Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Dematerialization, Contracted Labour and Art Fabrication: The Deskilling of the Artist in the Age of Late Capitalism

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Dematerialization, Contracted Labour and Art Fabrication: The Deskilling of the Artist in the Age of Late Capitalism

Article excerpt

The period from 1966 to 1971 saw the emergence of at least three fabrication firms solely fabricating for artists in the United States: Gemini G.E.L., Lippincott Inc. and Carlson & Co. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the existence of artists' fabricators gained attention in art discourse, arguably for the first time since the exhibitions acknowledging fabrication in the late 1960s and 1970s.1 This visibility accompanied what Claire Bishop called the 'collaborative turn' in art, doubtlessly stemming from conversations around the English-language publication of Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics in 2002. Journal issues and books considering 'collaboration' often give a nod to contracted labour in art, while unproblematically co-opting and collapsing art fabrication into one of many collective practices. Most notable is Artforum's issue devoted to 'The Art of Production', published in 2007 amid the contemporaneous debates on collective practice, and Julia Bryan-Wilson's 2009 Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War, which repeatedly emphasizes Robert Morris's 'collaborative' process of working with contracted workers, including those employed by Lippincott Inc., on his 1970 Whitney show.2 Others seek to establish a legacy for the art fabricators, as in Jonathan Lippincott's 2010 book Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s, devoted to images of his father's fabrication company. Rather than appropriating the aforementioned art fabricators for a larger 'collaborative' agenda, this article intends to understand the fabricators within the context in which they emerged, not only as companies making for artists but as businesses within the economic sphere. In this article, it is argued that the emergence of the art-specific fabrication businesses within this period was a response to the wider ideological conditions of a gradual deskilling of work within America throughout the twentieth century, as identified by Harry Braverman. The contracting of industrial manufacture and the artist's de-linking from his or her manual skills is considered in terms of the wider labour conditions within the period. Beginning with the art historical context of 'deskilling' (i.e. the rejection of the artist's hand in making art), this article will look closely at the deskilling thesis as proposed by Braverman through to the Fordist ideology that dominated American life in the 1960s, before returning to consider the working practice of the fabricators and its relation to the 'dematerialization of art' identified within this moment.

In 1968 Lucy Lippard and John Chandler opened their essay 'The Dematerialization of Art' with the following statement: 'As more and more work is designed in the studio but executed elsewhere by professional craftsmen, as the object becomes merely the end product, a number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art. The studio is again becoming a study.'3 This statement testifies to an emergent phenomenon in art making in this period, that is, the separation of the idea from the physical form of the artwork. The works of art discussed in 'The Dematerialization of Art' are those of a conceptual nature. Writing in the early moments of conceptual art, and taking their lead from Joseph Schillinger's schema, Lippard and Chandler envisaged a move to a 'post-aesthetic' art to come in the near future. Although conceptual art is the article's concern, its opening statement is a reference to minimalist works, on which Lippard had previously written.4 It was the artists associated with minimalist art who began to use the early artists' 'fabricators' in America in the 1960s; Judd, LeWitt and Morris were among them. For 1960s conceptual art, the onus was on the idea. A conceptual artist did not necessarily produce an empirical object; if they did, it was often surplus to the idea. With minimalist art, objects were produced, but not always by the artist, thus pioneering the utilization of industrial production methods. …

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