BY Elvia Wilk in Opinion | 23 MAR 18

The Grammar of Work

When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

BY Elvia Wilk in Opinion | 23 MAR 18

‘There is no such thing as a problem without a person (or groups of them) who have this problem: a problem is always a problem for someone’.1
– Sandra Harding

Work: noun and verb. The work; to work. The former requires the latter. Work needs a worker. In art, we will often say ‘practice’ and ‘artwork’ to distinguish the activity of working from the thing that is worked on, that is, the thing that is produced, exhibited, bought and sold. Of course, the distinction between labour and its product has long been open to debate. Conceptual art in particular took this up as one of its driving fascinations. Process as piece; process piece. As John Baldessari put it: I am making art. I am making art.

Many conceptual artists aimed to expand the definition of an artwork to encompass a broader realm of activity (verb), but ultimately that tended to achieve the opposite effect: expanding the realm of the commodity (noun). All practice became available for objectification, creating a whole new way to extract value from life. In this subsumption, conceptual art often tended to undermine or obscure the actual labour of its production.

In the 1960s the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles made labour a public problem. It had always been her problem: in addition to making art she did all that extra work that makes up the so-called ‘second shift’2 of invisible, unvalued, reproductive labour that women do. Her genius was not in her ability to juggle the two supposedly distinct types of labour – which many have done – but in finding a way to do them at the exact same time. She verbed the noun.3

In 1969 Ukeles wrote her now-famous Manifesto for Maintenance Art, a proposal for an exhibition titled ‘Care’. In it she declared that all her normal lifework – what she called ‘maintenance’ – would now be her Art. ‘I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc.’, she wrote. ‘Also (up to now separately) I “do” Art’. For the proposed exhibition, she would perform those activities inside a public art institution, ‘in full public view,’ as process pieces. ‘I will sweep and wax the floors, dust everything, wash the walls (i.e. “floor paintings, dust works, soap-sculpture, wall-paintings”) cook, invite people to eat …’4

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 1973, performance view. Courtesy: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

In Miwon Kwon’s 1997 analysis, a lot of male institutional critique of the time aimed to ‘mess up’ the white cube, only for those same critics to be enfolded into the embrace of the institution once again. They had the luxury of critique as a form of exit, because they’d always be invited back. Instead, afforded no such luxury, Ukeles opted to stay and help clean up the mess.5

As Ukeles points out towards the end of the manifesto, repetitive acts of maintenance looked a lot like what male conceptual artists were doing – but they got to do it in service of art/progress, whereas, say, their wives and assistants were doing it in service of them (of him).6 Who does maintenance? Workers. Who does progress? Artists. The manifesto’s best zinger: ‘after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?’

Ukeles went on to make many maintenance artworks, which regularly involved collaborations with other maintenance workers. Since 1976 she has been the official artist in residence of the New York Sanitation Department. My favourite piece of hers is from a suite of projects she made in 1973 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, in Hartford, Connecticut. For Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object, she selected an object from the museum’s permanent collection, a female mummy in a glass case, and ceremonially appropriated the cleaning materials from the worker who usually cleaned such cases. She then cleaned the case herself, converting it into a ‘dust painting’, evinced by a stamp she placed on the glass certifying it an ‘Original Maintenance Artwork’. In the last phase of transition, she gave the cleaning materials to the museum conservator, who was from then on in charge of cleaning the case – producing the final element in the transmutation: ‘a clean Maintenance Artwork’.

Ukeles’s conversion of an ancient artefact to contemporary artwork to historicized object is a form of magic, as is her conversion of worker to artist to worker again. Magic, because the differences between these types of labour are themselves magical constructions: they result from magical thinking about what is valuable and how value transfers from person to object and back. Water to wine to water.


One way of formulating the current upsurge of attention to sexual harassment and abuse within the culture industries is a return to acknowledging the verb. The notion that an industry would police abuse happening amongst its ranks is not actually self-evident if it deals only in nouns, as the art industry in particular pretends it does. It is precisely at the moment when an art worker claims abuse that it becomes undeniable that the work of art happens before, during, and after the artwork, and that this work, while often hidden, is collaborative: fabricating, transporting, handling, invoicing. I don’t mean that every artwork is a process piece, or that every work is ‘about’ work.  I simply mean to restate the obvious: there is no noun (artwork; breakfast) without verbs, plus someone to do them.

In an essay published on this site last year, responding to the beginnings of the #metoo movement and its corollary in the art world, #notsurprised, I advocated not hiring art workers who are known to sexually abuse others until they are otherwise held to account. My logic was that, for current political purposes, the noun and the verb must be seen as inextricable in a functional sense. By extension, or perhaps exactly in order to accomplish this, that might entail ending the production of valued cultural objects for a while. I did not intend to imply that works should be punished (‘censored’) in lieu of living workers. I wanted to highlight the verb. ‘If a person is an abuser’, I summed up, ‘the work cannot be good’.

Following that essay I found myself in ongoing great and difficult conversations about parts of speech. Is it really responsible to conflate verb and noun toward this end? How to confer punishment for an art worker’s abusive action without symbolically holding objects hostage? How to stop rewarding abusers without papering over their work and therefore halting discussion? Is this a boycott or is it censorship? How can I stop this from happening? Often I wound up splitting hairs, in the same way Claire Dederer describes herself doing in her Paris Review essay on ‘the art of monstrous men’. ‘Do we vote with our wallets? If so, is it okay to stream, say, a Roman Polanski movie for free? Can we, um, watch it at a friend’s house?’

‘Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010’, 2017, installation view, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles. Courtesy: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; photograph: Brian Forrest

Many of these conversations boiled down to some variation of a single question, which, for the sake of brevity, I’ll call The Question of Carl Andre’s Rocks. The question goes like this. Given the widely known allegations against the living artist Carl Andre, allegations of the abuse and murder of his former wife, the artist Ana Mendieta, how should we deal with his art? Exhibit, discuss, protest, smash?

Whatever your stance on Andre’s guilt or innocence, he seems to have become a shorthand for this conundrum – likely as much because of the magnitude of the alleged crime as his actual art, which is so minimal, so clean, so thing-in-itself.7 Or, in the words of Maya Gurantz: ‘The work itself doesn’t speak to any emotional life. Death and blood and womanizing and his open alcoholism […] doesn’t stick to his orderly metal plate and brick arrangements’. The contrast presents a particularly simple-seeming case study.

The question of guilt is not irrelevant; it matters very much what Andre did or did not do. It is relevant that he was given due process and was acquitted of all charges relating to Mendieta's death. It is also relevant that the legal system can be faulty. It is relevant that many powerful people came to his defence and that many friends of Mendieta did not. It is relevant that his solo shows continue to rouse protests. The public will likely never come to consensus on how to judge him (I definitely haven’t). But, as Gurantz explains, the problem is that the defence of Andre has only ever halfway focused on his guilt or innocence – his supporters ‘weave together the belief in Andre’s innocence with the caveat that, even if he isn’t innocent, it doesn’t matter’. His behaviour for many is beside the point; the innocence of The Artwork absolves him in advance.

New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins asserts of Andre: ‘It is hard to think of an artist whose career has been so affected by circumstances that have nothing to do with his art.’ And yet later, he reports: ‘When [Andre] started making art, he once said, his goal was to make something impersonal and complete in itself, but he found that this was impossible, because “the essence of art is human association”’. I wonder whether Tomkins wants Andre to have his relational cake and eat it too. Are these notions of relationality separable? Art and life are related in production, but unrelated in consumption and interpretation? Human association has something ‘to do with his art’ within the confines of the studio or the museum but ‘nothing to do with it’ outside? Or are they inextricable when it suits him and extricable when it doesn’t?


So for those for whom the behaviour is not beside the point: what to do about those rocks?

On its surface the rocks question is the old question of whether context and biography are intrinsic to appreciation of art, or whether it can be judged ‘on its own merits’. This question could be addressed through a reading of Kant and his critics, but I’d rather think about it in the context of debates within feminist theory. Helen Molesworth describes one main split in feminist thought of the 1970s and '80s as that between ‘essentialist’ and ‘theory’ feminisms: the notion that sex and gender are essentialist categories versus the idea that such categories are entirely social constructions.8 Molesworth argues that neither approach fully accounts for work like Ukeles’s, which might fit more into a rubric where selfhood is neither independent from nor reducible to biology: neither entirely contextual nor contextless. To import this to the topic at hand: the meaning of an artwork is not entirely contextual, but neither can it be reduced to its ‘essential biology’.

Art could only have its ‘own’ merits if it emerged and existed in a vacuum. An image I see online versus an object I see at an art fair or in a public park; these I interpret differently; I can’t help it. I can ignore the paratext, but ignoring it is a choice, just like choosing to read it. In other words, no thing is in-itself. Where would ‘itself’ end? The molecular boundary of the rock? The air surrounding the rock? Once the work is in the world, where does it really stop? Who decides where (and when) it stops?

The political issue might rather be how the paratext is written: what type of contextual and biographical details get sourced and emphasized in the framing of different artworks. One can’t help but wonder: if a female artist of colour had been embroiled in a violent conflict, would it wind up in her bio? Would she be given the same blank slate as Andre often is? I remember a repeated focus on the behavioural ‘monstrosity’ of Louise Bourgeois in certain museum descriptions of her work, not to mention the biographical sagas presented alongside ‘outsider’ art. When body or pedigree does not self-justify inclusion, it seems the details of life are supposed to take on the burden of explanation.

‘Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010’, 2017, installation view, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles. Courtesy: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; photograph: Brian Forrest

On another level, the Rocks question is about the relationship between beautiful art (a good-looking thing) and moral uprightness (goodness). And yet modernism already smashed apart any straightforward association there, having so thoroughly deconstructed the idea of pretty and ugly as relevant categories for conferring aesthetic value. As often as beauty exalts, transports, or enlightens, beauty distracts, hypnotizes, lulls into submission, coerces, kills. There is nothing inherently morally good about beauty.

Morality concerns an individual person’s principles of right and wrong. Ethics are the rules of conduct a particular culture subscribes to, which may or may not match the moral stance of a given person within that culture. In my previous essay I wrote that ‘ethics are always already inherent in aesthetic production’. Morality and beauty were not on my mind. I was thinking of the broad meaning of the aesthetic category – that is, rooted in sense perception. As an aesthetic pursuit, I think, art exists in relation to social norms – ethics – whether the artist sees the work as complicit or critical. The ethics of the culture industry are exactly what’s up for debate right now.

And yet the Rocks question is insistent. Where to put them. How to look at them. It keeps knocking. Listening to the knock in my head, I have come to wonder whether, on a deeper level, it is really asking something else – something weirder and harder to confront. Instead of, or in addition to, notions of biography and beauty, there is the thought: are the rocks themselves literally, chemically, physically inscribed with the guilt or innocence of the producer? Does engaging with the rocks transfer guilt or innocence onto me?

The suspicion that objects can become inflected with affect and take on strange powers through human interaction makes more sense to me than the idea of essential goodness. Animism, to give one name for it, is not a crazy thing to believe in at all. The desire for contagious magic is part of the aspiration of being in the world with artwork; it’s the basic reason I still go to art shows. But if I take this belief to its final logical conclusion, if I allow my desires and affections for things to become fully abstracted, I wind up prioritizing the sanctity of objects above the lives affected by their making and maintenance.


In January 2018 the artist Sonia Boyce temporarily removed a Victorian painting called Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse from the Manchester Art Gallery. In place of the painting – which depicts bare-chested white nymphs tempting Hercules’s companion and servant, Hylas, to his swampy doom – she hung a notice explaining that its removal was meant ‘to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection’. She allowed viewers to post their opinions about this on Post-It notes.

Voices quickly rose in protest to Boyce’s act, claiming sacrilege. Jonathan Jones opined in the Guardian: ‘This censorship belongs in the bin along with Section 28’s war on gay culture and the prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. […] Remove it and the conversation is killed stone dead. Culture falls silent as the grave’.

Besides misunderstanding what happens in the internet age, when it is possible to view an image not on the wall, as well as misunderstanding the way controversy functions (I would guess that no one has discussed or seen pictures of this painting more in the last decade until Boyce moved it), such statements fundamentally misunderstand what happens in museums. Museums constantly shuffle things around in a way intended to be invisible and thus assumed apolitical. Art’s circulation is the norm, not the exception. As Kwon wrote in her 1997 essay: ‘The appearance of timelessness and eternal stasis, or simple orderliness, in fact, requires work. It requires the kind of work that not only erases the marks of bodies and time, such as dirt, dust, and decay, but work that continuously erases the marks of its own labor (including the body of the laborer)’. By materializing that process in public, Boyce shows that decisions about what one wants to see require a decision about what – or who – one doesn’t want to see.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Removing objects from view, while provocative, does not itself constitute censorship. Censorship entails a desire to silence. Behaviour policing can happen on any level, but forceful censorship usually occurs along the downward vectors of power. For a recent example: in September 2017 Brazilian government officials seized an artwork by Alessandra da Cunha on display at the MARCO in Campo Grande due to its ‘erotic content’. This, in the context of Brazil’s authoritarian history and the increasing right-wing consolidation of power, presents an attempt at erasing dissenting viewpoints. Removing work to end debate is a different task than moving work to encourage it. This distinction isn’t about left versus right, though it may happen along those divides; it’s about power construed upon the well-worn grooves of class, race, and gender. (This is one of many reasons that calls to recontextualize, say, statues of slaveholders in the USA, the UK, or the Netherlands don’t fit the bill of a ‘willful desire to silence’. Quite the opposite.)

Reactions like Jones’s (to move it is sacrilege!) and the Brazilian government’s (it’s sacrilege; remove it!) are flip-sides of a misunderstanding of object-power. One sees the artwork as a sacrosanct, de facto morally good object, while the other fears its moral badness. But there are so many ways to transform and recontextualize an object – up to and including its destruction – if you are not afraid of its power to the extent that you feel the need to a) defend its holy presence or b) pretend it never existed. Representation matters and art is magic. But this is not the magic of the social construct that leads us to believe an artist’s dusting of a glass case is a different act than when done by a janitorial worker. Art – at least contemporary art – is magic not because it reinforces those relations, but because it can make you see them. And it can alchemically transform them into something else.

Advocating for a creative treatment of controversial artworks beyond the binary of removal versus inaction, David Xu Borgonjon wrote last year: ‘Contemporary art theory has long held that the artwork takes place not in the moment of creation or exhibition, but rather in the ways that it circulates in the world. That’s why withdrawal isn’t just a negative act. The museum is actively putting the withdrawal into the world, which will then circulate beside and on top of the artwork’.9 Actively putting the withdrawal into the world. This seems to be Boyce’s accomplishment, not too dissimilar from Ukeles’s.


Boyce did not focus on Hylas and the Nymphs because she was accusing the long-dead artist of abuse, rather because of its content – the ethics implied in its aesthetic choices and the choice to display it today. These are certainly not the same issue, and I want to return to focus on work by the living. But the example helps reframe the question from ‘can you separate the art from the artist’ to ‘can you separate the art from the relations and values it produces’ and further: ‘is The Work more important than the work?’ At this exact historical moment, when unequal structures are being finally called into question, it’s time to consider the verb. 

Toward this end, the anthropologist Didier Fassin proposes a hard distinction between political activism and critical analysis. According to Fassin, activism entails making moral judgments, whereas the critical theorist’s job is to find ways to comprehend ethics in all their complexity. Criticism and activism must remain separate to remain powerful, he says, but they are in no way mutually exclusive. When analysis becomes a means to an end (an excuse for making moral claims) it defeats itself because it serves an agenda outside itself. In staying independent of moral claims it remains a distinct kind of political tool. 

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 1973, performance view. Courtesy: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Within the framework of analysis, I can’t think of a reason to stop talking about Andre or his rocks. Retweets are not endorsements. But it seems that for such analysis to be complete it also needs to address life and context. Even Philippe Vergne, curator of Andre’s recent controversial retrospective at MoCA (who also recently gained headlines for firing chief curator Helen Molesworth) admits: ‘Carl broke something, and he was ostracized, and it’s part of the story’. To ignore The Work of Andre would be neglectful of history; to ignore the work of Carl Andre in all its complexity would be equally neglectful. It’s all part of the story. The story that helps explain how abuse comes about.

I think this means that for analysis, noun and verb may remain somewhat distinct – as long as they are both considered. When it comes to activism, however, a functional uniting seems in order. 

I admit I sometimes lose sight of the goal of all this diagrammation, which is, still, to reduce the actual instances of abuse in contemporary cultural production. And this is not primarily a symbolic pursuit. It’s literal. That’s why punishing people in the form of removing evidence of their production would be counter-productive. What is not so futile is punishment in the form of preventing living abusers from continuing to benefit from their work (noun) when their working (verb) involves abusing (verb).

Read and talk about the art and lives of known abusers as much you can stand; find ways to adore the work, loathe it, yell at it, hug it, move it around. I find these verbs confusing and even heartbreaking at times, but they are the only way forward for those of us with the privilege to do them. I advocate active contextualization of the work. But, hire an abuser to run an institution full of young female workers? Maybe not.

1  Sandra Harding, ‘Is there a Feminist Method?’ in Feminism and Methodology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
2  Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, 1989 (Viking Penguin)
3 Ukeles’s project can be read alongside such socialist feminist movements as the 1972 ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign, which called for compensating women’s immaterial labour on par with men’s material labour. But it could also be understood as a retroactive framing of men’s work: for instance, Ukeles’s dust paintings reframed Marcel Duchamp’s famous dust paintings (1920s) as what they also were: the result of the everyday work of dusting (or in his case, blatantly not-dusting).
4  Mierle Laderman Ukeles, MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969!: Proposal for an exhibition ‘CARE’.
5 Sarah Sharma explains: ‘Exit is an exercise of patriarchal power, a privilege that occurs at the expense of cultivating and sustaining conditions of collective autonomy. It stands in direct contradistinction to care. Care is an opposing political force to exit. Care is that which responds to the uncompromisingly tethered nature of human dependency and the contingency of life, the mutual precariousness of the human condition. Women’s exit is hardly even on the table’.
6  Andrea K. Scott describes in a New Yorker piece on Ukeles how ‘repetition and systems were considered rigorous in the context of the avant-garde, but dismissed as drudgery when it came to maintenance workers or housewives’.
7  In philosophy the question tends to be framed in reference to Heidegger. The choice of using these figures as stand-ins is a topic worthy of further investigation.
8  Helen Molesworth, ‘House Work and Art Work,’ October, Vol. 92 (Spring 2000).
9  Borgonjon brings up the example of the piece ‘Scaffold’ by Sam Durant, which was installed at the Walker Art Center in 2014 and met with outrage by the local Dakota community. In response, Durant held an open conversation at the end of which the artwork was dismantled. 

Main image: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 1973, performance view. Courtesy: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Elvia Wilk is the author of Oval (2019) and Death by Landscape, a collection of essays forthcoming this July from Soft Skull Press.