ARTICLE ACCEPTED BY JOURNAL OF VISUAL CULTURE. DEC 2015.
The Art of Social Reproduction Abstract: This article considers how the museum produces knowledge about the past and present of feminist politics through its framing of marginal, activist artworks that have engaged the sphere of social reproduction or care labour. It is contended that neoliberalism’s assault on social reproduction in our current ‘age of austerity’ – which sees responsibility displaced from the state onto individuals – has sparked a reengagement with earlier socialist-feminist discourse and, as a result, we are perceptibly enmeshed within a new age of social reproduction debates. The Hackney Flashers’ germinal photographic project Who’s Holding the Baby? (1976-78), acquired by Madrid’s Reina Sofia in 2010, is taken as a case study to explore a range of contextual, temporal and historical contradictions in further detail. Examining the ambiguous relocation of this photographic project provokes vital questions about the contribution of culture to the troubled terrains of art, property and care labour in the twenty-first century.
Keywords:feminism, art, social reproduction, institutional critique, public museum, art history, motherhood.
The Art of Social Reproduction Today we are experiencing a crisis in social reproduction. Within Marxist-feminist discourse social reproduction is understood to encompass those routine processes of care and maintenance that renew the worker (daily or generationally) in his or her capacity to labour productively. Over the past five years especially, the rhetoric and policies of austerity politics have forced the continuous displacement of reproductive responsibilities from the state onto individuals. At the same time this displacement has been matched by a rise in precarious and under-waged contracts that perilously limit the individual’s ability to reproduce him- or herself successfully. However, carrying out this labour under constrained circumstances remains a necessity; its deferral or refusal is not an option. Silvia Federici has argued (Vishmidt, 2013) that it is precisely this ‘double character’ of reproductive labour that renders it a promising site for resistance, as ‘it also reproduces our lives and potentially it reproduces our revolt against being reduced to labour power.’ Perhaps then it is with optimism that writers, theorists and artists have reengaged with socialist-feminist debates that were especially prevalent in the 1970s west, as they seek to make sense of, or find a way out of, the current social reproduction crisis.
Contemporary conditions of life and production have forced a reassessment of feminist labour debates, at least in the western European contexts that form the basis of this article. The collective historical gaze appears particularly focussed on Federici and her comrades in the famous Wages for Housework campaign (Federici, 2012; James, 2012; Weeks, 2011; Historical Materialism, 2012). However, while they may not have engaged directly with the contemporaneous struggles of their Italian feminist sisters, artists and art historians in 1970s Britain were covering related theoretical and concrete territories.1 The legacies of socialist-feminist organising in this period have only begun to receive decisive institutional and art historical attention relatively recently. Particular instances include Mary Kelly’s commemorative art project of 2007, Love Songs (Deutsche, 2006) and Tate Britain’s exhibition of Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in 2013-14 (Bryan-Wilson, 2014). The pioneering documentary film Nightcleaners (Rowbotham, 2008)has received numerous screenings, including at Tate Modern in 2013 as part of a collaborative project ‘Work Like This’ and at the 2015 Venice Biennale. These activist artworks have received attention in recent studies (Dimitrakaki, 2013; Battista, 2013); while Siona Wilson’s (2015) analysis deserves a special mention as the first book-length study to excavate the vital correspondence between the acknowledged sexual politics of 1970s UK feminist art and labour politics.
It is crucial to note here the diffusing of politics following the social upheaval of 1968, for as Sheila Rowbotham reminds us (2008, 3), ‘[o]ne aspect of this enthusiastic expansion of politics was the interconnecting of life and art.’ Thus, in 1982, Griselda Pollock (23, emphasis added) wrote that feminism was engaged ‘in a contest for occupation of an ideologically strategic terrain. Feminist art history should see itself as part of the political initiative of the women’s movement, not just as a novel art-historical perspective, aiming to improve existing, but inadequate, art history.’ The insistent materialist critique mounted by Pollock, and others at this time, understood art to be a privileged sphere of production, and art history a discursive formation that maintains this privilege by occluding the material and thus mystifying artistic labour as the task of a few gifted individuals. That these individuals were normatively ‘dead white European males’ was a significant contention of feminist criticism. Targeting their aim in this direction, the hyperbolically mundane, domestically oriented artwork of many 1970s feminists was calculated to deflate the profoundly gendered distinction between the rational and material, the transcendental and immanent; challenging the preservation of art as a special sphere, the artist as exceptional worker, and the gendered division of labour more broadly.2 And yet, given that neoliberal capitalism has survived and thrived in spite of such cultural critique, how can we make sense of a prevalent institutional return to these artworks in the early decades of the twenty-first century? Acknowledging the transformed global dynamics of care labour (Bose, Litt, Zimmerman, 2006), particularly as it pertains to an expanded sphere of affective work, or to urgent problems of migration and citizenship, how should we approach such an archive while avoiding melancholic or nostalgic political impulses?
This article aims to contextualise and explicate a significant, but under-discussed example of twentieth-century British documentary photography. A feminist-agitprop project created by The Hackney Flashers will be examined in order to comprehend to what extent political art continues to have political effects beyond its immediate moment of production and context of reception. The discussion initially situates the artwork within interconnected debates about representations of motherhood and the potential of art to transform audience consciousness concerning (gendered) labour conditions. Thereafter the contemporary art museum, and its current market interest in feminist art of the 1960s and ‘70s, is shown to have enormous and contradictory significance for how we understand the history of these activities. The article optimistically suggests that the artwork’s power lies in its provocation, in a moment of encounter that carries potential to renew political discourse around class, gender and care relations.
WITCHES, MOTHERS AND HACKNEY FLASHERS Formed in London in 1974, The Hackney Flashers was a fluctuating agitprop collective comprising nine core members and several collaborators, who worked together until its disbandment in 1980. In recent years however, renewed interest from a younger generation of feminists (particularly Angela Stapleford who assisted in the creation of their new website), and increased institutional attention, have prompted the remaining members of the collective to come together again to oversee their historical legacy. The Hackney Flashers in its original iteration seamlessly instantiated the politics of the second-wave feminist movement through both its formal composition and agitprop output; organising collectively to avoid individual attribution and rivalry, whilst strategically intervening in hegemonic representations of women’s work, sexuality and motherhood. Describing their collective cultural labour in 1979, The Hackney Flashers stated that:
All of us work within education or the media and between us share a variety of skills – design, illustration, photography. Our practice is also rooted in the on-going discussion and criticism around feminist issues and the presentation of women. We all define ourselves as socialists and feminists. (The Hackney Flasher’s Collective, 1979: 80. Emphasis added.)
Fusing their wide-ranging practical skills to a keen political impulse, in 1976 the group commenced an eighteenth-month project entitled Who’s Holding the Baby? (Fig.1). The resulting documentation examined the lack of state-funded childcare, how this deficiency intersected with accompanying issues of low income and poor housing, and the effect that these factors had upon caregivers, the majority of whom were women. Research was carried out at Market Nursery, a community nursery in North East London that had been established by a couple of friends attempting to provide affordable, neighbourhood childcare. Accumulating documentary photographs and conducting extensive interviews with parents and workers at the nursery enabled the collective to produce a series of twenty-nine informative wall panels. These crudely montaged boards incorporated the photographs alongside advertising imagery, statistical information, illustrations, newspaper articles and personal anecdotes. The lightweight, laminated boards had reinforced holes punched into the corners, which allowed for easy display of the project at feminist conferences, health centres and other extra-institutional art spaces across the UK.
The photomontage style of Who’s Holding the Baby? consciously harked back to 1930s Germany and the pioneering work of John Heartfield (Heron 2014), which had been recently shown at London’s ICA in an exhibition of 1969. However, the content of the project is irrepressibly entrenched within the social and political debates of 1970s Britain. Take for instance the four strategic demands articulated on International Women’s Day in March 1971, when the National Women’s Liberation Conference organised mass-marches in Liverpool and London: (1) Equal pay now, (2) Equal education and job opportunities, (3) Free contraception and abortion on demand, (4) Free 24hr nurseries. It is, conspicuously, the fourth of these demands that remains the most poorly addressed in the intervening decades. In part this is due to the escalating privatisation of childcare, in which parents are individually responsible for providing or outsourcing this labour dependent on social status. The hegemonic position of women in such care relations in turn relies upon the myth of the happy middle-class housewife, the natural ‘angel in the home’, to generate the devaluation of care labour. Structurally, this neglect can also be attributed to the heightened discrepancies between women, what Angela McRobbie (2008: 159) understands as the incorporation and professionalisation of some women, both at the expense of other individual women and of a collective feminist struggle. As McRobbie has demonstrated, transformations in Higher Education and white-collar work during the post-feminist 1990s, reshaped (some) young women’s aspirations towards becoming ‘top girls’ in a competitive marketplace, which proved to be an effective campaign of divide and conquer along classed lines.
Already in 1976 The Hackney Flashers demonstrated keen awareness of the socially uneven burden that childcare presented to mothers. In one panel [Fig.2] a neatly staged advertisement for up-market housing in South Kensington is juxtaposed against a photographic scene of a cluttered real-life kitchen, children dining in the centre of a room overwhelmed by drying laundry. Given the 1970s technological context, the move from colour to black-and-white photography reaffirms the obvious division in wealth between the two environments. A neighbouring panel [Fig.3] plainly reports the costs of privatised childcare solutions on an escalating scale, from au pairs and child-minders to nannies, accompanied by photographs displaying the harried faces of such hard-working women. Together these montages remind viewers that all care is not created equal, or as one heading plainly states: ‘Childcare is a question of money and class’.
Who’s Holding the Baby was created between 1976 and ‘78, a time that has come to be understood paradoxically as both a boom period for feminist organising and also an era in which the dismantling of the unions and welfare state commenced the march towards the current neoliberal hegemony. Peter Osborne (2006: 21) has written that, in the UK:
The Seventies crisis was… primarily a crisis of a particular state form: a crisis of the welfare state. More broadly, it was the crisis of the residual, compromise form of social democracy that was constructed in Western Europe after 1945, for which ‘welfare’ became the privileged signifier. In this context ‘welfare’ was thus at least in significant part a sign of inclusion; rather than, as in the USA (as it is, increasingly, in Britain today), of marginalisation, social exclusion, and a distinct, almost abject economic sub-culture.
The activities at the Market Nursery must be understood against this fundamental reorganisation of the social terrain, as an attempt to arrest the drift towards marginalisation and exclusion by collectivising childcare and thereby undermining the coercive, isolating conditions of bourgeois family structures. In its complexly layered documentation of the nursery The Hackney Flashers attempted to broadcast such a message, directing particular attention to the function of the popular media in perpetuating harmful welfare myths. Living under the prolonged effects of such transformations upon the welfare state, in today’s conditions of crisis, media-fuelled fictions express and extend the austerity illusion by reinforcing anxieties around class, gender and work. Thus, Osborne’s description corresponds with a recent article by McRobbie (2013, 126), in which the decline of social democracy over the past thirty or so years is understood to permit the emergence of a ‘new moral landscape of motherhood’. Against this landscape, family-raising and the domestic activities associated with social reproduction, which feminists struggled to ‘make visible’ in the 1960s and ‘70s, are no longer conceivable in terms of politics and value but only as individualised ethics or consumer choices. McRobbie emphasises the ubiquitous media paradigm of professional, maternal citizenship, emblematised by a youthful, slim, active, usually white mother. This profoundly classed model is opposed (124-25), by ‘an abject maternal figure, typically a single mother with several children fathered by different men, reliant on benefits, living in a council house, and with an appearance that suggests lack of attention to body image, all of which within today’s moral universe imply fecklessness, promiscuity and inadequate parenting.’
It is easy to overlook or even mock the normalising consumer horizons set by mainstream media outlets, and McRobbie (136) paints a faintly ridiculous picture of ‘play dates, coffee shops and jogging buggies’ as a case in point; however, failure to conform to this horizon carries manifest punitive effects. On 29 October 2014, the Guardian published a survey illustrating public misperceptions on the question: ‘What percentage of girls aged between 15 and 19 give birth each year?’ (Nardelli and Arnett, 2014) That all fourteen countries considerably overestimated this number (Great Britain guessing 16% to the actual figure of 3%) exposes the unsubstantiated frenzy surrounding teen pregnancy, and points towards to the effects of a long-term ideological assault. An analysis directed towards comprehending the role of the visual in constituting subjects must conclude that the ambiguous impression of care-lessmothers can, to an extent at least, be attributed to popular culture and print media. Pre-dating McRobbie’s observations on the glamorised cult of motherhood by some four decades, The Hackney Flashers keenly recognised emergent models of consumerism and the divisive class effects these luxurious ideals had upon the collective organisation of women. In one montage (Fig.4) a glamorous red-clad model, posed upon a sofa, is sharply contrasted with the bathetic line, ‘…mustn’t be late for the evening shift at the bread factory’. The ironic arrangement of photograph and text emphasises the gap between high-end consumerist fantasies and the lived experience of a majority of women, suggesting damaging effects upon an individual and collective psyche.
As Federici (2004) has noted, the use of printed media to generate suspicion and impose discipline upon the bodies of ‘rebel’ women can be traced back as far as the witch hunts of the fifteenth century. The instant, Federici contends, a functioning press was in order, woodcuts were deployed to fuel mass hysteria and compel the persecution of so-called witches; often framed as such, lest we forget, because of their childlessness or knowledge of contraception which permitted women autonomy over their bodies and some control of family management. In her classic study of 1988, Lynda Nead likewise speculated on the significance of narrative painting to the production and maintenance of a moral panic around motherhood and sexuality in nineteenth-century Britain. Moreover, Nead (1988, 82) explicates a shadowy relationship between the bourgeois family unit and the expanding Empire, noting that a ‘connection between imperial decline and moral laxity is critical.’ Alexandra Kokoli and Aaron Winter (2015, 162) have more recently exposed the ruthless treatment of young, often socially vulnerable, female celebrities, in an analysis of feminine biopolitical labour and contemporary media narratives. Their article highlights a widespread moral condemnation of seemingly negligent mothers, who are understood to be responsible for ‘poor health and obesity’, the ‘bad educational performance of herself and her children’, and in the case of 2011 London riots even ‘for the state of the nation’.
The connections between Federici’s witches, Nead’s immoral women, McRobbie’s feckless mothers, and Kokoli and Winter’s welfare queens are not difficult to trace. Each instance points towards a profound entwinement of visual culture, news media, and the social disciplining of women who fail to conform to the (ever altering) maternal ideal. The intensely mediated conception of motherhood that emerges from these readings is employed to ideologically reinforce everything from sexual behaviour and childhood education to state security. Moreover, the centrality of these mediated ideals to the reproduction of class distinctions between women is convincingly established. This is the framework in which The Hackney Flashers’ photographic project must be situated: as a social research tool, pragmatic documentation, collective activism, and a critical intervention into the codes of representation that repeatedly generate and codify myths which demonise women for failing to be ‘good mothers’. It is little wonder that the art of The Hackney Flashers speaks to current crises in social reproduction and care labour, in which the gains of second-wave feminism appear insecure, women are contending with a renewed cult of domesticity, and debates concerning imagery, sexuality and the logic of consumerism persist without resolution.
THE POLITICS OF ART & WORK In 1975 the Hackney Flashers presented 240 images for a project entitled Women and Work, which was organised at the request of the Hackney Trades Council. Collective member Michael Ann Mullen (in Gresty, 2014) has suggested:
After the exhibition closed we realised most of the women we photographed had children. We hadn’t thought to ask who cared for them while they worked… Despite our commitment to equal rights we completely overlooked the need for childcare provision, just as the society in which we lived did. There could not have been a better lesson in how we are shaped by the prevailing male-dominated and capitalist ideology.
At the very least the political intention of The Hackney Flashers’ project emerges here: to document an overlooked site of feminine labour, the so-called second-job, at a ‘time when work was typically still equated with waged production of material goods’ (Weeks, 2007: 235). The recognition that gendered reproductive labour – including, but not limited to, childcare – is necessary to the maintenance of capitalist relations, in that it reproduces labour power, was fundamental to the feminist critique of both capitalist and Marxist traditions at this time. In short, according to Kathi Weeks (2007: 235), the 1970s socialist-feminist debate boiled down to whether domestic labour could be considered ‘properly inside or outside capitalist production’. Mullen’s anecdote powerfully articulates The Hackney Flashers’ revelation that unwaged household labour was inextricable from waged factory labour, particularly for the photographed women workers represented by their artistic research. Thus Who’s Holding the Baby? corresponds with the analyses classically articulated by Wages for Housework that argued for an expansion in existing (gendered) conceptions of work, so that care labour be revalued and recognised as a site of exploitation from which organised resistance might emerge. The Hackney Flashers’ artistic campaign must be considered alongside such contemporaneous theoretical discussions, however its investigations into the double exploitation of working-class women were never merely descriptive of those debates. As Mullen illustrates above, art making was an educational process for the collective and, simultaneously, a realisation of their political philosophies through praxis. Thus, the project was not simply to document the activities at Market Nursery, but to transform the thinking of collective members and of future audiences. Consciousness-raising had its roots in the US Civil Rights Movement, and it had gained extraordinary popularity within the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 70s, therefore we can understand The Hackney Flashers’ investigatory project as an opportunity for knowledge production and exchange, aimed at providing a basis for future collective action.
In order to extend this analysis we must consider why the photomontage form was chosen as an exemplary medium for the Hackney Flashers’ critical practice. To start, it is necessary to note the double entendre implied by the collective’s title: ‘to flash’ referring simultaneously to the mechanics of photography and to unexpected sexual exposure. Here such exposure might refer to the uncovering of social reproduction labour, usually invisible within the circuits of Fordist capitalism, and to the interrogation of photography’s imagined ‘truth-telling’ abilities. Thus the exposing ‘flash’ emerges at the level of both content and form. Moreover, in 1949 Andre Malraux (in Boherer, 2008: 249) claimed that ‘[f]or the last hundred years…art history has been the history of that which can be photographed.’ By this reasoning, photography is bound up with the modern establishment of art history, its mechanisation contributing to the discipline’s pseudo-scientific intellectual respectability. In an immediate reading The Hackney Flashers’ photographic project extends the legitimating function of the medium, by conflating artistic production with banal subject matter in order that unobserved reproductive labour might register publicly. However, montage techniques are forcefully deployed in order that this legitimation is never conclusive, meaning never registers as complete, and the political narratives that emerge are as discontinuous and fragmented as the lived experiences that generate them.
Who’s Holding the Baby? thus engaged decisively with second-wave feminist discourses around the politics of representation, realism and deconstruction, as well as gesturing towards a longue durée within art production that Carol Duncan (1973) had previously traced. Duncan’s research pointed to the emergence of ‘good and happy’ bourgeois motherhood in revolutionary France, an ideal that was articulated politically, aesthetically and materially as a new family form came into being. According to Duncan (1973: 572) paintings gave ‘expression to a new concept of the family that challenged long-established attitudes and customs.’ In the mid-1970s, during a later period of reorganisation in labour practices (the move to post-Fordism), and transformation in the character of middle-class motherhood, art once again assumed a significant function in generating new meanings around this figure. However, like those eighteenth-century artworks examined by Duncan, Who’s Holding the Baby? embodies certain contradictions. That is to say that, following the 1960s critique of domesticity and the declining cult of motherhood (which Duncan illustrates emerging within modern bourgeois culture of the 18th century), a new model of femininity develops as part of a widespread feminist political movement. This, however, materialises at the same time that the economic terrain undergoes a decisive transformation and, as various scholars have demonstrated (Fraser, 2009; Eisenstein, 2009), was able to recuperate many of these feminist goals to the interests of global capital. While I have argued that the artwork stands as an act of resistance and community building, it could simultaneously stand as a prescient example of the contemporary artist (whom Andrea Phillips has claimed to be ‘the vanguard of capitalism’ 2011: 39) adapting to the ‘socially engaged’, entrepreneur prototype of later decades.
Nevertheless, the transformative ambition of The Hackney Flashers, as articulated through various acts of exposure, remains clear. This ambition ultimately depended upon the artwork’s self-reflexive address to a public. As Wilson (2015: 159) writes, the bulletin board arrangement of Who’s Holding the Baby?, ‘comes from the widely used practice of the wall newspaper. Common in factories and other contexts, the wall newspaper was a temporary makeshift collage of information and imagery that served as a leftist alternative to the mainstream press.’ The very form of the project and its mode of address therefore engaged with an activist tradition and reflexively indicated its critical, interventional approach to representation and the right to knowledge. This moment of encounter enables the project to fulfil (potentially) its consciousness-raising impulse. And yet the altered conditions of its encounter today, especially given its clear relevance to current social reproduction debates, compel a deeper consideration of the artwork’s public re-emergence.