Culture Corps

Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era BY Julia Bryan-Wilson. University of California Press. Hardcover, 256 pages. $39.

The cover of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era

Whirling kinetic sculptures, heaps of rough timber, spills of cast concrete, coiling bands of telex paper spewing raw news feed: How did artists making decisively nonrepresentational art in the 1960s and ’70s reconcile such work with their claim to be acting politically, in consort with civil rights activists, striking workers, and militant antiwar protesters? According to Julia Bryan-Wilson’s smart new study, Art Workers, the answer is to be found in the frequently vexed identification many artists sought to establish with nonartistic forms of labor. The primary crucibles for this desired affinity were the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC, 1969–71) and the New York Art Strike Against Racism, War, and Repression (1970)—short-lived but exceedingly influential organizations that demonstrated to artists the invisible thread linking all expressions of labor: the capacity to redirect their efforts through protests, boycotts, slowdowns, strikes, and even acts of sabotage. Their primary target? Not the factory, but the museum.

The game plan involved picketing museums for better working conditions—expanded exhibition opportunities for women and minority artists, and resale rights and health insurance for cultural workers—and inciting work stoppages and interventions, such as when members of the AWC released cockroaches at a trustees’ dinner to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial show “Harlem on My Mind.” The cumulative lesson is clear: One need not produce overtly political art in order to act politically as an art worker. But Bryan-Wilson does not seek to deliver a history of the AWC and the Art Strike; instead, she focuses on the way the term art worker was interpreted, modified, and transformed by four individuals—Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Lucy Lippard, and Hans Haacke—who were central to one or both groups. In doing so, she produces a complex social account of artists, institutions, and politics entangled within an expansive historical narrative.

The case studies begin with Andre and Morris, whose approaches to art and labor read like Marxist primers on working-class alienation. Central to Marx’s notion of exchange value is the erasure of labor’s trace within the commodity form. In this sense, the extruded metal sheets, concrete slabs, and raw lumber Andre and Morris used were imbued with labor’s alienated absence. Their exhibition strategy aimed to make this hidden productivity visible (or audible, as in Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961), by explicitly displaying their own labor or that of the workers hired to create the installations—the brick masons, cement mixers, welders, and riggers who spent sweat-filled hours installing, for instance, Morris’s monumental solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970. (Notably, Morris prematurely closed the show to protest the bombing of Cambodia, a gesture he hoped other artists would emulate.) In 1976, Andre insisted that “the position of the artist in our society is exactly that of an assembly line worker in Detroit.” Others, however, discerned a significant disparity between cultural workers and non-art laborers. When, that same year, the Tate Gallery in London purchased Andre’s Equivalent VIII, 1966 (120 bricks stacked in a low rectangle), the Luton Evening Post derided it as “a load of . . . art work,” mockingly displaying a photo of Bob, a bricklayer who had allegedly constructed a similar “masterpiece” in only five minutes.

By contrast, Lippard and Haacke developed a more nuanced interpolation of cultural labor that emphasized dematerialized information over brute matter. In 1968, art critic Lippard visited Argentina to jury an exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Following the arrest of artists who had stormed the show in protest of corporate involvement and the brutal military junta, Lippard had an epiphany about “the efficacy and force of artistic withdrawal as a political strategy,” precisely the kind of tactics she and others would later take up in the AWC and the Art Strike. Similarly, Haacke’s failed negotiations with censorious Guggenheim director Thomas Messer (who famously canceled the artist’s New York solo exhibition in 1971, decrying it as journalism, not art) stimulated the AWC to stage a protest of the museum and compelled Haacke to investigate the museum’s corporate links, which he traced to backers of the 1973 Chilean coup.

Although central chapters examine the fidelity of specific artworks to a shifting concept of cultural labor, Art Workers repeatedly cuts away from such close readings in order to engage with the panorama of the ’60s cultural revolution, thus reiterating the principal dilemma of Bryan-Wilson’s thesis: the seemingly unresolvable tension between an autonomous work of art and its heteronomous social context. But if Adorno’s aesthetic theory haunts the logic of her investigation, it is Marcuse who supplies the book’s political juice. He presents revolution as a process rather than a destination, the triumph of Eros over the stultifying bureaucracies of political parties. Likewise, art workers practiced insurgency sensuously, playfully, as if, Bryan-Wilson writes, attempting “a rehearsal or trial, the refining and trying out of politics.” Such agitational theater met with modest success, such as when New York’s Museum of Modern Art agreed to open its doors for free one day a week. But at other times, this practice incurred setbacks and even catastrophe: A portion of Morris’s Whitney installation collapsed, pinning a worker beneath a massive steel panel, underscoring some of the real challenges presented by the aestheticization of labor. However, despite an excellent exploration of Marcuse’s influence, Bryan-Wilson does not probe the historical links between cultural producers and the New Left. For example, she describes support by some members of the AWC for the militant postal workers’ strike in 1970. A radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society also issued a call for solidarity, but Bryan-Wilson fails to consider the level of organized interaction between the dissident artists and SDS.

That said, Bryan-Wilson applies her numerous insights with care, concluding that “the emergence of the art worker . . . was catalyzed by the AWC and the Art Strike but was also dialectically forged in relation to these artists’ own changing artistic and critical methods.” From Andre’s and Morris’s heaps and spills of industrial material to Lippard’s production of dozens of reviews a week (a career balanced with child care) to Haacke’s cerebral redefinition of art as information, each adjustment of art worker rehearsed its own set of possibilities, and each permutation was in turn reflected by debate within the AWC about culture, activism, and what would later be termed institutional critique. What emerges through Bryan-Wilson’s meticulous research and case studies is a parallel narrative, in which an evolving, sometimes contradictory application of the term art worker reflected the broader transformation of the post-’60s economy from blue-collar to pink-collar to no-collar creative work involved in “a service economy of knowledge production, administration, and the creation of affect.”

Gregory Sholette is an artist and writer and an assistant professor in the art department at Queens College, CUNY. He is a founding member of the artists’ collectives Political Art Documentation/Distribution and REPOhistory.