The 2022 theme of Art & Labour responds both to the proliferation of conversations around labour and work in art contexts in recent years, and the historical ways in which interweaving or oppositional conceptions of “work” and “art” have come to define understandings of purpose, productivity, value and aesthetics.
In their critique of the industrial revolution and mass production in the nineteenth century, William Blake, John Ruskin and William Morris positioned principles of aesthetics and labour at the centre of critical social projects, as did the early feminists of the Suffrage movement at the turn of the twentieth century. Equally, understandings of the formation of racial capitalism, the role of plantation labour and the slave economy inform how globally connected colonial and postcolonial cultures have been shaped. Victorian artistic engagements with the politics of class and labour in Britain – exemplified in Ford Madox Brown’s mid-nineteenth-century painting Work – stand in relief against the coterminous systems of colonial exploitation and expropriation that were enabled through cultural constructs of race, gender and labour; and the creative resistance against these systems by colonised peoples.
Across the twentieth century, art’s relationship to both work and freedom – its autonomy from the need to have purpose and social function, entangled with “the perennial unfreedom of the whole” – played out in plural movements and at multiple scales. Parallel to the development of post-war global hierarchies of power, wealth and financialisation, in the 1960s and 1970s the politics of labour formed the ground for artists’ resistance towards social and cultural inequity, from the “art strikes” of Gustav Metzger and Lee Lozano, to the feminist practices of artists including Adrian Piper, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mary Kelly and Cosey Fanni Tutti. As growing numbers of people assumed jobs defined by modes of immaterial labour, forms of institutional critique, performance and social practice pursued towards the end of the century by artists such as Andrea Fraser, Carey Young, Tino Sehgal and Tania Bruguera further reconstituted understandings of the work of being an artist.
In the present era of digital capitalism, artists have continued to challenge normative accounts of labour produced in mainstream economic and political discourse. Conversations around art and labour have continued to wrestle with art’s aspiration to autonomy, the nature of its critical capacity and its relationship to “life-work”. These debates have taken place in relation to forms of social practice and alongside activist claims for equitable payment for artists; in the address of the expanded field of actors that art production encompasses, from artist assistants to institutional workers and performers; and in the wake of the shifting impact of technology on artistic production. In turn, art historians have increasingly interrogated the work of art making, leading to studies on subjects ranging from studio administration to the global workers supplying artists’ materials. Questions of labour intersect here with concerns around gender, race, sexuality and capacity, where artists are both subject to expectations around labour based on their perceived identity, and articulate aspects of their approach to work as a means of resisting patriarchal, racist, heteronormative and ableist conditions.
More About the Programme
- The 2022 Summer School takes place between 18 July and 29 July.
- The programme runs from Monday to Friday during this period, allowing for free time over the weekend. The weekdays are full days, with some evening events.
- Sessions will take place primarily at the Paul Mellon Centre with some additional activities at other locations in the city and beyond.
- Participants’ travel and accommodation costs, and the costs of some evening social events, are covered as part of the programme. The logistical arrangements are co-ordinated by Nermin Abdulla, Learning Programme Manager at the PMC. See the programme FAQs for more information.
- The Summer School will host twenty students in total (five doctoral students enrolled in history of art programmes across the UK; five art students enrolled at UK art schools at graduate level; five PhD students from the Yale Department of the History of Art; and five MFA students from the Yale Art School). The programme welcomes applications from individuals with existing or growing interests in the topic of art and labour. Apply now.
- It is convened by independent curator, Richard Birkett, and art historian, Georgia Haseldine, working with Sria Chatterjee and Mark Hallett from the PMC. It benefits from the input of other colleagues from participating institutions, including Tim Barringer of the Yale Department of the History of Art and Marta Kuzma from the Yale School of Art.
Programme Summary: September 2022
In July we held the second Graduate Summer School, where twenty artists and art historians studying MFAs and PhDs in the UK and at Yale University came together to investigate the theme of Art & Labour over a dynamic two-week programme. Each student came with their own research and practice in this area, which they generously shared. Specialisms ranged from cross-cultural fashion curation to the labour of silver miners necessary for early developments in photography, and the remaking of objects in museums with dubious provenance through to graphic designers using their skills to unionise art students in the US. And so much more!
Developed between the Paul Mellon Centre (PMC), the Yale School of Art and the Yale Art History Department, artists, philosophers, filmmakers and labour historians worked with us to collaboratively understand the proliferation of conversations around labour and work in art contexts in recent years, and the historical ways in which conceptions of “work” and “art” have come to define understandings of purpose, productivity, value and aesthetics.
The programme was structured around four sub-themes: Industry, Autonomy, Expropriation and Organise.
Industry: Considering the immediate British context, this theme addressed particular conceptions of art and labour formed through the Industrial Revolution and the wider structuring of global space that constitutes racial capitalism. Due to the record-breaking heatwave, we had to change our original plans of travelling up to Birmingham and the Black Country. Instead, we interrogated the building and collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum with Tim Barringer, understanding how the museum was designed as a temple of industry where art sacrificed its autonomy to serve capitalism. We contemplated Cornelia Parker’s Breathless, the mosaic floors made by women prisoners and Jorge Otero-Pailos’s intervention into the Trajan column.
Autonomy: If questions of social good and purpose were wrapped up in nineteenth-century British attitudes to art and labour, here we looked at the manner in which artistic production of the twentieth into the twenty-first century has struggled with its proximity to, or autonomy from, the social and economic conditions that determine people’s lives, and from life-work itself. Students engaged in a roundtable discussion with theorist Peter Osborne and Marta Kuzma as well as a walking tour with Martin Myrone around William Blake’s London. They also participated in a lively seminar at the Institute of Contemporary Arts led by Laboria Cuboniks, the xenofeminist working group who seek to dismantle gender and do away with nature as a guarantor for inegalitarian political positions.
Expropriation: We also considered how global histories of labour are entangled with forms of dispossession and resource extraction, and looked at artistic roles and perspectives in relation to these developments. Shela Sheikh and Zuleikha Chaudhari shared their performance in development Performing Environmental Justice, asking what the role of the artist-as-witness is in the law court. Ros Gray guided us around Kew Garden’s colonial histories, focusing on the complex figure of white female explorer Marianne North. Artist Sop shared their practice through their installation at the Wellcome Collection’s Rooted Beings exhibition and Onyeka Igwe held a private showing of her film work, interrogating colonial archives.
Organise: With the questions and concerns from the previous themes in mind, we finally looked at the relationship between art, labour activism and collective organising around work. We explored the Wages for Housework and Artists Union archives of May Day Rooms with Dani Child and Lise Soskolne from Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) and Lucia Farinati and Marsha Bradfield from Precarious Workers Brigade shared their activism focusing on payment for artists.
On the final day of the programme, the students presented a practice-based, critical and creative response to the Graduate Summer School’s central theme of Art & Labour. They staged a series of interventions, performances, presentations and workshops, which took place in and around the PMC. These challenged us all to reflect on ideas of utopia, intersectionality of working privileges, the politics of self-love and our relationship to time as artists, curators and art historians.
Thank you to the convenors, the contributors and most of all to the brilliant students themselves, who worked together to make the Graduate Summer School such a rich and stimulating event.
If you would like to explore this theme more, here are five online sources which we looked at during the summer school:
Access Docs for Artists https://www.accessdocsforartists.com/
Sria Chatterjee, “The Long Shadow of Colonial Science” https://www.noemamag.com/the-long-shadow-of-colonial-science/
Seth C. Bruggeman “Teaching Historians with Tools: Toward a Subversive Pedagogy” https://decoratingdissidence.com/2022/07/01/teaching-historians-with-tools-toward-a-subversive-pedagogy/
“Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”. Laboria Cuboniks Manifesto https://www.laboriacuboniks.net/20150612-xf_layout_web.pdf
Silvia Federici, “Wages against Housework” (1975) in Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (PM Press, 2012), pp.15-22. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/postgraduate/masters/modules/femlit/04-federici.pdf