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“Work Ethic”

At the Baltimore Museum of Art

to Jan. 4, 2004

At the beginning of Working, Studs Terkel wheels out a Faulkner quote ruefully remarking that the main reason we work, sustenance aside, is the fact that there is nothing else we can do all day. This argument leads me to assume the prolific Count No-Count to have been a poor student of the lazy arts, insufficiently imaginative where matters of time-wasting are concerned, all but stone-deaf to the distractionist muse.

As any number of pieces now on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art attest, fascinating sights can arise out of a desire to do a whole lot of not much of anything at all. Although gathered under the “Work Ethic” banner, the rack of empties that documents Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Work of Art (1970-2003), for example, or the blank square of paper that is Tom Friedman’s 1000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997) seem less like work than the studious, even rigorous, avoidance of it.

Through the equivalence of activity, particularly regular or repeated or sustained activity (known in the art world as “process”), and work, actions such as Alison Knowles’ 1962 Make a Salad, enacted in Baltimore as an opening-weekend fête, have helped create an atmosphere in which everything from housecleaning to well-drilling to getting blotto in a bar enchantingly—and somewhat delusionally—occupies a single continuum. It could be argued that this redefinition and radicalization of visual art has left most viewers behind, that the practice has gone someplace they can’t be expected to follow, and that other, more popular forms don’t have this problem—after all, no one is surprised that Kid Notorious isn’t Gidget or that 50 Cent isn’t Nat King Cole. Credit that to art’s centuries of sycophantic courtiership: Service, or at least the promise of it, was long a part of the deal.

Contemporary art is still a courtier, but in “Work Ethic” it assumes the role of jester, an inspired fool who holds folly up to the light. Richard Serra’s 1968 film Hand Catching Lead shows a hypnotic close-up of a hand compulsively clutching at, and sometimes triumphantly latching onto and brandishing, falling bits of metal. One of those elderly art writers who is an inescapable peril of the secondary-market press preview caught me intently studying the piece and nervously asked, “Is that your hand?”—as if only the most reductive kind of identification with the image could explain my being enraptured by it.

The public, of course, knows when it isn’t being served. And the sting of the provocation, in this case, remains sharp because it suggests that to get with the program—to buckle down, knuckle under, and keep working—is to have been had. Picture reaching the twilight of your days and discovering that however you ended up pissing away your best years, it wasn’t nearly so financially rewarding, socially respected, and conducive to waking up at a civilized hour as the life of the tenured avant-gardist.

The case of Chris Burden, represented in “Work Ethic” by Honest Labor—documentation of a 1979 action in which he diligently dug a useless ditch at a university-sponsored visiting-artist gig—is so noteworthy that it served as the lede in Deborah Solomon’s 1999 New York Times Magazine piece about UCLA’s art school. Here’s a fellow who made his name by being shot in the arm, crucified on the roof of a Volkswagen, and nearly electrocuted (though not all in the same piece—gotta pace yourself in this business) pulling down more than $100K plus bennies from the state. And, get this, his wife, also a famous artist, is on the payroll, too! Think about that a while and it seems almost gleefully cruel to stage a show like this in a town as blue-collar as Charm City, particularly in the age of the amazing shrunken 401(k).

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In a 1977 piece not included in “Work Ethic,” Burden became “the first artist to make a full public financial disclosure”—a development that underscores the exhibition’s most notable lack: There is only scant mention of the fact that the generation or two represented by the bulk of the artists here lucked into a sociohistorical sweet spot. “Work” can be anything you want it to be if you aren’t required to move any of it out the door, and one of the reasons artists of the ’60s and ’70s could so openly disdain the depredations of the market is that they didn’t need to sell anything. As Burden told Solomon, “People think collectors support artists, but it’s universities that support artists.”

This is a fairly recent development. As curator Helen Molesworth notes in the catalog: “In the early 1940s, there were 60 candidates for graduate degrees in studio art enrolled in eleven American institutions. By 1950-51, there were 322 candidates at thirty-two institutions. The trend continued through the end of the century. Thirty-one new Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs opened in the 1960s, and forty-four in the 1970s. From 1990 to 1995, ten thousand MFA degrees were awarded in the United States. These numbers are astounding. What do they mean for artists and the art they produce?”

What they mean, although Molesworth doesn’t say so, is that teaching at an art school today is arguably the most irresponsible thing you can do for creatively inclined youth. Unless you also cite figures about the academy’s worsening case of adjunctivitis and the growth of opportunities at coffeehouses, copy shops, and temp agencies—a development soft-pedaled in the catalog into talk of the burgeoning service sector, but not discussed in relation to the art graduates who’ll end up working in it—you’re basically ushering most students into the bottommost layer of a Ponzi scheme.

As the “Work Ethic” artists take great and often hilarious pains to point out, the alternative—a straight job—is often a death by degrees. Even though he enacted only the framing of work, rather than the labor itself, in One Year Performance, 11 April 1980-11 April 1981, a piece that involved punching a time clock every hour on the hour for 365 days, endurance artist Tehching Hsieh captured much of what is hateful about the working world.

Perhaps it’s some small consolation that the MFA clearing that paper jam or whipping up that tall, skinny, soy half-caf capp will get the entertainment value of “Work Ethic” as well as its mockery. The end-of-the-alphabet generations, of course, have been thoroughly clued in by pop culture. Kids who’ve grown up with Letterman find joy in Japanese collective Hi Red Center’s 1964 Ochanomizu Drop, in which various items were pitched from a rooftop and bequeathed to a random recipient, and young viewers take to Yoko Ono’s audience-participatory Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961-2003) like schoolchildren adding to an amusement-park gum tree. Those who recall the short-lived but influential reality dating show Chains of Love may wonder how conscious an homage it was to Marioni’s three-day 1973 handcuffing to Linda Montano or Hsieh’s yearlong 1983-1984 roping to the same collaborator (both pieces not included here, but quick to spring to mind among viewers familiar with their work). And most recently, what was David Blaine’s London stunt but a pop-cult riff on endurance art’s mordant literalization of the adage that 90 percent of life is just showing up?

The trick for younger artists such as Roxy Paine (b. 1966) is to get in on the scam. And now that getting paid has gotten competitive, the rules have changed. Had an artist thought to make Paine’s 1997 Paint Dipper, which mechanically produces unique monochrome paintings by submerging canvases in a vat of paint, 30 years earlier, the resulting artworks would have been priced to move, perhaps even given away. But Paine’s automatic art is handled exclusively by his dealer. There’s no longer seen to be much sense in making a point at the expense of your career, and too many earlier artists have found themselves backpedaling when the exigencies of earning a living, buying a vacation house, or firming up one’s place in history intruded.

The youngest person on “Work Ethic”‘s checklist, 30-year-old Hope Ginsburg, represents a less combative, go-along-to-get-along attitude toward the workplace. She sometimes takes the tack of the small-time entrepreneur, marketing temporary tattoos or honey from a beekeeping venture. But she isn’t afraid of going corporate: In an October lecture, she described her experience working in the marketing department of textile firm Designtex on a project involving environmentally friendly upholstery fabric. She set up bins in which worms biodegraded the fabric, both in the company showroom, where she also delivered an artist’s talk, and at art spaces. For another project, she attempted to become a QVC program host, and not in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink way, either. She had good head shots; she followed up with a nice thank-you note. She’s a terrific public speaker, too—they were fools not to hire her. Assuming Ginsburg isn’t some weird statistical glitch, over the past 20 years, the avant-garde artist has moved from a political firebrand you wouldn’t want watering the plants in the lobby to a real team player.

In any case, Ginsburg is the product of a system of production—of artists themselves, not just of artworks—that has overextended itself. It is telling that most of her work is ancillary to the sale of products that are not normally seen as “artistic”: No doubt those members of the multitasking generation who desire a life in the arts will increasingly be required to squeeze it in around other employment. For all the catalog’s talk of the merging of art and life, much of it in the show was done virtually risk-free. Ginsburg’s peers will have to make a go of it outside the educational cloister.

Sometime in the near future, it will be possible to mount a successor to “Work Ethic” that doesn’t suffer from the clinical air that arises from institutional coddling, because artists will truly have embedded themselves in the workaday world. As it stands, the clever, even radically trivial amusement the show offers completely misses out on the fact that work is more than mere occupation: It is security, and it never goes unaccompanied by the gnawing fear that we may be without it. CP