Art’s primary function, at least for a certain tradition of thinking, is to criticize capitalist society. But what in capitalism should be criticized? And how can art perform such a critique? Taking these questions as its staring point this article argues for three things mainly. First, by expanding on Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno’s form theory, that art primarily should criticize capitalism through its form, understood as “sedimented content.” Secondly, taking Marx’s term abstract labour and the way it has been further theorized by contemporary thinkers such as Moishe Postone and Chris Arthur, that abstract labour is the main mediating social form of capitalism and therefore should be the main focus for critique. Finally that art can only negate the social form of abstract labour though its own form. These arguments are being discussed through American choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s (1934-) work, which can be categorised as “task-dance”, an artistic strategy that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by choreographers Anna Halprin, Simone Forti and Rainer. Through Adorno’s understanding of form, I argue that Rainer’s early task-dance works criticise capitalism at the level of form rather than at the level of representation.

Art’s primary function, at least for a certain tradition of thinking, is to criticise capitalist society. György Lukàcs, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno are perhaps most recognised for this idea. But it can also be found in contemporary French philosophy,1 as well as among theorists of contemporary art.2 Among this broad field of thinking, however, there is little consensus on what exactly should be criticised and how. In other words, there is disagreement on what precisely capitalism is and how it should be criticised by art. Should art, for example, primarily attack ways in which capital manages to expand into new forms of commodification?3 Or should artworks be critical of the alienating effects produced by capitalist society in work and elsewhere?4 What does it mean for art to be critical of capitalism? Two things stand out in much contemporary literature on the subject. Firstly, that capitalism is primarily seen as a system, which produces commodities and a culture of alienation, and that the critique should be focused on that. Secondly, that art’s role then is to either subvert this commodity system in perverse ways―like Bernadette Corporation―or, like in social practice works, create quasi-autonomous alternatives to it―as Tania Bruguera or Jonas Staal do.

This essay is an attempt to explore what a critique of capitalism might look like from another perspective. Capitalism is here understood as a specifically historical social form of production and as primarily characterised by abstraction, and what Marx terms ‘abstract labour’. It is a view of capitalism seen as, and in Alberto Toscano terms, the “culture of abstraction par excellence”, and as “really driven by abstract entities through and through”.5 Following Werner Bonefeld, Moishe Postone and Christopher Arthur’s conception of abstract labour in Marx, I take abstract labour to be a social form that has nothing to do with concrete forms of labour. To overcome capitalism means to overcome abstract labour as the main mediating social form. The key argument of the essay is that a critique of capitalism―in art―needs to be a critique and a negation of the social form of abstract labour. Further, the claim is that such a critique needs to be mediated through what Adorno understands as the form of the artwork. At the core of the essay lies the assertion that art’s primary function is to negate capitalist reality through its form: the social form of abstract labour versus the form of the artwork.

I discuss this in relation to American choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s (1934-) work, which can be categorised as “task-dance”, an artistic strategy that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by choreographers Anna Halprin, Simone Forti and Rainer. Task is a form of abstraction in that it is about reducing or eliminating possibilities in movements. This makes it, alongside the contemporaneous form of the event-score, concerned with abstraction in a direct way.6 Task-dance is an artistic form that is still heavily used within dance and performance practices today, and is therefore still significant for a critique of capitalism.7 Through Adorno’s understanding of form, I argue that Rainer’s early task-dance works criticise capitalism at the level of form rather than at the level of representation, and thus in more complex ways than have been argued in previous literature.8

What does it mean to pose the abstract character of art against the abstract aspect of capitalism? If abstract labour is understood as a social form, central to capitalist society, how can art critique such a social form? Should it take place through, what we might understand as the “form” of the artwork, where form is understood in Adorno’s sense as “sediment content”? How can we view Rainer’s task-dance as a case study of such a critique of capitalism through its form?

Rainer’s “No-Manifesto” and Other Negations

In 1965 The Tulane Drama Review published an article by Rainer with the title “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance for 10 People and 12 Mattresses Called ‘Parts of Some Sextets,’ Performed at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Church, New York, in March, 1965.” Divided into three parts―“The origin of the piece”, “The work” and “Postscript”―the main section of the article focuses on how Rainer made the piece by using charts and objects as well as on what this meant for the trained and the non-trained dancers in it. In the final section Rainer writes: “All I am inclined to indicate here are various feelings about ‘Parts of Some Sextets’ and its effort in a certain direction―an area of concern as not yet fully clarified for me in relation to dance, but existing as a very large NO to many facts in the theatre today.” What followed in the article is what has become known as Rainer’s “No-Manifesto”:

NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.9

Yvonne Rainer, Score for Parts of Some Sextets (first half), 1965. Collection Robert Rauschenberg. Photo taken from Lambert-Beatty, Carrie. Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer in the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2008.

What does Rainer say No to here? I think the manifesto should be read as a rejection on at least two levels. Rainer says No to the idea of the dancer as someone who needs to be virtuose, to have specific dancer skills, and who, because of these skills, is able to seduce, involve the spectator, feel moved, be glamorous and pretend to be someone or something else. Secondly, such a rejection of the dancer also reads as a rejection of a specific idea about dance: dance as being able to engage, express, involve, look virtuose, move and seduce. In short, these “Nos” are Nos to a conception of the dancer and the dance in terms of what is known as “modern dance” in the US primarily.10 Martha Graham (1894-1991), and later Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), reproduced a concept of the dancer as a specialised trained worker. Whereas Graham’s movement vocabulary was meant to express human subjectivity directly through the expressive body and its movements, Cunningham’s dancers were trained to demonstrate the opposite.11 Cunningham’s work rejected most characteristics common to Graham and other expressionist modern choreographers: continuity of movement, continuity between phrases and the inseparability between the dance and the dancer. But, like Graham’s dancers, Cunningham’s dancers were highly skilled and trained. The distinction of the company, dance historian Roger Copeland writes: “was the dancers’ high level of dexterity”. Using structures of juxtaposition as a way of putting movements, phrases and sound together, Cunningham’s technique required the dancer to, for example, be able to raise the right leg high up, whilst the upper body simultaneously tilts in another direction. Copeland continues: “Cunningham’s dancers could move from whiplash fouette to penché arabesque without apparent transition.”12 The offbeat relation between sound and movement that Cunningham, in collaboration with John Cage, worked with in his pieces, made the movements even more difficult to perform as the dancers could not rest or use the music as support. “Indeed, the Cunningham body often looked as it had been assembled by a practitioner of a cubist collage.”13 Despite the fact that he introduced central ideas into dance, such as removing expression from the body and movement, and used sound and dance non-synchronically, Rainer and Halprin criticised Cunningham for holding on to the role of the specialised dancer, a specifically trained body, and therefore, a specific division of labour in the production of dance. By saying No to the specific virtuosity of the modern dancer, Rainer also negated the modern conception of dance, which relied on such an idea of the dancer.

In a diagram in another article Rainer writes that she compares minimalist sculpture with minimalist dance.14 By juxtaposing the two she is able to articulate strategies and forms of working in dance, partly through a set of negations that resonates with the “No-Manifesto”. The diagram begins with two columns arranged into numbers that state what minimalist sculpture and minimalist dance respectively “eliminate or minimize”. While minimalist objects eliminate or minimise the “role of the artist’s hand” and the “hierarchical relationship of parts”, minimalist dance eliminates “phrasing”, “development and climax” and “character”. Similarly to the “No-Manifesto”, minimalist dance eliminates “virtuosic movement”. In contrast to the “No-Manifesto”, in which Rainer says no to “spectacle”, in the text on minimalist dance and sculpture, minimalist dance eliminates “performance”. The corresponding term from the realm of minimalist sculpture is “illusionism”, which signals that, in the category of performance, Rainer refers to theatre, where illusions take place in the form of characters and stories.

Diagram from Rainer’s article “A Quasi Survey…” (1966).

In comparison to the “No-Manifesto”, each negation in the diagram also produces a new mediation. The negation of “performance”, for example, is substituted with “task or task-like activity” and the negation of “virtuosic movement” by “singular action, event or tone”.15 Similar negations of the specialised dancer in modern dance and the notion of (self-expressive) dance it created can be found among other dancers and choreographers’ written and spoken statements. Interviewed by Rainer, Halprin describes why she went from taking modern dance classes with Graham and Cunningham, to setting up her own dance-deck in the woods in California. The primary reason was that she wanted to develop a way of dancing which negated the technicality and labour-intensity of Graham’s classes. Her rejection of Graham was also a negation of the latter’s idea that the dancer’s foremost capacity was to express “the heart’s experience” and “the great truths of life”, as Graham put it in an interview in 1950.16 In contrast to Graham’s ideas about dance and the skilled dancer, Halprin wrote: “I wanted to explore a particular way of breaking down any preconceived notions I had about what dance was, or what movement was, or what composition was.”17 She describes the liberation from the role of the dancer that this produced: “We began to deal with ourselves as people, not dancers.”18

But how might we understand the negation of the dancer as a specialised skilled worker here? Does it, as curator and writer Catherine Wood puts it, immediately mean that Rainer’s work negates “alienated” and “productive labour”, and instead represents a form of “non-productive” type of labour because of the sheer simplicity of the movements? In her essay on Rainer’s three-part-work The Mind is a Muscle (in which Trio A was included), Wood discusses how Rainer’s work touches on questions of labour. She emphasises how the work “presented groups of people dancing images of ‘labour’: carrying bulky objects, picking them up, putting them down…”19 She also underlines the way in which Rainer’s “representation of tasks created images that depict ‘labourers’ who […] are certainly empowered and thinking” and so represented “unalienated” work.20 While the dialectic between productive and non-productive work that Wood sets up to be at stake in Rainer’s work is not entirely far-fetched, the level at which she places this dialectic is. Wood sees a relationship between productive labour and dance and/or performance at the level of the representation of movements. The terms used by Wood to describe the ways in which Rainer’s work engages with questions of labour, such as labour and non-alienated labour, are used as descriptive and representational categories. She looks at images reproduced in the dances instead of considering them as task-dances in a broader sense as a new form in art, similar to the montage or the readymade in film and sculpture.

In contrast to Wood, my contention is that the negation of a specific type of activity and labour needs to be approached in a way that accounts for the negation of abstract labour in art through the form of the artwork, rather than at the level of mimetic representation. This is what Rainer’s “No-Manifesto” and her diagram tells us to do.

The Social Form of Abstract Labour

At least two separate discourses of abstraction are distinguishable in Marx’s mature work. The first one is to be found in the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse: Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy (1939 [1857-58]), where the terms abstract and concrete are contrasted in order to make an epistemological claim about the capacity of abstractions to grasp the real (reality) by reproducing the concrete in thought as the totality of (abstract) determinations.21 The second discourse of abstraction appears in Marx’s mature work and is related to the social ontology of capitalist societies, in which the abstraction of social relations becomes real. This mediating form, which constitutes the social ontology of modern Western capitalist societies, is expressed in Marx’s category “abstract labour”, introduced in Capital Volume 1 (1867). These two discourses of abstraction in Marx are inseparable, to the extent that labour is only thinkable as a general category at the historical stage when the main mediating form of sociality on a global scale consists of abstract quasi-objective relations of production: when abstract labour has become the dominating and mediating social form.

Marx opens the first book of Capital by speaking about the specific commodity form that prevails in capitalist societies. The dialectical relationship between use- and exchange-value turns, Marx writes, things into people and people into things. In the second chapter of the book, on commodities, he expands on the different types of labour represented by use- and exchange-value of the commodity. The use-value of a commodity is produced by “concrete labour”, which has a specific quality and which require specific skills, whereas the exchange-value of a commodity is produced by “abstract labour”, which is the socially necessary labour time taken to produce the same commodity. The concrete labours of tailoring and weaving, for example, Marx writes, become abstract when they are equated with one another as commodities. Marx’s understanding of abstract labour as represented in the exchange-value of the commodity is, on the one hand, straightforward: labour becomes abstract when it turns in to a commodity. On the other hand, the category of abstract labour can be ambiguous. For example, is abstract labour, like exchange-value, merely a “supra-sensible” character of the commodity? If we agree that the commodity form in Marx is a form, and therefore a relation between things, is abstract labour also a form? If so, what kind of form and how is it manifested?

The term “abstract labour” has, at least since the re-discovery in the 1970s of Isaak Rubin’s work on value, caused disputes in the secondary literature on Marx.22 These have revolved around whether abstract labour is physiological or, instead, is a concept of social form. This is a debate that might also be understood as a conflict between mainstream technical or analytical readings and Hegelian or dialectical readings of Marx. Dialectical and new critical readings of Marx’s notion of abstract labour are contrasted with traditional understandings. The former emphasise the systematic and scientific methodology through which Marx introduces the categories “value”, “labour” and “commodity”, and argues that they need to be understood within the logic of capitalist production itself. While traditional readings of Marx emphasise the capitalist system of production as one of struggles between classes and that criticises capitalism from the standpoint of a transhistorical concept of labour, new critical Marxism questions capitalism by questioning labour as its main mediating form.23 New Systems Dialectic, a categorical critique of capitalism, also sets off from an understanding of what Marx formulates as the fundamental contradictory character of capitalism―“its moving contradiction”24―immanent to labour, which is understood as the main mediating form of capitalist production. In his article “Abstract labour: Against its nature and on its time” (2010), Werner Bonefeld gives a thorough account of the different major conceptions of abstract labour among post-Marxist thinkers. Bonefeld departs from the tension between physiological and social conceptions of abstract labour, stating that Marx’s concept of abstract labour is “ambivalent”. Yet, he argues that abstract labour must be understood as a social form specific to capitalism, and by doing so he takes a similar position to thinkers like Chris Arthur and Moishe Postone.

Arthur, who takes a primary position in Bonefeld’s article, developed his concept of abstract labour primarily within the context of debates on the “New” or “Systematic Dialectic”. Arthur follows Rubin’s value theory, in which both value and abstract labour are thought of as social phenomena. But Arthur differs from Rubin in that the latter sees abstract labour as a result of the exchange relation of commodities. This means that labour only becomes abstract in the exchange. For Arthur, however, abstract labour is a form of production, which includes exchange.25 Arthur explains this by pointing towards an apparent “contradiction” in Marx’s writings. Quoting the latter from Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy published in 1959, Arthur writes that, on the one hand “commodities must enter the exchange process as objectified universal labour time”, and, on the other hand, that “the labour time of individuals becomes objectified universal labour time only as a result of the exchange process.”26 What this contradiction points at, Arthur argues, is that “if production is value formed, that is, undertaken by self-positing capital, the living labour is treated as abstract prior to the exchange precisely because it is treated as abstract in exchange.”27 For Arthur, abstract labour as a social form collapses the realm of exchange and production, and instead, posits abstract labour as a totalising social form. Living labour is in this sense already conceived of as abstract before it enters exchange in order for it to be thought of as exchangeable. In this conception of abstract labour as a specific social form of production, Bonefeld concludes that Arthur “opens up a novel, temporally conceived conception of abstract labour that overcomes [the] false dichotomy between production and exchange.”28

The implication of Arthur’s conceptualisation of abstract labour as a social form is that living labour can―and indeed only does―appear as abstract in current historical conditions. It also emphasises how it produces a specific conception of time. The social reality of abstract labour is expressed in the supra-sensible form of value. Abstract labour is real and social at the same time. Moishe Postone takes a similar position to Arthur and Bonefeld in that he also emphasises abstract labour as a form and mediation. He articulates the relation between the activity of labour and the commodity form by emphasising that abstract labour is both the essence and content of commodities as well as the main mediating social form. “As an object, the commodity has a material form; as a social mediation, it is a social form.”29 The double character of the commodity, Postone continues, that is, that “it is simultaneously a use-value for the other, and a means of exchange for the producer”, implies that the substance of a commodity is abstract labour expressed as value (via price).30 It also means that the mediating activity is labour: “Labour and its products mediate themselves in capitalism; they are self-mediating socially. This form of social mediation is unique: within the framework of Marx’s approach, it sufficiently differentiates capitalist society from all other existent forms of social life.”31

Bonefeld, Arthur and Postone demonstrate how abstract labour, when understood as a social form, must be seen as both the substance of commodities, and therefore of value, as well as the main form through which that substance is mediated. The consequence of this, as Postone argues, is that “the social relations specific to, and characteristic of, capitalism exist only in the medium of labour.”32 In relation to critiques of capitalism in art, these thinkers also demonstrate that abstract labour does not look a particular way, but rather constitutes the social form through which other forms and representations are mediated. Because abstract labour is a social form of relation, the representation of such relations might look very different in different historical periods. In this way, the relations also demonstrate that abstract labour cannot simply be negated by representations of labour that appear un-alienated or unproductive, but that abstract labour also needs to be negated at the level of form.

The Autonomous Artwork in Adorno

In his posthumously published Ästhetische Theorie (Aesthetic Theory, 1970) Theodor Adorno conceptualises the relation between the real abstraction of social relations in capitalist societies and art in its distinct modern sense. The latter, often referred to by Adorno as “autonomous art”, is for him characterised by its separation from, or negation of, life. Art’s separation from empirical reality is what conditions art’s ontology: “It is defined by its relation to what it is not.”33 The separation operates at different levels. Although not systematised explicitly, we can see that, for Adorno, art is first of all separated from empirical reality and can only come into being by claiming that it is different from the empirical reality in which it is presented: “Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world…”34 Further, art is, for Adorno, separated from society. In its separation from empirical reality and society, bourgeois art is, as a consequence, separated from industrial production, the division of labour implied in industrial capitalist societies, the technology used in such production and the reproduction of capital more generally. This separation from reality, society, industrial production and ultimately the value form in modern works of art is always a dialectical movement of negation and affirmation. In other words, reality, society and the production of value can only be negated by being fully incorporated. “Art is modern when, by its mode of experience and as the expression of the crisis of experience, it absorbs what industrialization has developed under the given relations of production.”35 Further, negation in art is, for Adorno, represented through the form or construction of the work through which it expresses itself as different from bourgeois society. “If art opposes the empirical through the element of form―and the mediation of form and content is not to be grasped without their differentiation―the mediation is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content.”36 Form for Adorno is historical content congealed and constructed.

This inherent dialectical separation or abstraction that art carries with it constitutes what Adorno calls “the ontology of art”.37 Art’s separation―through incorporation and negation through form and construction―makes it functionless. This “dialectic of functionalism” implies that the autonomous work of art is functional only “in reference to itself”.38 Because it is constructed through its separation from reality and capitalist mediations it is able to express something about the “moving contradiction” inherent to capitalist society. The autonomous artwork contains a moment of truth of the real abstraction of capitalist production, and as such, “contains the potential for the abolition of the alien”.39 But it does so only through its negation and separation from it.

Following Adorno’s account of autonomous art, we see how abstraction plays a crucial role in it. Art, for Adorno, separates itself from society―and through this becomes visible as art―through forms of negation. Autonomous art, in his account then, must always be thought of as abstract. But this abstract aspect does not have the least to do with whether it looks abstract, since what looks abstract change with time. Abstract painting from the turn of the twentieth century “looks” abstract because it uses forms such as the monochrome and collage. These ways of making negated previous forms of mediation in painting. Minimalist sculpture might look abstract because of the reduction and negation of certain characteristics of older forms of sculpture. Adorno demonstrates that art’s abstractness lies in the way it is socially constituted in a specific historical moment: it is a social practice whose ontology is based on separation and abstraction. Furthermore, this ontology is mediated―formally―differently in different historical moments and in different technological and social contexts. It relates negatively to abstract labour. My point here is that if we agree with Adorno that art is separated from empirical reality, and if we also agree with Postone and other readers of Marx, that the main mediating social form of modern capitalist society is abstract labour, then art is also negating abstract labour at the level of form. Art labour is not abstract labour. It negates abstract labour. It does so through the form of the artwork and these forms are socially historical, which means that they are not essential or static.

Kant makes us aware of this epistemologically positive notion of separation as a form of abstraction in his Logic (1800) when he, as Howard Caygill points out, “illustrates philosophical abstraction with the example of colour: ‘With a scarlet cloth, for example, if I think only of the red colour, then I abstract from the cloth’ […]; he does not abstract a quality ‘red’ from the cloth, but considers it in abstraction from the cloth.”40 The act of separating the colour red from the cloth is an act of abstraction in so far as it can only be understood in a positive epistemological relation to the cloth. Following Adorno, we might say that art is not abstract in the sense that it “reflects” or ”imitates” the abstract conditions of capitalism. Art is abstract because of its ontological condition, which is constituted as an act of separation and abstraction that is mediated through its form, which may or may not “look” abstract.

If all autonomous art to a certain extent is abstract, how is this abstraction mediated according to Adorno? For Adorno, the autonomous or nominalistic artwork must, in order to be art, negate universals. In a section in Aesthetic Theory entitled “Universal and Particular”, he writes that the nominalistic artwork is based on what he calls “aesthetic nominalism”, which developed alongside modernity and the formation of the bourgeois subject and constituted a break with traditional genre aesthetics, so called academic aestheticism.41 The latter originated in the division of the arts from antiquity, and was characterised by the fact that particular artworks gained their meaning and were considered art if they managed to fit into specific universals articulated as norms or conventions, as for example, perspectival painting.

Adorno argues that this relation between the universal and the particular, as it was configured in traditional genre aesthetics, was broken in modernity through the development of aesthetic nominalism. Particular artworks―instead of being subsumed under universals, posed as norms and conventions―began to negate these, and through this, mediate new forms. In aesthetic nominalism, the universal, Adorno argues, is dealt with through negation. Expressed differently, the nominalistic artwork must―in order to be “art”―negate universals in singular and new ways. Importantly, for Adorno, this dialectic between the particular and the universal is not only present at the level of a general category of art, but can also necessarily be seen as present in that of form.

The nominalistic artwork is negative in relation to its form since it defines itself in relation to what it is not: the heterogeneous. The artwork “absorbs industrial technique” and “rational empirical reality”, but without turning them into its laws. It treats these―the heterogeneous―as its other through mastery over materials (technique), which appear as the form of the artwork. Following Adorno’s understanding of the nominalistic artwork, art in modernity―in order to be art―must negate its outside posed as universals. Historical avant-garde art did so at the turn of the twentieth century, when it negated the universal of art through forms such as the monochrome. With the ontological transformation of art after World War II, and the development of a generic concept of art, negation of universals became even more important as art practices started to open up to empirical reality―or to the social―in even more radical and new ways.42

Negating Capitalism’s Abstract Labour through Task-Dance

Rainer’s “No-Manifesto” and her diagram on minimalist dance demonstrate that negation was central in the development of her and others’ practices. These different rejections can be boiled down to two main ones: the negation of the specialised dancer, and the medium-specific idea of dance dependent on such a skilled dancer. The critique of the first produces a critique of the second in the sense that a dance cannot be spectacular if the dancer cannot seduce. Similarly, the dance cannot be expressive if the dancer does not have the technical skills to express.

Rainer’s “No-manifesto” and Halprin’s statements on why she left modern dance show that task-dance partly emerged as a rejection of the idea that dance requires specialised and labour-intensive skills. Connected to this, task-dance was also the result of a negation of the traditional division of labour present in the practices of the modern dance company that implied a division between the choreographer―understood as producer/author of the work as well as employer―and the dancers―understood as employees and as executioners of the dance.43 However, the method used to depart from such a division of labour, or the idea of skilled dancers, and ultimately the idea of dance, was―as the term for this sort of dance indicates―to employ techniques strongly associated with the division, mechanisation and de-skilling of labour in capitalism. Firstly, because the tasks were simple, they reduced the skills needed for someone to make them. Secondly, because the scoring of tasks implied a minimal amount of individual choice involved, a type of indifference to specific movements, and the way they are put together, was developed. The idea that the movement, as was the case in modern dance, mediated or expressed the inner subjectivity of the dancer was done away with through the task. By using tasks, scores and charts, movements were divided into equal sections of time-units, which meant that they could not produce qualities like rhythm, momentum or climaxes, as was the case in modern dance.

The reduction of individual choice, the indifferent approach to the activity performed and the abstraction of human movement in time through tasking were also some of the key characteristics for the development of the division of labour in capitalist societies. The introduction of the division of labour meant an increased productivity. It was an important step towards the disciplinarisation of the worker and of the measuring of work in socially necessary labour time. As Adam Smith put it in The Wealth of Nations (1776) in the section on the pin factory: “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the division of labour.”44

The tasks given in Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965) and Trio A (1966) are simple: make a huddle, walk across the stage, do a handstand, run, sit or lie down. They are simple in the sense that they are “found”―a form of readymade―and do not need to be invented by a choreographer or a dancer, nor do they require specialised skills specific to a dancer or a dancer’s body. These movement tasks are also simple in the sense in which Smith, in the same section as quoted above, describes how a key element of the division of labour is to reduce each worker’s activity into a specialised and simple one: “the division of labour, by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily very much increases the dexterity of the workman.”45 Similar to Smith’s pin factory, tasks and instructions are used in task-dance as a way to reduce and simplify movements. But in contrast to the de-skilling of the worker in the pin factory that follows as a result of the capitalist division of labour, the consequences are different in task-dance practices. Whereas Smith’s account of the way in which the introduction of the division of labour into specific tasks for each specific workman increases productivity―and leads to a de-skilling of labour46―the tasks in task-dance―despite their simplicity and division―liberate the dancer from specialisation and thus introduce new skills, such as taking decisions on when to perform the task and being aware of one’s body in more complex ways, often including somatic skills as well as the ability to work with non-dancers. “The non-trained people, Morris and Rauschenberg, learned everything except ‘Quartet.’”47 The movements in Trio A and Trillium are simple, but put together, they are difficult to perform. With no rhythm or transitions between each movement, the dancer needed skills to be able to do each movement with precision and without emphasis. Old skills were negated in favour of new skills, which were not necessarily specific to the role of the dancer. In generalising her skills the dancer became an artist.

In Smith’s case, non-specialised labour implies that the worker becomes de-skilled. The worker makes monotonous and repetitive movements, which reduces their capacities. In Rainer’s case, the simplification of movements, in contrast, frees the dancer from the strained disciplined division of labour in modern dance and introduces new skills. Put differently, a representation or mimicking of a strict division of labour, in forms of tasks and charts, was used in task-dance in order to break with a certain representation of dance and use of the body in modern dance. As a consequence of the scores and tasks used, task-dance practices also negated a certain conception of time and of a disciplined body. As Smith―but also Michel Foucault―has described, the disciplining of the time in which each task is performed is fundamental to the increase in the productivity of labour. In a section on the introduction of clock-time as the control of people’s activities in schools, hospitals and workplaces, Foucault writes about the latter:

The gradual extension of the wage-earning class brought with it a more detailed partitioning of time. […] An attempt is also made to assure the quality of the time used: constant supervision, the pressure of supervisors, the elimination of anything that might disturb or distract.48

Smith distinguishes three key features that the division of labour brings with it and also emphasises the centrality of time of these. The features are also fundamental for an increase in productivity. Firstly, the division of labour increases the quantity of work that the worker can perform. When each worker’s activity has been simplified into one simple operation, it increases their capacity to do one specific task. Secondly, the division of labour saves time since the worker does not need any longer to move from one task to another or to change their tools or place in which to perform their work. Different workers can perform different tasks simultaneously. Smith even argues that a worker who constantly changes tasks and tools runs the risk of becoming “slothful and lazy”.49 This can be contrasted with Marx’s famous dictum that the less specialised the worker the better, and that one ideally should “fish in the afternoon” and “criticise after dinner”.[50 It can also be contrasted with the tasks in Rainer’s Trio A, where each movement is different from the other and is put together awkwardly, challenging the dancer as they need to change movement constantly. The third and final consequence of the division of labour is the increase in work made possible through advanced machinery that enables the worker to focus on the activity of one “very simple object”.51

As both Foucault’s and Smith’s accounts of the division of labour demonstrate, as well as Arthur’s and Postone’s conceptualisation of abstract labour as social form, the introduction of such an organisation of labour also brought a new form of time into place. Postone makes a distinction between a conception of time before capitalism and the conception of time operating within the capitalist mode of production: “concrete time” and “abstract time”. The former refers to an idea of time “before the rise and development of modern, capitalist society in Western Europe” and is a more useful category than cyclical time, according to Postone, since “there are linear conceptions of time which are essentially concrete such as the Jewish notion of history.”52 Concrete time for Postone is a time in which a “relationship exists between the measure of time and the sort of time involved.” This means that there are no determined or constant time units that measure an undetermined activity. In concrete time, the time units vary, which, “indicates that this form of time is a dependent variable, a function of events, occurrences or actions.”53 Abstract time, instead, Postone argues, is historically specific to capitalism. Bonefeld and Arthur give an account of how living labour, within current historical conditions, can only be thought of as abstract, and how this implies a conception of living labour understood as a materialisation of abstract time. For Postone, abstract time, is a time of indifference in which the measurement and the time units are constant and separated from the human activities to which it relates. Abstract time is “uniform, continuous, homogenous, ‘empty’ time” independent of events.”54 Postone also argues that abstract time is a time of the clock. This is also emphasised by Foucault in his detailed accounts of the disciplining of the worker and the centrality of the clock in this process. With the introduction of the clock, the measuring of heterogeneous activities could be measured into constant, homogeneous and divisible time units. The division of labour is dependent on the modern invention of the clock as it abstracts all activities into homogenised units. “From the tick to the tock, clock time measures human activity regardless of specific contents. In clock time, the expenditure of labour does not occur in its own good time. It occurs within time—a time made abstract, and imposing.”55 If abstract labour is the materialisation of abstract time, the clock is the index of such abstract time.

Rainer followed Cage and Cunningham in their use of clocking tasks and instructions as an artistic strategy of producing and choreographing movements. One of the first performances in which a clock was used explicitly was in Untitled Event (1952) at Black Mountain College initiated by Cage, and in which Cunningham, Rauschenberg and David Tudor, among others, participated. It was later explored in Dunn’s composition workshops for dancers, in which the dancers were asked to perform a specific task within a specific time frame.56 These were partly based on Cage’s so called “‘point-drawing’ technique”, in which dots were made on a sheet of paper within a given amount of time and then “translated into sounds by establishing different means of mapping by which their frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration, and ‘morphology’ (attack and decay characteristics) could be determined independently of the composer’s preconceptions.”57 In Dunn’s class, and as recalled by Forti, this was transformed into a performance context where the dots implied at what time the performance was to take place, while the nature of the events was left up to the performer, which is why active decision-making was one of the new skills needed by the dancers and performers.58 But time was also formalised in the tasks. Rainer describes the relation between the task given and the time frame of the task in the chart―a technique probably introduced to her via Halprin’s workshops―used in her work Parts of Some Sextets: “The chart is divided into squares, each indicating the juncture of a given piece of material with a given interval in time.”59 Rainer had also recorded her own voice, saying “change”, and which indicated each time 30 seconds had passed in the performance.60 This was also used as a form of index for the passing of time.

Although Rainer’s dances were built around strictly clocked intervals, the “clocking” or the “measuring” of time had a different effect to the measuring and disciplining of work time than accounted for by Smith and Foucault. Clock-time in Smith’s pin factory was used to measure the tasks performed by the workers whose labour materialises the abstract time of which it is made. Rainer, in contrast, used charts and homogenised time units of this task as a way to liberate the dancer and their dance from measurements and discipline. For Rainer the use of charts and time units was a mimicking of an aesthetics or representation of work or administration, something we can also see in much other conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s.61 Although Rainer used charts and clocks to time the movements, and although the representation of movements appeared as if fully determined by a clock, the time units to perform a specific task functioned as a limit rather than a rule. Following Postone’s account of concrete time, the measurement of time, and the activity to be measured in Rainer’s work, were variable instead of constant. For example, one of the tasks in Parts of Some Sextets was to “do the rope movements wherever you happen to be”62 in 30 seconds, which was the determined time frame for each of the movements in the charts. But as Rainer writes, if one of the dancers happened to be pregnant, then the rope movement would take the time it takes for a pregnant woman to perform such a movement. This meant that the time frame put explicitly in the task, in the score or indicated by a clock or voice, as in Rainer’s work, only functioned as a moving time border against which the dancer’s movement would pose itself. This wouldn’t break or destroy the piece, since the piece contains the score (which includes a time frame) as well as the actions performed in relation to the score. This did not mean that the choreography was improvised. The pregnant dancer would be more or less pregnant during the rehearsals as well as during the actual performance. The time unit varied according to the activity. The task would “take” its time, so to speak, and could―in thought―stretch out infinitely into an expanded and perhaps infinite time.

Rainer’s task-dance imitates and represents a capitalist division of labour. We might say that dance, at the time, knew that, in order to be relevant as art, it had to bring new social techniques into practice. Minimalist sculpture had to do the same. This made task-dance practices new in a radical sense. By introducing new social techniques in order to create movement, task-dance broke with previous conventions and norms in dance. The result was on the one hand a new type of dance, sometimes referred to as postmodern dance. The consequence was that dance became part of what we might refer to as “art in general”, or, with Adorno, autonomous or nominalistic art. In its function as art task-dance negated empirical reality, industrial division of labour and therefore abstract labour as the main mediating social form. As art, task-dance is not abstract labour. It imitates and represents abstract labour. This representation of abstract labour is mediated through the new form of task-dance. This form negates abstract labour. It can only do so if it wants to be art.

Many thanks to Stewart Martin, John Roberts and Marina Vishmidt for useful comments to this essay.


  1. Jacques Rancière’s invention of the aesthetic regime (a critique of the ways in which seeing, hearing and moving is organised) is inseparable from the development of capitalism. Although Rancière does not speak about capitalism explicitly, his thought cannot be separated from it. This is the reason that I include him into a line of thinkers that understand art’s function to be critical of capitalism. See Rancière, Jacques. Le partage du sensible: esthétique et politique. Paris: La Fabrique Editions. 2000. In English Distribution of the Sensible: Aesthetics and Politics. London: Continuum. 2006.
  2. See Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966-1972. Berkley, Los Angeles, CA, London: University of California Press. 1997. Although the term dematerialisation can be found in El Lissitzky’s “The Future of the Book”, first published in 1926, Lippard ties the term to an argument that 1960s American conceptual art’s ephemeral character functioned as a critique of processes of commodification. The discussion around dematerialisation gained a revival in art in 2010 when it converged with a philosophical discourse around the so-called immaterialisation of labour as coined (and later dismissed) by Maurizio Lazzarato. See my critique of the symposium “Untitled (Labour): Contemporary Art and Immaterial Production” at Tate Britain in London in 2012: Wikström, Josefine. “Immaterial Collapse: A Report on the Symposium ‘Untitled (Labour)’”. Afterall. May 5, 2012., available online at http://www.afterall.org/online/immaterial-collapse-a-report-on-the-symposium-untitled-labour#.WCx1B-HhBE4 (accessed November 2016). See also Nicolas Bourriaud’s claim in Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presse du Reel, 1998), where he argues that the performative and relational character of artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Vanessa Beecroft in the 1990s could be viewed as micro-communes, autonomous from capitalist exchange. For the best critique of Bourriaud’s claim see Stewart, Martin. “Critique of Relational Aesthetics”. Third Text. Vol. 21, No. 4. pp. 369-386.
  3. We might here want to think about an artist like Tino Sehgal, whose performance or situation-based work refuses any material residues such as paper contracts or documentation.
  4. Examples of this could for example be argued to have been at the centre of 2017s Venice Biennale Viva Arte Viva, curated by Christine Macel, in which many artists shown pointed towards art as a way of living differently, as for example is the case with Anna Halprin’s late works which takes the form of therapeutic and community dancing.
  5. Toscano, Alberto. “The Open Secret of Real Abstraction”. Re-Thinking Marxism. Vol. 20. No. 2. 2008. p. 273. See also Peter Osborn’s essay in which he traces the concept of abstraction from Kant to Marx. Osborne, Peter. “The Reproach of Abstraction”. Radical Philosophy. September-October 2004. pp. 21-28.
  6. The event-score was an artistic strategy invented and coined by Fluxus artist George Brecht (1926-2008). For a systematic study of the two see Wikström, Josefine. Practices of Relations in Task-Dance and the Event-Score: Towards a New Concept of Performance in Art. PhD. Diss. Kingston University. 2017.
  7. We can here mention contemporary choreographers like Xavier Le Roy and Alexandra Pirici, both whose works were shown at Skulpturprojekte Münster 2017, and which used instructions and tasks as a central strategy. For an account of a critical genealogy between task-dance in 1960s dance practices and in contemporary art and dance see Buchmann, Sabeth. “Feedback: Performance in the Evaluation Society”. Texte Zur Kunst. No. 28. July 2018. pp. 34-51.
  8. See, for example, Wood, Catherine. Yvonne Rainer: The Mind is a Muscle. London: Afterall. 2007.
  9. Yvonne Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance for 10 People and 12 Mattresses Called ‘Parts of Some Sextets,’ Performed at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965”. The Tulane Drama Review. Vol. 10. No 2. 1965. p. 178. It is sometimes mentioned that Rainer withdrew from this text shortly after she wrote it. This is irrelevant for us here, in so far as the manifesto is seen as an artefact alongside her dances and which together formed the material for the reception of her work. For a critique and transformation of Rainer’s “No-Manifesto” see, for example, Mette Ingvartsen’s “Yes-Manifesto”, published in Everybody’s Performance Scores, 2008. Also available here: http://www.metteingvartsen.net/performance/5050/ (accessed 2018-09-03.)
  10. Modern dance developed primarily in Germany and the in the US during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Since Rainer worked in a North American context, I stick with the American modern dance examples.
  11. Meredith Morse writes that modern dance “historically sought natural movement or the natural body in order to access and directly communicate a primal terrain of human ‘truths’ that have been buried or obscured.” Morse, Meredith. Soft is Fast: Simone Forti in the 1960s and After. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2016. p. 18.
  12. Copeland, Roger. Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. New York, NY, and London: Routledge, 2004. p. 26.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Rainer, Yvonne. “A Quasi Survey of Some Minimalist Tendencies in The Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora or An Analysis of Trio A”. In Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, Gregory Battock, ed. New York, NY: Dutton, 1968. pp. 263-273.
  15. Rainer, “A Quasi Survey, p. 263.
  16. Graham quoted by Morse, p. 18.
  17. My emphasis. Rainer, Yvonne and Halprin, Ann. “Yvonne Rainer Interviews Ann Halprin”. The Tulane Drama Revie. Vol. 10. No. 2. 1965. p. 143.
  18. Ibid., p. 144. Halprin here seems to imply that Graham’s dance technique and training methods created dancers that were traditionally trained and disciplined only in order to express and perform humanness and freedom, whereas she took on the strategy of tasks in order to not perform but rather to simply just be a person. There is a similarity here between the facticity of minimalist sculpture and the non-theatrical aspects of task-dance. There seems to be an interesting development of this “realness” in the way that task-dance and scores have continued to be used in somatic contemporary practices in dance and choreography, as is the case in for example Frédéric Gies’s work.
  19. Wood, p. 84.
  20. Wood, pp. 78-79.
  21. This epistemological claim of abstraction has been developed, among others, by Alfred Sohn-Rethel in Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (London, Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 1978), in which he argues for an identity between the social structure of capitalism (embodied in the commodity form) and the structure of cognition as formulated by Kant. As Alberto Toscano has shown, this term has been discussed among various thinkers such as Robert Finelli, Paolo Virno and Lorenzo Cillario. See Toscano, Alberto. “The Open Secret of Real Abstraction”. Re-Thinking Marxism. Vol. 20. No. 2. 2008. pp. 273-287.
  22. Rubin, Isaak Illich. Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value. Delhi: Aakar Books. 2008.
  23. Postone aligns with the former and writes that Marx’s critical theory is “a critique of labo[u]r in capitalism, not a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labo[u]r.” Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination. A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Camrbidge: Cambridge University Press. 1993. p. 22.
  24. Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. Martin Nicolaus. London and New York, NY: Penguin Books. 1973. p. 706.
  25. This is an important difference between the two when we consider the production of artworks. Dave Beech argues for example that artworks are exceptional commodities that don’t produce value in the same way as other commodities do. See Beech, Dave. Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, NeoClassical and Marxists Economics. London: Brill Books, 2015. See also my review of the same book:Wikström, Josefine. “Art’s Economic Exceptionalism”. Mute. Available online at http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/art%E2%80%99s-economic-exceptionalism (accessed 2016-12-28.)
  26. Arthur, Christopher. The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital. Leiden, Boston, MA: Brill Books, 2004. p. 45.
  27. Ibid., p. 46.
  28. Bonefeld, Werner. “Abstract labour: against its nature and on its time”. Capital & Class. Vol. 34. No. 2. 2010. p. 261.
  29. Postone, p. 155.
  30. Ibid., p. 149.
  31. Ibid., p. 150. My emphasis.
  32. Ibid., p. 153.
  33. Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. and ed. Gretel Adorno, Rolf Tiedemann and Robert Hullot-Kentor. London and New York, NY: Continuum. 1997. p. 3.
  34. Ibid., p. 2.
  35. Ibid., p. 43.
  36. Ibid., p. 6.
  37. Adorno, Theodor. “Music and New Music”. In Quasi una Fantasia. Essays on Modern Music. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. London and New York, NY: Verso. 2012. p. 260.
  38. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 89. On the function and functionless of art see also Adorno, Theordor. “Functionalism Today”. In Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach . London and New York, NY: Routledge. 1997. pp. 5-18.
  39. Adorno, “Music and New Music”, p. 265.
  40. Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 1995. p. 39.
  41. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 262.
  42. A more recent version of Adorno’s take on this double character of art can be found in Boris Groys’s work, who defines it as art’s inherent paradoxical character. “But the artistic embodiment of self-contradiction, of paradox, began to be especially practiced in contemporary art after World War II.” Groys, Boris. Art Power. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2008. p. 3.
  43. This division of labour with a choreographer as the author of the work and the dancers as wage labourers was the most common one in modern dance, and has continued in its company form up to present contemporary companies, for example, Frankfurt-based William Forsythe Company, British Michael Clark Company and Swedish Cullberg Ballet. Although all of them work differently with the choreographic process, the managing structures between choreographer and dancer prevail.
  44. Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. London, New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1999. pp. 520-521. See also Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1999.
  45. Smith, p. 538.
  46. For an account of how the relation between productive labour and de-skilling and how it plays out in art, see Roberts, John. The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade. London, New York, NY: Verso. 2007.
  47. Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance…” p. 175.
  48. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York, NY: Random House. 1995. p. 150.
  49. Smith, p. 544.
  50. Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845), Accessed available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm (accessed 2018-14-09.)
  51. Ibid., 546.
  52. Postone, p. 201.
  53. Ibid., p. 202.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Bonefeld, p. 267.
  56. Banes, Sally. “Robert Dunn’s Workshop”. In Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theatre, 1962-1964. Durhma, NC: Duke University Press. 1993. p. 135.
  57. Joseph, Branden W. “Chance, Indeterminacy, Multiplicity”. In The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art, ed. Julia Robinson. Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. 2009. pp. 218-219.
  58. Morse, p. 50.
  59. Halprin describes how she in the mid-1950s, as she set up her dance-deck, “began to chart movement; I put everything on charts; everything became arbitrary.” Rainer and Halprin, p. 145.
  60. Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance”, p. 177.
  61. See, for example, Buchloh, Benjamin.”Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”. October. Vol. 55. Winter 1990. pp. 105-143.
  62. Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance”, p. 175.