Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07573

Monologue/ Soliloquy

 

Monologue/Soliloquy:

 

I am an artist, and an occasional writer. In fact, mostly an art or art related teacher/educator and administrator, occasionally an artist, and even more seldom, a writer. The fact that I am critical of so many artistic practices and tropes in the post-modern/contemporary world, first and foremost my own, makes it extremely difficult for me to violate the pristine calmness and blankness of infinite possibilities residing in an undone art work/project, or in an unwritten essay. For fear of the concrete words, visual or narrative falling short of the immense and fecund possibilities, and of the idea.

 

I have been struggling with the idea of writing this essay for the last many weeks, the deadline was the 20th of this month – today is the 29th, and 4.36 pm to be even more precise. Since it is meant for an online publication, which is not refereed, it may still make the final and irrevocable deadline and be published on the web before the 1st of the next month.

 

Part of the problematic equation I face for this essay is having to write about art, and craft, or art produced by the artist by hand, manually, or outsourced to other artisans or to machines.  Since this is a conceptual and principle stance that I have to struggle with in my own practice as well, thereby making it a concern of a subjective nature. I think it may also be because I have been out of practice, with art and with writing, for some time now.

 

However, as a person, who has sporadically practiced and displayed art, and participated in the artworld, I have made works by my own hand as well as occasionally resourced existing materials or labor for my works, once enlisting the help/work of other artworld practitioners to complete my project. Also, as a participant in the artworld, on whatever level, I have followed, not chronologically or comprehensively, but followed (inadequately) nonetheless, some of what has been happening in the artworld and in the art discourse of contemporary times.

 

I would argue the obvious, that art involves both manual/mechanical as well as intellectual labor. Whether it was produced in the initial phases of crystallization of civilizations, as mimesis, or later during different eras labeled under any one of the multiple isms, or movements all vying to supersede one another. It would be fallacious to argue to the contrary that the Sistine Chapel or Leonardo’s or Rembrandt’s endeavors, or even the Egyptian pyramids, did not involve any intellectual labor, or that the ‘discourse of historical reasons’[1] or contexts had no bearing on the physical manifestations. However, that the intellectual labor involved in the making of art may be paramount in the contemporary times, as once and for all decided by Duchamp’s Fountain, and subsequently by the many who followed suit, is also quite clear. So much so, that there need not even be a form or plastic manifestation of an idea for it to suffice as an artwork. But this statement is arguable, as even in transient art practices, as opposed to plastic art, e.g. performance art, public art initiatives/interventions, community art, or art as activism, etc., there is a visual, or an auditory or some other sensory experience, which is mediated by form(s) in one way or another. Therefore, the form still stays part of the equation, as is apparent in the Fountain again, the source of this contemporary im/explosion of art forms… Even though the original urinal signed R. Mutt 1917, is no longer a physical reality, but replicas of it are, and shown at art museums such as the Tate.[2]

 

I agree that it is not necessary for an artist to produce a work by her/his own hands or physical labor, but that the work produced as a physical manifestation their idea, or intellectual labor, by other persons or even by machines, is the artists work, otherwise there would be no Duchamp, or Warhol, or Hirst, or Murakami, and the list goes on and on… And, that there is no denying that in these works, and through these, artists have managed to challenge and push forth our intellectual frontiers even further, a feat hitherto reserved for philosophy and philosophers. Which is, or has become, one of the main aims of (contemporary) art, if not its singular aim. No?[3] “For when art attains the level of self-consciousness it has come to attain in our era, the distinction between art and philosophy becomes as problematic as the distinction between reality and art.”[4]

 

I would also like to note here that in spite of the profound reproducibility of art in modern and contemporary post-industrial, post-historical, and post-internet times, art seems to have managed to retain its ‘aura’[5]. One could even argue that art has managed to co-opt its changed modes of production, re-production, and re-presentation back into the fold of the elusive ‘aura’, of Art. Artists have done so by including the gamut of capitalist, commodity culture industry and its modes of production, labor and dissemination within their practices and projects/products.[6] Art works, arising out of the intellectual labor of artists, their form realized by other’s physical/manual labor, of course form a part of this spectrum.

 

Other forms of art, and even the sciences, have practiced this division, or utilization, of multifarious modes of labor quite un-self-consciously and effortlessly: music can be written by Mozart or Beethoven, or recorded orally through traditional practices, and re-produced, re-made, by anyone who has the vocal or instrumental skills to do so. Dramatic pieces of literature can not only be performed by any number of skilled adept persons/labor, but also directed by any number of the same, and presented any number of times, in many spaces. The case of the cinema and/or the movies follows similar trajectories. Architects can be given their brief by the client and can draft the plans for buildings, or architects can sketch out their concept and task the draughtsman to draw the details manually or using software. Scientists can present panacean formulae, like e=mc2, which continue to be explored further by subsequent generations of scientists. So why or how, if at all, should the same principle become problematic for artists? Is art merely craft, or a set of manual skills? I am almost certain that the answer to that would be a vehement no from most of the participants of the artworld today. It is obvious that the idea/concept is much more of a precious commodity than the actual realization of that idea in physical form. The manifestation can be sourced to other persons/machines but the idea is unique, individual, the artist’s intellectual (and physical) property[7]. In any of the cases discussed above (apart from art), the creator would, after going through whatever excruciating intellectual labor s/he goes through, come up with directions as to what is to be done, a formula of sorts. This can then be communicated to the means of labor that will mediate its production in tangible forms, e.g. a score of music, a factory, draughtsmen, actors, directors, singers, musicians, scientists, etc.

 

However, I find two aspects of the above proposition, problematic:

 

Firstly, would this imply that the artist also come up with a formula for her/his idea that s/he can then get made by any one or any thing? And that the process of making the art-thing does not necessitate or entail ideation? Or, that the idea itself is the both the necessary and the sufficient condition for the work to be? Would that not result in a formulaic work? That it may be performed/made multiple times by different people in different times and spaces. Would all of these incarnations remain solely the author’s genius? Would this not objectify, exploit, and/or alienate labor? Would that not dispense with the necessity of form altogether? Of course, the answer to this conundrum, at least for now, sh/would be in the negative.

 

And, secondly, what of Labor? Would this be the artist’s work or the artisans’ (machines’)? Or of both? If the artist’s primarily, then are we conceding that art is solely an idea, and the material transfiguration is merely consequential or a collateral contingency, as opposed to a necessary condition? In such a case, we would not need any physical object, even in form of documentation of the transitory event-performance, or a critique of the work in words/language, for it to be tangible and to continue to convey meaning and lend itself to discourse. I believe that we still may not be able to imagine or argue comprehensibly for the existence of an art form that has absolutely no manifestation in the physical realm. If the answer to our earlier question of attribution is: both, then what would determine the proportions of this attribution, of authorship, and, of authority? Form being an intrinsic part, or vessel, through which the idea is communicated (since the idea would be futile if not communicated), the contribution of labor must have some major part to play in the entire equation. Is this labor rewarded/paid proportionately for its contribution?

 

This second point above, I would like to belabor further. Art, even in the capitalist consumerist world, it is argued, is not about commodity; it can be a critique of consumerism and commodity, but aspires to a higher level of consciousness, and being, etc. However, in hiring and utilizing labor much like any other capitalist, the artist behaves much like ‘our friend, Moneybags’[8], and perpetuates – rather than disrupts – the inequities and ineptitudes of the neoliberal[9] order. In fact, the artist may even be more powerful (and therefore more accountable) than Mr. Moneybags as s/he is possessor of capital, which is not merely financial, but also social, cultural, intellectual, and critical — Is her/his complicity in the capitalist systems, supposedly in the pursuit of nobler ideals, justified?

 

The above discussion has revolved mostly around the plastic arts, or at least within the broader realm of contemporary arts, including conceptual and performative arts (these being plastic as well, in so far that their transience is countered by documentation thus ensuring their reproduction and continuation of dissemination). What of writing? Of literature, poetry, prose, or just plain essay writing, though? As I disclosed at the beginning of this monologue, I have been struggling to write a coherent essay on the topic for more than 2-3 weeks. I have formulated several times the arguments in my mind, and have even constructed the sketch for this essay cerebrally, incorporation quotes and citations from authors/writings I wanted to incorporate to communicate my points. During this process I wondered, also, if I could write only a sketch for this essay – with directions on what to write, which authors, theories and philosophy to incorporate etc – and could give it to someone to flesh out, to actually manifest, since even though the ideation is challenging, it is much faster than the arduous and laborious task of actually sitting down, confronting a blank word document, and dealing with the struggle to write it. This sketch, or at least a very initial, very rough, draft of it, could look something like this:

 

[Excerpt from brief for the essay, by the Editor:

The Art of Hands – comparison and conflict between: Art and craft; Hand made and machine made; Works created by the maker or using other people]

Focus on:

Works created by the maker or using other people

Use:

Banjamin: mechanical reproduction, aura

Danto

Marx: Alienation of labor

Art does what capitalists are also doing, how does that make art any better

Is it still a critique then? Or coopted or complicit? In commodity and consumer and capitalist/cultural hegemony?

Mass production, how art tries to still remain exclusive

Julian Stallabrass

Liberalism, neoliberalism; capitalism; globalization

Industrial revolution- societies in the west vs east?

Slavoj zizek: orientalism…

Labor: artists, movies, architects, etc.

Intellectual labor vs manual labor

Marx: Labor, wages, paid labor, etc…

 

If I write a skeleton of this essay, and give it to someone to flesh it out, is it my work? Or theirs? Or both? Do all players get same credit/benefits/name/fame? Or not?

 

To conclude (at least for the purpose of this essay): Will an essay written on my guidelines (albeit more specific and detailed guidelines), be my (original) essay or not? Given that it is my essay, should the person who does the manual labor be acknowledged? If so, to what proportion/extent? Further, or rather a priori, would it even be possible to for someone to write a piece of writing/poetry/prose based on directions/sketch provided by me, conveying exactly that which I had intended? If the answer is no, then does that point towards some inherent distinction between art and literature, or in other words between visual form (of some sort) and words? Is it that it may be possible to provide a sketch for a visual/form, but not for something that constitutes words? Does this in any way indicate that an art/form may still be reducible to its components but that writing, or words or discourse, or ideas as expressed in words, may not be? Would this also entail that art is after all, not primarily about ideas, but still intrinsically concerned with, and entrenched within, form— imitable, reproducible form? Even the more avant-garde art/curatorial practices today, that mediate discourse, or, to put it another way, that make discourse the subject and the object (product/predicate) of the work[10], can hope to only partially escape this conundrum, since they too cannot avoid the historical neoliberal imperative in absolute terms…

 

April 30, 1.00 am

 

[1] Arthur C. Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace
[2] The photograph of the original Fountain was reproduced with an anonymous manifesto the following May of 1917 in an avant-garde magazine called The Blind Man. The accompanying text made a claim crucial to much later modern art: “Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”
And what happened to the original? The best guess, according to Calvin Tomkins in his biography of Duchamp, is that it was thrown out as rubbish by Stieglitz shortly afterwards (a common fate of Duchamp’s early ready-mades). By a delicious irony that the artist must have enjoyed, all the versions of Fountain now extant – including the one in the Tate show – are not ready-made at all, but carefully crafted hand-made facsimiles of that “Bedfordshire” urinal.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671180/Duchamps-Fountain-The-practical-joke-that-launched-an-artistic-revolution.html
[3] “The universal need for art…is man’s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his own self.” 3 That is art’s “highest vocation,” … It is not primarily a thesis about art so much as a thesis regarding our relationship to it. It is a thesis about human beings, whose progress in self-understanding means that we can never again relate to art as our predecessors did when it “afforded that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it.” For us, art is merely an object of intellectual consideration – “and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.”
Arthur C. Danto, Hegel’s End-Of Art Thesis,1999
[4] Arthur C. Danto, Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art, Humanities, Vol. 4, No. 1 (February 1983), pp. 1-2
http://web.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361_r1.html
[5] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, 1936
[6] Art appears to stand outside this realm of rigid instrumentality, bureaucratized life, and its complementary mass culture. That it can do so is due to art’s peculiar economy, based on the manufacture of unique or rare artefacts, and its spurning of mechanical reproduction. Artists and dealers even artificially constrain the production of works made in reproducible media, making limited-edition books, photographs, videos, or CDs.
Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated, 2004, p. 3
[7] Does this, by any menas, re-activate the myth of the artists as a ‘genius’?
[8] In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value… He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.
Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I – Chapter Six The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.html
[9] Following the end of the cold war the global consolidation of an unrestrained type of capitalism, dubbed ‘neoliberalism’, also coincided with this first flush of colour to the art world’s cheeks. Under neoliberalism, the language of free trade is spoken but the global regulatory bodies (the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO) enforce rules that protect industries and agriculture in wealthy nations while opening fragile economies to unregulated trade (including the dumping of below-cost goods), privatization, and the dismantling of welfare provision. The general results across the globe are low wages, insecure employment, high unemployment, and the weakening of unions.
Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated, 2004, pp. 12-13
[10] e.g. Extra | Ordinary: 37 Do-It-Yourself Art Ideas for Free, curated by Rashid Rana, Canvas Gallery, Karachi;
and, 230MB/Exhibition Without Objects, curated by Sadia Shirazi, Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi, and
Drawing Room Gallery, Lahore, etc.

 

Saira Sheikh is a visual artist and art educator. She completed her BFA from National College of Arts, Lahore, and EdM from Columbia University, New York. She is currently Associate Professor and Head of Liberal Arts Programme at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saira Sheikh is a visual artist and art educator. She completed her BFA from National College of Arts, Lahore, and EdM from Columbia University, New York. She is currently Associate Professor and Head of Liberal Arts Programme at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi.

[1] Arthur C. Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace

[2] The photograph of the original Fountain was reproduced with an anonymous manifesto the following May of 1917 in an avant-garde magazine called The Blind Man. The accompanying text made a claim crucial to much later modern art: “Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”

And what happened to the original? The best guess, according to Calvin Tomkins in his biography of Duchamp, is that it was thrown out as rubbish by Stieglitz shortly afterwards (a common fate of Duchamp’s early ready-mades). By a delicious irony that the artist must have enjoyed, all the versions of Fountain now extant – including the one in the Tate show – are not ready-made at all, but carefully crafted hand-made facsimiles of that “Bedfordshire” urinal.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671180/Duchamps-Fountain-The-practical-joke-that-launched-an-artistic-revolution.html

 

[3] “The universal need for art…is man’s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his own self.” 3 That is art’s “highest vocation,” … It is not primarily a thesis about art so much as a thesis regarding our relationship to it. It is a thesis about human beings, whose progress in self-understanding means that we can never again relate to art as our predecessors did when it “afforded that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it.” For us, art is merely an object of intellectual consideration – “and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.”

Arthur C. Danto, Hegel’s End-Of Art Thesis,1999

[4] Arthur C. Danto, Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art, Humanities, Vol. 4, No. 1 (February 1983), pp. 1-2

http://web.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361_r1.html

[5] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, 1936

[6] Art appears to stand outside this realm of rigid instrumentality, bureaucratized life, and its complementary mass culture. That it can do so is due to art’s peculiar economy, based on the manufacture of unique or rare artefacts, and its spurning of mechanical reproduction. Artists and dealers even artificially constrain the production of works made in reproducible media, making limited-edition books, photographs, videos, or CDs.

Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated, 2004, p. 3

[7] Does this, by any menas, re-activate the myth of the artists as a ‘genius’?

[8] In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value… He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I – Chapter Six The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.html

[9] Following the end of the cold war the global consolidation of an unrestrained type of capitalism, dubbed ‘neoliberalism’, also coincided with this first flush of colour to the art world’s cheeks. Under neoliberalism, the language of free trade is spoken but the global regulatory bodies (the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO) enforce rules that protect industries and agriculture in wealthy nations while opening fragile economies to unregulated trade (including the dumping of below-cost goods), privatization, and the dismantling of welfare provision. The general results across the globe are low wages, insecure employment, high unemployment, and the weakening of unions.

Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated, 2004, pp. 12-13

[10] e.g. Extra | Ordinary: 37 Do-It-Yourself Art Ideas for Free, curated by Rashid Rana, Canvas Gallery, Karachi;

and, 230MB/Exhibition Without Objects, curated by Sadia Shirazi, Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi, and

Drawing Room Gallery, Lahore, etc.

 

One Response to Monologue/ Soliloquy

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