetic devices be it paintbrush or digital camera , the demands of copying identification and reclamation , and as such the performative voice or persona recognition of the split between work and authentic self. In this sense we need to distinguish a fundamental set of conditions for art in the twenty-first century.
Under the capitalist value-form social reproduction — the unceasing production and reproduction of the commodity — and technical reproducibility general social technique are conjoined, one driving the other. That is, just as general social technique is subject to the law of value, the law of value is subject to the technical transformations of general social technique.
Hence in a system where the continuity of production is based on technological forms of replication and duplication, the technical conditions of social and cultural life will necessarily be based on forms of iteration the neo-effect. Social reproduction and technical reproducibility become indivisible. The result is that the production of art is no less subordinate to the fundamental logic-of-repetition of commodity-production than other non-cultural commodities.
That is, although artworks seek to reiterate themselves, as all commodities must, this reiteration is determined by the autonomy of artistic subjectivity as opposed to the heteronomy of productive labour.
The Intangibilities of Form
In this the writing involves less a discussion about specific artworks or their interpretation , than an analysis of the kinds of labour contained in artworks, as a reflection on a wider debate about artistic labour and productive and non-productive labour and the limits and possibilities of authorship. Why is it that artistic labour is taken to be an exemplary form of human activity and, as such, is judged by some writers to be the basis for the emancipation of all labour? How have productive labour and non-productive labour impacted on the production of avant-garde art challenging traditional accounts of aesthetic value and expression? In The Intangibilities of Form, I have made these relations explicit, by insisting that it is impossible to explain the ideals of the early avant-garde without stressing the overwhelming importance artists have placed on how they have laboured, in contradistinction to, or identification with, how they perceived others non-artists labouring. For the early avant-garde — as much as for the post-Second World War neo-avant-gardes down to the present — the identification or misidentification with various forms of productive and non-productive labour has determined what kind of function and use-values art might best possess in order to secure its critical identity or autonomy. This process is reflected from the s onwards, of course, in the increasing withdrawal of the notion of artistic value from the mimetic capacity of the expressive hand in painting and sculpture. With the rise of the readymade there emerged an irreconcilable displacement of the link between handcraft and skill.
The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade