The Spring 2009 issue of Art Journal has a review of Robert's book by Howard Singerman. Rather than review a review, allow me to riff off some of the ideas expressed.John Robert's The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade 2007
It seems that Roberts is arguing his version of the Labor Theory of Value. The first time this was explained to me was in Sande Cohen's Form and Signification in Modernism class, using the classic example of a shovel. You have the costs of the raw materials and the cost of the labor. Metal plus wood plus the value of the labor equals the cost of the shovel. According to Roberts, "It is only waged labour exchanged for capital that produces commodities. It is therefore only waged labour exchanged for capital that constitutes productive labour." In the case of Marcel Duchamp's shovel, In Advance of a Broken Arm, pictured below, the labor of production gets contracted out and the artistic labor is in the act of choosing. Roberts goes on, "What separates artistic labour from productive labour is its access to the subjective transformation of materials..."
I would argue that the transformation of art practices over the past few centuries has also seen a slide along the continuum between material and mental labor. The transformative ideas in a work of art create value as much or more so than the skill of execution of the labor of the artist's hand. Even in the historic past, artists who ground their own pigments used the productive labor of the weaver for canvas and the miner who extracted the minerals from the earth. Over time paint came premixed in tubes and fabricators have been used by artists from Donald Judd to ©Murakami to Sam Durant. Singerman points out that contemporary artists take on the affectations of the managerial class (by contracting out) like AbEx painters affect a proletarian style (by representing labour through gesture).
The problem with hands-on skills that are traditionally taught in art departments broken down by media, is that they place technique ahead of the idea. It's almost like having a creative writing department that first teaches students the zeros and ones that underpin their word processing software.Marcel Duchamp's In Advance of a Broken Arm 1915 (1964 replica)
I expect this difficult conundrum will become more prevalent as new technologies make their way into art practices. Imagine a university photo department replacing a retiring professor. Do they hire a replacement that can operate and train students to work in what is essentially a 19th century wet lab (aka darkroom)? Do they hire someone who can train students to use software that didn't exist twenty years ago (and may be replaced by something completely different in another ten years)? Technique brevis ars longa.
If Marx says that the division of labor can only occur with the division of material and mental labor, I would argue that the transformation and progress of artistic practices can only occur with the division of form and content. Marx goes on to say that the moment that consciousness becomes more that an awareness of existing practices, it can represent something that that doesn't yet exist; from that point consciousness can emancipate itself from the world. Perhaps the creative act, unfettered from traditional beaux-arts skill sets can emancipate art.