This article reads Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) as scrutinizing the relationship between art and deskilled labor in the period from 1973 through 1997. Examining a relatively understudied set of chapters set in the 1970s, it considers them in the context of theoretical work by Harry Braverman, Kathi Weeks, Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and John Roberts. Depicting artist Klara Sax’s project as rooted in her 1970s observations of the remnants of skilled labor, and her embrace of what she calls the “graffiti instinct,” DeLillo suggests, pace Roberts, that the vestiges of lost working-class skill appear in the art groups in the novel’s present. Such valorizations of the artist’s labor are offset both by the absorption of the former artist Jesse Detwiler into Nick Shay’s corporate workplace and by the novel’s neglect of gentrification. In turn, with Underworld’s representations of the Bronx in the 1950s, DeLillo scrutinizes his own working-class origins.
Art, Graffiti, and the Deskilled Work of the Novelist: The Forgotten 1970s in Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Andrew Strombeck is professor of English at Wright State University, the author of DIY on the Lower East Side: Books, Buildings, and Art after the 1975 Fiscal Crisis (2020), and the coeditor, with Jean-Thomas Tremblay, of Avant-Gardes in Crisis: Art and Politics in the Long 1970s (2021). His essays have appeared in Post45 Peer Reviewed, Los Angeles Review of Books, Contemporary Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, African American Review, and Cultural Critique.
Andrew Strombeck; Art, Graffiti, and the Deskilled Work of the Novelist: The Forgotten 1970s in Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 June 2023; 69 (2): 203–224. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-10580823
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