Week 6 : Situations-Work Ethic-Helen Molesworth & more thoughts on the socially-engaged artist.

Helen Molesworth’s curatorial essay for Work Ethic at the Baltimore Museum of Modern Art in 2004 was an interesting read for me in that it threw a different light on the movements of the 1960s. While I had seen those movements-Art Povera, Performance, Conceptual Art, Land Art and so forth- as the artists failed attempt to escape the market, Molesworth suggests that the artists were mimicking economic shifts in the wider world.

The post war economy boomed and the labour market saw a shift from manufacturing to the service industry and to managerial jobs. Works such as Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its own Making reflects this new focus on the labour rather than the end result while conceptual work and work that focussed on arranging and cataloguing ideas reflected as seen in Sol le Witts work the move to the service and managerial sectors. It is interesting this focus on labour and its consequent spotlighting of the author, which was initially part of Duchamp’s enquiry when he created his urinal back in 1917, only developed up in the America of the late 1950s.

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Robert Morris, Box with the sound of its own making, 1961. Image available at http://www.twocoatsofpaint.com/2017/11/ideas-influences-bjorn-meyer-ebrecht.html

In studying the development of the white cube, that metaphor for the market and that tool of the activist artists, that there is a hiatus between the initial breaking down of the picture plane-which was initiated by the Impressionists and continued by Cezanne and the Cubists, Lissitsky and Schwitters-and the enquiry of the artists role and the bursting out of the artwork, and so the artist’s process, into space. A break of about forty years between 1920 and 1960. This can be attributed in part to the World Wars I suppose. O’Doherty in his essays also suggests that this hiatus was either the result or cause of the white cube gathering meaning to itself, meaning which meant the cube, while being a tool of the market also provided the artists with a tool with which to query the capitalist system which the market represented.

All that is to say there are a number of forces at play here and I do not think it is straightforward to figure out which came first:the capitalist system’s shift from a dependence on goods to a focus on services or the artists shift from object to process, but the delay in taking up Duchamp’s ideas, the pause before the picture plane exploded, suggests that the shift in the arts and the artist’s role was led by the market rather than the other way around. But it may be that that is the only way it can be. There is the culture and then there is the artist reflecting and critiquing that culture. This seems to negate the idea of the artist being at the vanguard of the culture, driving development  forward. However on second look, in reflecting the culture back at itself perhaps si all that is needed to continue the enquiry that inspires change.

What I do wonder is how consciously the movements of the 1960s and 1970s rejected the culture?Many artists seemed to be sticking it to the man rather than acting as a faithful mirror to the capitalist economy. Perhaps the nature of much critique is imposed on the artwork in hindsight, by the artists or the audience. It would follow then that the individual artist, is merely a part of a long-term enquiry that spans more than a generation. This in itself brings into question the artists role but also provides a new perspective on the pressure on the artists to be ‘socially engaged’. By being an artist one is automatically part of a long term cultural project which aims to develop our world ergo one is, as a creator, socially engaged. One does not necessarily have to take to the streets to be a socially engaged artist. We are mirrors reflecting aspect of our culture, more than one sort of mirror is needed.


Moving on from this idea though, one wonders though how effective our mimicry or reflection of our culture is. Even if it is critique how long does one copy something before they become it?Or to paraphrase the theme of the many noir detective novels which I use as chewing gum for my brain..

…how long can one walk in the dark before one becomes a creature of the night?

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American Abstract Artists meaning business . Image available at http://www.falseart.com/mark-rothko-adolph-gottlieb-and-barnett-newman-a-brief-manifesto/ [accessed 13/3/2018]

With the passing of the time, the artists critiquing of the world of work became more conscious. Gilbert & Georges’ donning of suits is a conscious critique of the working man whereas Barnett Newman’s earlier suit wearing would have been more about professionalizing the artists role. Jackson Pollock adopted the costume of the blue-collar worker for the same reason as Newman, to honor the labourer, where Sarah Lucas working class persona would be very much a part of her work. Artist’s enquiries reached to the mechanics of the working life too:Bruce Nauman videoed himself working in his studio, as Sean Landers later did. Slowly the artists’ persona and the work intermingled. Latterly this mimicry of the worker in the system has segued into an experiment in breaking down the boundaries between our working life and the rest of our lives as well as between the artist and the non artist. The Situationists used the gallery to cook meals for the public,   Ragnar Kjartsson’s piice for the 2009 venice Biennale involved spending six months painting a friend in a bath while they both drank beer.

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Ragnar Kjartsson, The End, Venice Biennale, Icelandic Pavilion. Image available at https://www.widewalls.ch/artist/ragnar-kjartansson/

While these experiments may seem to dance on the edge of killing the artist off entirely, in inviting the world into the gallery, they echo what Josef Beuys had already proposed:that society was a sculpture and everyone in it an artist. This is an idea which can appear to devalue an individuals’ lifetime of striving to learn artistic skills. However that is only when one looks at the artist’s role as it was when Modernism ruled.

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Josef Beuys, Felt Suit, 1970. Image available at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/beuys-felt-suit-t07441%5Baccessed 13/3/2018].

 The value of the social sculpture is that it posits a way out of the voracious system we both as artists and non-artists, find ourselves being repeatedly devoured by. The social sculpture challenges the very roots of that capitalist system, our beliefs about what is important in life, the division of our hours, days and years by the powers that be into work and social life, the claiming of our very lives by the system. In mimicking the working world the artist has evolved beyond it, sacrificed their own persona to offer the glimmer of a possible alternative to the power structures that rule our lives today, an egalitarian system, an organic structure made of cells all working to the same end. As we said above, every artist is a socially engaged artist but why should we not all be socially engaged people?

If this sounds a bit vague, that is because it is so far. Better people than I will have explored further and deeper, but still, we will continue this enquiry in further posts.

Further Reading

ArtDaily.org, Work Ethic at the Baltimore Museum, on www,artdaily.org, [online], 2003, available at http://artdaily.com/news/7383/-quot-Work-Ethic-quot–at-Baltimore-Museum-of-Art

Molesworth, Helen, Work Ethic, 2004, Baltimore Museum.

O’Doherty Brian,  Inside The White Cube, 1999, University of California Press.


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