Deskilling is Killing Art

Joan Mitchell

Picture this. You treat yourself to dinner at a top-rated restaurant and at $50 a plate, you’re expecting something special. The waiter brings a vile pile of undercooked junk food that you wouldn’t eat on your most drunken night in college. The waiter politely informs you that the chef is deskilled. He has no formal training in the kitchen, but has the creative genius to combine oatmeal with escargot. Or imagine going to the symphony and having to endure two hours of auditory assault by a deskilled orchestra that makes an elementary school ensemble sound accomplished. The program eloquently explains that this cacophony is the result of years of never practicing and makes commentary on the chaos of contemporary culture. Imagine your sheer panic, learning moments before the anesthesia kicks in, that your surgeon is deskilled. The good “doctor” actually has a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology and practices a more “untrained” and “intuitive” approach.

Let’s be honest, no one in their right mind would give a dime of their money to a deskilled chef or orchestra and they certainly wouldn’t trust their life to a deskilled surgeon. Yet, people are willing to pay pricy museum admission ($20!) and millions of dollars in the art market to experience the work of deskilled artists. Only the art world gets away with this madness! Even Chuck Close, the reigning patriarch of the New York contemporary art scene has sounded the sirens: “There are two things that scare the shit out of me. One is today’s post-studio art – since people can’t afford studios, they’re designing 10,000-square-foot exhibitions on the back of a cocktail napkin without the benefit of trial and error. Second, and scariest of all, is the movement towards deskilled art. Nothing ever got made without some kind of skill – you wouldn’t expect a musician to not know how to play the guitar?”


Two items recently brought deskilled artwork to my attention: an exhibition and an article. The exhibition was the 2012 Whitney Biennial – that much publicized bi-annual moment when the art world confers knighthood on dozens of privileged artists. Regardless of what you feel about the Whitney Biennial it serves the purpose of revealing the true face of the art worlds’ tastes du jour. And in 2012, the food was inedible—maybe the work of a deskilled chef! It was a meaningless mess of miscellaneous art objects, videos, films, happenings that left me feeling completely disillusioned with contemporary art. If this is the future of art in America, then we’re all screwed. The Village Voice lambasted the unfocused “conceptual clutter” of the show and another critic put it best when he said, “Ephemeral, light as helium and ultimately ahistorical, the Whitney Biennial 2012 was above all – pretentious twaddle about performance and genre-mixing aside – a showcase for a new stripe of deskilled art.”

Last year, deskilled art and the “post-skill movement” came into fuller view thanks to a controversial column by Simon Doonan in Slate magazine. Perfectly to the point with its title: “Why the Art World Is So Loathsome,” the article lists eight theories about why the art world has “become such a vapid hell-hole of investment-crazed pretentiousness,” starting with “Art Basel Miami” and working through such categories as “Blood, poo, sacrilege, and porn,” “The flight of craft,” and “Adderall a go-go.” This article bluntly declared — with irreverence, humor, and insight — what’s been on my mind for years. Finally, someone had the gumption to categorically call out the art world on its bullshit in an influential national publication! Doonan, a fashion commentator and “creative ambassador” for Barneys, is not an art world insider, which gives his critique more credence because he operates outside of the art world echo chamber. And you know things are bad when someone from the fashion world calls out the art world for its crass consumerism, superficiality, and pretentiousness!

Defining Deskilled

What is “deskilled” art? Unfortunately, it’s exactly what it sounds like: work of inferior production quality, using cheap and ephemeral materials, in order to consciously exhibit a lowbrow or amateur aesthetic. To put it simply, it looks like crap. Art historian Benjamin Buchloh defines deskilling as “a persistent effort to eliminate artisanal competence and other forms of manual virtuosity from the horizon of both artist competence and aesthetic valuation.” The term first appeared in the early 1980s in the writing of the Australian conceptual artist Ian Burn, who borrowed it from sociology. Burn said that since the 1960s, deskilling has become the standard operating procedure of all of the “sanctioned styles of avant-gardism.” In his book, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, John Roberts gives a dense account of within the context of capitalism. He says, “Deskilling is what happens when the expressive unity of hand and eye is overridden by the conditions of social and technological reproducibility.”

Deskilled art goes by other similar names, such as “post-skill” art or as art historian Brandon Taylor aptly coined: “slack art.” Although they can often overlap, deskilled art is not necessarily synonymous with “found object art” or “junk art” – which in many instances, utilizes found or discarded trash materials in elaborate sculptures or assemblages, which can require tremendous skill and craftsmanship to construct (look up the shadow sculptures of Diet Wiegman or the junk sculptures of Leo Sewell).  Not all Conceptual Art is deskilled, but all deskilled art is conceptual in nature.

Origins of Deskilled Art

Marcel Duchamp – Fountain 1917

Marcel Duchamp started it all with a urinal in 1917. Admittedly, it was a beautiful white porcelain urinal purchased from a high-end New York plumbing supplier. On returning to his studio, he rested it on its back, scrawled the pseudonym, “R. MUTT 1917” at the top, paid the $6 fee to the Society of Independent Artists, and entered his work titled “Fountain” into their exhibition. This subversive and flippant act was intended to shake up the art world by questioning the whole notion of authorship and originality. The Founding Father of Conceptual Art stated: “I was interested in ideas—not merely in visual products.” Seeking an alternative to representing objects in paint, Duchamp began presenting everyday objects themselves as art, calling them “Readymades.” Duchamp argued, “An ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” This set off endless debates that continue today about what is art and who is an artist. According to John Roberts, Duchamp also led the way for present-day deskilled art because with the rise of the readymade, the broken bond between handcraft and skill led to “a dissolution of the division between intellectual labor and manual labor.”

Starting in the 1960’s, Conceptual artists traded manual skills for a loftier “skillset”: philosophy, linguistics, sociology, political economy. The art object was no longer central to the discussion — concept was king and nothing else mattered. Sol LeWitt summarized the thinking of the time: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work… all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Deskilling and the Deprecation of art

As artistic production becomes increasingly deskilled, it becomes less identifiable by the public as art. And consequently, the divide between the public and the art world deepens. As Camille Paglia argues in her book Glittering Images, contemporary art’s obsession with filth and sacrilege (think penises, elephant dung, piss Christ, etc.) has not served the broader interests of art, instead “allowing itself to be defined in the public eye as an arrogant, insular fraternity with frivolous tastes and debased standards.” Sadly, this affects funding of the arts in schools and for arts nonprofits such as The Art Students League. In many ways, this is the classic goal of Modernism: to defy the public’s penchant for representational work that they can make sense of and present them with something more challenging. Art critic Leo Steinberg, a proponent of Abstract Expressionism, said that great Modern Art always “projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed” a state which he hoped would “create anxiety” and “a genuine existential predicament” for the spectator.

David Hockney

But what would Steinberg or a formalist purist like Clement Greenberg have to say about today’s artists who are intentionally deskilling their work? My own reaction is one of disinterest and disgust. The closest thought to an existential crisis is “Why am I here… at this god awful exhibit?” I think this is true with many — they would rather spend their valuable time and money on something that is labor intensive, authentic, and meaningful.

The other problem with the deskilling trend in art is that it portends to have a democratizing effect (Hooray! EVERYBODY can be an artist!), when in fact,  the opposite occurs as the power to bestow art fame rests in the hands an elite few in the museum and gallery world. According to the Duchampian view of Conceptual Art, unless a piece has been placed in the context of the exhibition environment, it does not exist as work of art. In other words, artists no longer make art; curators and dealers make artists. And what a select group they choose! As Tom Wolfe declared in The Painted Word, “The public plays no part in the process whatsoever. The public is not involved (it gets a printed announcement later).”

Deskilling and De-education of artists

Ellen Lupton, director of MICA’s MFA graphic design program observes “The idea of skill has come to seem woefully outdated in an art world that emphasizes conceptual innovation, and making the right statement at the right time, with the right media. Gone are the days when life drawing was the backbone of any artists’ skill set.” In “The Re-Skilling of the American Art Student,” Lupton advocates for a comprehensive skill-based approach to art education that includes development of conceptual, technical, critical, social, and professional skills. She notes that faculty often look down on the teaching of technique, yet, “oddly enough, technical skills are what many of our students want. Teachers would often rather spend a five-hour critique talking about “ideas,” while their students are hungry for technical knowledge.”

Many in administration and faculty at prominent art schools have been so seduced by the opiate of Conceptual Art that they are failing to holistically educate generations of young artists. Artist Ian Burn said that in art schools worldwide, it has not been uncommon “for students to experience an avant-garde context in their art school years but to find difficulty in sustaining such attitudes outside of the school and to then discover that they have not been taught skills to allow them to work in any other way.” The consequences are clear: without concrete skills, many will never continue in the arts after graduation. If they do, they will have to sift through the rubbish of the deskilled dump to forge a career.

Deskilling and the Demeaning of craft

There’s a negative connotation with the word craft. When we think of craft applied to the arts, it conjures up associations of arts & craft activities for children (think popsicle sticks), or kitschy folk art (think dream catchers). But by its definition, craft simply means employing skill to make things by hand; developing a competence, dexterity and fluency with the pencil, brush, or other tool that can only come from years of study, practice, and bold experimentation.

In the art world, there is still a prevailing bias against the notion of creative craftsmanship, particularly in circles that see it as a threat to the sacred purity of conceptual work. In his review of Ken Price’s ceramics show at the Met on Hyperallergic, John Yau notes that the three major contemporary art institutions in New York—the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art have “openly declared their hostility toward the craft tradition… [or] supporting or examining anything contemporary made by hand, particularly if craft rather than deskilling is involved. They don’t want to break with the protocol set in place by Clement Greenberg, who was fond of the phrase, “as stupid as a painter.”

Deskilling and the Devaluing of labor 

Art is labor. Art making is a tremendously difficult “hands on” endeavor that requires an obsessive work ethic, discipline, and years of training. The labor is both manual (skill) and intellectual (content), and neither should be compromised. The term “skill” carries not only a creative connotation, but a working-class one as well. The skilled worker is one who knows something about a particular process. With deskilled art, the model has shifted to the artist participating in “non-artistic labor in the form of delegated work.” Art went from being the antithesis of capitalist modes of production to shamelessly embracing them in favor of profits. In a division of labor right out of Karl Marx’s Capital, the artist acts as entrepreneur and manager who conceptualizes, delegates, directs, and supervises the process. The sad reality is that many of today’s successful artists are media moguls and pop celebrities who, at best, oversee the creation of “their” work with the minions of underpaid assistants. Artists have gone from being makers to fakers. 

Kehinde Wiley

The best recent example is Kehinde Wiley, the golden boy of postmodernism with his top-selling “Baroque bling” paintings. When I was teaching at an after-school arts program in 2010, I invited Wiley to speak to my group of aspiring teen artists, all of them inner-city students of color. To his credit, he accepted the invitation. However, the message of his rambling speech boiled down to this: fake it until you make it. My students weren’t impressed — teens, especially city kids, have great bullshit detectors. And they were right! A couple years later New York Magazine came out with it: Wiley relies on cheap Chinese labor at his “global production outpost” in Beijing. In its “How to Make It in the Art World” special issue, the magazine featured Wiley for Rule #6: Outsource to China. Wiley even admitted to it, saying: “if there’s a show of ten paintings, four of them will be complete frauds.”

Deskilling and Detachment from society

There was a time when artists with international prominence wanted to be part of the solution to our social ills; now they are a part of the problem. For instance, many painters of the 20th century used social realism to hold a critical mirror to the world. Whether they depicted the stark realities of everyday life, such as William Gropper, Ben Shahn, and Reginald Marsh, or the horrors of war, such as Max Beckmann, Käthe Kollwitz, and Otto Dix, these artists were connected to the social and political zeitgeist. In fact, The Art Students League has a notable history of student and faculty artists who confronted the realities of everyday life, including George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, John Sloan, George Grosz, and our own Robert Cenedella. These artists employed both technical skill and a conceptual purpose to critique society, yet they were firmly connected to the world around them.

In today’s art world, poo, pee, and porn are fine; the only really dirty “p words” are politics, protest, and principles. In her Hyperallergic article, “Whitney Biennial 2014: Where Have All the Politics Gone?,” Jillian Steinhauer compares this Biennial to many of the large art fairs, that “offer a kind of cozy art cocoon” that is devoid of politics or social activism. “For the most part, the art in this year’s biennial faces inward, reflecting on itself and sometimes the larger world in safe and comfortable ways. You won’t be too put out, turned off, or riled up. You’ll probably just have a good time.” Deskilled art is trapped an endless apolitical conversation with itself, instead of a politically relevant conversation with society.

Deskilling Denouement

Artists once wanted to challenge the established beliefs of the art world. However, for the past 50 years, the shift towards conceptualism that abandons craftsmanship has gone from being avant-garde to status quo. It has been enshrined in the teachings of art schools and universities and propagated by nearly every modern art museum and contemporary gallery in the world. Marcel Duchamp, an authentic artistic genius, was mocking the art establishment and its stuffy values in 1917. By the time we get to 2014, Hirst , Koons, and their cohort are the establishment. You have to wonder what Marcel Duchamp would think about the current state of affairs: what art he would create to subvert today’s elitist, self-aggrandizing, commercialized art world? 

But there is hope.

For starters, there is The Art Students League – an institution that still places value on the development of artistic skills. No wonder it has survived for 140 years!

There is a return to craft and skills in the both inside and outside the contemporary art world. Simon Doonan’s favorite artists at the moment work in    illustration and applied art: Ruben Toledo, John-Paul Philippe, and Malcolm Hill. The most obvious example of an art world insider who has achieved meteoric success is John Currin, a representational painter who combines craftsmanship and content (sometimes pornographic, of course!). Even this year’s Whitney Biennial has changed course since 2012. Curator Michelle Grabner lauded the return to craft saying “the handmade aesthetic is flourishing again…As so much moves to the digital world, there is a movement of slowing art and life down.”

There is also a resurging arts activist movement addressing inequalities and rampant greed of the art world, such as the Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Labor group, which boycotted the 2012 Whitney Biennial issuing a statement saying, “it upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers.” In recent weeks, two protest actions at Guggenheim Museum raised awareness of underpaid and ill-treated migrant workers to build a satellite structure in Abu Dhabi. The group dropped 9,000 “1 percent” bills of satirical currency that rained down in the museum’s main rotunda.

In addition, prominent cultural critics have joined the call. Denis Dutton, a professor of the philosophy of art, publicly challenged the Conceptual Art world in a New York Times op-ed cleverly titled “Has Contemporary Art Jumped the Shark Tank? “ His well-crafted argument for the enduring legacy of craftsmanship and virtuosity drew the ire of many art world intellectuals, but he was welcomed on the national stage with appearances on everything from NPR to the Colbert Report. Dutton stated, “We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture…The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist……Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.”

And then there’s the indomitable Brian Sewell, art critic of the London Evening Standard since 1984 who has been consistently outspoken with his acerbic views on Conceptual Art and the Turner Prize. He perfectly summarized the 1980’s British art world: “All an artist need do was to proclaim himself an artist and it followed that anything he made or did must necessarily be art – a simple logic merrily agreed by the empty-headed critics of the day.”

In today’s culture, art making is the last frontier of authentic, hands-on engagement with our material world. We need to step out of the long shadow of Duchamp and the Avant Garde’s vacuous “post-object” / “post-skill” aesthetics. As artists, we need to reassert the value of skill and reset the balance between the head and hand.

If, as Camille Paglia says, “modern life is a sea of images,” than deskilled art is the Pacific trash vortex  — you know, that giant island of plastic trash that floats on the surface the ocean, ever moving with the currents. Lets hope that with time, and maybe some environmental activism, the deskilled debris will disintegrate and sink deep into the dark abyss of Conceptual Art shipwrecks.