September 30, 2012

Critical Fragments: Accumulation

Recent research and scholarly investigation of accumulation as an art practice, a construct, or art movement, has yielded intriguing theories on the various artistic processes that involve “amassing or gathering objects, documents and/or other items for express purposes.”(1) Art historians have well-documented artists’ fascination with storage and distribution via generative technologies to make quantitative volume the distinctive accumulative act. Other theorists speculate that accumulation reflects our collective guilt and obsession with “capitalist expansion,” product consumption and its resultant waste. Still other viewpoints focus on individual artists whose cumulative process of time and labor represents the artwork itself as a product of accumulation.(2)

It is to this latter position that I wish to contribute yet another theory concerning accumulation. My additional speculation is that this “cumulative process of time and labor” may help to define art certainly. Moreover, the temporal aspect of accumulation obviously helps situate art historically. What I want to propose is that it is perhaps through a retrospective consideration of past production that artists may have the best comprehension of their life’s work in relation to art history. That accumulation has a direct quantitative connection to this possibility is clear; this reflection via the “long view” of an artist’s past work is inexorably cumulative. However, given that past artworks are analyzed ex post facto, our theoretical conjecture must consider the possible clarity of knowledge the grace of accumulation may allow.

Historians and curators engage in such “long view” reflection on the past cumulative artwork of artists for their exhibitions; it is notable and accurate that all-inclusive exhibits of artists' works are referred to as “retrospectives.” The critical and analytical regard of an artist’s work by historians or curators might provide us with an historically measured perception. However, we must realize that these exhibitions are generally not with the artist’s participation, particularly if the artist is no longer living. Living artists often do participate in the curatorial selection of work for such exhibits but the museums nearly exclusively prefer that supplemental materials for these exhibits be authored by art historians; such academic remove yielding the putative objectivity favored by art institutions.

What if the artist had more collaboration in this endeavor? Would his or her critical analysis, “looking back” at all of the accumulated work gathered for such an exhibit, differ or be distinguished from a degreed art historian, art critic or curator?

Undoubtedly my esteemed colleagues in the fields of art history and curatorial practice would hold that it is only through an objective view of an artist’s body of work that we may ascertain its value for posterity. Further, they may argue that an artist’s close personal relationship to his or her work would necessarily muddy the perspective required.

These are valid arguments. However, there remains the distinct alternative theory that only artists have the personal connection and investment required to evaluate their own artwork. This is especially relevant if we proceed from the premise that an analysis of an artist’s past body of work acknowledges the definition of that work as a “cumulative process of time and labor.” The immediacy of their presence on a daily basis with their art practice would truly make the artist the sole expert on their artwork, its history and its intentions.

If we recognize the accumulative process of art practice, the day-to-day studio work, the requisite research and study necessary to become artists, then we can begin to understand that this involves an incredible amount of time and labor. It is a further given than that the temporal progression of one’s practice extends parallel and in harmony with one’s life, following a trajectory that produces objects (or perhaps “art as ideas”). We may also then agree that at any point along their life's trajectory each artist has the option to pause and take note of his or her past work. This retrospective view has the definitive potential to enlighten one’s perceptions of the past, one’s accomplishments as well as failures, with an overarching insight that one's past accumulation of time and labor is ultimately a finite archive. As archival knowledge, one's retroactive assessment of their accumulation of work has a transcendent power to define both the individual artist and grant us a glimpse of the very definition of art.

Image: Plaque installed at corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Blvds. in Los Angeles, CA; brass; 1.5 x 3 inches; photo by MCB; Copyright 2009.


1. From an unpublished paper by Nana Last delivered on Feb. 23, 2012 as introduction to our CAA 2012 panel session on “Accumulation” in Los Angeles, CA.

2. Elise Richman presented her paper, “Performing Labor,” on the work of On Kawara and Michelle Grabner to demonstrate that artworks “embody” both time and labor.

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