April 13, 2006
The Privileging of Use
" . . . conceptualism's redefinition of the territory of the arts threatens not simply architecture's autonomy as it is often defined through the emphasis on objecthood and functionality, but, further still, the logical implication of this boundary shift potentially challenges the 20th Century's priority on function upon which that boundary is often defined. While this situation can be and often is understood as a disciplinary territorial battle, that debate serves largely to mask the premises upon which those territorial lines are drawn. Whereas the question can be what distinguishes the functional from the non-functional arts, or even whether such a distinction can be drawn, the more interesting concern lies around the mechanisms whereby utility is set up - and repressed - as the criterion of evaluation, the content that remains unrecognized and unquestioned."
Nana Last, Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices
The point that Nana Last raises in the midst of her brilliant essay is the realization that this “territorial battle” between architecture and art is founded on a “given” articulation of functionary privilege. With its “form follows function” mantra, architecture mocks art as “useless” enterprise, tethered to the contemplative and leisurely nature of enjoyment, something hanging in or in front of our homes and buildings. Art, with its own “exceptional” telos of both therapeutic and “social use,” chides architecture as mere necessity grounded in utility, not intellectually engaged, somewhere to hang our paintings or something to decorate.
In the world of contemporary “fine” art it is a foregone assumption that the objects that artists make, whether painting, sculpture or installation, have no “real” function or utility other than their existence as objects made “for the good of themselves as objects of contemplation.” This last phrase comes directly from the Modernist categorization of contemporary works of art which differentiates between utilitarian objects, including those that are ornamented, and objects that seemingly have no “use” other than being contemplated. One could trace this “modern” definition back through Kant (18th Century) and his art theories of “free play” and the engagement of one’s “imagination” and “understanding” with a contemplated object, and further still to the Aristotelian notion of telos and the original distinction of “purpose” as both epistemological foundation and artistic “intention.”
Conceptual art, in addition to placing less emphasis on “form” or the object, sought to regain the idea of “use” within the societal context of human engagement. Conceptualism shifted the focus from the medium used to the concept itself and redefined the relationship of form and content. Conceptual art might be said then to preach a “form follows concept” creed, enabling artists to attempt a “functional” position within society. Conceptualists critiqued the institutions that established the “context” for art and clarified the position of language and photography in the “construction of meaning.” In distilling the “act” as the primary focus of the art making equation, they were able to introduce a discourse about “documentation,” temporality, and memory, encouraging inquiry into the perception of the art “experience.”
All of these innovations do not exclude conceptualism from a thorough and rigorous critique, especially in light of the confusion surrounding post-conceptual practice. One avenue for this investigation, and today’s topic for discussion, is the privileging of use which establishes a criterion for a definition of both art and architecture. As Last writes near the conclusion of her essay:
”This pervasive privileging of function operates by instituting a criterion for judgment – utility – that seems unquestionable. This framework leaves the object, concept, discourse, etc. defined around the construct of use, as though it provided the one criterion in need of fulfillment. Use thus offers itself as an uncontested rationality definitive of the object in question.”