Readings – Work Ethic – Helen Molesworth

Nice reading this, draws parallels between the post-war shift away from manual manufacturing towards services and management, and the way artists’ working methods began to shift as a response.

Rauschenberg’s erased deKooning, Frank Stella and his house paint, and Robert Morris box with the sound of its own making are put forward of artists’ preoccupation with artistic labour. Leo Steinberg “The work strips the adverb from the definition of art. A thing done – period.”

Artists began to be interested in the process of the making of work and focussed on it as an end in itself. Traditional making skills were valued less as time went on. There was a parallel with post-war society; managerial and service labour became more prevalent, and there were anxieties around the shifting terrain and definition of work. An increasingly affluent middle class in the 1950s developed who needed more goods to consume so more people were needed to instruct workers to make these goods.

Duchamp’s urinal had long before questioned the notion of the unique creation of the skilled artisan and the value of aesthetics. Though as artists embraced this and were determined to make works which wouldn’t be seen as mere commodities, the viewing public began to find it all a bit hard to understand. Also, Duchamp and Barthes both emphasised the role of the viewer as the final destination of the artwork, “The birth of the viewer must be at the cost of the death of the author.” Artists like LeWitt, Judd and Yoko Ono began to investigate ways to challenge or subvert their own authorship. LeWitt began to see himself as a sort of clerk.

The art school model also was changing in parallel; it became very important to be able to theorise and articulate your artistic concerns, and traditional, skills-based training waned. Artists began to be aware of portraying themselves publicly as workers of a certain type; Pollock painting  his large canvasses – Barnett Newman in a suit looking like a business executive.

Loft living became a feature of the artists’ lives, where city councils would allow artists to reside in lofts where light industry had taken place, but only on the condition they actually produced work while there. Therefore the notion of what the artist’s role actually was and what he should be physically doing while in the studio was up for examination. Chris Burden – “Honest Labour”, where he dug a ditch over 3 days. The ditch was actually useless, but he had to work physically hard to make it. It therefore had merit as “work” even though there was no functional or commercial value to it.

Others worked the notion of the viewer into their practice, and considered their role and often obligations, challenging the notion of the passive observer. Allen Kaprov – “Fluids”; where participants built a wall of ice only to then watch their labours melt away. He wouldn’t allow the piece to be documented though, arguing that it was experiential only. You had to be there, literally. Also Yoko Ono questioned the viewer’s role as voyeur/spectator by presenting her audience with moral dilemmas regarding her own nudity and physical intimacy.



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