“What is art?” hasn’t been an interesting question for a long time, but the query “What is it that artists do?” might be. We know that artists make art, but what about all the other things they do as artists? I’m not thinking here of the many artists who operate in expanded fields, artists whose creative process might involve running large workshops, consulting with scientists or designating some daily transaction as a work of art. What I have in mind, rather, is someone like the late Martin Kippenberger, who presented himself in a strikingly prescient way as a “total service” artist. I borrow the term from Diedrich Diederichsen, who, in his introduction to Uwe Koch’s 2003 catalogue raisonné of Kippenberger’s books, identified the German artist’s “total service concept, according to which none of the procedures connected with the production and sale of the visual arts—invitations, opening, party, food, meetings with art collectors, studio visits, the artist’s clothing and the clothing of his associates, posters and other PR/advertising methods and finally catalogues—could be left up to professionals or to routine.”
Of course, over the last half century—since Fluxus, let’s say—many artists have assumed responsibility for all manner of ancillary “procedures,” sometimes explicitly claiming them as art: Dick Higgins (artist as publisher), George Maciunas (artist as landlord), Marcel Broodthaers (artist as curator), Joseph Beuys (artist as lecturer), Lynda Benglis (artist as advertiser), Jeff Koons (ditto). Then there are hyper-entrepreneurial artists who want to do (and have) it all, albeit with extensive outsourcing: Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst. Do-it-yourself tendencies shouldn’t surprise us, since from its beginnings modern art has involved the pursuit of autonomy (from tradition, from society, from patronage, from limiting styles), a refusal to cede control to anyone other than the artist. Further, by taking on such everyday, seemingly “noncreative” activities, artists have contributed to another quintessentially modernist project, the demystification of art.
Among the jobs that total service artists are tasked with, one of the most important is that of being their own historian or critic. This can take various forms, including interpretive commentary, corrective letters to editors or archival research into the history of a local art scene. It can even involve crafting imaginary scenarios of how one’s work might be received by major institutions. Usually, artists become their own historians because no one else is paying attention to their work or because the people who do are doing so badly. A pioneer in this practice was Italian artist Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (1914-1990), who coined the term autostoricizzazione, or “self-historicization,” in the early 1970s.
Today, by choice or necessity, more and more artists have adopted the total service model, but when they pursue “total service” and “self-historicization” they must confront issues and ambiguities that weren’t a concern for Kippenberger or Cavellini. They have to ask themselves: does embracing “total service” represent an expansion of autonomy and mark a further step in the demystification process, or does it simply reflect the increasingly vulnerable status of every worker in the post-Fordist economy, what philosopher Paolo Virno refers to as “precarity”? Like workers everywhere, and especially in the U.S., artists are expected to assume more risk and more responsibility than before. Just as employers in the larger economy provide fewer and fewer benefits, and technology allows businesses to shift more labor to their customers, so do galleries reduce the services they offer, compelling artists to take on many functions they traditionally provided, such as promotion and archiving. There’s a certain irony to this situation, since the artist has been seen as a model for the freelance/adjunct/outsourced worker, and also for the multitasking, jack-of-all-trades employee. Noting that artists originally acquired a special status in capitalist society because they “refused to follow the specialization required by other professions,” Hito Steyerl has warned that “the example of the artist as creative polymath now serves as a role model (or excuse) to legitimate the universalization of professional dilettantism and overexertion in order to save money on specialized labor.”1