Reskill Now!


Reskill Now!

By Celeste Connor June 16, 2015

The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.

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.

If an artist has an idea, in other words, the work is as good as carried out.

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.”1

Even with the seeming ignorance of historical precedents, deskilling has truly become an academic tradition—a postmodernist position unsuited to these ultramodern times, particularly when it promotes misreadings. The most recent writer to expand the deskilling notion, the theorist and curator John Roberts, seems to choose misreading as his method. In his consideration of past uses of the deskilling strategy, he ignores all but one feminist contribution: Interim by Mary Kelly, an American artist, educator, and author who undertook a six-year exploration of mother-child sociability between 1973 and 1979.2 He neglects feminist reskillings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance the revival of so-called domestic crafts under Mimi Schapiro in Los Angeles and San Diego, and the expanding soft skills such as care, passion, compassion, and commitment as exercised by Woman House leaders Judy Chicago and Suzanne Lacy. One of the most reskilled games in town was played by Lacy, who took it to the Oakland streets in 1992–94 with The Roof Is on Fire (see images and captions).

Suzanne Lacy. Still from the making of The Roof Is on Fire, 1992–94. To make this work, a collaborative performance directed by Lacy and documented in photos, videos, and a film, 220 inner-city teens in 100 cars came together on the garage roof of Oakland’s Federal Building to talk openly, with predetermined topics but no script, in front of “eavesdropping” audiences and cameras.

Roberts’ current academic iteration of deskilling also misreads October’s protagonist, Marcel Duchamp, claiming that his is a “tradition of negation.” But Duchamp’s tactic was visual indifference, not negation. And that technique continues to produce work of value and quality, despite the demise of the original avant-garde and the dispersal and assimilation of Modernism. It sustains, despite art’s ceaseless submission to the demands for entertainment, commerce, and institutional approval.

The art critic Howard Singerman, in Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, concludes that what art faculty (such as Mark Rothko) visiting the Bay Area from New York taught when Rothko and the local painter Clyfford Still met over beers at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1950s was “lifestyle.”3 The skills of making were first devalued in prestigious universities and colleges, and then after a decade, that deskilling initiative trickled down to nonprofit arts schools, which, consequently, continue to lag behind. The concept has morphed radically from “abandoning a refined skill set in order to discover the authentic self” (à la Pollock)4 to the present, when absorbing theory is considered all an aspiring professional visual artist needs to come up with in order to make art that matters. The question is: to whom does it matter?

As the philosopher Marshall McLuhan warned about high tech, the negative outcomes show up too late.

Conceptual, political art is what both the October-ists of the East Coast and the more intelligible camp of Marxist historian–theorists at UC Berkeley have successfully argued has a central role in a nominally democratic society. Deskilling purportedly creates an affiliation or solidarity between visual artists and non-art workers, who are both subjected to the socially divisive effects of capitalism. This idea is floated as if the Great Depression era’s WPA never occurred, and as if artists in America had not already found reason to identify with workers in democratizing arguably elitist and isolated artistic processes. Singerman in Art Subjects informs us that MFA programs on both U.S. coasts now teach ethics and ideologies in place of traditional or modern skill sets. With deskilling, work is fragmented, and art students lose the fundamental, integral skills and comprehensive knowledge of a discipline, not to mention modes of expression, concrete technical competence, and finesse.5

As the philosopher Marshall McLuhan warned about high tech, the negative outcomes show up too late. One recent San Francisco Art Institute MFA student project—the distribution of a non-accredited MFA degree to anyone following a one-hour training session at the “Tenderloin Institute of Art”—is a sign of our specific cultural moment. The student artist remains deeply ambivalent and conflicted about whether the deskilling just undergone over two years’ time has value.

As a result of what the UC Berkeley economist Robert Reich calls the “Lesser Depression,” from which we in the Bay Area are struggling to recover, job losses in arts fields, accompanied by the continuing unmerciful rent hikes since 1999, mean the loss of housing, studios, and adequate storage space for artists. Many of these observations are not news to Bay Area art aficionados who have studied the play-by-play ever since the incursion of Abstract Expressionism, with Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt’s first appearances on our turf. But it may be unknown to the newest entrants to that scene: undergrads and grads, whether from out of state or out of the country. Discouraging full historical disclosure is part of the deskilling strategy.

In April 2015, the rhetorician Winnie Wong spoke at UC Berkeley about what China has made of Western conceptualism, especially the readymade. After describing a Möbius strip–like somersault, her conclusion was: paintings. Flawless reproductions of van Gogh’s works, in particular. The mindset of Western theoretical predecessors needs to be deeply probed, this time with the proviso that visual artists, fully deskilled ones and those with contrarian ideas, must be in on the decisive conversations. We need an updated, more explicit vocabulary. 

I will concede that deskilling had its place in 1915 New York, when the broad American public had seen hardly anything visually modern. Duchamp’s move away from traditional craft opened a space for artists to deploy a variety of critical positions regarding the production of visual art, and toward today’s system of gallery distribution. Equally important, it challenged existing American academic protocols. But once these deskilling moves became established—and especially by the time they were taught in art academies—their critical force was operating in concert with a gallery system and market that were capable of seizing and commercializing even the nonvisual.

But deskilling for its theoretical pioneers also meant a break in historical knowledge, a de-historicization of the study and the practices of art. History provides a vast archive of images and ideas to use as materials to repurpose, conceptually and concretely. While I am not contending that no dematerialized or fully virtual work has value, I am questioning to whom deskilled and immaterial art speaks. If we can learn one lesson from our historical past, it is that the Mexican muralists, who visited the Bay Area even before the Abstract Expressionists, riffed on the Italian Renaissance, knowing that Latino communities reared in Catholic cultures can read imagery no matter what socioeconomic class they are from. Without historical grounding, they knew, art would cease to exist as a tradition of resistance to capitalist exchange value.

I am opposed to reduced (or absent) skill sets that negatively impact the employment opportunities of student artists and emerging artists, especially low-tech art workers, whose areas of ability and interest must sustain minds and bodies. My proposed strategy of reskilling would mean rejecting the ideological impulse to be prescriptive or limiting regarding modes, stylistic choices, and content. This kind of narrowing restricts diversity of expression. 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.

Chris Johnson. The Best Way to Find a Hero, 2014–15, installation at the Oakland Museum of California’s 2015 exhibition Who Is Oakland? Johnson, a former student of Ansel Adams, offers a significant example of reskilling. His traditional fine-arts photographic skills are amplified by equal artistry in the use of new technologies. To divine “the best way to find a hero,” Johnson collected maps of Oakland’s reputedly “bad” neighborhoods, photo-enlarged them, and used them as a dartboard. Wherever a dart stuck, the artist would visit that street, knock on doors, and record short video interviews with residents.

Of course I would prefer that my own eco-critical politics be mirrored in the Bay, but my general objection is to the promulgation of outdated theories and methods in the absence of sufficient self-critique, as well as too many instructors’ lack of transparency regarding their ideological positions and interests. The transition to a more flexible curriculum of reskilling won’t cost a cent if art academies are mindful of retaining and hiring faculty who maintain a balance of traditional, postmodern, tech, and soft skills and who are willing to implement that faculty mix immediately.

Chinese artists may, as Wong argues, have an advantage in having preserved nearly all of their traditionally taught skills, since they are now deploying them to great effect. Rather than persisting in using the Big Orange’s or the Big Apple’s old rubrics as breadcrumbs, it is time that we, on this side of the Pacific Rim, respond freshly to techniques, tactics, and art-making practices of the diverse cultures of our cornucopic environment. Let us mindfully create a strategic retooling process. Let’s reskill with contemporary means, the shared authorship of feminist practice, the tactical adoption of sympathetic technologies, and expanding horizons of art/work/life. Let’s renew visual-arts education by installing new points of view (post-human and inhuman) and a progressive, vitally materialized position to create an authentic, local arts permaculture.


Celeste Connor (aka Rrosa Seconda & Iris Ronnoc) is an artist, art critic, and eco-sophist who received her MFA from California College of the Arts and a doctorate in modern art at the University of California at Berkeley. A visual artist working in trans-genres, Connor is also founder of CUT UP Productions, an independent photo and video enterprise. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Artweek, Women’s Studies Journal, Women of Vision, Public Art Review, and Plastic Antinomy, and on various websites, including Stretcher and the East Bay Voice (serving the GLBT art-interested communities), and more recently ComPAct and Daily Serving.

Connor’s acclaimed book on American modernism, Democratic Visions, was published by the UC Press in 2001. Her video work has been screened at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Herbst Hall at UC Berkeley, and the Honolulu Center for the Arts. Her digital prints have been exhibited at SOMAR gallery, San Francisco, and Salon II in Berkeley. She is an associate professor in the Visual Studies Program at California College of the Arts.

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  1. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism/Antimodernism/Postmodernism, 1900 to 1944 (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 531. This sweeping survey of modern art was meant to replace a multitude of earlier accounts with a frankly Marxian ideological point of view aimed at students of art, art criticism, and visual studies.
  2. John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade (London and New York: Verso Press, 2007), 136. The Marxist professor from University of Wolverton confronts a recurring theme of art critics of the 20th and 21st centuries: How is craft or skill, and the seeming absence of craft or skill, to be theorized in the present tense? See also John Roberts, “Art After Deskilling,” Historical Materialism 18, no. 2 (2010).
  3. Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (Berkeley: UC Press, 1999), 188. Singerman persuasively argues that the Midwestern United States have mainly eschewed deskilling theory.
  4. Art Since 1900, 357–58. These ways of thinking of Jackson Pollock are antediluvian, and we are anthropocenian. In some sense Pollock’s work is as distant as Manet’s Impressionism. No artist today could say, without deep reflection on the ecological crisis, “I want to be Nature,” as Pollock did. And while Pollock’s art, judged by the October group to be “authentic,” no longer offers a model for contemporary making, it continues to inspire the kind of awe that Walter Benjamin, the great hero of the October-ists, thought was lost by the mid-1930s. I ask: What does that argument accomplish? And, like the literary critic Fredric Jameson, I ask for historical contextualization of Pollock’s work.
  5. Howard Singerman, Art Subjects, 126–27.

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