Tom Holert

Modeling Artistic Labor

With their staging of solitude, pensiveness, attentiveness, and apathy, the photographs in Klaus Scherübel’s series Untitled (The Artist at Work) (1990–2010) look like melancholy tableaux from an artistic subjectivity that has long since become historical. According to the title, Scherübel’s pictures of a man in a natural history museum, a cinema, a wine shop, a library, and a furniture store, or on a tennis court, frozen in the mental process of thinking, reading, or observing, are portrayals of artistic work. This takes on added weight when one knows that it is Scherübel himself—with the help of photographers like Sara A. Tremblay, Marylène Negro and Oliver Ottenschläger—who is portrayed here via a process of extended observation. The pictures, then, are self-portraits by Klaus Scherübel, playing the role of the “artist at work” outside the usual professional-institutional situations of the studio, the workshop, the classroom, the editing suite, the quarry, the film set, etc.

Scherübel presents his performance to the public as slide shows in rooms with seats, in the context of installations that also address the institutional and ergonomic context of art reception. The artist, captured in various situations of his creative activity, is offered up for scrutiny, but at the same time it is clear that these situations are quite literally projections.

With this sequence of scenes, Scherübel plainly departs from the traditional iconography of the (mostly male) artist in his studio. Isn’t there something missing in these pictures? An attribute, for example, that marks the artist out as an artist? Where is the product, the artwork? What sets the man in the photographs apart from other people in libraries, furniture stores, or cinemas? This “work” the title tells us he is engaged in—what does it consist of?

Since the Renaissance, if not before, the drama of the artist has established its own specific iconography. In the classical modernist period, it was mainly the portraits and self-portraits of painters and sculptors (flanked by the legends developed in biographies and memoirs) that aimed to document the self-image of a profession in looks, postures, and clothing, always including the insignia of the artist’s craft, the brushes and the chisels, the spots of paint and the dust of the studio. In the course of the nineteenth century, with the definitive freeing of artists from guilds and relationships of feudal and clerical commission and dependence into the marketplace of bourgeois taste, self-portraits became calling cards for a subjectivity that needed to constantly prove it conformed to the market’s notions of an artistic mind-set and existence shaped by passion, genius, pensiveness, romanticism, or dandyism. There were also group pictures in which artists portrayed themselves as part of combative new collectives and working models. In this way, representations of and reflections on artistic production and artistic life trod a path between the solitude of artistic rivalry and the solidarity of fending off capitalism’s impositions.

The young painter in Albert Camus’s short story “Jonas ou L’artiste au travail” (The Artist at Work, 1957) escapes from a brilliant career in Parisian society to the isolation of his studio. Finally, in a state of total exhaustion, he leaves behind a white canvas, at its center a single word in tiny letters—or, to be more precise, two words, as it is impossible to tell whether it reads solitaire or solidaire. This avoidance of ostentatious painterly virtuosity in favor of a stripped-back approach to the canvas and a focus on the written word (as well as the ambiguity of that writing) points to an altered understanding of the goals of artistic work, even if Camus still associates it with great physical and mental effort.

In the course of the twentieth century, the position of the artist that had crystallized in the nineteenth, as a specialized producer of things that—ideally—embody the “antagonisms of society” (Theodor W. Adorno), became less binding. Thanks not least to the deliberate and strategic loss (or rejection) of craft and media-specific expertise (known in the debate on art and work since the 1960s as deskilling), artists moved from the periphery to the center of production within society. This shift can be attributed in part to the fact that subjectivity always means objectification, as it is shaped by social context, productive forces, and conditions of production. But a factor more critical in advanced capitalism (due to its historical founding) is the discovery of subjectivity itself as a productive force. The life of creative individuals—their intelligence and their aesthetic capacity—counts as an important, game-changing resource in the shift of value creation away from material-industrial labor toward processes of symbolic analysis, consumerism as production, communication as investment; toward the economization of every last corner of everyday and emotional life. And those who have supposedly been most successful in escaping capitalist reality, by revolting against its value system and developing nonconformist forms of life and production, are now being recruited as pathfinders to open up new markets for the real estate and lifestyle industries.

This real subsumption of artistic work under capital once more raises the question as to the specific artistic quality of the activities in which Scherübel’s figure is absorbed. Is his leaving the studio and discarding the familiar attributes of the artist no more than an ever more complete immersion in a mode of production where elements of the artistic (experiment, authenticity, creativity, reflexivity, critique, virtuosity, emotionality, etc.) have long since been put to a new purpose? If this were the case, why do most of the pictures show the artist alone: a solitary reader, researcher, observer, consumer?

In the 1960s, Adorno still assumed that the “labour in the artwork” is the mediation of the social by the individual, even if “the intervening individual subject is scarcely more than a limiting value, something minimal required by the artwork for its crystallization.”1 Whether this “limiting value” acts alone (solitaire) or in alliance with others (solidaire) seems irrelevant. Instead, Adorno’s dialectic aims to interpret individual expression in aesthetic material as a sign of its collectivity. “Correspondingly, and this is key to art, even out of so-called individual works it is a We that speaks and not an I—indeed all the more so the less the artwork adapts externally to a We and its idiom.”2 The conflict of the I and the We in the aesthetic product is what gives it tension and makes it vibrant. Adorno calls this the “division of labor” that is “implicitly demanded” by the artwork: “in relation to the work, the individual who produces it is an element of reality like others.”3

Such a view, in which the dimension of production and labor in the artistic process tends to be marginalized in favor of its product, the work, is only seemingly at odds with artworks like Scherübel’s Untitled (The Artist at Work) that reflect on the shifting functions of art in a contemporary art scene that is changing to match changes in the relative production of added value. After all, the project of establishing a typology of the activities that constitute the field of contemporary artistic practice repeats or comments on the sociological surveys of recent decades that discuss post-Fordism, the creative economy, the entrepreneurial self, project work, and growing precarity with regard to art and the importance of artistic work as a model for work within society as a whole.4

But one might go back slightly further. A “specific artistic technique” no longer exists, wrote Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm in his Theorie der künstlerischen Arbeit (Theory of Artistic Work, 1974), which is worth rediscovering today, forty years on: “instead, artists may use every available technique from industry, teaching, psychotherapy, town planning, agriculture, cooking, or housework, as well as oil painting.”5 But in 1974, rather than enthusing about creative multitasking or a transdisciplinary critique of knowledge, as is customary in the post-Conceptual euphoria now surrounding “artistic research” and art as “social practice,” this new diversity is described by Hoffmann-Axthelm as “arbitrariness.” His dismissive tone may seem calculated, but his “arbitrariness” nonetheless anticipates the “freedom of indifference” in which Jacques Rancière identifies the “politics of art in the aesthetic regime” as the “equivalence of work and leisure… solitude and community.”6

Within Marxist debate on aesthetics in the 1970s, however, such a revaluation of the concept of work/labor as hinted at by Rancière was still problematic. Hoffmann-Axthelm, who in 1975 took on a leading role in the editorial collective of the left-wing cultural and political quarterly Ästhetik und Kommunikation (Aesthetics and Communication), already had his work cut out for him to overcome the late-bourgeois avant-gardism of his main influence, Adorno. One way Hoffmann-Axthelm achieved this was by an exaggeration and radicalization of terms that seemed necessary and legitimate. Toeing the line of critical theory and breaking with it at the same time, he made himself immune to the “illusion” of a monadic artwork that mediates subjectivity and collectivity without reconciling them. Turning his attention to questions of aesthetic production in the present day of the 1960s and 1970s, he found little to reassure him. Following the end of the avant-garde and the transformation of bourgeois art into the less powerful culture and commodity industry, Hoffman-Axthelm saw artistic work as no more than “aesthetically specialized functioning, without becoming part of the direct production process with an unmediated connection to social reality.”7 Tretyakov’s productivism, which was already admired by Walter Benjamin and which experienced a brief revival in the 1970s, served Hoffmann-Axthelm as a retrospective view of art no longer in thrall to the work as fetish. Instead, art is called on to step out of the “passive view of the visualizer” in order to enable the “communication of production and artistic work.”8 But if artists forego the function of representation, which practice do they usefully participate in to this end? Hoffmann-Axthelm’s answer is indebted to the class-struggle pathos of its time: “If artistic work is ever to take on revolutionary functions, then the question we must ask concerns not art but the evolving needs of organized political work that will take back pictures when and because it needs them, being the only force capable of this because and insofar as art makes a real change to prevailing conditions.”9

Forty years later, the demands on artistic work are still (or once more) being formulated in very similar terms. The call for “useful” art can often be heard, and in many places the coordinates of artistic practice are shifting away from the neoliberal “project” as the format for aesthetic production toward a post-capitalist “organization” oriented toward solidarity and a critique of institutions. Such a shift appears overdue, considering the intolerable experiences with the contradictions of self-fulfillment and self-exploitation that have accompanied the movement that has put artistic work at the center of social production.

One might object that such a functionalist definition of art forfeits any chance of an autonomy conceived of and realized in philosophically consistent terms (of the kind of speculation, perhaps possible only for art, on a social autonomy in which art and work would have ceased to exist as categories). In other words, that it merely implements the existing dictates of the advancing economic exploitation of living work as part of neoliberalism’s program of the decentering of everything. The main point here, however, is that in the course of this process, which has been under way for roughly half a century, the reasons for the integration of artistic work into the new spirit of capitalism have largely evaporated. The path away from “abstract” wage labor toward “living” creative work is not without consequences for the subjectivities involved. For, in the words of the critic Marina Vishmidt, the artist is no longer the medium or oracle of deeper truths and primal expressivity, but a manager, communicator, or mediator, “a de-skilled catalyst, a productive void in the middle of purposive doings, a crystal for bureaucratic layers to watch their reflections in, a conduit for arcana between symbolic registers and the most-favored subject of relational risk.”10

This means that the artist has long since become something else, occupying a position other than that assigned to him or her by neoliberal ideology. At the same time, he or she fulfills the expectations placed in him or her with unexpected zeal.

The various activities and associated skills catalogued by Scherübel in Untitled (The Artist at Work) already belong to the new professional requirement profiles and parameters of productivity that have fundamentally changed and continue to change artistic work. In order to take part in the neo-productivist outbreak, however, Scherübel’s figure of the artist would have to move out of the melancholy isolation of its immaterial tasks and states. Otherwise, it can rest assured that the demand for images of the lone thinker will not go into decline anytime soon.

From: + QUE 20 ANS APRÈS, Sabine Folie, ed., (Vienna, Generali Foundation / Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2015); translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell.

1 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970; London: Continuum, 2004), p. 220.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 See for example Pierre-Michel Menger, Portrait de l'artiste en travailleur: Métamorphoses du capitalisme (Paris: Seuil, 2003); Pascal Gielen and Paul De Bruyne, eds., Being an Artist in Post-Fordist Times (Rotterdam: NAi, 2009); Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013).
5 Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm, Theorie der künstlerischen Arbeit (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), p. 140f.
6 Jacques Rancière, “The Politics of Aesthetics,” lecture at Frankfurter Sommer-Akademie, 2004, included in the German edition of Rancière’s book of the same name: Die Aufteilung des Sinnlichen. Die Politik der Kunst und ihre Paradoxien (Berlin: b_books, 2006), 83.
7 Hoffmann-Axthelm, Theorie der künstlerischen Arbeit, p. 46; trans. by translator.
8 Ibid., p. 193.
9 Ibid. p. 193f.
10 Marina Vishmidt, The Manageable Softness of the Solid Wine and Its Solar Radiance, publication accompanying the exhibition The Cell That Doesn’t Believe in the Mind That It’s Part Of, Marres, Centre for Contemporary Culture, Maastricht, June 2010, unpaginated.