The Un-artist

What do artists need to know? asks Michael Corris

Allan Kaprow was inclined to state the obvious to good effect. In one engaging denunciation of the conventionalised Avant Garde, Kaprow lifts the veil, declaring ‘artists cannot profitably worship what is moribund; nor can they war against such bowing and scraping when only moments later they enshrine their destructions and acts as cult objects in the same institution they were bent on destroying’. According to Kaprow, an alternative to this situation of stupefying professional self-regard would be to treat the entire enterprise of art as a form of ‘low comedy’ wherein all its participants would merrily ‘give up all references to being artists of any kind whatever’. Such playful misdirection is at the heart of Kaprow’s concept of the ‘un-artist’ and builds on his earlier framing of Happenings (Reviews AM355).

Why did Kaprow find it necessary, as an artist, to engage in ‘changing jobs, in modernising’ the practice of art? Why the insistence on renouncing the professional trappings of art and the call to ‘drop out’ of the world of art? Part of the reason is found in Kaprow’s reading of the significance of Jackson Pollock’s work. Pollock’s drip paintings were an epiphany for Kaprow; they inspired a line of thought and practice that realised an attitude of ‘playfulness toward all professionalising activities well beyond art’. (All quotes from Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life.)

Kaprow’s dim view of the reality of the Avant Garde is not simply about the failure of cutting-edge art to literally mean what it says. Kaprow’s analysis has deeper implications concerning the way a particular cultural practice is embedded in a form of life. For Kaprow, the artist had been deprived by the early 1970s of her last pretence of competency; namely, the ability to manage a career as an artist allied with the Avant Garde. Rather than respond to an environment ‘sponsored by art galleries and discotheques’ and continue to create art that resembled ‘fun house’, ‘window display’ and ‘obstacle course’, the new challenge would be to take the notion of the Avant Garde literally and respond to the world in full in the spirit of play.

Playfulness is not a tag one would necessarily attach to the Artist Placement Group (APG), founded by John Latham and Barbara Stevini in 1966. APG was taken for what Latham and Stevini said it was and was assessed on that basis by much of the art establishment. The judgement was harsh; in the wake of APG’s 1971 Hayward Gallery exhibition artists and critics reviled the organisation and its founders. In articles in Studio International Gustav Metzger dismissed APG as irresponsible, characterising the group’s jargon as the language of the Holy Fool, and Stuart Brisley accused Latham of being a tyrannical egotist; Peter Fuller, in Art & Artists, pointed to the group’s lack of political vision and naivety about the structure of corporations and the very nature of industrial labour. Taken literally, Latham’s image of the artist as incidental person – ‘someone who gains access through an art idiom to the omnipresent universe in a sense that is otherwise occluded’, as he described it in Report of a Surveyor in 1984 – and APG’s initial policy of placing artists in industry would appear to respond to at least some of Kaprow’s complaints about the ghettoised, foxing Avant Garde of the late 1960s. The universal legitimacy of the creative capacities of the artist is the core belief that animated APG. It is this belief that inclined Latham and Stevini to overlook as irrelevant the crucial question of what an artist would need to know in order to function successfully in a collaborative enterprise outside the bubble of the Avant Garde. Beyond an accord with Latham’s baffling concepts such as ‘time-base theory’, ‘delta’, ‘least event’ and other formulations set out in its 1966 Prospectus, the artist in industry would receive no other instruction from APG or from management than ‘to work on their own projects as artists’. Over time, APG expanded its brief and advocated the insertion of artists into the fields of manufacturing, land reclamation, the psychiatric health services and local governance. The assumption was that creativity as expressed through art did not have to be reconstructed; the artist would simply insert himself or herself into the new situation and perform. In Latham and Stevini’s words, ‘the future must involve a more integrated and comprehensive approach to political and social organisation, in which the insight of artists could have a significant liberating role.’

Latham’s rationalisations and terminology curiously resemble another grandly generalising, eccentric thinker, the Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950). Korzybski is the author of a theory of communicative dysfunction supported by fragments drawn from linguistics, anthropology, science and philosophy. His psycholinguistic model – developed throughout the mid 1920s and early 30s – is said to have anticipated Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy and later programmes of neurolinguistic programming (see http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/korzybski_timebind01.htm and http://esgs.free.fr/uk/art/sands.htm). Korzybski’s focus on ‘time-binding’ in his theory of general semantics and Latham’s notion of art as ‘event structure’ show a common concern with the inability of language to deal adequately with the experience of time and change. Both individuals emphasise the importance of revising those habits of mind that are imposed upon us by an inadequate linguistic resource of expression. Korzybski reminds us that ‘the map is not the territory’, while Latham exclaims that our ‘common sense perception’ ultimately leads to a divided state of consciousness. Lastly, both are fond of using graphs to explain and give authority to their conjectures. Among the gurus of creativity it is commonplace to suggest that an institution will benefit if the expertise developed in one area of specialisation is introduced into another; 45 years ago, this was not a universally accepted axiom in management theory. Today, serious doubts continue to be raised by thinkers like Richard Sennett concerning the adequacy of such a model of interdisciplinarity and social encounter. To some of Latham’s peers, APG smacked of the counterculture gone mad, arrogating a power it did not deserve to wield and an expertise it did not possess. In the spirit of entertaining alternatives, there is no reason not to behave generously towards the speculations of either Latham and Stevini or Korzybski. Yet, it is difficult to see how APG’s legacy can serve as a usable model for a revised relationship between art, business and the state when the notion of creativity has been hijacked by corporate culture and fashioned into a management tool that is apparently indispensible to global capitalism.

Adrian Piper’s 1975 essay ‘A proposal for pricing works of art’ is an attempt to redescribe the work of art in terms of its actual cost of production. Rather than accept the arbitrary pricing of art with respect to the market, Piper proposes that ‘exchange value be identical to production value’. The departure here is the grounding of aesthetic value in production value so that art’s nature as a ‘created artefact’ is highlighted. Furthermore, Piper indicates that the production value of the work of art may be incorporated into the work itself – as an inscription, like the signature of the artist – and this price would be fixed as a condition of sale. Piper maintains that exchange value ‘is not a sufficient condition of aesthetic value’; whatever the price of a work of art, our appreciation of it should be independent of that price. She next contemplates the consequences of such a scheme, one possible outcome being the radical contraction of the art market to the point where ‘art, as well as art- as-speculation and art-as-investment security might disappear’. Another possibility would be a populist expansion of the market for art and the introduction of a modicum of economic security for artists: ‘it might happen that such a programme facilitated producing art as a modest means of self-support for more artists by making it more economically accessible to more people.’ In Piper’s view, this would also enable us to conceive of ‘artists as workers rather than as constituting a privileged class. It might also make possible a greater solidarity with other workers’.

Piper’s article is symptomatic of the intense alienation felt by some artists during the 1960s in relation to the social and political vectoring of the market in art. Her contribution continues a conversation among artists that had been alive on the left since the explosion of the art market during the 1960s and was significantly amplified in New York during the period of the widest appeal of the Art Workers Coalition (AWC), 1969-71. An unsigned polemic circulated in 1969 throughout the AWC, and which predates Piper’s scheme for pricing works of art, asks: ‘if there were no art market would artists make art?’ and ‘is art that’s worth a lot of money worth more than other art?’ (www.primaryinformation.org) The identification of the artist with wage workers and the generation of reformist projects aimed at the organisation of the art market – such as Seth Siegelaub’s ‘The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement’ of 1971 (Interview AM328) – have their echo in contemporary efforts like Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) that aim to ameliorate some of the more blatant exploitative practices suffered by artists. In Piper’s case, these ideas were disseminated through a publication initiated by and aimed at artists that invited contributions from those ‘concerned with trying to reclaim art as an instrument of social and cultural transformation’ and who wished to align themselves with ‘a broad social base in positive opposition to the ideological content and social relations reproduced by “official” culture’.

The position of art with respect to labour was a problem that exercised the Australian artist Ian Burn. Beginning in the late 1970s, Burn worked as a trade union journalist for the Union Media Services and collaborated through the late 1980s on educational and other projects produced for the Art and Working Life programme of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Some of Burn’s art at the time included satires, like Antipodo-centric Cubism, 1878, 1985, which were intended for a broad audience and aimed to reimagine European modernism as a comfortable, homespun, Australian cultural phenomenon. Like Kaprow, Burn recognised the ‘diverse roles for the artist to play’ that did not necessarily reinforce conventional attitudes towards art, creativity and culture. At the same time, Burn was cognisant of a long and deep tradition of images of labour and of 20th-century art’s conflicted relationship to that particular strand within the history of realism. Speaking to this tradition, Burn presents a clear challenge to the trade unions, noting ‘if this art represents a recovery of purpose for artists, then it remains for the union movement to make greater and more diverse demands of artists’. But, before a mutual relationship could be established between artist and organised labour, a good deal of ground had to be cleared. In doing so, Burn was the first artist since Kaprow to consider in detail the concept of deskilling in art and its relation to a broader crisis in art that culminated in Conceptual Art (Ian Burn, Dialogue: Writings in Art History, 1991). The deskilling of labour is an idea as old as the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites smashed machines; in our time organised labour continues to protest against contracts that reduce the scope of a worker’s craft or create redundancies through automation. Historians of art like Benjamin Buchloh and Claire Bishop and critics such as John Roberts have all engaged with the concept of deskilling in their accounts of modern and contemporary art, but the notion of deskilling I wish to highlight was developed and refined much earlier by Burn and articulated in a groundbreaking essay of 1981. It is impossible to separate Burn’s articulation of deskilling during the early 1980s from earlier texts and conversations that took place in New York, from 1970 to 1977. The context for this work includes Burn’s collaboration with Mel Ramsden and Roger Cutforth in The Society for Theoretical Art and Analyses and the artist’s subsequent publications in Art-Language, The Fox, Red-Herring and Artforum.

The acquisition of medium-specific skills and their disciplined application is still a powerful description for many of the core values that define the making of contemporary art. The cause of the dissolution of the bond between medium, expertise and execution is laid at the feet of various technologies of representation, most notably photography. In general, the emergence of the Avant Garde in art and its continuation throughout the mid-20th century is explained in formalistic accounts as the outcome of the encounter between artists and developing reproductive technologies. If the history of the Avant Garde and its demise has any interest for us at all today, it is because it teaches us that new ideas about what artists need to know in order to retain their integrity were slow to follow in any comprehensive way. The disorder and confusion sowed by the awareness of one’s homelessness in a technologically dynamic society is not easily mitigated. The artist must decide whether the mass of half-baked ideas, failed projects and hilarious symbolic gestures of rage that have tumbled down from the past are more instructive than the tedious historicism of some recent accounts of contemporary art.

Burn discusses the problem of deskilling in the context of the emergence of Minimalism, making the claim that the ‘tendency to shift significant decision- making away from the process of production to the conception, planning, design and form of presentation’ encouraged a climate of disdain that devalued the traditional skills of art making as well as making it less likely that students would acquire ‘any skills demanding a disciplined period of training’. Burn assumes that the traditional, craft-based skills of the artist are core to the practice of art making. On the face of it, this is a rather odd assertion for an ex-conceptual artist to make, unless one attends to the Australian context in which Burn was working – namely, the trade union movement – and recalls the artist’s long-standing commitment to providing an adequate account for the conditions under which modern art was received in Australia. This particular complaint about deskilling is supported by Burn’s observation that contemporary Australian mural artists have produced work of a relatively low level of proficiency.

Burn’s account of the 1960s also brackets an intensive period of re-education. Like many artists during the late 1960s and early 70s, Burn – along with his principal collaborator Mel Ramsden – was an enthusiastic autodidact whose aim was in part to collect the intellectual resources required for a thoroughgoing critique of late-modernist art and its culture. By the time Burn and Ramsden began to contribute to the collective Art & Language, their essayistic practice was well established and included a rich metaphorical vein centred on the idea of pedagogy. ‘Heuristics’, ‘dithering devices’ (a term taken from mechanical engineering) and the ‘anti- textbook’ are but a few of the ways in which the urgent need for unlearning and relearning as artists was articulated during this period (see Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden and Terry Smith, Art-Language: Draft for an Anti-Textbook, vol 3, no 1, September 1974).

As I have already mentioned, when Burn composed his reflection on the 1960s he had already shifted his focus from working as an avant-garde artist to working as an artist engaged with organised labour. The worker and the artist were considered by Burn to be similarly affected by deskilling. For the worker, it was the imprint of Fordism throughout blue- collar and white-collar jobs, coupled with the tremendous pace of automation in basic industries, that contributed to labour’s misery. What Burn had recovered from the history of labour was a common experience that would bridge the gap between artist and worker. Convincing, meaningful work with the Australian labour movement demanded such common ground and the analogy Burn had drawn from the history of the deskilling of labour seemed to fit the bill.

Does this analogy hold? For the context in which Burn was working, I would answer in the affirmative; however, I am less disposed to endorse Burn’s analysis of deskilling to cover the entire field of art making throughout the West during the 1960s and 70s. Despite the fact that conceptual artists, among others, had lost hold of the store of practical know-how with regard to the making of art objects (paintings, drawings, prints and constructed, carved or cast sculpture) they gained another set of skills. Philosophy, linguistics, sociology, political economy and so on were the new fields of knowledge that the conceptual artist drew upon.

For Burn, essayistic conceptual art had to give way to artist-activism. Organised political struggle did not dispense with the need for self-managed education; it introduced new priorities and shifted the dialogue from art to the needs of the labour movement. The idea of art as an instrument of solidarity meant meeting the audience halfway. This politically motivated populism showcased a concept of creativity drawn directly from Marx; it was used by Burn to disaffirm the difference between the position of alienated labour and the position of the artist. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the division of labour into manual and intellectual work did not figure in Burn’s calculus of engaged art; certainly, the head and hand were divided here. Rather, Burn was looking for a way back from the desert of lost making skills that had, in his view, become the legacy of Conceptual Art. In one sense, Burn wished to rebalance the field of skills and competences available to artists; to reach a settlement between head and hand that was grounded in a history other than that of the Avant Garde. The history invoked by Burn is the history of the engagement of art with labour; a history that was rendered problematic by the fact of the readymade, its relation to the Avant Garde of the 1960s, and its impact on contemporary art.

The reconfiguration of the job of the artist and the nature of the artist’s education are enduring concerns. Kaprow’s romanticisation of the everyday – his wilful confusion of art as metaphor and art as practice/agency – is attractive to some artists because it ultimately demands very little of them socially or politically. The duality of art as expression and as agency – an insight that can be traced back to Kaprow’s reading of Pollock – also opens the door to the kind of schemes exemplified by APG and enthusiastically embraced today by foundations and trusts eager to pair artists with scientists, engineers, sociologists, the military and the ‘community’.

What counts as an adequate array of skills and competences for artists remains a central, controversial issue. Anyone who teaches art will be familiar with the conflicts that arise when practitioners of differing persuasions come together in an academic setting. More than ever, the art curriculum is a battleground. This battle is not only one that is internal to the university or art and design school. Debates about the curriculum of art and the nature of research in art have been forced together and they are now seemingly inseparable. The artist-educator – a role assumed at one point or another by all those mentioned in this text – knows from bitter experience that culture and commerce have always collided in academia. The education of the artist – including what the artist ought to know in order to deal with the constantly shifting constellation of culture and commerce – remains a site of contention.

Michael Corris is professor of art and chair of the Division of Art, Meadows School of the Arts/SMU and the editor of a series on art since 1980, forthcoming from Reaktion Books, London.

First published in Art Monthly 357: June 2012.

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