Thursday, August 1, 2013

I Feel So Far From Where I Am

I found Rahul Bhattacharya's post "Analogue: The Possibilities of Resistance" very compelling and thought provoking.  It is a given that issues of labour have always been politically problematic—both within and without the art world.  Now-a-days it seems that we no longer directly speak of labour, but rather, we cloak it in the rhetoric of time.  By this I mean that we often do not measure work in terms of the intensity of effort but rather in terms of duration.  I find this curious because time is an abstract concept and physical effort is decidedly concrete and palpable.  I was trying to figure out when this happened – when was it we began to deny the physicality of labour and favour the abstract supra-mundane world of the ticking clock?  Perhaps it is this sound that is the noise of which Rahul speaks in the above mentioned  post.  We have grown so accustomed to the measured tempo of our labour that we scarcely notice what it is that we are actually doing.  We are entranced and perform like automatons fulfilling small tasks in a world that has seductively reconfigured Taylorism as a way of being.  How did we get here – is there a way out? 

In 1776, Adam Smith notes if labour is divided or segmented the subsequent output (and profit) increases.  To illustrate this he uses the example of a pin-maker.  A solitary pin-maker, according to Smith, must go through many steps to produce a single straight pin: straighten the wire, sharpen one end and apply a small button on the other, etc.etc.  As a solitary task, the pin-maker can produce no more than 20 pins per day; yet, if this action is divided into 18 discrete tasks, completed by 18 different people then the productivity increases.  However, when the consumer looks at the pin in the shop there is no implicit residue of the labour required to create the pins.  There is no way to determine whether the pin was made by one or by many.[1]  The labouring bodies of those who painstakingly pieced together the humble pin are put under erasure. 

So if we extrapolate out from Smith’s (now somewhat antediluvian and utopic) treatise on the possibilities of particularized labour and apply it to the world of artistic production are we not faced with the same issue?  Labour is not implicit in artistic practice.  It is often difficult to apprehend the amount of labour required to produce a work of art.  Without a doubt the introduction of digital media into artistic practice has muddied the already opaque waters.  To be sure, the artist is the proprietor of the idea but the labour involved in the execution of the idea is often parceled out to others who have the technological know-how and access to the necessary equipment.  I see no issue with this practice as it is a logical outcome of the medium in the same way that the artist who paints no longer grinds and produces his/her pigments but instead goes to the shop to buy ready-made paints.  However, what is lacking is the sufficient means by which to theorize and understand the relationship between labour and art and what it means in the postmodern world.[2]  It seems that we have come full circle back to Smith’s example of the pin-maker – there is no way to tell whether one or many made a given work of art.

Without a doubt, the labour of the contemporary artist is entangled on so many levels but it seems to me that it always has been.  At least since the ateliers of the Renaissance or the Mughal courts, artistic production has often been the result of particularized labour.  I remain skeptical that a return to the tried and true analogue methods of artistic practice is the means by which to create a space of resistance, although the proposal is, in itself, quite radical.  I think the problem resides not at the level of practice but, as I said earlier, at the level of theory.  The artist need not change methods or mediums, rather we need to change our thinking.  We need to radicalize our understanding in order to create the mental spaces of resistance.  These spaces will lead to conversation and our conversations will lead to greater awareness and greater awareness will lead to real social change. 

[1] Adam Smith,  An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, 1776 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, Electronic Classics Series Publication, 2005), 11-12.
[2] It is worth noting here that I use the designation of  “postmodern” with skepticism and suspicion as I remain personally and academically unconvinced that we are presently residing in an era in which the issues of the modern have been successfully resolved.

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