Unreal Nature

May 5, 2017

The Opposite of Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… The point of being an artist was no longer to be a supplier of goods.

This is from James Joyce (2nd Edition) by Steven Connor (1996, 2012):

Joyce became a modernist at the point when he made a choice to become an artist in distinction to a more secure middle-class occupation. For Joyce, to be an artist was to refuse the market place and to embrace the nomadic, insecure, and, as it seemed to many, parasitic life of the bohemian. We are apt to forget how recent an invention the figure of the bohemian artist is in European cultures.

[line break added] It does not date back much further than the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a period during which the collapse of the system of patronage, and the erosion of the privilege accorded to the writer, painter, and musician, who was now required to earn his living much like everybody else, began to make the work of the artist appear anomalous at best and superfluous at worst. Artists had no choice but to accept their reduced role, and to hug and nurture the very principles of their marginality.

[line break added] Henceforth, to be an artist was to withdraw from the world of getting and spending, to refuse to participate in the economic processes which began to encroach on every area of social life. This refusal expressed itself in a deepening mistrust of a society organized more and more around the logic of the commodity, the production of objects the value of which is determined wholly by the vicissitudes and vagaries of economic exchange in the market place.

In fact, the marginalization of the artist from the eighteenth century onwards managed to achieve something that centuries of aesthetic and critical enquiry had conspicuously failed to do: it threw up a universally applicable definition of art, now characterized clearly as the opposite of work. All over the newly industrializing world, bourgeois families trembled with the unspoken dread that young Henry (or, worse still, Henrietta) might one day announce the intention of going in for art, compared with which prospect a career as a streetwalker or receiver of stolen goods seemed like honest toil.

[line break added] But it is perhaps not often enough noticed that the hardening of definitions of steady moralization of work from the eighteenth century onwards, and the deepening from the late eighteenth century onwards of the association between occupation and identity, the nature of one’s labor and the nature of one’s being. For Marx, the scandal of wage-slavery is to be measured, not in terms of the quantitative burden of labor it imposes, but in its denial of the ideal of authentic labor by which means alone man can fulfill his nature.

… To be an artist was to refuse (and, usually, to be refused) the idea of paid labor, but it was also, necessarily, to mimic, even to underline, the general moralization of work. The opposite of work (art) was not non-work, but a superior, redeemed, more essentially laborious kind of work.

Faced with a logic of the commodity which tended to relegate the production of art as useless, inefficient, or infantile, artists had two, sometimes associated responses. One was to compensate for the social undervaluation of art by a massive overvaluation. Art, writers like Shelley proclaimed, spoke a higher kind of truth, and possessed a transcendent value that could not even be measured in conventional economic terms. For this tradition, which extends through Flaubert and Wilde to Joyce, the artist is a superior kind of craftsman, whose godlike labor produces the only real value in a world of degraded mass consumption.

… However, the extraordinary capacity of the market to assimilate and capitalize upon the most radical challenges to its logic, and its ravening hunger to reduce works of art to the condition of commodities, also led some artists to a suspicion of the idea of the ‘work’ itself. Hence another, more extreme response to the social discrediting of art was for the artist to undervalue the work of art, or to refrain as far as was decently possible from producing works of art at all. Attention was thus deflected defensively from the vulnerable work of art to its less easily commodified producer.

… The point of being an artist was no longer to be a supplier of goods. If it was tediously necessary to turn in the occasional work, this was only to prove that one was an artist, the work itself being incidental to the artistic life of which it was the precipitate. As such, it was desirable to produce as little as possible. Artistic and material success became mutually defining opposites. Thus, when Samuel Beckett declared in 1945 that ‘to be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail,’ he was both reacting against the assurance of modernist ideas of the superiority of the artist’s vocation and giving voice to what had become a traditional association between being an artist and worldly failure.




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