Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Program

Art History

Supervisor

Dr. Kirsty Robertson

Abstract

In a 2013 exhibition publication titled It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!, John Roberts made the observation that “Over the last ten years we have become witness to an extraordinary assimilation of art theory and practice into the categories of labor and production.” Whereas once art claimed for itself a critical capacity in relation to the larger system of capitalist domination by its status as a putatively ‘autonomous’ sphere of production from which it leveraged its difference and critique, today it is largely acknowledged that there is no longer any such ‘outside’ to be aspired to. If, in the recent past, the immaterial, informational, creative, experiential, and affective elements of conceptual art were seen as potential resistant forces, in our current climate, where these forms of labor have become the dominant mode of production for the capitalist economy, these potentialities are now being widely questioned.

With these developments in mind, this dissertation consists of a series of integrated articles that focus on the increasingly diffuse and interconnected circuits of global exchange and labor as they interact with specific sites and interventions of contemporary artistic production. In this, they coalesce around a general binding inquiry: does artistic labor today have the capacity to function as a critique of the (transforming) mechanisms of control and exploitation characteristic of capitalism in the twenty-first century? And if not, what does that entail about the continued political viability, and persisting social functions of contemporary artworks? Drawing on autonomist Marxist thought, the sociology of work and labor, performance studies, and critical readings on the relationship between artistic labor and recent forms of capitalist production, the chapters are organized around exhibitions and artworks which represent, critique, or (re)produce the conditions of production in late capitalism, while situating these within a global economy characterized by an uneven network of productive relations. In so doing, they trace the trajectory of labor relations and production practices as they have transformed over the last half decade through artworks and exhibitions that engage specific emblematic sites of production—the factory, the prison, and the museum (or amalgams of these spaces), and attempts to tease out places where reflection on the relationship between ‘artistic’ and ‘non-artistic’ labor in each may lead to clarity regarding the socio-political efficacy of contemporary art in an increasingly saturated and complex economic infrastructure.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation consists of a series of integrated articles that focus on the relationship between art production and the general economy, through analysis of artworks and exhibitions that specifically engage with themes of labor, work, value, and exchange. In this, they coalesce around a general binding inquiry: does artistic labor today have the capacity to function as a critique of the (transforming) mechanisms of control and exploitation characteristic of capitalism in the twenty-first century? And if not, what does that say about the political and social functions of contemporary artworks? Drawing on political theory, the sociology of work and labor, performance studies, and critical readings on the relationship between artistic labor and recent forms of capitalist production, the chapters are organized around exhibitions and artworks which represent, critique, or (re)produce the conditions of production in late capitalism, while situating these within a global economy characterized by an uneven network of productive relations. In so doing, they trace the trajectory of labor relations and production practices as they have transformed over the last half decade through artworks and exhibitions that engage specific emblematic sites of production—the factory, the prison, and the museum (or amalgams of these spaces), and attempts to tease out places where reflection on the relationship between ‘artistic’ and ‘non-artistic’ labor in each may help elucidate the socio-political role of contemporary art in an increasingly saturated and complex economic infrastructure.

Available for download on Friday, December 30, 2022

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