Readymaintenance : systems, feminist economics, and the immaterial readymade in the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles
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In 1968, Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote the Maintenance Art Manifesto. She announced a new art making practice as well as an original economic theory from a feminist perspective. Maintenance, "the back half of life," as she once called it, has been the lens through which Ukeles has made art for more than 45 years. To enact her theory, Ukeles uses the avant-garde tradition of claiming aspects of everyday life as art.'This thesis examines two key features of Ukeles work from before 1977. Her economic theory, Maintenance, is a rich and complex view that centralizes the experience of women and those efforts and workers who keep society going and people living. Leaning on Jean Baudrillard, I argue that this subaltern feminist economic theory refutes the productivist tendencies in avant-garde art and society at large, which Ukeles refers to as "development." Because Marxism, like capitalism, privileges production and growth over all other aspects of life, understanding Ukeles' unique contributions to both economics and art requires a different approach to labor and value than has been previously discussed by historians and critics who have relied largely on Marx's theory of labor value. Beginning with Antonio Gramsci, I offer a close analysis of Ukeles' theorization from the subaltern position of maintenance that aims to reveal the essential and ever present qualities of maintenance while resisting the hegemony of development.'Building from my economic analysis, I am able to examine how Ukeles successfully performs a subaltern critique in an art practice by developing a technique using immaterial readymades. To make maintenance work visible Ukeles developed a technique that extended the readymade practices of Duchamp and others to include the non-productive labor of maintenance. Her readymades manifest as conceptual performances of labor done in the settings in which they would occur --whether that is the largest garbage dump or the oldest public museum in America. Drawing heavily from Michel Foucault and Raymond Williams, I consider how Ukeles' immaterial readymades reveal discursive constructions of value and meaning. This analysis offers a new way of understanding the functions of readymades more generally.