‘The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization’ reviewed by Stevphen Shukaitis

The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization

Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2017. 288pp., $65 / £48 pb
ISBN 9780804796415

Reviewed by Stevphen Shukaitis

About the reviewer

Stevphen Shukaitis is Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex and a member of the Autonomedia …


In 1959, Frank O’Hara began planning a book of poetry collected from writing he had done during his lunch breaks at the Museum of Modern Art. Encouraged by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it was eventually published in 1964 by City Lights Books, as part of their Pocket Poets series with the fitting title Lunch Poems. What can we make of it? Is the collection a mere curiosity, or is there more to learn from it? In The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization Jasper Bernes describes these poems as being written by a worker on a lunch break, with the intent that they would be read by another worker on lunch break. In this sense the writing and reading of poetry is ‘not so much opposed to the workday and its unfree time of getting things done as they are a space for an alternative kind of work – ‘working’ on poems’ (39). And with this, we immediately go from sandwiches to the relationship between artistic work and labor. What might appear as the outside of work is not an outside at all, but rather a different configuration of a working practice, and another way of working. 

But what is this other way of working, and how can we understand the relationship between artistic forms of work and broader labor practices? This is the question that occupies Jasper Berne’s excellent book. As he proposes on the first page, it may seem that it has become commonplace to suggest that the work of art and work in general ‘share a common destiny’, especially to anyone familiar with Marxist thought, but also that this has ‘rarely been demonstrated with adequate rigor’ (1). Bernes does not fall back on the claim that art is a mirror of economics, repeating a base and superstructure model, but rather suggests that there exists ‘a complex set of reversible mediations between different social spheres where wage labor and forms of unfree work provide the social and technical means for art work’ (1). 

It is these mediations between social spheres that Bernes explores, teasing out those relationships by exploring the poetry of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, as well as the relationship between cybernetics and the poetry of feedback. He looks at the way Bernadette Mayer’s 1970s audio-visual installations registers the restructuring and feminization of work. Thus the mid-twentieth century deskilling and restructuring of labor serves as a background for exploring changing relationships between artistic production and labor. This is a crucial period, as the dynamics of the deskilling of labor most closely associated with factory work spread into professional jobs. In other words, deskilling came to affect not just blue collar jobs, but also white collar ones. This resulted in a restructuring of office work into higher paid managerial labor and low paying Taylorized clerical positions. Bernes’s approach here is it to analyze the literature that emerged as this deskilling, and arguably further proletarianization, developed and deepened as it moved into different areas of social life. Would white collar workers sing the blue-collar blues upon finding their labor routinized, automated, and deskilled? Bernes suggests that this is best described not as a deterioration of conditions (though it was very likely experienced as one), but rather more accurately as a process of polarization, where white collar workers came to increasingly resemble their blue-collar counter parts (81). 

But these processes were not just a polarizing of class structure internal the workplace, but also involved a restructuring of the embedding of work in social life. The restructuring of labor involved the dissolution, and scrambling, of previously solid distinctions, such as those between work and leisure, and the workplace and home, at the same time as it became increasingly difficult to distinguish art from other forms of social practice. Bernes thus suggests this is one of the reasons why few cultural critics have paid much attention to the transformation of labor in recent decades, because the relationship between work and leisure, between home and work, ‘have been so scrambled as to render labor indistinguishable within the field of social activity’ (32). Or as the autonomists would say, we are living in the social factory where all of life has been put to work, and thus can no longer distinguish between them. 

And this is where Bernes analysis of the reversible mediations between art and labor becomes really engaging. He suggests that while there is no single term that can bring together all the shifts in the relationship between art and the workplace, but the ones that come the closest are those of participation, collaboration, and interaction. These are the concept that are mobilized by humanistic and psychologically influenced management theory in the 1970s as ways to address worker discontent, countering job dissatisfaction with job enrichment, forms of team building, and self-management practices. This is paralleled by attempts to transform artistic practices into life practices, reviving the avant-garde drive to sublimate art into everyday life, around a very similar set of concepts. Taking this argument further are figures such as Joseph Beuys, who suggested that the use of ‘participatory mechanisms is, in and of itself, a kind of revolutionary politics, or at the very least a direct contestation of the domination at work in capitalist societies’ (12). 

This sharing of conceptual territory between experimental arts, radical politics, and management, provides an interesting way for Bernes to investigate their interactions. In one of the most compelling arguments in the book he claims that the radical politics and counterculture that emerged during the 1960s have a close relationship with artistic practices, but not one that is necessarily straightforward. Bernes suggests that the various literary and experimental currents helped to ‘articulate, though certainly not to create, these new qualitative complaints and demands’, for instance in denouncing hierarchy in the workplace, racism, war, etc. These artists were not simply expressing their own personal dissatisfactions (though there were a good deal of that), but in doing so also prefigured many of the critiques of work and society more generally that would develop in subsequent years. Or as Bernes frames it, they ‘provided some of its key terms and coordinates’ (9) – that they “provided a conceptual grammar and vocabulary – a set of reference points or coordinates with respect to which these dissatisfactions could be articulated” (91).

This registering and articulation of a shared discontent with work and society, did not just provide a grammar for a new politics, but likewise became utilized in the restructuring of capitalism, and in the reorganization of the workplace. Making an argument that parallels the work of Boltanski and Chiapello in their book The New Spirit of Capitalism (2007), Bernes describes how the development of postindustrial capitalism ‘depended on a subtle transmutation of the critical intentions and imaginings of the poets, artists, and theorists of the 1960s and 1970s’ (149). This framing of it as a subtle transmutation, perhaps an alchemical process, is useful in the sense that it does not fall into the usual critiques of cooptation or recuperation, but points towards something more ambiguous and messy. And in this sense the sharing of conceptual vocabularies, for instance as found in cybernetics, is not so surprising. Cybernetics functioned as a common ground for those both who thought the main issue was a lack of control (to be addressed through developing more palatable forms of decentralized control), as well as those argued that there was too much control (for whom it represented a model of organization for a postcapitalist future free from domination and exploitation). Or, as Bernes put it, the ‘power of cybernetics lay in its ability to dissolve oppositions, to transform a contest between opposed entities into the internal self-regulation of some larger entity that included both sides’ (88). All your autonomy are belong to us.

Where do these considerations leave us now? It is this question that drives Bernes to end the book by moving from historical questions to recent practices and artists. He suggests that this blurring of boundaries between art and labor is an irreversible process. Furthermore, the rhetoric of craft and skilled production will be limited in its effects, hampered by its nostalgic and backwards looking nature, although there could perhaps be some sort of compromise between artisanal and high production: Uber + Etsy for the win? Today making an appeal to aesthetic values, or to a search for meaningful and rewarding work, no longer holds the same desirability it once did. How could it? Perhaps the manic invocation that creative workers are to ‘love what they do’ is all the more repeated precisely as it becomes impossible when transformed into an injunction and a demand, rather than an invitation.

Celebrating the value of work, of work as meaning making, is especially perverse in a situation where work has become increasingly precarious, and not just for artists and cultural workers, but more broadly. Bernes connects this to the poetry of Sean Bonney, and the way that Fred Moten and Harney theorize the nature of fugitivity and self-organization in the undercommons, or all the forms of self-activity and self-organization that occur even when they are not recognized as such (2013). Though the difference here is that, following Moten, Bernes specifically wants to investigate fugitivity at the level of poetic form, which implies ‘processual, non-teleological history’ (191) that develops not a utopia, but rather is based on improvisation in the face of challenging conditions (incarceration, poverty, indebtedness). Bernes wagers that these conditions are likely be become more prevalent in the twenty-first century, and thus such aesthetic norms will likely thus become all the more prominent as well.

In that sense, perhaps in hindsight, it will have ended up being beneficial that conditions of precarity emerged earlier for artistic and cultural workers than elsewhere. Bernes argues that art’s autonomy does not exist in being separate from the world of labor, but rather from being connected to it. In the same way that experimental arts were able to articulate discontent with the workplace and industrial society before the flowering of mass political movements, providing a new political vocabulary, likewise they can develop conceptual coordinates emerging from the present. If art can be thought of as autonomous it is not through its reflection of economic and social realities, but through how it can select, reject, or negate certain aspects of it. ‘Art does not simply reproduce what it finds in the world but reconstitutes and reconstellates it to form models of prospective futures. This speculative process makes art into a sort of social laboratory’ (33). The question then is what is to be done in the social laboratory of the arts both today and in the future.

25 May 2017

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