Spiral Jetty
Art and Labor / Art as Labor

The class in Utah viewing Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty"

The class in Utah viewing Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”

This seminar, taught by Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art History, UC Berkeley, and which included an interdisciplinary group of students from Anthropology, Art Practice, History of Art, Performances Studies, and Rhetoric, considered how artists and theorists alike have understood art—making as a form of labor—as purposeful effort structured by class relations and economic imperatives. Within art history, art making is viewed as a mode of production much like any other, and as such is open for categories of analysis such as valuation, distribution, and consumption. How does this assertion stake a claim for the political relevance of art? How do theorists conceive of how art itself works—how it acts, functions, and performs? Art has been explicitly contrasted to work—the “free,” “unproductive” counterpoint to the grind of alienated wage labor. This seminar examined a range of writings that variously assert that art is labor and that it is leisure. What theoretical work does art do? And how do we make sense of starkly opposing opinions about the relationships between art, autonomy, the culture industry, and elitism? Case studies focused on art since 1960, including dematerialized conceptualism, task-based dance, feminist craft, and artistic organizing within the Occupy movement. In addition to these activities, seminar participants presented their work from the course in a culminating event.

Full Syllabus and Reading List

ART AND LABOR

UC Berkeley • Spring 2013  • Wed. 9-12

Prof. Julia Bryan-Wilson • juliabw@berkeley.edu • office hours Tues. 2:30-4:00

Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory

UC Humanities Network/Mellon Sponsored Seminar

COURSE DESCRIPTION

Since the nineteenth century, artists have sought to affiliate themselves with the working class: think of the artists of the 1848 Revolution, the Russian Productivists, the Mexican muralists, and the WPA-era Artists Union. Artists claiming to be workers: this is arguably one of the hallmarks of the avant-garde. However, the folding of art into the category work is by no means seamless, as these activities are differently valued, classed, and compensated.  More recently, artistic production has been theorized as a paradigm for what is called “postwork,” given its emphasis on flexible labor and creative knowledge production.  In this seminar, we look at recent practices that have redefined artistic labor to explore questions of taste, the service economy, precarity, deskilling, the production of affect, outsourcing, and immaterial labor as they ramify within both art and contemporary forms of work.

This seminar considers how artists and theorists alike have understood art making as a form of labor—that is, as purposeful effort structured by specific class relations and economic imperatives. At the same time, however, art is often explicitly contrasted to work—the “free” and “unproductive” counterpoint to the grind of alienated wage labor under capitalism.  We will examine a range of writings that variously assert that art is labor and that it is leisure.  What work do these theorists ask art to do?  And how do their conceptions of labor lead to starkly opposing opinions about the relationship between art, autonomy, the culture industry, and elitism? How have both art and work mutated given the rise of reproductive technologies and the spread of globalized labor?  How does art position itself both as work as well as the “outside” or “other” to exploitative labor? In an era marked by changing conceptions of work, looking to artistic formulations of labor gives us a new lens with which to consider the ramifications of making, effort, collective organizing, and surplus value in the 21st century.  Our case studies focus on art since 1960 and will include dematerialized conceptualism, task-based dance, the feminist embrace of craft procedures, “outsourced” performance, and artistic organizing within the Occupy movement.

During our trip to Robert Smithson’s massive earthwork “Spiral Jetty,” we will investigate the physical construction of this piece, as well as seek to understand the work in relationship to its landscape, the economy and production of place in Utah, and artistic pilgrimage. We will further consider how the piece circulates as a photographic document, as a film, and as a tourist destination.

This seminar, while organized around and through recent art history, is interdisciplinary in scope and theoretically diverse, intersecting with wider humanities inquiries, and is open to all graduate students who are interested in broader questions of cultural production and the politics of making.

Designed by Joey Enos, UC Berkeley

How Does Art Work?
Designed by Joey Enos, UC Berkeley