Friday, June 26, 2009

Mierle Laderman Ukeles' Maintenance Art: A Symbolic Riposte to Florida-mania?

Fellow TO arts journalist Murray Whyte has been dropping hints all this week on his blog that he's been working on a feature about Richard Florida and the increasingly vocal criticism of him in certain sectors of the arts community of late.

The feature is due out in tomorrow's Toronto Star, and I will most certainly be reading it. But I don't know if it will change my skepticism about Florida's registered-trademark "Creative Class" views and their impact on urban planning policy.

Of course, I've been trying to stay reasonable about all this myself, thinking, "man, what is it that really bothers me about Florida's theories and the way they've been embraced over at City Hall?" (Some commenters on this blog have pointed out with deserved annoyance that some critics focus overly on Florida's six-figure income and Rosedale residence. It's really not that stuff that bugs me.)

What does keep coming to mind when I try to put my finger on all this is the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, an artist who long ago pointed out and critiqued the presumed divide between artistic activity and maintenance tasks.

This presumed divide comes up in Florida's work in spaces—designating one sector of people to be working the valued field of "creative class" activity and another sector of people, much less valued and economically desirable, as working in "service industry."

Ukeles broke down the hoity-toity barrier between these ideas--and symbolically highlighted the importance of maintenance--when she wrote her 1969 Manifesto on Maintenance Art. She then carried out its ideas in 1973 by mopping the steps of the Wadsworth Anathaeum, and also later in 1978 when she carried out a public art project called "Touch Sanitation" where she shook the hands of thousands of New York City sanitation workers.

As Helen Molesworth noted, one of the key points of brilliance enabled by Ukeles' art is the realization that maintainance, however "boring" and undervalued, is "the work that makes all other work possible."

Florida has written that the service sector is key to supporting his theorized "creative class economy." And I suspect the "Florida's theories have merely been applied incorrectly" rationale will form a main defense of the guy in tomorrow's article.

Yet I truly doubt that Forida really values that maintenance and service work as much as supposedly "creative" work—that he really sees maintenance and service as "the work that makes all other work possible."

Who knows? Maybe "Maintenance en Masse" just wasn't as trademark-catchy as "Creative Class". Maybe it's them bad old book marketers who can take the fall for changing Florida's title at the last minute unbeknownst to the rest of us.

Or maybe Florida really just does effing downplay one of the key sectors of people (and people activity across all sectors) that keeps life on earth clean, sane and possible.

What do you think?

All images are of Mierle Laderman Ukeles artworks from Ronald Feldman Gallery. Top: The Social Mirror, 1983. Middle: Touch Sanitation, 1978-1980. Bottom: Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy, 1988

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