On Mierle Laderman Ukeless “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!”
A manifesto is a desperate thing. That’s what Mierle Laderman Ukeles said of her“Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!,” which she wrote in a single sitting, under the duress of motherhood.
But the orderliness of the document—a typewritten, numbered list—and the lucidity of its ideas obscures any rashness. Much like its contemporary, the International Wages for Housework Campaign, it seeks to remedy the exploitation of women in the home by dragging it into the public sphere. The artist defines her terms on pages one and two. Ukeles distinguishes between “Development” (valorized notions of art—i.e., the avant-garde, individualistic kind, bent on progress), and “Maintenance” (the tasks, materials, and supports that prop up all of that genius and then sustain and preserve it). She calls for heightened appreciation of the latter. The second two pages outline a three-part proposal for a museum exhibition titled CARE, which would have Ukeles move into the galleries with her family, whom she would look after along with the gallery space.
Ukeles’s plight and personality protrude through the manifesto’s voice—wry, fed up, playful, and earnest. “Maintenance is a drag,” she writes, “it takes all the fucking time.” As a mother and wife, she writes, “I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I ‘do’ Art.” Here she wields a manifesto’s conscious, self-aggrandizing strength: it is a boundary. For Ukeles, “up to now” her practice had been defined by a line that demarcated her motherhood and career as mutually exclusive; now she drew a new one, perpendicular to it, that equated by way of transgression.
Ukeles’s art practice has since hewn closely to the manifesto’s intentions through its confident and consistent blend of institutional critique, feminism, performance, conceptual, and social-practice art—at a time when all were first surfacing. In her earliest Maintenance Art Tasks, she washed the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum and photographed herself doing the laundry, cutting the hair, putting on and taking off the clothes, and changing the diapers of her children.
Was Chantal Akerman aware of Ukeles’s work in 1975 when she made Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels? For nearly four hours, the title character does household tasks in oppressive real time. “I made this film to give all these actions that are typically devalued a life on film,” Akerman said in a 2009 interview with the Criterion Collection. She explained that she chose Delphine Seyrig to play the part because of her glamorous femininity. “It had to be someone we didn’t usually see do the dishes,” Akerman said. “So Delphine was perfect, because it suddenly became visible.” The photographs of Ukeles scrubbing the museum floor are iconic—and by now an expression of outmoded white feminism—precisely because with her long blonde hair, smile, and bellbottoms, she doesn’t look like a typical custodian, nor a typical artist.
As the manifesto’s pages have yellowed, the status of women in the arts, the home, and the workplace has not changed in any meaningful way. The National Women’s Law Center recently found that women hold two-thirds of the lowest-paying jobs in the US, and that a huge percentage of those who work full time live on or near the poverty line. That already severe inequity has turned disastrous during the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2020, US employers cut 140,000 jobs held by women, most of whom are Black and Latina, despite hiring 16,000 men. On top of that, without paid sick leave or the flexibility to work from home, school and daycare closures have forced many more to leave the workforce.
Last year, Ukeles’s vision to valorize maintenance set in as a diabolical, global reality. Once the initial panic subsided and supply caught up to unexpected demand, we learned to subsist—if privileged enough to be living—on the repetitive, uneasy plane of maintenance. For the millions facing financial distress, that means survival; for those able to work from home, that means distance; for millions more who must go to work, it means risk without hazard pay.
I’d say that those deemed “essential” have never before been so visible and yet so expendable, but there is a precedent for this—it’s when Ukeles wrote her manifesto. As the first and only artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation, a title she still holds today, Ukeles created Touch Sanitation Performance (1979–80), a performance project for which she shook the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers. At that time, New York City was bankrupt, and budget cuts, layoffs, and subsequent strikes were underway. To each of the men, she said, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” It’s not that difficult to maintain this sort of performative appreciation. Forty years later, cities applauded healthcare workers at 7 p.m. every night. But that expression of gratitude didn’t prevent thousands from losing their jobs. Touch Sanitation drew easy praise from mayor Ed Koch, no matter that he went on to condemn the massive transit-worker strike that same year. His market-driven recovery plan made today’s crisis far more severe by deepening inequity and dismantling worker protections. Neoliberalism has ensured that development—not maintenance—is the only means of survival.
In a recent interview, Ukeles said, “I made a manifesto, and that’s an artwork.” To further the point, she distinguished hers from Karl Marx’s, which she said is “not a work of art. It’s a political proposal.” Her effort to label maintenance as art seems futile now that art has succumbed to maintenance. During the widespread lockdowns last spring, museums were desolate—offices hushed and galleries dark—except for the few left to clean and guard them. Even when maintenance is all the eye can see, it’s not deemed essential enough to support; unprecedented austerity has plunged hundreds of museum workers into joblessness with no protection in sight.
Any manifesto bears a high risk of becoming obsolete when the issues it confronts are resolved by other means or when the manifesto’s ideals are impossible to apply. The “Manifesto for Maintenance Art” is the rare case of an imagined world that is so viable that it became exploited. We have reached its conceptual end only to find ourselves more desperate than Ukeles was at its start. In order to recover, we must read the word she scribbled at the top of the page not as an exhibition proposal, but a political one: Care.