Art and Labor: Some Introductory Ideas

By Stockholder, Jessica; Scanlan, Joe | Art Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Art and Labor: Some Introductory Ideas


Stockholder, Jessica, Scanlan, Joe, Art Journal


Art and Labor was a public discussion that took place at the Yale University School of Art in September 2004. Convened by Jessica Stockholder and Joe Scanlan of Yale's MFA program in sculpture, the participants included Miguel Adrover, Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg, Helen Molesworth, and Hirsch Perlman. Here we present texts and images by several of the participating artists, along with images by artists from Molesworth's 2003 exhibition and publication Work Ethic.

-Patricia C. Phillips

We have organized this forum 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 juicy subject of art, and as the work of the artist and the many other laborers (artists' assistants, curators, installers, writers, designers) who 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 the labor of others who produce the work. It is important to explore how this labor is valued or devalued. Labor and its value raises 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. 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; 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. …

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