on mental vs manual labor in the arts

Sophia Al-Maria describes art, and specifically the process of putting together an exhibition as radically incomplete and inherently experimental

(speaking from the position of an artist not a curator here), as against other forms of art like writing and filmmaking which for the most part deal in finished products (with finished of course being up for debate. In any case, they take a form without which we would not recognize them as such.)  The irony in such an observation, which I find compelling, is that Al-Maria, like a great deal of practicing visual artists, is a visual “artist,” filmmaker, writer, and beyond.  I feel the comfort and acceptance of if not incompletion (there is rarely anything actually incomplete about a work of art, which by definition, as a work, is finished and complete) than the pretense of such, or the ability to evoke more palpably its presence in visual art-making, is a productive and generative means of thinking about an ontology of contemporary art but I want to hold on the distinction Al-Maria glosses between artistic disciplines.

Film, recorded music, and now various forms of digital creative work are historically late.  There was therefore an imperative experienced by their early practitioners and experimenters and critics to carve out a space in an academy whose establishment viewed them (probably naturally) as a threat.  Very quickly too, in recorded sound and film, the corporate/monied powers consolidated “industries” around these forms, again, naturally, since the technological means of producing this kind of work was mostly out of reach for an individual.  

I want to think through this in conjunction with the idea of historian Michael Denning’s that a labor theory of culture would begin with the recognition of the division between mental and manual labor (see Denning, Culture in the Age of Three Worlds.)  Art forms have always been multidisciplinary, opera, perhaps serving as the ideal example of this; we attribute authorship to an individual but in actuality the creative authorship and execution of a staged opera is the product of a number of artists working across the labor divide Denning points out.  There is perhaps the case to be made for a single originator of the entirety of what we might consider the ‘mental’ labor necessary for the conception of a complete opera (although I find this difficult to imagine); the composer of the score, the author of the libretto, the choreographer of the dance and movements, the designer of sets and costumes, the director of the performance in total, could I suppose be the fruits of a single individual’s mental labor, but regardless of this, if we could grant it, the manual execution of such would be spread across a great many people.

This of course also begs the question of how and why certain types of labor get placed in either of Denning’s camps at all, not to mention how to distinguish between the director and the actor (both of which I imagine we would describe as performing ‘mental’ labor, but whose self-determination is uneven).  So what gets defined in general parlance as labor at all should be a cause for wonder, even if the definitions can be cursorily attributed to the economic order in which the determinations are being made.  Denning uses the analogy of composition versus performance, which I think is apt, and especially interesting to consider through the lens of musicology’s rather recent turn to re-valuing the performance and therefore the performer of the work (see many people but I’ll just note Carolyn Abbate and “Music – Drastic or Gnostic?”)  To follow Stuart Hall in asking the questions of what makes such a turn in musicological analysis possible, what are the conditions of possibility for thinking this way, it seems the inability to ignore any longer the disparity between those with and those without power and capital in the economic environment of the 21st century is what is making this kind of thinking newly possible in the arts.

I wonder if it is even possible to call for a similar turn in thinking in other artistic fields.  Music seems somewhat unique in that the composers and performers, even if inconsistently and inequitably across time and scholarly work, are both considered mental laborers.  The same cannot be said to the same degree of cinematographers, camera operators writ large, set designers and set builders, although I think this is beginning to shift so maybe the turn is already underway.  Historically however the activities of these types of labor sit perilously at the border between aesthetic and use value, not granted the purity of aesthetics, but neither are the products of this kind of labor of “use” to anyone but the primary ‘author’ of the Work.  

If even in the visual arts it’s difficult if not impossible to truly start from a place in which one is not benefiting in some way from the labor of another (the raw materials of painting, for example), the visual artist is in many respects the one who comes the closest to collapsing the divide between conception and execution.  As Al-Maria describes in the interview referenced earlier, in the art context there seems to be ‘a tacit understanding of the importance of having complete control.”  There is also the somewhat, although never complete either entirely or unproblematically, sense in which visual art is one of the few cultural fields somewhat still immune to commoditization (this is anyways perhaps mostly a benefit and attribute of installation art which at least formally resists, if not outright avoids commodification, as many have already observed.)  Visual art, Al-Maria observes, is allowed to remain incomplete, in process, un-polished (although the un-polished aesthetic itself has become quite a commodity.)  Following Ursula K. LeGuin (See LeGuin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,”) Al-Maria characterizes her approach and indeed the privilege of art making as like a “carrier bag,” art which is composed of smaller fragments and pieces, “like tiny little pieces of information that might add up to an attempt at grasping some larger truth.”  (Or might not.)

Although in some instances and at least on first glance Al-Maria’s work might not seem the best example of this un-finshedness, she has produced some magnificently ‘finished’ work in my opinion, it does move towards a different understanding of creation and labor thanks to its combination of media and conjuncture of creators – she references her work “Beast Type Song” in the interview, a video shown in 2019, in which she assembles work for which she was directly responsible as well as the ideas of others while literally including images of the sound and camera crew responsible for the film’s production.  The privilege of incompletion is here married to a more overt activism through a literal visualization of the labor of those who would otherwise been obscured in the final product.  In a more typical critical gesture one could also note the evocation of a Denning-type theory of labor and culture in Al-Maria’s larger conceptual interests in trash and ruins, trash being a common feature in her work.

If there is unquestionably an industrial nature to contemporary art similar to that of film or music, Al-maria’s observations regarding the distinction between what she can do with visual art that she can’t do in other creative fields marks visual art as at least minimally distinct. As I have begun to argue anyways, the visual arts afford an interesting means of considering not only the arbitrary industrial divisions between disciplines, but how art might serve as a means of re-evaluating how we value labor in wider contexts.

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