John Roberts The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade, Verso: London, 2007; 256 pp.: 9781844671670, 16.99 pounds sterling] (pbk); 9781844671632 60 pounds sterling] (hbk)
This volume, while providing an innovative discourse on artistic and non-artistic labour in aesthetic production during and since the early 20th century avant-garde, is dissatisfying. As someone who has undertaken both the physical manufacture of craft objects and the critical analysis of a range of its media, I am dismayed that Roberts frequently uses the words 'craft' and 'handcraft' but omits craft per se from his discussion of 20th- and 21st-century art. Perhaps subsequent writing could tackle Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79) or the AIDS Memorial Quilt (begun in 1987) from his Marxist perspective. In addition, my reading is biased by my experience of making art: an idea demands execution, which requires intellect, research, skill, resources, patience and perseverance to bring it from fantasy to reality. The Intangibilities of Form alerts me to yet another component--the political economics of my labour; but I'm afraid that this factor is unlikely to enter into my conceptualisation any time soon. However, since some practitioners are required to ruminate on their modus operandi in graduate seminars, the book is of merit because of its unorthodox approach, as well as for its in-depth consideration of the canon.
Roberts's discussion evolves from Walter Benjamin: 'art and general social technique does not stand still' (p. 17). In other words, the advent over time of societal and technological advancements--electricity, manufactured products and additives, computers, image replication, the global economy, the internet, to name but a few have an impact on the artist's output, as do the contexts in which the work is created and displayed. Context includes historic precedents: for instance, the collage of a maker's handcrafted components with preexisting found elements, introduced by the Russian constructivists and exploited by Dadaism, is now commonplace. The question that Roberts addresses is whether the incorporation of such contemporaneous social technique denigrates the ideal of art. He argues that it doesn't, because the hand, manual labour, (wo)manipulation, distinguishes the artist from the mechanic.
Marcel Duchamp, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Andy Warhol serve the author's thesis as vanguard exponents of social technique in their...