During the day, thoughts about recent conversations with a colleague about art and work, work in this case being on our art, not labor to earn a living, came to my mind. Why the distinction between labor and work? The confluence of several themes, not related to my art practice but dominant within the greater industrial arts complex came towards one another and when I ‘bounced’ out of bed this morning, they had met. Even without the first cup of coffee the confluence of these micro events was being built into an edifice and a structure, which I needed to get down on digital paper.
Now the occasional reader may ask, why do I bother to acknowledge this minutia, why not get to the heart of the matter? Well I write this more as a conversation with myself somewhat; conversational is of interest, not lecturing or brow beating. The minutia is a way of marking thought and place and the background is the soil of life lived practical experience, which has helped form and sometimes focus my thoughts.
This is in contrast to what will follow.
I’ve mentioned previously that I studied zoology with an interest in animal behavior, besides that though I minored in Philosophy and received a somewhat practical liberal arts degree. I’ve kept only a few text books from those college years: “Food Production and Its Consequences” by Philip E. L. Smith, “Population, Evolution and Birth Control” assembled by Garrett Hardin, “Invertebrate Zoology” by Robert D. Barnes, “Earth” by Frank Press and Raymond Siever and finally the one book that I still bring up in conversation and will do so now, “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” by Karl Marx.
One of the hallmarks of today’s successful artist is that they actually don’t make anything, save for the occasional old fart like Terry Winters. I say old fart, as I am one too although not quite as “old”. It is common knowledge that Damien, Jeff and a litany of others never get their hands dirty. Hey neither did Donald Judd and even in the days of long old, works were fabricated by assistants and the master would come in to touch it up. But the level of involvement by artists in the conception, fabrication and production of their work has gotten to an all time high or low depending on your preferred nomenclature, it is as if, to actually physically interact with your ideas made material is retardataire.
I know for a fact of an artist who had a late mid career retrospective in France who exhibited more than a small handful of working drawings for sculptures and the actual sculptures, these sculptures along with the drawings were conceived, fabricated from low unto high by the assistant and the artist came in to later sign and back date the working drawings. This artist never chose materials, colors, size, anything! Wow, must be good to be the king, or queen in this case.
What does this have to do with good old Karl, well relax, I’m not going to go into some long winded theoretical monologue about capital, just a few quotes as food for thought.
From Estranged Labor
It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.
(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.
(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.
In fact, the proposition that man’s species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature.
The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.
Hence within the relationship of estranged labor each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the relationship in which he finds himself as a worker.
||XXV| We took our departure from a fact of political economy – the estrangement of the worker and his production. We have formulated this fact in conceptual terms as estranged, alienated labor. We have analyzed this concept – hence analyzing merely a fact of political economy.
Let us now see, further, how the concept of estranged, alienated labor must express and present itself in real life.
If the product of labor is alien to me, if it confronts me as an alien power, to whom, then, does it belong?
To a being other than myself.
Who is this being?
All italics are in the original and the bold mine.
I knew an artist, a now well known artist, Hugo Boss winner and the like, before he became a hot tomato. We worked together, work as in labor, and I also worked with him on a few of his projects, I appeared in a video of his and performed in several of his performance works. He was complaining one day about how he felt constrained by his gallerists and was tired of making his “thing”, his brand. My thought upon hearing that was that he was estranged from his own practice, I knew he did not have a studio and was working only through ideas. Hey ideas are great, they are necessary and a lot of work suffers because it is thin on ideas. We have two extremes, work that is idea less and the other, all ideas and no praxis.
The studio practice for me has been an invaluable laboratory to conduct R & D. I get an idea into my head and make it in the studio into a tangible physical structure but along the way, as I work, as I struggle, as I play, other ideas form on seemingly their own accord, almost independent of me. I see how a material operates with another, a color against another, a form or picture in struggle and the work hints at me, sometimes yells at me, do this, do this!
In this dance and in the learning over the years about the physical nature and limits of my materials I have been transported to a place I could never have imagined being. That trip has been of utmost importance, it has allowed me to become aware of my potential. Only in the working within this physical realm could I have gotten there. Ideas lead to other ideas but if they just are of the mind they tend in my opinion to wither in potency. We do not live just in our heads but inhabit a body, in fact the head is just a part and extension of the body.
The body knows itself and comes into being by its interaction with the physical world, not just human to human contact but actually knowing and understanding the materials. A great chef knows the freshness of their food, if it isn’t fresh they know how to dress it the best way possible. A lot of great recipes and sauces were invented to mask the severe lack of freshness, more like rot and how did they arrive at this? By taking the time to interact with it, to play with it and with the accumulative life experience of the kitchen they know which spice or other thing will punch it up.
Food isn’t theoretical, it is real. We share food, we share our meals and we converse, sometimes over a good bottle of wine about the food and life. Food is a necessary staple but also a gift that we share as SOCIAL ANIMALS. And I dare say, art is a similar thing but now we are inundated with recipes for art and not the actual meal itself.
Another river that came into confluence was regarding young internet artists or artists who use the web and social networking as their meme. Upon reading some of what I would say are amateurish manifestos, more of the same cynicism and recipe art with the real goal being getting attention and being taken seriously was the constant theme of “Branding”.
The problem with Branding is that it circles the wagons and says this is it, this is our stand, this is mine. In fact there was this kind of generational ax to grind, as this is ours and you can’t touch or have it. No community meal there, no desire to share, no desire to give. Branding means coming up with a commodity and a tagline, branding is death incarnate, it is the death in the guise of individual expression that denies the social aspect of sharing and the ability, one would hope of personal evolution and hopefully larger social political engagement with the great ills we face. This is the great irony of the social network, the individual branding has shown a lot of the same unquestioning mindset, visual lack of appeal and more banal SAMENESS. Branding in their terms was said in complete seriousness and lack of irony. I’ve had it up to here with irony but branding in today’s culture needs a good solid whack down.
There is much to be thought about in regards to how the internet is changing our way of communicating to one another, it is as shattering as the printing press, but this was/is not it, just old conceptual ideas in new window dressing.
It was and is to my mind the continued infantilization of culture, more so here in the United States. Where else can the 40’s be the new 30’s? If that is so, the the 20’s are the new teens and interesting as adolescents are in their rebellion, most want to be loved.
Maybe more later, now it is time to go to the lab.