Since the 1970s, a quiet cultural revolution has taken place that has restructured the desires of many people involved in art production, especially in relation to ideas of work and the working class. Increasingly, art production is distanced from the notion of work or the working life of wage earners. Who doesn’t want to earn a living performing leisure, for example? But the line is fine between such an attitude and the negation of value for what is performed by a majority of the population. Consider this conclusion to a text concerned with the increasingly difficult exercise of freedom in a world where even (or perhaps especially) idle chatter becomes symbolic capital:
As the artist who writes unpins and dislocates himself in discourse, he might elaborate scenarios that engage new possibilities of life. The scenario might serve as a concrete mode of subjectification, a means of auto-temporalization that could be taken up by others, folding back onto the work we do, not outside of discourse but pushing discourse to its own outside, producing breaks and flights within the discursive situation in such a way that work becomes a foreign activity.
The last phrase (my emphasis) is emblematic of a growing distanciation of art production from the very idea of work, classically understood. It also raises the question of how and why we imagine foreign lands in relation to this work of distanciation (more on this soon).
In the face of the current tendency to understand work elsewhere, offshore, in another country, I’m tempted to bring up the case of Allan Sekula’s practice as a whole, and his 1974 photonovel, This Ain’t China, in particular. This is a work I came to know some ten years ago from books, which is probably why I think of it as a kind of strange fable for adults. And like any good fable, this one haunts me—especially when I try to think about reality and realism.
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