How have contemporary artists reinterpreted artistic labour?

Francis Alÿs, 'When Faith Moves Mountains', Lima, Peru, 2002.

As a consequence of Duchamp’s ‘readymade’ artworks in the early 20th century assert the artists nominal act–the declaration is the artwork irrespective of the object–problematised the necessary engagement of the artists hand in a work of art. Rather than through technical proficiency, artists obtain authority through selecting and directing. It is this very mode that continues to define and confuse contemporary art today.

In the 1960s, art became more engaged with a material reality and the interpenetration of visual culture in daily life. Warhol’s factory pop-art was to become the go to example of capitalising on this new appetite. ‘Pop’ as the critical label given to a new aesthetic embracing popular visual culture over high culture and creating works which were not only popular but transient, expendable, mass produced, and low cost. While much of 1960’s pop art was still produced using studio techniques, Andy Warhol created what he called the ‘art factory’ hiring dozens of assistants and artisans to manufacture his artwork. Often mechanised with commercial techniques such as screen printing this did not require the artists physical presence at all. All of this took the production process itself as the readymade and threw into question the value of painting itself. This eventually gave rise to alternative medias such as conceptual, performance, video, and land art in the 1970s.

While the idea that artists are primarily concerned with realising concepts rather then fabricating objects has existed since the renaissance as according to Michelangelo, “a man paints with his brains, not his hands”. This was taken to its logical conclusion in 1970s conceptual art. Bruce Nauman is famous for saying, “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art”. By making objects subordinate to ideas, conceptual art appeared to remedy art’s propensity towards commodification, although this was to be relatively short lived. Beginning in the 1980s artists like Damien Hurst, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami, utilised mass production and the art factory of pop-art to proliferate their concepts throughout the world. And by dispersing their seemingly arbitrary art-objects laced with nothing but their apparent genius they were able to purvey a new material: themselves.

While integrity no longer comes from slogging it out in the studio, artists who operate in this new mode work more as a director than a craftsman. Some argue that although concept is still king, the concepts that come to artists familiar with the application of the particular craft have more range and depth. Regardless, the reinterpretation and reassignment of artistic labour does come with new opportunities for artists. It has not only enabled individual artists to compete on the scale and reach of advertising and commercial art but these new capabilities have also opened up previously unexplored areas and opportunities for art itself.

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Lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

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Lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

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