Today’s installment of our Summer Session considering labor comes from our sister publication Art Practical. Author Celeste Connor contributes an Op-Ed that claims, “To fetishize style trends, as institutions do, as singular models for development of cultural ideas and actions is tragicomically flattening. If we makers are serious about the goal of a growing, inclusive public, reskilling is a crucial antidote.” This article was originally published on June 16, 2015.
A narrow, forty-five-year-old theory called “deskilling” haunts art education on the West Coast, and Bay Area art schools need to consider its many consequences, especially at the graduate level. Deskilling theory itself, and some theoretical misreadings resulting from it, require reexamination. As predicted by early socialist Arts and Crafts leaders such as the artist–activist William Morris when the first deskilling of art and other markets occurred in England a century and a half ago, the social role and economic status of artists, architects, and designers has indeed diminished as a result.
In 1971, some Los Angeles–based artists, among them John Baldessari, often called the godfather of Conceptual art, who was then and still is on the faculty at California Institute of the Arts, coined the term “post-studio art” to describe work done in one’s head. If an artist has an idea, in other words, the work is as good as carried out. In this view, not only do visual images and objects play a role secondary to concept, but adherents go so far as to claim that text and image are the same; words and pictures are treated as if semantically identical and their important differences are ignored. But what happens when you do not speak the language? Useful analytic language now lags behind making as much as theory lags behind practice. Art language as it has evolved today is hyper-rational, tediously abstract, and known only by an elite.
That mode of analytical language did not enter the picture until a decade after post–studio art’s birth was announced. In 1981, the Australian artist Ian Burn, part of the Art and Language group, used the word “deskilling” to describe the way that vanguard artists of the 1960s divested themselves of the customary obligations of physical production to privilege conception and presentation. The term was subsequently mobilized by others, especially the art historian and October theorist Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, who defined deskilling as the “persistent effort to eliminate artisanal competence and other forms of manual virtuosity from the horizon of both artistic production and aesthetic evaluation.”