Reflection - Function : purpose : Use : Failure : Deskilling / by Ally McGinn

The foundation of value, which we place on almost anything, seems to be inherently tied to the function and purpose that we can gain from them.


When things do not fulfil their function or purpose they are deemed failures, at least in some way, and are often disposed of.

By using materials beyond their intended function or purpose they exceed and thereby reject their definition.

Seeing objects for more than their original, or perceived, value.

These words are contextually tied to notions of value. We value things for what they can do for us. In the case of many of my base materials, their purpose has been fulfilled (either successfully or unsuccessfully, at this point the distinction is unimportant). Their value is diminished, and in many cases their value was only applicable during their functional period of existence. (ie in the case of a paint tube. The tube is only valuable for what it contains and transports. The tube itself has value in its functionality, the things it allows artists to do. They are disposable, and yet rarely completely emptied.)

I should note here the reason for using artistic materials over others. I’ve answered the question partly here ( but ill briefly say that it relates to notions of value and painterly language.

Using materials in alternative ways, diverts their purpose and questions their function.

Using these materials, already so seeped in contextual references to function and purpose, allows for a reanalysis of the objects formal qualities. Without their intended use what are they?

Do they automatically fail because they are no longer useful?

I’ve included failure in this group of words because of the way we define failure. In art we often find failure in artworks, we see them in lacking in some way, they are not ‘right’. They have not achieved their purpose - to become Art.
However, for the artist, failures are arguably more important than successful artworks.

If all artworks were ‘right’ then there would be little point in making them beyond the therapeutic and individual benefits.

In another reflection i spoke about words requiring the definition of their opposite. Failure and success work in a similar way. Two sides of a coin, and arguably which side it lands on is just as arbitrary. The definition of something as a failure is a subjective reality, it is not the end of the story.

A failure can be perceived as a success and visa versa, it depends on who is looking, when, where and why. This is one of the contradictions that makes being an artist quite so difficult.



The term ‘deskilling’ refers to the division of labour that has resulted from industrial progress in mass-production and, by extension, consumption through capitalism. To John Roberts, in his book The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (2007), the value of the artistic intervention lies not in the physicality of it, be it gestural painting or interpretive dance, but the subjectivity of it. The book celebrates the fact that industrial and modern processes can and do lead to new views in art, and other parts of society. Roberts argues, and I am inclined to agree, that Duchamp should not be seen as an artist who focuses on commercialism, but one who focuses on production.

This is an important distinction. While both contexts can be contained within the work, and there is value in discussing both, however the implications are vastly different. Seen as commercialism readymades could become a comment on the commercialism of the artworld and the decline into popular culture. Whereas when seen as about production they speak more about a collective form of labour, and the nomination of the artist as requirement for artwork.

In my practice ‘deskilling’ relates to the notion of authorship, the division of labour in artistic practice and artworks.

Deskilling questions the idea of the artistic genius. It highlights forms of process as artistic and artworks as forms of collaborative labour.



These words seem to describe a context that is transitory in my practice. It is related to the objects by their definition, and one of the subjects i am questioning through making.



I believe these words are found in the foundation of my practice, running through the heart of it in many ways.
However, i remain unsure which should be a focus.