Art After Deskilling

In: Historical Materialism
John Roberts University of Wolverhampton

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The absence of would-be palpable skills in contemporary and modern art has become a commonplace of both conservative and radical art-criticism. Indeed, these criticisms have tended to define where the critic stands in relation to the critique of authorship and the limits of ‘expression’ at the centre of the modernist experience. In this article, I am less interested in why these criticisms take the form they do – this is a matter for ideology-critique and the sociology of criticism and audiences – than in the analysis of the radical transformation of conceptions in artistic skill and craft in the modern period. This will necessitate a focus on modernism and the avant-garde, and after, as it comes into alignment with, and retreat from, the modern forces of production and means of reproduction. Much, of course, has been written within the histories of modernism, and the histories of art since, on this process of confrontation and exchange – that is, between modern art’s perceived hard-won autonomy and the increasing alienation of the artist, and the reification of art under the new social and technological conditions of advanced capitalist competition – little, however, has been written on the transformed conditions and understanding of labour in the artwork itself (with the partial exception of Adorno). This is because so little art-history and art-criticism – certainly since the 1960s – has been framed explicitly within a labour-theory of culture: in what ways do artists labour, and how are these forms of labour indexed to art’s relationship to the development of general social technique (the advanced level of technology and science as it expressed in the technical conditions of social reproducibility)? In this article, I look at the modern and contemporary dynamics of this question.

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