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1What does it mean to depict, narrate or conceptualize an object that is permanently changing? What does the term ‘work’ indicate – i.e., what kind of activity, forms of engagement, and experience? The answers to such questions require reflection since they might change in time. Being something that relates to human life and action, as well as to societal change, work is in fact subject to shifts of paradigm. And, indeed, it was such (actual and potential) shifts of paradigm that we aimed at addressing with the project we are presenting here.

2When we first envisaged an issue concerning the risignification of work, about two years ago, what we had in mind was a collection of essays mainly questioning how – over the last forty years (1980-2020 and until today) – the idea of work had changed content and use, with specific focus on its depictions in artistic discourses such as figurative arts and narrative arts.

3At first, then, the idea for this special issue shared by me, Tiziano Toracca and Kuiying Zhao was to analyse the ways in which work had been represented, narrated, and conceptualized during the last forty years: by involving Kuiying Zhao, renowned aesthetician teaching at Nanjing University (China), the project gained a more global breadth, since the questions and analyses were to be extended to scholars working and engaging with a different academic environment.

4What you will read today, in comparison to the originary focus we had envisaged, is a wider set of reflections engaging not only with issues of representation and conceptualization, but also on the ontological relationship between art and work: how does work define the artwork? How is the work of artists valued today? Contributions cover the fields of aesthetics, philosophy of art, ontology of art and work, literary theory, and alike.

5A common thread emerging from the contributions is that work is today among the most debated themes in public discourse: it is a foundational aspect of human action and one of the main forms of social recognition and exchange, which has gone through radical transformations whose reasons and consequences are at the center of international debates. Although, across cultures, work is discussed in terms of a basic component of our daily lives, the perspectives emerging from this cross-cultural issue (bridging Western and Eastern, especially Chinese, points of view) are interesting since they show that some conceptualizations of work depend on and derive from diverse ways of understanding human life, action, time, engagement, and experience.

6The concept is stratified and mixes hyper-modern elements (technology, mobilization) with hyper-archaic ones (the sense of belonging and social recognition). It is defined by formal positive parameters (time, space, juridical relations), but at the same time implies emotional, uncountable, and symbolic elements (fatigue, happiness, realization, fulfillment).

7By addressing “contemporary work”, the contributions refer to a temporal phenomenon – i.e., to the idea of work as it is perceived in the contemporary era – and cover various approaches to the depiction, narration, and conceptualization of work.

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8Aljoša Krajišnik deals with a changing paradigm characterizing the contemporary: namely, the hybridization between otium and negotium, i.e., between the time without activity (otium) and the active time (negotium). He claims that today we live in the time of constant negotium, of constant activity even when we are not actually doing anything, a time when the lack of all activity – understood as in antiquity – is completely absent. In this condition, the subtle state of otium has become impossible to achieve. Otium often translates, today, into leisure, organized or even mandatory relaxation. The author also deals with potentially destructive characters of mobilization (the tendency to be constantly active and available for work), ambition and careerism that are typical of the present age, showing a peculiar detail of the more general shifting paradigm addressed by the issue.

9Sue Spaid argues that the concept of work vividly captures the action and efforts of artworkers, who work tirelessly to ensure that all the artworks achieve work (as Arthur Danto termed it). From the point of view of the world of artists, work is like a third-person account on the significance we attribute to the artwork: it is through work that we perceive, understand, and even classify a work of art. How and why did the artist work to make it? How did she engage with time and space to act and produce it? Work is hence not only a way to achieve art, but it is a signifier within the field of art, oscillating between Danto’s focus on achieving work and Arendt’s account of work, while achieving discussions that can inspire critics and artworkers to generate discourses about art and artworks.

10In line with the themes and positions presented by Spaid, Andrea Baldini invites to rethink creativity in a post-pandemic world, by considering artists as workers. The crisis due to COVID-19 has had an impact on various occupational categories, and artists have been one of those who have suffered the most from such crisis. Precarious careers based on freelancing and self-employment, in fact, are usually not protected by rights and guarantees characterizing traditional employment. Reading such disequilibrium critically, Baldini notices how – still today – there is an erroneous way of interpreting artistic work as an exceptional activity which does not fall within the semantic field of work. He, on the contrary, invites to rethink such old paradigm to overturn it, to consider artistic work as normal work. He argues that the action of creating art should be regarded as in continuity with other forms of employment: artistic work has, indeed, social value that should be recognized inasmuch as the value of other occupations considered more normal or ordinary, or even necessary.

11Zhao Kuiying addresses the value of contemporary artistic work from the point of view of conceptual art, a peculiar type of art playing a crucial role in contemporary art: conceptual art is centered on ideas, dominated by the use of language and of theoretical elaboration, and does not always entail physical engagement or normal fatigue (except that conceptualization requires fatigue too, of course). Conceptual art is based on the tendencies of dematerialization, anti-formalism, and anti-visual aesthetics: these have led to a new understanding of the value of work in contemporary art more generally. Contemporary artists pay more attention to the concept value, process value, and polysensoriality value of artwork, rather than the physical object value, commodity value, and visual aesthetic value. These changes are not only caused by art itself, but also have root and basis in technology, philosophy, society, and the existing condition of human beings, which raises further questions.

12Lu Wenchao discusses the relationship between physical and spiritual labor, on the one hand, and fatigue and creation, on the other, by presenting a peculiar Chinese tradition, that of Dagong writers, who are factory workers engaging in two kinds of work – physical, to earn a living; and spiritual, to comfort the soul. The one attributes meaning to the other. Some of these workers, because of their achievements in spiritual work and writing, have then turned into accomplished writers – and yet, in some cases the abandoning of factory work changes their style. The two kinds of work are interrelated, and one gives meaning to the other: Dagong writing hence reveals an interesting reciprocity (physical and spiritual action) characterizing human life more generally.

13Peng Feng focusses on the ontology of the artwork and of the act of working in art – both can be considered as either physical or spiritual. Typically, the works of art are regarded as either physical or mental in the prevailing aesthetic theory since classical Western metaphysics is bivalent. However, the traditional Chinese division of ontological categories is not a bifurcation but a trifurcation, which consists of dao (), xiang (), and qi (). This tripartite distinction provides a framework that encompasses both the objective and the subjective face of the artwork, by means of a dynamic exchange between the two poles. Peng Feng’s paper invites to shift the perspective from classical Western metaphysics to traditional Chinese metaphysics and sets up a dialogue between Chinese and Western aesthetics.

14Tiziano Toracca presents the narrative depiction of the end of the working class through a novel written by Paolo Volponi, Le mosche del capitale. The novel, inspired by autobiographical events, narrates the end of a progressist industrial paradigm and the passage from manufactured capital to financial capital. The pervasiveness reached by capital is criticized through some formal choices that ridicule the language of power and the subjugation of the managers to it. The main objective of this paper is to show how Volponi depicts a double breakdown: on the one hand, and in dramatic forms, the breakdown of the working class; on the other hand, and in comic forms, the breakdown of industry.

15Finally, Bert Van Roermund begins from a description of the aesthetic encounter with Anish Kapoor’s installation Leviathan (Paris 2011), underlining the importance of the body as the mediator of every aesthetic experience. He considers this sculpture as a paradigm to imagine the work of polity-making. He draws on Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of embodiment as the intertwinement of a self and its world or environment, i.e., more properly as “labor” (and not “work”, in this case).

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Notizia bibliografica

Angela Condello, «Aesthetics of Contemporary Work»Rivista di estetica, 79 | 2022, 3-6.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Angela Condello, «Aesthetics of Contemporary Work»Rivista di estetica [Online], 79 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 12 juin 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/estetica/14622; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/estetica.14622

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Angela Condello

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