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Framing Artwork


My premise is this: that the ways in which we describe and understand artistic labor are integrally tied to how we imagine what artworks should do in the world. Underlying the idea of artistic production as authentic, voluntary, and self-valorizing, for example, is the utopian promise that art is prefigurative, that it can posit in an experimental, provisional way the liberatory modes of being we wish for everybody. Another idea—that art production is exploitative, alienated, precarious, and ultimately only geared toward profit—still contains the promissory note that art (or art criticism) can and should unveil false consciousness, that art can show with unique lucidity our reality just as it is. On the one hand, artists are models for what labor should be; on the other, they have become a terrifying example of what labor is. Authentic or alienated. These paradigms operate in our discussions of artistic labor just as much as they operate in broader discussions of contemporary art and art history. This makes the reverse of my premise just as true: that how we imagine what art should do is intertwined with our idea of artistic labor. What I hope to show is that it is precisely this feedback loop between artistic labor and art’s utopian claims that makes this type of labor different from other types—which is not to say privileged, but different. And in order to grapple with art’s current problems and unfulfilled promises, we need to first confront how and why such contradictory meanings operate in concert within the expanded field of artwork.

A striking example of an artist who seems to unveil the alienated aspect of artistic production is Andy Warhol. In asserting his desire “to be a machine” and to make “Business Art,” Warhol eschewed creativity as an artistic value, since for him being a machine meant being standard, the very same as everyone else. In an oft-cited 1963 interview for Art News, Warhol explained this idea in his characteristically coy and circuitous manner:

Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government. Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody.

Statements like these have been interpreted as unlocking the meaning of Warhol’s appropriation of mass cultural images. Focusing on this level of signification, some have argued that Warhol’s Pop leveled formerly vertical notions of culture, introducing a vernacular iconography in order to radicalize and ultimately democratize the realm of “high” art. This was a particularly salient interpretation in West Germany, where, as Andreas Huyssen has shown, a vibrant leftist student movement adopted Pop as part of its battle cry against outdated societal values and hierarchies. And indeed, as echoed in his mention of Brecht above, Warhol first deemed his practice “commonism,” confounding the Cold War opposition between capitalist and communist economic systems and drawing out their similarities as mass and massifying cultures.

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