After the Revolution, Who’s Going to Pick up the Garbage?
Last year, Amelia Jones published an essay in X-TRA that began with an excellent question: After a decade of “post-feminism” why is there a sudden renewal of interest in feminist art? The article, entitled “1970/2007: The Return of Feminist Art,” proposes two alternative answers. One concerns the art world’s commercial interest in images of raunchy young women; the second proposes that if 9/11 triggered a general interest in recuperating past activisms, feminism is a natural place to turn, it being “the most successful political movement in the visual arts in the past 50 years.”1
Unfortunately, after introducing this second, great line of inquiry, Jones proceeds to ignore it, devoting her entire article to the first issue, eliding “feminism” with the body, visuality, and the sexual aspects of being, even if this involves a critique of normative views of these phenomena. I agree with Jones, and all the many others who have made the visualist critique, and I believe it still needs to be made, over and over again. However, her article made me yearn for more than a “partial glance” back over feminist art history and for a broader look at feminist practice today, one that might deal with the implications of her second proposition about the kinds of political activism entwined in feminist art dealing with issues other than the deconstruction of visual spectacle. One such form is work concerned with exposing the gendered nature of labor in today’s global economy. But before looking at this issue, I would like to comment on Jones’s account of the feminist critique of bodily visual spectacle and the decades of art bound up with this.
Jones states in her introduction, “All of this renewed interest in feminist art…makes me nervous.” Perhaps this is because she believes—as this is what her text focuses on—that it is driven by nothing more than a desire to make “money out of the bodies (and the bodies-of-work) of women.” Fortuitously, as she points out, this economic drive now converges with the kind of “raunch” feminism described by Ariel Levy, where young “women purvey themselves as overtly and highly sexualized ostensibly as a way of claiming cultural power.” under these conditions, the critical question becomes whether or not the artists are “selling out feminist goals.”2 It is in order to answer this question that Jones embarks on her excellent history of feminist art, one that looks back, in love and anger, from the perspective of that strand in contemporary photo/video practice that deals with representations of the gendered body. Jones’s main concern here is to distinguish between work by artists such as Anthea Behm and Liz Cohen that represents female bodies which conform to current norms of beauty (young, white, lean, symmetrical, fit, and glossy) and works by artists such as Catherine Opie and Renee Cox that deals with other kinds of bodies (corpulent, scarred, asymmetric, colored, gender-ambiguous, mothering, aging, working, etc.), ones that do not conform to the fetishized norms of what women as objects of scopic desire should be. Jones demonstrates that this latter type of work, which was clearly important in the hyper- conventional atmosphere from which second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, is equally essential today. For, despite women’s liberation from mid-century sexual strictures, the standards of feminine beauty projected by the scopic regimes of late modernity have become so extreme that none but a few can hope to conform. In such an environment, Jones’s argument for the continuing necessity of fighting scopic oppression through these types of beauty wars—and for art’s powerful place in these struggles—is undeniable.
To paraphrase Jones, the feminist focus on scopic regimes developed from ’70s visual theory, which questioned the implications of the idea, alive since the rise of Renaissance perspective, that European individualism is centered in visual knowledge. Though this interpretation of perspective has been questioned,3 it became extremely influential in feminist theory and artistic practice once it produced the concept of the “masculine gaze.” This important concept combines Renaissance ideas about vision and subjectivity with Freudian notions of fetishism to posit the female body as both the “vehicle through which women could be objectified,” and the means through which they “could access their own social and political agency,” as Jones aptly puts it. In a culture that has long placed women’s bodies at the center of images whose viewers are presumed masculine, the allure of this critique is understandable. However, as Jones herself says, this view is only a “partial glance back,” for the sexuality of vision is not the only issue that feminists, both artists and theorists, have dealt with or need to deal with.
Sexuality is not the only fruit
There is no one definition of what constitutes feminism, let alone feminist art, and many factors are involved in the construction of “gender.” In the ’60s and ’70s this observation led to a remarkable exploration of the concept of gender, and the values and terms by which it is assigned, performed, identified, assessed and policed. Second-wave feminists, artists and activists questioned whether gender is a discovered or invented phenomenon, and asked whether the primary determinants of its perpetuation are social, political, economic, biological, psychological, or some complex mix of all these. Some proposed that it might simply be a matter of pure ideology, i.e., (patriarchal) myth-making, in which case the response was to try to raise women’s consciousness above the myth of their “lesser-ness” to the underlying truth of their equality. However, by the late ’70s this generation began to hit 40 and awaken to another reality. For all their gains and sexual freedoms, many were living relationships whose dynamics were a lot like their mothers’ had been; the burdens of managing emotions and caring for the young, the sick, the aged, and the narcissistic—at home and at work—still fell largely on them. In response to this crisis, many began to feel that the unconscious, psychic levels of identity had not been sufficiently explored. This insight led to a turn towards psychoanalysis, with its focus on desire. From then on the principle critical questions became: How does desire function? What does it mean to be both an object and a subject of desire? How is desire commodified, simplified, and idealized in capitalist society? And how may those assigned the place of woman in the desiring relation loosen the ties that bind them? Barbara Kruger’s photo-text works from the 1980s are excellent examples of this approach.
Whilst the psychoanalytic approach includes the concept of the (masculine) gaze, in the context of post-structural analytic theory “woman” is less defined as a specular object than as a particular formation of desire. The object of her desire—male, female, or polymorphous—is not the determining marker. It is the structure of her desire that determines her as feminine—the structure of her desire to be taken as an object or reflection of some other’s desire. This is what makes “Woman” the cause of Man’s desire. She is the object, what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls “the little a,” that arouses him (at least this is what he thinks). Though we can easily see how such a focus dovetails with the deconstruction of the gaze as purely masculine, in fact the psychoanalytic view does not reduce the woman to being merely a spectral object. However, it does tend towards a perspective on gender that focuses predominantly on issues of sexuality. And this approach has been so fruitful, for both art and theory, that today many believe gender is synonymous with structures of desire and questions of sexual orientation, and that because both women and men now have so many other choices in these arenas the whole issue of gender is passe. At the very least, some say, its terms must be radically rethought for our post-heterosexual era. However, desire and sexual orientation are not now, and never have been, the only determining factors in gender assignation, and while the old heterosexual classifications (psychoanalytically inflected or not) may no longer be adequate at the level of sexuality and desire, they are still firmly in place at other levels.
Before we look at other approaches to gender, a final note on desire. While in psychoanalytic theory gender, desire, and sexuality are inextricably linked, psychoanalysis recognizes that there are different ways of choosing one’s object: homosexuality, which chooses the “same,” and heterosexuality, which chooses “difference” (although what exactly same and different mean is a question). However, there are only two ways of being a subject: one can adopt a masculine position or one can adopt a feminine position. This is because the founding concept/phenomenon of analysis is the Structuralist notion of “difference,” here re-codified as sexual difference. Thus, in psychoanalysis, the Structuralist thesis that all meaning-making systems are composed of networks of difference leads to the hypothesis that psychosocial structures are also made from relations of difference. And, just as Structuralist difference is ultimately the repetition of a single simple principle, for example, the difference between the | and the Not-|, so psychic difference is composed of a single simple principle, the difference between φ and not-φ, φ being the Lacanian symbol for the concept/phenomenon of the “phallus.” Contrary to popular opinion this is not the same as the penis. It is rather the sign of difference itself. In other words, for Structuralist-influenced analysts, the basic difference is between the differentiated and the undifferentiated, and this originary or “pure” difference, like the gap between two voltaic plates, is what causes the currents of desire to flow. This gap is what φ represents in the Lacanian version of analysis.
The penis comes in later because some body or organ must stand for the first of these principles, and some other body or body part must stand for the second. Thus, bodies are second-order signifiers, of what is at first a purely structural phenomenon at the foundations of meaning-making. Any body, or organ,or body part could stand for either position, but conventionally, the male body with its penis (whichcan be outstanding or not) is what has come to standfor differentiation, and the female body, whichhas no part that can differentiate itself so visibly from one moment to the next, stands for the undifferentiated. This is how, in analytic theory, bodies are linked to purely structural principles. It is also how in analytic theory “difference” or desire is both sexualized and gendered. The work of Yayoi Kusama plays with these patriarchal distinctions by covering everything with little phalluses—dresses, furniture, boats, walls. It is as if she were saying: “But look, I’ve got (little) organs everywhere. Doesn’t this count for something? or is it the possession of only the One organ that enables a body to become recognized as (a) some One/I?”4
The philosopher Deleuze challenged theStructuralist view of difference as simplistic. For him desire also equals difference, however Deleuze was deeply opposed to the idea that the phenomenon of difference can be reduced to iterations of the single simple principle of either the | or the Other. For Deleuze, if there are differences, then there are (real) differences, and differences from these differences, and differences from these differences, and on and on. In other words, while the creation of difference is still what causes circuits of desire to flow, for him all differences count. Or to put it in his terms, desire cannot be oedipalized, oedipalization being the subjection of a body to the monotheistic principle of “pure” difference outlined above. According to Deleuze, the process of Oedipalization, which subjects every body to an either/ or choice between adopting a feminine or a masculine subject-position, is not a universal necessity, but a socio-cultural meme infecting our beings down to the deepest unconscious levels. In opposition to this, from the Deleuzian perspective the phenomenal world is a field of unquantifiable uniqueness whose multifarious differences are constantly becoming creatively articulated through the interventions of thought, action, feeling, making, doing, being, etc.
For Deleuze, the aim of (all) life is to make a difference, to make as many differences as possible. Thus, in his view, there is no one kind of difference that stands as the model or metaphor upon which all others will be patterned, and no one body or body part that stands as the organizational model for all these. For him, sexual difference is just one difference amongst many, and the idea that human identities should be categorized principally along bi-gendered lines—both in terms of one’s perceived position as a subject, i.e., masculine or feminine, and in terms of one’s object choice, same or different—is absurd; it is Oedipal.5 One could think of Pipilotti Rist’s videos, especially Sip My Ocean (1996), in which various household objects and the artist’s body are tossed and floated through a brilliant blue ocean to the tune of “Wicked Game,” which is howled by Rist as a punk anthem. Here the artist seems to be offering us another oceanic view of sexuality in which, like Kusama, desire is an all-over phenomenon, not confined to sanctioned erogenous zones.6 Is this an image of what Deleuze calls “the body without organs?” Or is it rather, like Kusama, a body with infinite organs? And how are these different? These and questions like them are what many women have explored under the heading of ecriture feminine.
In history too, we find other ways of thinking about desire, even other ways of organ-izing it. For instance, the pre-democratic Greeks did not think of sexuality in terms of homo- or hetero-. Rather they divided themselves into predators and prey, those who hunted and pursued, and those who were hunted and pursued. Sappho was a hunter, constantly pursuing her fleeting prey—girls, boys, even men.7 The underlying metaphor here is not sexual difference, but the predator/prey difference. Of course, this was all tied up with class, and we have only the aristocrats’ point of view. No doubt also that this all changed when democracy was formally established in ancient Athens by a change in the concept of justice that substantially removed women from active participation in the institutions of the law. (The Oresteia by Aeschylus is quite clear on this point of history.) But the fact that another conceptualization of sexuality occurred at all means that other organ-izations of the sexual aspect of identity are possible again. Even more, it shows that sexual difference does not have to be seen as the model and metaphor for all forms of difference, or even that sexual identity need be seen as a principle component of identity at all. Both men’s and women’s identities are composed of many aspects—social, political, psychological, economic, racial, ethnic, and religious, as well as sexual. They are also composed in part by the particular institutional structures of the societies they inhabit.
I would argue that the reason Womanhouse (1972), a project by the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, was such an extraordinary artwork is precisely that it tackles so many different aspects of mid-century, middleclass, Western womanhood, including women’s situation within the institution of the monogamous nuclear family. Led by Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago, Womanhouse involved the work and performances of over 30 women in a house in Los Angeles. It dealt with gender, but it did so within the context of a very complex exploration of place and social space, i.e., the space of the mid-century suburban home. Within this space, Womanhouse seems to say, woman-as- housewife is trapped home alone, infantilized, her body becoming at one with the house and furniture, turning into a nurturing carapace in which “she” as a subject with her own needs and desires disappears. In this strange space of the home, simultaneously a workplace (for her), a leisure place (for her husband), a space of nurturing (for the children, the sick, and the aged), and a sexual place (for the couple), the woman-as- housewife is far more than merely a sexual being(object or not). She is a worker, a caregiver, a nurturer,a cleaner, a teacher, a drudge, and a hostess. She is also idealized, fantasized, trivialized, and isolated. Because this masterpiece of an artwork—probably the greatest piece of installation art ever erected—treats its subject within a whole social context and looks at her as she exists in her instantiation as an institution, the woman-as-housewife, rather than as simply a sexual being, it produces a stunningly complex representation, albeit one filled as much with fear and anxiety as it is with pleasure and play.
From looking at both Womanhouse and at the Deleuzian critique of sexual identity/difference we see that a patriarchy is not merely a symbolic order that determines two genders according to structures of differential desire; it is also a set of material and ideological forces in which a great variety of resources are allocated differentially. A patriarchy is a power structure, with sexual, ideological, and material components. Though these can never be wholly untied, for now I would like to focus simply on one material aspect of the Western patriarchal form, namely how gender plays itself out in relation to work. Here the concept of gender has nothing to do with desire. Rather it is determined by the roles bodies play in the activities of production and reproduction, that is, the perception of differences in their capacity for labor or work. This is a substantially different notion of gender than that offered by theories of differential desire. And though there are many overlaps between the two—crossings that are neither arbitrary nor insignificant—unless otherwise stated, for the rest of this paper I shall use the term “gender” in the materialist sense just outlined.
One does not have to be a Marxist to see that work is a gendered phenomenon.
In 2007, median weekly earnings for women in the U.S. were 80.2% those of men. For most women of color, the earnings gap was even larger: African American women earned just 70 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2007. Hispanic and Latina women earned just 62 cents for every dollar men earned.8
This disparity is found in every occupation and at every level of education. The same report goes on: “Female college and university teachers earned over 25% less than those who were male.” Women now earn almost 50% of all doctorates, yet the American Association of University Professors reports that only in community colleges do women achieve full-professorships at the same rate as men. In higher ranked institutions the rate varies from 1 in 2 to 1 in 4 as we go up the status/research scale. The art world is no better. The two most prestigious international art extravaganzas, the Venice Biennale and Documenta, have each only once been curated by women, the former in 2005, and the latter in 1997. As Jerry Salz noted in The Village Voice in 2006, of the approximately 399 works on the fourth and fifth floors of the Museum of Modern Art in new York, in the “galleries devoted to the permanent collection of art from 1879 to 1969, only 19, or 5 percent, of those objects are by women.”9 This is what got The Guerrilla Girls and others so heated up.
But the gendering of work in modern society is not simply a matter of wage inequity. Underlying this disparity is a deeper conceptual division in which many kinds of labor are not seen as (formal) “work” at all and hence are not considered worthy of any financial remuneration, namely the labor that in our society is performed in the home—caregiving, nurturing, cleaning, cooking, hostessing, etc. In short, this is the labor involved in “producing” people, as opposed to objects, services, and other saleable “goods.” As it is still largely women who perform these non-working kinds of labor, even when they also hold paying jobs, “work” in our society is still a very gender-inflected institution. We can say then that gender assignation in patriarchal society functions not just to divide sexual behavior and flows of desire. It also divides the ascription of value to different kinds of labor in such a way that those hailed as “women” are seriously materially disadvantaged. Even when women enter the (masculine) workforce and do the same jobs as men there is a wage disparity, because at some unconscious level our society still thinks that any labor women perform is not “real work.” To put it bluntly, in the modern Western conceptual schema, work is masculine, while what women do is something else. This is because in modern Western society the concept of (a) “work” per se is a concept of something that only men do.10
Aside from the fact that the masculinization of work leads to great inequities in pay when women do enter the recognized “workforce,” the question is, if what women do outside the acknowledged workplace isn’t work, then what is it? What is its value? How can this be utilized in art making? And what indeed can be considered a “critical” artwork given this situation? All these questions were addressed pointedly in second-wave feminist art. Indeed, they are a central theme in the canonical ’70s works of sexual identity: Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-1979) and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-1979). It is here also that we return to our original question as to what a feminist art practice might do other than deconstruct the specular regimes, and indeed epistemes of Western patriarchy. What kinds of political activism might be working in feminist art practice today, irrespective of whether they were aroused by the tragedy of 9/11 or not? One answer, I will show, is work that focuses on the gendered nature of labor in today’s global economy.
The Idea of Work, or the Ideological Division of Labor
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels ask the (apparently) historical question as to when men “begin to distinguish themselves from animals.” Answer: “When they begin to produce their means of subsistence.”11 The emphasis here is on the word “produce,” for it is when men intentionally start to cultivate crops, rather than simply wait for them to appear naturally, that the primitive hominid is transformed into the productive man. Leaving aside the now well-recognized fact that in many places women, not men, were probably the first to cultivate crops, the effect of this definition is to consign women to the nonproductive or (merely) reproductive spheres of labor, thereby situating them outside the society of male producers, and outside history in a state of nature. The next obvious question in the sequence—why men had to start deliberately working—was also answered by Marx and Engels: work becomes necessary when man’s population outstrips nature’s capacity to satisfy its needs. This rather suggests that women’s reproductive capacities had something to do with it. But in the Marxian equation production is opposed to reproduction, which is then equated with non-production.
In the Western conceptual schema, work is defined as labor whose intention is to produce (durable) “goods” that nature alone could not—crops, animals, socks, widgets, airplanes, and guns, never forget the guns. The labor of producing children, and of keeping workers alive outside their workplace—the labor of reproducing labor itself—is not in the Marxian analysis defined as work in any period of human history. Under capitalism, in which labor is exchanged for money rather than the fruits of another’s labor, work is redefined as paid or alienated labor; unpaid labor, such as that performed in the home, is defined as zero-work. Queen Penelope in the Odyssey, who undid her weaving every night only to start again in the morning, is perhaps the best figure of women’s unproductive work; nothing lasts, the shit comes back, the children get hungry again, every day is a repetition of the previous one. There is no “progression,” and nothing that is done endures.
In his later masterwork, Capital, Marx acknowledged that, unpaid or not, capitalism draws on, nay, even relies upon the labor of women. However, because of his commitment to the historical project of class struggle, and thus to a definition of the worker as one alienated by the process of selling his time, Marx regarded women’s contribution of reproducing labor, that is, of making the worker himself, as a gratuitous gift that capital may appropriate freely. This right of capital to appropriate freely women’s labor is justified by the belief that nurturing and other forms of domestic work are not only “natural,” but also produce no “value.” In other words, underpinning the distinction between work and non-work is a concept of “value” that relies on a rigid nature-culture opposition, and that sees value exclusively in terms of an idea of production defined in opposition to the idea of re-production. As many have opined, not only are these distinctions dubious, they are intrinsic. It is clear that productive work can only be defined as value-generating if re-productive work is first defined as non-value-generating. The division of labor is thus not historical, but ideological. It is the labor-ideology, as opposed to the sexual-ideology, of Western patriarchy.
It is also clear that the two most emblematic works of the feminist critique of patriarchal sexual structures, The Dinner Party and Post-Partum Document, are also both critiques of these concepts of value and of work. With its triangular array of female luminaries, Chicago’s The Dinner Party highlights not only historically productive women, it also focuses attention on the productive work women perform when making their homes and reproducing workers in the form of husbands and children. Similarly, Kelly’s Post-Partum Document is as intensely detailed an account of a mother’s work as we are ever likely to encounter. However, the examples of second-wave feminist art that most directly engage this issue are the Maintenance Art Works of Mierle Laderman Ukeles (1969-79). Furthermore, not only do Ukeles’s maintenance pieces explicitly foreground the subject of work, they also compel a new reading of feminist art history.
As Jones states in X-TRA, a common reading of feminist art history pits ’70s work against that of the ’80s,seeing a “progression” from the earlier “essentialist” perspective—which supposedly took femininity as natural, innate, and clearly distinguishable from its masculine other—to the later constructivist perspective which deconstructed all these ideas and called the very concept of femininity into question. This partition divides feminists against each other, contributing to their ongoing marginalization from the mainstream realms of art and theory. In “Cleaning Up in the 1970s: The Work of Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly and Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” one of the most astute pieces of feminist art history I have ever read, Helen Molesworth argues that Ukeles and her Maintenance Art Works are the forgotten but essential key enabling us to triangulate the similarities between ’70s and’80s feminist work, and thereby to deconstruct this destructive division.12 As Molesworth points out, whilst The Dinner Party is seen as the quintessential work of ’70s feminist art, and Post-Partum Document as the quintessential work of the ’80s, both were actually completed in the same year: 1979. Both also deal with formal structures, the incommensurability of concepts to their material/visual instantiations, and documentation (qualities generally attributed to minimalism and conceptual art), and both, as noted above are concerned with questions of labor and its valorization. Whilst most art history, even feminist art history, elides these similarities to perpetuate the battle of generations, Molesworth suggests that Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Works highlight a different reading and a perspective on art herstory that encourages continuity and solidarity rather than division and acrimony.
In 1969, Ukeles scribbled her MANIFESTO FORMAINTENANCE ART 1969! in a rage produced by her feelings, after the birth of her child, of having been pushed out of the avant-garde and relegated to the home and to nurturing. The manifesto begins in Part A with the idea that there is a Death Instinct and a Life Instinct.13 The Death Instinct is “separation; individuality; Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death—do your own thing; dynamic change.” The Life Instinct is “unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations; equilibrium.” After positing the entirely rational, but nevertheless curveball question: “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?,” Part B proceeds to outline “[t]he two basic systems: Development and Maintenance”:
Development: pure individual creation; the new; change; progress; advance; excitement; flight or fleeing.
Maintenance: keep the dust off the pure individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change; protect progress; defend and prolong the advance; renew the excitement; repeat the flight;
Part C then begins to elaborate what (a) maintenance work would be like:
Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.) The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom.
The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = Minimum wages, housewives = no pay.
Clean you [sic] desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor […] this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young.
While Part D declares:
Everything I say is Art is Art. […]
Conceptual & Process art, especially, claim pure development and change, yet employ almost pure maintenance processes.
The first overall section of the Manifesto thus concludes with the statement in E:
The exhibition of Maintenance Art, “CARE,” would zero in on pure maintenance, exhibit it as contemporary art, and yield, by utter opposition, clarity of issues. [Emphasis added.]
In 1973 Ukeles carried out this statement of intent, initiating her Maintenance Art Performance Series,1973-74, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, by washing the stairs and dusting the interiors. She declared these zones artworks, and thus off limits to both public and museum staff, during the times of her labor. By thus highlighting the distinction between production and maintenance—a distinction in which, Ukeles makes clear, production is valorized while maintenance is not—the artist not only draws attention to the biggest conceptual issue regarding the concept of “work.” As Molesworth suggests, she also highlights the similarities rather than the differences between Chicago’s and Kelly’s masterpieces, namely the central issue of “work” in their work. In so doing, Ukeles exhibits not just visionary qualities as an artist, but visionary qualities as a labor theorist. For what she then termed maintenance work is now valorized in economic theory by the discovery of what is called either socialized or “affective” labor.
The Concept of Affective Work
Classical Marxism does not adequately account for either the gendered or immaterial aspects of labor. In classical Marxism the object of production is precisely that—a material object. Though its surplus value is produced by the labor of workers, 19th century theorists could not yet imagine how a non-material thing could be an embodiment of economic value. In the 1960s this changed with the contributions of neo-Marxist groups such as Potere Operaio, Autonomia, and the Midnight Notes Collective.14 For these thinkers, the gradual slowing-down in the overall rate of profit that is inherent to capitalism was exacerbated in the ’60s and ’70s by the counterrevolutions in which women, workers, and youth began to demand that more of the general surplus profit be distributed back to the min the form of pensions, health care, housing, childcare, education, transport, etc. As a result of this redistribution of profits—from capital to the populace via corporate taxation and social benefits—capital’s overall profit margins decreased, triggering the event in the 1970s that we have come to know as the “oil crisis.” However, from the neo-Marxist perspective the massive increase in oil prices of the ’70s did not so much produce an energy crisis as respond to a labor crisis. Their argument goes like this: If labor now costs capital ever more because labor demands that capital sponsor the cost of labor’s reproduction through state-controlled social security, maternity benefits, and the like, then capital must transfer these costs back to workers by increasing the prices of basic necessities such as food and fuel.
This new phase in the labor-capital dynamic caused many changes we have come to see as quintessentially postmodern. Of these, three are relevant here. First, profit-generation is now linked to emergent world consumption, rather than emerging world production, though production is still an important step on the road to consumption-based accumulation.15 The second issue of concern to us in the transition to a postmodern or “late” form of capital-accumulation is the shifting of labor-intense activities to the world’s less industrialized zones, and a general unhinging of value from traditional notions of materiality. This occurs because, as labor-intensive, object-based work moves to the newly industrializing zones, laborers in the developed world must develop new kinds of immaterial goods in order to generate their own income (to spend). Hence we have the “information” revolution in which non-material products are developed as commodities. These forms of non-object-based commodities and value-producing services have come to be known as affective or socialized labor, and since the ’70s they have been included in the productive economy. Interestingly, as the female counterparts of these social-thinkers have made clear, from mothers to prostitutes, caretakers to healers, women have always been “social” workers and always trafficked in the labor of the immaterial.16 Yet it took the entry of men into this field through the information revolution before these kinds of work were recognized as value-producing, that is, as having the capacity to produce monetary profit.
Not surprisingly, these dematerializations of the commodity, labor, and money are echoed in the famous dematerialization of the art object. Thus, from a Marxist perspective, conceptual and minimalist art are not only not the antithesis of late capitalist forms of accumulation, they are its apotheosis in the aesthetic sphere.17 From this perspective, works that might be considered critical of the postmodern economy are more likely to be those focusing on the actual materialities of contemporary global work chains. The collective subRosa has dealt with the global links between consumers and producers. For example, in their work Can You See Us Now? (2004), the group asked gallery viewers to cut the tags off their clothes and pin them to a world map on the country in which the garment was made. Other works come to mind here too, such as Martha Rosler’s Service: A Trilogy on Colonialism (1978) in which “a series of ‘food novels’ printed on postcards, reveal the attitudes of three women from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds towards the food they prepare and serve,” including a middle class European American housewife and a Tijuana maid.18
The final effect in the transition to postmodern capital of particular interest here is what could be called the commodification of the housewife. For beside the rise in new products and new kinds of work was a simultaneous realization that the domestic sphere itself could be made to yield profits. By applying the principles of Ford and Taylor to housework, even before WWII a new domestic economy had already been generated in which housework was made more efficient through the application of industrial techniques—using new labor-saving machines, and breaking down complex tasks into simpler sub-routines that could be automated (the washing and drying of dishes and clothes, the cutting, beating and mixing of foods). Now, with the post-’70s shift to a consumer economy, housewives, mothers, and other caregivers were reconceived as a new kind of worker-consumer who required special products and tools to perform their duties—slicers, dicers, icers, and wipers. By these and other means, not only was the average working-unit, whatever its composition, ultimately forced to pay for its own share of social services, it also found itself increasingly caught up in a life where even its private, domestic arrangements were colonized by capital, without any direct recognition (in the form of a wage) of the (economic) value of that domestic “work” which is still, in spite of the machines, mostly performed by women.
This new domestic economy is perhaps the most significant aspect of what Foucault called “bio-power,” the capitalization of life-force, which today goes right down to the processes of conception, impregnation, gestation, and birth. From this “other” materialist perspective, a critical art would not be one that dealt with disembodied information and a desire for liberation from material labor, but one that refuses commodification by insisting on the value and pleasures inherent in the processes of work itself, at least, of re-productive work. One thinks here of the classic ’70s feminist handicrafts of Miriam Schapiro, Harmony Hammond, and Pat Lasch. Or works that are simply made and exhibited in the home by women for themselves and their families, for example, Rasquache or domesticana, the Chicana phenomenon of the home altar. Amalia Mesa-Bains describes domesticana as follows: “Established through continuities of spiritual belief and pre-Hispanic in nature, the family altar functions for women as a counterpoint to male-dominated rituals within Catholicism. Often situated in the bedroom, the home altar locates family history and cultural belief systems. Arrangements of bric-a-brac, memorabilia, devotional icons, and decorative elements are created by women who exercise a familial aesthetic… Characterized by accumulation, display and abundance, the altars allow a co-mingling of history, faith and the personal.”19 And we might add, abundant displays of the pleasures of uncommodified life.
Of course, one issue at stake here is the private-public division of labor and social space, which in the twentieth century was increasingly mapped onto the work-non-work distinction. Though we now take the overlapping of these two pairs for granted, history need not have played out this way. For instance, in the 1848 French worker’s revolts, tailors and seamstresses had many shared ideas about unionization, solidarity, and the necessity to fight for fair living wages.20 However, their strategies were different. On the one hand, masculine tailors argued for a hierarchical system that privileged skilled artisans who worked in shops over unskilled piece workers whose labor was usually performed in their own home. But the seamstresses stressed the unity and communal aims of all women who earned their living by their needle. They argued that paid labor was compatible with a commitment to motherhood so long as women were paid fairly for their time, wherever the work was performed. In other words, while male worker-revolutionaries tied the value of their work to the place of its performance—shop or home—female workers made no such elision. In the end, as we know, the tailors triumphed, and “work” came to be defined by its location in social space. However, matters seem to have now reversed for, as many admit, much 21st century production now relies on home-based piece workers, who are not paid by time, but by the piece, hence the perception that they are “sweated.” (The origin of our modern word “sweatshop,” the term “sweated” was used to describe mid-nineteenth century home-based piece-workers, who were the most poorly paid in the clothing industry.) Cat Mazar’s Nike Blanket Petition (2003-2008), in which hundreds of women around the world added knitted squares to compose a giant Nike swoosh to be sent to the company headquarters, is an exemplary art piece dealing with these issues.21
However, the valuing and division of social space cannot be the only issues at stake here. Though many social or immaterial tasks might now count as work, it still depends on who performs the task as much as where it is done. When work studies are conducted by even such august bodies as the un, if a man gathers wood or carries water from a well, it is counted as work. When a woman does exactly the same activity, it is not.22 And this is true in the sphere of art. For example, why are Nick Cave, Mike Kelley, and Rikrit Tirivanija lauded when Miriam Schapiro, Faith Ringgold, and VALIE EXPORT, whose work used similar techniques decades ago, are not?
Lastly, when considering what might count as a critical woman’s art-work today, we could do worse than light upon that which refuses the equations
critique = rebellion
adherence to conventions = anti-criticality.
In the 20th century, the stance of the artist as a social outsider rejecting conventions may have been valid. In the 21st century, when revolutionary change seems very far away, matters are much more complex. And perhaps the true transformation will not come through some cathartic mass trauma, but through our gradual acceptance that the small pleasures of reproducing life and its daily intimacies are enough, not just for women, who have long been judged able to survive happily on this meager fare, but men also; those men for whom “the pram in the hallway” has long been judged the obstacle to all (properly productive) masculine fulfillment. Perhaps as Ukeles put it in MANIFESTO, Maintenance is a drag, precisely because it takes all the fucking time (literally). Nevertheless, the Life Instinct is the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species.
In other words, what would be really revolutionary is to be content with just living. And we could achieve this, Ukeles seems to say, by focusing our attention on the complex, hard, tiring, but ultimately most rewarding work of simply(!) (re)producing and maintaining ourselves through caring for each other (including the young, the sick, and the elderly). And, rather than focusing most of our resources, including time and labor, on making, building, and producing abstract “goods,” we could better spend them by making and maintaining good relations with each other. Of course, some abstractions must be produced, and some durable goods must be made, but these should be within the context of maintaining LIFE, not as an escape from it, or as an alternative to it.
After the revolution, are YOU going to pick up the garbage?
Christine Wertheim is a co-founder of the Institute for Figuring and the author of +|’me’S-pace (Les Figues Press). She lives in Los Angeles with her sister Margaret and teaches at CalArts.
- Amelia Jones, “1970/2007: The return of Feminist Art,” X-TRA, vol. 10, no. 4, 2008, 4-18.↵
- Jones, 4.↵
- See Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), for an alternative view of the relations between vision, perspectival pictorial construction, and subjectivity.↵
- For more on this subject see Griselda Pollock, “Three Thoughts on Femininity, Creativity and Lapsed Time,” Parkett, no. 59 (2000), 107-112.↵
- For an excellent presentation of this subject see Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. Ian Buchanan and Claire Colebrook (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).↵
- For more on this subject see Nancy Spector, “The Mechanics of Fluids,” Parkett, no. 48 (1996), 83-85.↵
- See Page duBois, Sappho is Burning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).↵
- http://www.dpeaflcio.org/programs/factsheets/fs_2008_Professional_women.htm. 4.29.09. The most fatal statistic of all is not included in such studies, namely that women own just 1% of the world’s landed property.↵
- Jerry Saltz, “Where the Girls Aren’t,” The Village Voice, September 19, 2006.10. It is arguable that the very concept of (a) “work” is unique to modern Western society, this being the only place where the work/ domesticity and public/ private distinctions have both been made so markedly, and then been made to elide.↵
- It is arguable that the very concept of (a) “work” is unique to modern Western society, this being the only place where the work/domesticity and public/private distinctions have both been made so markedly, and then been made to elide.↵
- Marx and Engels, The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 42.↵
- Helen Molesworth, “Cleaning Up in the 1970s: The Work of Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly and Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” Rewriting Conceptual Art, ed. Michael Newman and Jon Bird (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), 107-122. For another extraordinarily insightful and useful piece of feminist art history see Griselda Pollock’s Avant-Garde Gambits, 1888-1893: Gender and the Color of Art History (London: Thames, 1992).↵
- Ukeles manifesto is available online as a PDF at http://www. feldmangallery.com/media/pdfs/ukeles_ManiFEsto.pdf.↵
- See David Staples, “Women’s Work and the Ambivalent Gift of Entropy,” The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough (Duke University Press, 2007), 119-150.↵
- My argument here is a summary of Staples’s piece cited above.↵
- For example Leopoldina Fortunati and Maria Mies. See Staples.↵
- See Heriberto Yepez, “Untitled: Speculations on the Expanded Field of Writing,” unpublished conference paper.↵
- Bronx Museum of the Arts, Division of Labor: “Women’s Work” in Contemporary Art (Bronx: Bronx Museum, 1995), 21.↵
- Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Domesticana,” Division of Labor, 73.↵
- Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Colombia University Press, 1988). See especially chapter 5.↵
- See http://www.microrevolt.org/web/blanket.htm.↵
- Marilyn Waring, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).↵