hickey on hols

Sometime in the 90s, art critic and raconteur Dave Hickey delivered a series of lectures at Cornell University. These were pretty amazing on several counts. First, Hickey is a whiz with a light wand. Just the way he waved that thing around while slurring his consonants with a genteel drawl was fascinating and mesmerising. Second, neither of the two subsequent series of Preston H. Thomas Memorial Lectures by Beatriz Colomina and some architect who kept saying 'Mind The Gap' were remotely as engaging and insightful, despite the sobriety and accomplishment of the speakers. Third, Hickey knows his story, and drew an unbroken line through chaos theory, planned obsolescence, rock 'n' roll, Tiepolo, Las Vegas, the sublime, Ruskin, and a bunch of stuff that was over my head at the time or too voluminous to detail here.

 

In discussing Ruskin and the division of labour, Hickey made one of his pithy and memorable comments to the assembled architecture students: if you're sitting in your studio drawing plans for a shopping mall in Milan while listening to Jane's Addiction on your stereo, and Jane's Addiction doesn't show up in your designs, you're contributing to the division of labour.

 

Okay. So I've been thinking about divisions of labour at intervals ever since. I now think both Ruskin and Hickey have missed something. I think Marx may have missed it as well, but Freud seems to have had a handle on it. I'm no student of Freud, so I'm going to get this wrong, but in general, the idea is that the development of personality revolves around the rejection of unconscious behaviour in favor of culturally stipulated activities. In other words, the division of labour starts at infancy. Ruskin's nail-maker is a product of a series of divisions: of divided psychological labour, social labour, gender labour, ad infinitum. Subsequent to any form of socialisation there can be no return to a state of innocence, a state of purity or natural coherence. So why should Ruskin, and even more so, why should Hickey be concerned about it? For aesthetic reasons. We're talkin' about Beauty here, and a nail properly made, with respect to the integrity of the person who makes it, is a thing of Beauty. All you footie fans know this already.

 

But aside from Beauty, who gives a fuck about the division of labour? It's not relevant to anything. It's on the agenda because Ruskin was trying to make it into a political issue, possibly along with other liberal socialists like William Morris. This is what politicos do. Try to tie two things together as they they are essential to one another: "Ya can't have nails without Beauty, and ya can't have beauty if your workers are living in filth!"

 

Okay, I admit there's something to be said for that argument. How can I find Beauty in something that I know to have been made by corrupt means? Chilean wine has the blood of thousands in it. How can I enjoy that wine? Nike shoes are made of crushed dreams. How can I not think about people in sweatshops? Happy meals are made from the ozone layer and the Brazilian wilderness. This tells me that there are only degrees of separation, not true cleavage. Sooner or later, everything interacts with everything else. But this applies to divisions of labour as well: the divisions are never complete. The nailmaker still functions as an integral person, even if the job is split into sixteen separate operations and this person only ever performs one of those operations. In that case, what about the Mall in Milan? What about Jane's addiction?

 

Jane's Addiction might show up there some other way, probably in a record store. I don't worry about it.

Mister Ruskin, I think you missed something.

Dave, get back to me on this one, will ya?

 

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