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The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization


Jasper Bernes


Post 45 Series

Stanford: University Press, 2017

Hardcover. viii+231 p. ISBN 978-0804796415. $65


Reviewed by Catherine Bernard

Université Paris Diderot




The nature of the mimetic relation—analogical, indirect…—between society and the arts has occupied a central place in our definition of aesthetic modernity. Conjuring mimesis might seem wide off the mark to approach Jesper Bernes’ The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization; and yet the essay returns to that issue and reassesses it anew, while bringing us to ponder the possibly unfathomable entanglements of artistic forms with the historical present.

The title offers a variation on that of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) and thus immediately grants the reader an intuition of the aims and scope of Bernes’ own essay. Walking in the steps of Benjamin and Adorno—the two philosophers do not feature prominently, but they provide “the rudiments of [the] argument” [1]—, Bernes aims at unraveling the complex, at times baffling, relation between the arts and what Daniel Bell defined as our postindustrial society (Bell 1973). The focus is, even more specifically, on what the author sees as the radical reorientation of capitalism that was initiated in the 1960s and that entailed “the restructuring of labor that takes place in the already-industrialized countries of the global north” [3]. “Deskilling” [4] and the “proletarianization” [5] of the clerical, white-collar class that resulted from the generalisation of Fordism and Taylorism are the premisses for a wider analysis of the interweaving of art and work. In a very enlightening introduction, Bernes traces the consequences of the restructuring of labor and the way it eventually meant the harnessing of artistic paradigms and principles to a supposedly qualitative reinvestment of work. Deskilling (see also Roberts) and “routinization” resulted in alienation and disaffection; “the so-called compromise between capital and labor began to break down. […] Qualitative rather than quantitative demands were the order of the day” [8].

For Bernes, some of the literary and artistic experiments of the 1960s to the 2010s “helped to articulate […] these new qualitative complaints and demands” [8]. The argument will come as no surprise to any reader of post-Marxist theory, from Peter Bürger to Fredric Jameson or Terry Eagleton. To a great extent, Jameson’s seminal 1981 essay The Political Unconscious argues no differently. Central to Jameson’s and Bernes’ readings is the paradigm of artistic autonomy as it has informed our conception of artistic modernity since the mid-nineteenth century. Jameson turns to Louis Althusser’s concept of “semi- autonomy” [37] as articulated by Althusser in Lire le capital (1965) to understand the open dialectics that holds together literature and the structures of production and how “the literary structure […] tilts powerfully […] into the very political unconscious of the text” [49]. Bernes’ opts for the more metapoetic notion of “articulation” to capture the entanglement of work and artwork and the way writers and artists word and shape, thus mediate, emergent forms of labor relations. The notion may at first seem a mere variation on the by now discredited notion of homology. Yet the essay progressively unveils a more complex form of articulation of work and artwork, one more akin to a form of paradoxical entanglement in which art’s capacity to open spaces for subversive articulation is also “neutralized and naturalized” by the relentless “refashioning of labor in aesthetic terms” [181].

The process of mediation and articulation works both ways, as new managerial techniques and new labor models find inspiration from the values traditionally attached to art and creativity. The subversiveness of art and its criticity are recuperated by what Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy have also defined as “artist capitalism” (Lipovetsky & Serroy : 39-47; the essay awaits its translation into English). “The specific segregated space of art” [155] has become porous to managerial practices as new labor relations emerge which place greater emphasis on self-organisation, rizomic interactions, self-fulfilment, creativeness and hence decompartmentalize work-time and leisure-time. While Bernes does not turn to Lipovestky and Serroy’s theses, two of his key references are, as might be expected, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964) and his defense of art’s subversive and emancipatory intent, Essay on Liberation (1969) and Luc Boltansky and Eve Chiapello’s Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme (1999, translated into English in 2005). Together they provide the framework for an analysis of the agonistic tension between art’s subversiveness and capitalism’s innate capacity to repurpose creativity.

The five chapters of the book offer a history of that repurposing. In order to so, it moves back first to the late 1950s and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, initiated in 1959. Focusing on O’Hara’s lyrical collection and his reinvention of that most traditional of poetic modes for an exploration of the mutations of modern man’s relations to his working / private selves, the first chapter—“Lyric and the Service Sector”—offers both an archaeology of the more recent mutations of the labor structures and a methodological framework. Bernes’ intention is not so much to unveil suppressed homologies between what, in Marxist terms, might be defined as base and superstructure, i.e. the relations of production and their cultural expressions, for Bernes is wary of mimesis and more concerned with the subtle and indirect forms of interpellation crafted by art in opposition to the rationalisation of experience. O’Hara’s poems are emblematic of the subtle and indirect confrontation engineered by poetry. Written in the interstices of his workday and as rejoinders to the persuasive rhetoric concomitantly elaborated by the nascent advertizing industry, the poems “show how, through the poem, the commodity could be emptied of its content and made into a vessel for human interconnection, erotic or otherwise” [43]. Already, Bernes sees cultural appropriation to be at work, in the way the so-called “creative revolution” of the 1960s “depended on an alliance between the 1960s counterculture and dissident fringes within the corporate world” [41]. More than that even, O’Hara’s inquisitive lyrical poems, written as he was working at the Museum of Modern Art, seem to crystallize the mutation of capitalism into “artist capitalism” with its curatorial imperative dictating to every segment of our administered lives. Far from offering a private space immune from the pressures of the relations of production, the lyric is thus also repurposed for an indirect criticism of these pressures as “O’Hara demonstrates […] how easily the lyric can be put to work within the space of exchange” [56].

Chapter 2—“John Ashbery’s Free Indirect Labor”—first takes John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual” included in the collection Some Trees (1956) as its focus to explore the way rationalisation splits the subject so as to make him/her both “commander and executor” [66]. Once again the poem is a response to the poet’s own experience as he was working in various capacities in the publishing sector. Ashbery’s gentle reflection on the degradation of language at the hands of the new experience economy harnesses irony to a rhetoric of poetic care in which “the sentimental, clichéd phrases and images” are “literally what there is to say: they are […] the general form of experience that we must fill out” [68]. The subsequent analysis of Ashbery’s collection The Tennis Court Oath (1962) offers a darker take on the identity formations produced by deindustrialization. For Bernes, this “shibboleth” [69] of a poem offers a darker variation on the power of poetry to articulate the mutations of labor structures. Ashbery seems no longer able to “imagine a collective life outside the administration of white-collar work” [82], the “fluency” of poetic experimentations signalling “the newbound flexibility of the contemporary worker” [83].

The paradigm of flexibility and the impression that poetry and art re-articulate the newly-imposed flexibility of labor relations dominate the rest of the essay. The critical potential of writing is shown to be even more subtly ambiguous and ironical than was the case in O’Hara’s and Ashbery’s texts. The influence of cybernetics on art, explored in chapter 3—“The Poetry of Feedback”—, is a case in point and proves once more the importance of contextualizing literary experimentations. The guiding paradigm here is that of the cybernetic feedback whose workings is traced through Hannah Weiner’s text for her happening, Hannah Weiner at Her Job (1970) and her Code Poems (1982) and Dan Graham’s conceptual works of the 1960s and his video installations of the 1970s. Weiner and Graham’s modular works do not merely reproduce the “circular causality” of feedback [92], they also offer subtly dysfunctioning variations on the principle, thus showing how the system has become both the “adaptive organism” [92) cybernetics imagines and an entropic organisation. For Bernes, the feedback technique and speculations of conceptual art do more than reflect or capture the modern labor organizations. They enter in a complex dialogue with these systems and thus both break them open and allegorically give us to see the effects and “negative affects” [118] of the new ideology of self-managed labor structures.

The exploration of Hanna Weiner’s work introduces an additional factor with its implicit emphasis on gender. Chapter 4—“The Feminization of Speedup”—shows how the factor further complexifies the dialogue between art and the labor economy. Evoking the likes of Judy Chicago, Martha Rosler or Mierle Ukeles, the chapter examines Bernadette Mayer’s collection Memory (1972) to show how the new labor relations and work rhetoric contaminate the domestic sphere, “domestic tasks [being] fundamentally entangled with language work” [125]. “Freneticism and overwork” as well as multi-tasking are the structuring motifs of the chapter. Once again, the language of conceptual art might be said to articulate “the moment of complete and total deskilling” [134] in which what is left is the “administrative (purely cognitive) manipulation of automated processes” [134]. As Mayer’s Memory also suggests, such cognitive intensification of the modes of life does not leave one’s personal experience unscathed, the present becoming also a forgetting in the automated reproduction of discrete presents.

The last chapter—“Art, Work, and Endlessness in the 2000s”—turns to even less canonical forms and to the ambiguous interaction of poetry and the web. The emphasis is here on the prevalence of communication at the heart of what sociologist Eva Illouz, quoted by Bernes, defines as “the emotional turn in corporate culture” [159, see Illouz 2007]. Taking Flarf poetry—a genre initially relying on the random stitching of Google quotes—as its topic, Bernes stresses the paradoxical critical potential of “uncreative writing” and of its transcension of conceptualism’s avant-garde subversiveness. Where Flarf poems or the neutral poetry of Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts (2010) manage to articulate the mutations induced by corporate culture on identity itself is in the way they perform, re-enact the covert conflation of work and non-work. Work, Bernes insists, is no longer in so far as it is everything: “Statement of Facts, in this sense, is a poem for the end of work, a poem of work’s endlessness” [167].

The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization may read as a grim report from the land of lost aesthetic illusions, and yet Bernes’ choice to end on an exploration of British poet Sean Bonney’s Letters against the Firmament (2015) also testifies to our lasting trust in the capacity of poetry and art to also articulate dissent and write back from the land of those who object. Thought-provoking, impeccably rigorous in its harnessing of sociology and cultural theory to an exacting understanding of the task of contemporary writing and art, Bernes’s essay offers a major contribution to our reflexion on the complex entanglement of art with the world and opens hitherto unknown perspectives on contemporary creation. Its impeccable command of interdisciplinary reading and its attention to the subtle creativity of aesthetic paradox will inspire scholars curious to understand how writing and art engage with the present, its tensions and inchoate affects.


Bell, Daniel. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society : A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Boltanski, Luc & Ève Chiapello. Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme. Paris: Gallimard, 1999; Englis trans. Gregory Elliott, London: Verso, 2005.

Illouz, Eva. Cold Intimacies : The Making of Emotional Capitalism. London; Polity Press, 2007.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious : Narrative as a Socially Symbolical Act. London: Routledge, 1981.

Lipovestky, Gilles & Jean Serroy. L’esthétisation du monde : Vivre à l’âge du capitalisme artiste. Paris: Gallimard, 2013.

Roberts, John. The Intangibilities of Form : Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade. London: Verso, 2007



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