Tedium, (Re)production, Craft is the third publication as part of These Essays, a series selected by editors-in-residence Suzanne Doogan and E. Saffronia Downing.
The connection between tedium and reproduction is found in the feminized aspects of the decorative arts and crafts, which are traditionally separated from the realm of high art. Weaving, knitting, and embroidery are examples of crafts that are typically designated as feminine. These crafts are characterized by their tedious attributes: monotonous, repetitive, and time-consuming. They also contain the feminized aspects of reproduction: they are typically designated to the home, mainly practiced by women, and often worked from circulated patterns rather than original designs. In the novel The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector the specific aspects of tedium and reproduction complicate the feminized nature of craft.
The novel details an afternoon in the life of a woman known only to the reader as G.H. The novel reads as a document of thoughtful free-association wherein the reader is acquainted with the musings of the protagonist’s mind. Throughout the work certain themes prevail and intertwine, both directly and indirectly, forcing the reader to come to their own conclusions. Tedium and reproduction are two motifs that are indirectly linked, but are present throughout the novel. In different ways, aspects of tedium and reproduction comment on a broader issue of the feminized nature of craft and production.
There are several instances in the novel when G.H. expresses her desire and distaste towards tedium. Although feelings of distaste towards the tedious are fairly typical, finding tedium as a desirable trait is less expected. A tedious task is characterized by aspects of boredom, repetitiveness, and monotony. However, partaking in, enjoying, and mastering tedium creates a new set of parameters for aesthetics. In this passage G.H. struggles with her rejection, then acceptance of tedium:
My old constructions had consisted in continually trying to transform the atonal into the tonal, in dividing the infinite into a series of finites, and without noticing that finite is not a quantity, it is a quality… But tedium—tedium had been the only way I could feel the atonal. And I just had not known that I liked tedium because I suffered from it.1
In accepting tedium, G.H. finds other aesthetic qualities that she had previously tried to transform and compartmentalize. It is through the tedious that she interacts with aesthetics in ways that resist normative modes of engagement.
Addressing tedium as a subversive act is key to understanding this passage. Sianne Ngai discusses tedium as an aesthetic category in her book Ugly Feelings. These dysphoric or “ugly feelings,” as she coins them, operate as a new set of aesthetic qualifiers as well as modes of resistance against capitalism. She states, “for although dysphoric affects often seem to be the psychic fuel on which capitalist society runs, envy, paranoia, and all the emotional idioms I examine are marked by an ambivalence that will enable them to resist…”2 Tedium is in opposition with traditional neoliberal modes of production: profitability, productivity, and commodification. G.H. acknowledges that tedium is transgressive, since it is through accepting it that she rejects her “old constructions.”
Throughout the novel, G.H. grapples with reproduction as a mode of expression. Reproductive labor is typically assigned to the domestic and feminine sphere. The masculinization of authenticity and the feminization of reproduction are themes that are present in capitalist society and within the pages of this book. When G.H. is trying to describe what happened to her that afternoon she addresses the subject of reproduction:
Until I create the truth of what happened to me. Ah, it will be more like scratching than writing, since I’m attempting a reproduction more than an expression. I need to express myself less and less. Is that something else I lost? No, even when making sculptures I was already trying only to reproduce, and only with my hands.3
In this quote G.H. is reclaiming the act of reproduction as an authentic means of expression. To create the truth, the written word will not suffice. Instead she must make primordial scratches to recreate the authentic experience. She worries that she may have lost her ability to express herself, but reminds herself that even as a practicing artist she had always used reproduction as her main form of expression. Although her cultural production directly corresponds with her stance within the capitalist economic system, reclaiming reproduction as a means of expression disrupts traditional conceptions of authenticity.
If tedium has been established as subversive and reproduction has been reclaimed as a genuine means of expression, then craft contains the characteristics typically assigned to high art and the avant-garde. Ngai points out that, “the most ‘shocking,’ innovative, and transformative cultural productions in history have also been deliberately tedious ones.”4 In fact, many modern and contemporary art practices incorporate the very aspects of tedium and reproduction that are at play in The Passion According to G.H. Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, two highly masculine artists, engage with repetitive sequences of appropriated, then reproduced images taken from consumer society. Besides the actual medium that is used to create these pieces, it is difficult to see the difference between the features of tedium and reproduction found in craft and the ones featured in the works of Warhol and Koons.
The difference between art and craft lies in the traditionally feminized nature of craft and reproduction. However, it is novels like The Passion According to G.H that begin to blur the divide between these two similar yet opposing forces. Acknowledging the tedious as a way to subvert traditional modes of production and reclaiming reproduction as a form of expression are small steps to accepting craft as art; the aesthetics of desire and distaste are rethought. For the time being, tedium and reproduction stand as feminized modes of production. However, reclaimed by women, they can act as a meaningful modes of engagement with the material and cultural world.
These Essays is a periodical mini-series of non-fiction writing curated for the promotion of joy and inquiry by E. Saffronia Downing and Suzanne Doogan. For the duration of the project, one essay will be posted each Sunday here on Post-Office Arts Journal. Writing is not restricted by theme, and ranges from pop culture criticism to personal essay and material analysis. For more information or to contribute an original piece, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.