Deskilling in Art, aka, “A Child Could Do That!”

Joan Mitchell - Untitled from One Cent Life. Joan Mitchell - Untitled from One Cent Life. Sold for $800 USD via Dane Fine Art (April 2022).

Deskilling in art is a concept that has emerged from the 20th century’s focus on concept over technique. Read on to explore the divergent viewpoints on the implications of this trend for artistic practice, while also considering the role of technology in reshaping creative realms.

Deskilling challenges the conventional emphasis on craftsmanship as necessary for the production of Art. This phenomenon has led art institutions to assign value to various qualities beyond traditional skills (such as draftsmanship). As we navigate the evolution of the idea of deskilling in art, we will unravel the varied definitions, including art produced from unconventional materials, those attributed to an artist with a big idea, but actually created by their assistants, and artwork intentionally designed to appear rudimentary.

“[Deskilling in art is] a persistent effort to eliminate artisanal competence and other forms of manual virtuosity from the horizon of both artist competence and aesthetic valuation.”

Art historian, Benjamin Buchloh

Factors Driving Deskilling in Art

Deskilling in art is a multi-faceted phenomenon driven by various factors. As mentioned above, the advent of conceptual art in the latter half of the 20th century played the role of catalyst. While not all conceptual art lacks skill, deskilled art often leans heavily on conceptual elements, sometimes overshadowing traditional artistic proficiency. An additional significant driving force is capitalism’s demand for reproducibility, where the value if everything (even some art) hinges on its mass production potential. As art becomes more replicable, the emphasis on (but not necessarily the value of) handcrafted skill diminishes.

The Rise and Rise of Conceptual Art

Conceptual art emerged as a significant catalyst for the rise of deskilling in the art world. Rooted in the idea that the concept or idea behind the artwork holds greater significance than the actual physical execution, conceptual art challenged traditional notions of artistic skill and craftsmanship. Mid-20th century artists such as George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, Lawrence Weiner and Sol LeWitt began to challenge the emphasis placed on technical prowess and manual skill in artistic creation. Conceptual art movements such as Minimalism and Fluxus, signaled a shift toward prioritizing ideas and concepts. And these artists famously asserted that the idea itself could be the artwork, delegating the execution to others or employing simple and repetitive forms.

William Scott - Still Life Forms, c. 1969.

William Scott – Still Life Forms, c. 1969. Sold for €20,000 EUR via Adam’s (March 2023).

Hans Hack - Mobil: On the Right Track. Deskilling in Art.

Hans Haacke – Mobil: On the Right Track. Sold for $22,000 USD via Sotheby’s (March 2018)

Conceptual art prompted artists to reconsider the need for traditional technical mastery. This shift created fertile ground for the exploration of deskilling in art, as artists questioned whether manual execution was as essential for their ideas to resonate as their forefathers had thought. In some instances, artists like Sherrie Levine (in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp), Marina Abramović and Hans Haacke intentionally chose to forgo traditional skills as a way to challenge artistic conventions and open up new avenues for creative expression, including performance, installation and found art.

The legacy of conceptual art’s impact on deskilling in art endures today. As contemporary artists like Tino Sehgal, Ai Weiwei and Ólafur Elíasson continue to draw inspiration from the conceptual art movement, the tension between skill and concept remains at the forefront of artistic discourse. The legacy of artists like LeWitt and Weiner exemplifies how a profound idea can transcend traditional modes of execution, sparking discussions about the value of skill in relation to artistic intent.

The Artist’s Hand vs The Idea, or The Craftsmanship Conundrum

Some critics argue that a focus on craftsmanship can limit the exploration of new ideas and concepts. As artistic practices have evolved, notably since the 20th century modernist movements, some contend that overemphasis on skill may inadvertently suppress innovation. In a world rapidly embracing new technologies, does the reliance on craftsmanship alone hinder the potential for artistic evolution?

I took a 3D class in my undergrad. Nothing I did could please this teacher. Finally out of frustration, I sculpted an ass out of bread dough, put some big lips on one cheek, baked it, mounted it on a board, painted the lips red, shellacked it and titled it “Kiss mine”. I got an A.

Figurative painter, Serena Potter

The brushstrokes that shape a canvas, the sculpting that molds clay into form, and the precision that captures light through a lens – these are all manifestations of skill infused with craftsmanship. Herein lies the dilemma: while conceptual artists intentionally sought to deemphasize the artist’s hand as the sole source of artistic value, artistic skill and craftsmanship have always been inherently interconnected in the eyes of a wider public. Draftsmanship and painting are still taught as the bedrock of artistic practice in early school. For many people, this early teaching creates the lens through which they view art for the rest of their lives. Over sixty years have elapsed since these ideas rose to prominence, and while such concepts are still popularly adopted in the art world, they remain strange and foreign to many art audiences.

In 2014, the American painter F. Scott Hess wrote an article for Huffington Post in which he described and argued against deskilling in art. He describes the bias that exists towards conceptual art in today’s higher artistic education system, and how it disadvantages students passionate about their craft. Critics on this more traditional side of the table, might posit that a departure from craftsmanship leaves art bereft of the magic, that elusive quality that can only be conjured by the technically able. In essence, the infamous “A child could do that,” argument.  

Icons of Innovation: Artists Who Have Embraced Deskilling

Deskilling finds its manifestations in diverse instances across the art world. The debate surrounding deskilling continues to shape the artistic landscape, forcing us to reevaluate the intersections of skill, concept, and innovation.Some examples are as follows:

  • Marcel Duchamp: A pioneer of conceptual art, Duchamp’s submission of a porcelain urinal challenged traditional skills, emphasizing the choice of objects over craftsmanship.
  • Kehinde Wiley: Known for outsourcing parts of his work, Wiley raises questions about the role of personal skill in art, reflecting on efficiency and collaboration.
  • Joseph Cornell: Renowned for intricate box collages, Cornell’s arrangements challenge conventional notions of craftsmanship, focusing on the composition over direct creation.
  • Sherrie Levine: Through replication-focused art, Levine questions originality’s role in creation, drawing attention to the concept’s significance over manual skill.
  • Yoko Ono: As a conceptual artist, Ono’s emphasis on ideas over execution exemplifies the shift towards prioritizing concepts in art.
  • Sol LeWitt: LeWitt’s works often involve instructions for others to execute, highlighting the significance of the concept rather than the artist’s hand.
  • Lawrence Weiner: Weiner’s focus on language-based art underscores the idea’s prominence, challenging the traditional mastery of physical techniques.
  • George Maciunas: A Fluxus artist, Maciunas embraced interdisciplinary and collaborative practices, breaking down traditional artistic boundaries.
  • Marina Abramović: Known for performance art, Abramović’s work transcends traditional skills, emphasizing raw emotion and audience interaction.
  • Hans Haacke: Through installations and socio-political commentary, Haacke’s art challenges the need for conventional artistic mastery, focusing on critical ideas.

The debate surrounding deskilling continues to shape the artistic landscape, forcing us to reevaluate the intersections of skill, concept, and innovation.

Embracing Diversity: Redefining Skill & Concept

George Maciunas - Fluxpost printed stamps.

George Maciunas – Fluxpost printed stamps. Sold for $4,750 USD via Christie’s (July 2013).

Deskilling in art encapsulates the evolving relationship between craftsmanship and concept, challenging historical norms and sparking debate among artists, critics, and audiences alike. From Marcel Duchamp’s audacious use of everyday objects to Kehinde Wiley’s strategic outsourcing and Sherrie Levine’s replication-focused art, artists have reshaped the boundaries of artistic creation. Amidst this evolution, the question of whether the artist’s hand or the idea takes precedence persists. As technology reshapes the artistic landscape, the interplay of skill and concept continues to shape our understanding of art’s past, present, and future, embodying the eternal tension between tradition and innovation.