The shellfish divers known in Japan as ama, or “women of the sea” never use scuba gear—wetsuits are now commonplace, but oxygen tanks are forbidden. This is not out of cultural nostalgia (supposedly having existed for two millennia, ama are part of Japan’s folklore) but to prevent mass harvesting of the ecosystem. It takes about two years before a diver obtains the expertise and lung capacity to pry abalone off ocean rocks, underwater, of course, without damaging the shell—the market wants unblemished, live product. The more difficult and elusive part of the job is to learn the ways of the ocean: where to best dive, and when. Nevertheless, there is no formal training involved. Anyone (of any gender actually, although the majority of divers are women), so long as they are a resident of the area and are willing to give a percentage of their earnings to the diving cooperative, can become an ama, but the only way to learn is by hanging around, which is to say not by observing a diver who already knows what they are doing, because first, it is next to impossible to demonstrate the technique to an observer while underwater, and second, no one would take the time to do so, because every diver is an individual proprietor and in competition with every other diver.
A novice might start out working the reefs close to shore. Divers exchange stories and information in koya, communal huts shared by groups of five to ten women, for whom they are a kind of home away from home, a place to eat, rest, and change clothes. The launching of the diving boats is done communally as well; veterans and newcomers alike, the entire community participates in these choreographed performances of collective labor. Those who bring home the biggest catch at the end of the day acquire reputations at the sales dock, where the day’s results are loudly made public by the sales manager. It’s only through a decade of working and living in this environment that one absorbs the full body of knowledge about the reef; it comes as a matter of course as one becomes a full-fledged member of ama society. The real reason there is no school or master-apprentice system is because to learn to dive is to become a member of the social group, and vice versa. Though there are masters, so to speak, the feeling for the vagaries of the ocean that accumulates in body and mind is a social knowledge that can never be wholly located in a single individual.
The word deskilling usually refers to the social and economic process by which skilled workers are made obsolete by technology. Tradespeople are replaced by casual workers, who are in turn superseded by automation. Deskilling represents a shift in industry from labor-intensive to capital-intensive. In the jargon of contemporary art, however, the term deskilling does not refer to large-scale industrial change, but a conscious, individual act on the part of the artist, a deliberate decision to reject artisanal craft and tradition. When the term deskilling was first introduced in the art context by
Ian Burn, of the artist group Art and Language, in “The Sixties: Crisis and Aftermath,” it was used to describe the loss of knowledge and alienation artists faced as a result of this split with the past. Since then, however, the term has taken on positive connotations; the latent avant-garde potential of rupture came to be seen as outweighing that which was discarded with artisanal craft—a bourgeois, anachronistic, regressive artistic horizon. Cezanne’s tâche, the Readymade, the use of new technologies, seriality mimicking industrial production, abject or “low-culture” imagery—these are all examples of modernist strategies of deskilling. Each has its proponents and luminaries, and each has been portrayed as a momentous discovery at the center of an artistic mythology. Does that make the discrepancy between the everyday and specialized use of the term deskilling a fluke, a kind of false cognate? Or is it a case of doublespeak?
In 1911, the American artist was an unfortunate, scraggly good-for-nothing, a “freak with long hair, a pointed beard, a flowing tie,” not to mention low morals and baggy trousers. His “habitat” was an empty garret in Greenwich Village, with a half-mad vision of a “skyscape with a blue cat perched on an orange ashbarrel peeling at an orchid and black moon”—or so claimed reports of the time assessing the state of art in higher education. For those educators and commentators who were envisioning a new kind of higher art education, the bohemian, romantic painter was worthy of derision; he was lost in a dream world of fruit bowls and figure painting, too self-absorbed and inarticulate to communicate his confused ideas, and the over-specialized, outdated skills he’d picked up at the academy were empty technique, with no public or purpose. According to the boosters of the new art schools, the artist of the future was a worldly, practical man who had a central role to play in the dynamic industrial economy of the 20th century: a muralist, draftsman, or designer. It was framed as a choice: innovate or perish. By the end of the century, however, many of the trickle-down recipients of Bauhaus theories and the rationalization of the arts would find themselves alongside the bohemian—precariously employed.
As for conceptual art, rather than alienating the artist from history, deskilling was said to allow for a critical distance that would give the artist and public the opportunity to reassess the social and economic conditions underpinning the practice of art. According to historian Benjamin Buchloh, Hans Haacke calls attention to the social reality behind the institutions that exhibit his work all the better because of his refusal of traditional artistic virtuosity. This may have been true of the artists to whom Buchloh refers: at least in the United States, the 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the artist on, and coming out of, the liberal arts campus. As a rule, artists benefited from a close connection to a common curriculum in the humanities. Robert Morris, for example, completed a masters degree in art history and proclaimed that he had conceived his work after the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In emphasizing their artistic and intellectual precedents, artists of Morris’ generation were naturally in a position, as Buchloh writes, “to critically analyze the ideological basis of historical forms of aesthetic knowledge.” But this is a privilege that only partly applies to artists working in the present. Though the majority of artists still attend institutions of higher learning, the trend is for schools to focus on preparing students to compete to meet the needs of a burgeoning (at least for the moment) industry of high-culture as entertainment. Today’s typical “market reflexive” practice—in which artworks explicitly depict, in addition to the social conditions of art, the themes of the appraisal and evaluation of the work and the artist’s position in the cultural milieu—is the hallmark of such training, acquired knowledge conspicuously displayed, just as a certain painterly stroke was for the graduate of the École des Beaux Arts.
Samuel R. Delany argues in “…Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red,” an essay about the social effects of the redevelopment of New York’s red-light district, that the principal, while unstated, purpose of higher education is to habituate students to bureaucratic management, including networking, writing resumes, and asking for recommendations, in addition to scrutinizing real-estate listings and seeking out social interest groups. Distinguishing oneself socially involves not just having these skills, but exercising them with more aptitude and cunning than one’s peers. Delany makes the case that this form of bureaucratized social interaction is antithetical to a spontaneous one (“contact“), which occurs in the midst of urban space, randomly and without pretext, and that for many people who once depended on it, the gradual disappearance of this other kind of socializing has sadly cost them their livelihood. Even for those primed for bureaucratic management, however, the buzz around the word networking seems to have reached an unwholesome apogee sometime in the last years. In the times we live in, no one is insulated from crisis and disruption, and thus deskilling. Who today would fault the baggy trousers romantic for “bad decisions”
(even if, as his critics insinuate, he may have been the descendent of aristocrats)? For young art-school graduates, an attic in the Village seems completely implausible anyway. Hopefully Delany has overstated his point about higher education; hopefully some other skills were gleaned along the way.