May 26, 2006

Commodity Cult: Cloak of Mediocrity

The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and/or place.
- Douglas Huebler, 1969

When he wrote the above statement in the catalogue for the January 5-31 exhibition at Seth Siegelaub’s gallery, Douglas Huebler was a young man seeking a way out of the dilemma of art production based on commodity and capitalism. The heady theories of conceptualism were already in the air, in Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1968) and Joseph Kosuth’s Art After Philosophy (1969), and one possible answer, or a response, to the “art market” would be a moratorium on the production of art objects. Under the conceptualist credo, to avoid placing one’s works among the many other innumerable objects destined for art world “consumption” was a primary motivation NOT to produce art.

This possible “dematerialization” of the object was more than a threat. Complete theoretical discourses were being mounted to support the idea that words and the realm of linguistics were equivalent to “art objects.” The discourse about art soon became the “work” itself, i.e. Art & Language, October, The Fox, as the printed word in magazines and quarterly art journals replaced the art objects, eventually becoming the cherished icons themselves. But, as Mel Bochner ironically noted in 1970, “Outside the spoken word, no thought can exist without a sustaining support.”

[Parenthetically, there is now the possibility of rendering art objects, or any other object, practically invisible with this cloaking device.]

To cease making “things” and focus instead on the temporal and/or spatial aspects of the “existence of things” shifted the emphasis from production to documentation. This defining moment for Douglas Huebler could serve as well for a renewed and potentially cathartic moment for art in the 21st Century, for we are making far too many “things.” There is a glut of mute object production, cluttered installations and mind-numbing hours-worth of digital film imagery being made. Global in scope, this overabundance of “useless” stuff is churned out daily. If Huebler’s original warning had been heeded we would be in a far less postmodern position of the negation of objects through the dominance of “the image” and fiscal solvency. That said, it is surely ironic that Huebler’s and other original conceptualist’s documents have become marketable objects in and of themselves, possibly revealing the insidious consumerist nature of the “art world.”

Regardless, what are the motivating factors for the production of art? “Art objects” are either “useful” or not, in the sense of whether or not they provide a function. Some of the things that we make do fulfill a “need” and also may be visually appealing, as utilitarian objects can still be well-designed. The “privileging of use” has been previously discussed on this site but we will circumvent that debate at present to propose that art is not purely an individually conceived “creative” endeavor, that is to say that one's individualized “creativity” should not be the sole motivating factor for the production of art.

We will grant only a cursory view of vanitas here. Without sufficient individual psychoanalysis of test case artists we have no conclusive evidence that vanity is the “chief motivation” for production of art, except to suggest that perhaps the idea that one makes things purely for the boost of “producer-ship” is latent in all art making.

Still, critical positions must be assumed with regard to the continuation of art object production. I hold that each and every discipline of art making must properly educate the novice practitioner in the history and chronology of their specific field, for no other reason than an establishment of a clear understanding of previous accomplishments, directions and conceptions with which to continue the discourse of art. Moreover, before each artist begins their own production of objects, they should sufficiently research, through the use of prototypes, studies and trials, the feasibility and authentic uniqueness of their proposed concepts and art objects.

I believe that the creation of objects strictly as production for capitalist consumption is antithetical to the precepts of art making. Transforming fine artworks, theoretically “useless” and purely contemplative objects, into commodities to be lined up on the shelves in the “White Cubes” like so many supermarket items is a premise destined for mediocrity. To place one’s artworks in the realm of consumptive production is to function under the reign of the mercantile art world. As Ursula Meyer wrote in 1972:

The shift from object to concept denotes disdain for the notion of commodities – the sacred cow of this society. Conceptual artists propose a professional commitment that restores art to artist, rather than “money vendors.”

We ought to clearly distinguish now between art that is being made in the pursuit of artistic goals that marks a positive continuance of earlier concepts and visions, and this other art made merely to provide “inventory” for the “culture industry.” Let us promote ideas that significantly “carry on” previous concepts or theories of art, be they in painting, sculpture or film. Let artists “make” only when they have developed a unique conception in their fields of art. Of course, the final sobering option for "fine" artists who hunger only for money is to merge one’s ideas with the world of design, thus acquiescing to capitalism in full comprehension of all of its pitfalls and provenance.

("99 Cent" photograph by Andreas Gursky.)

May 19, 2006

The Gift of Memory

About twelve minutes into Plans, Death Cab for Cutie’s current CD, the listener realizes that Benjamin Gibbard must be a post-structuralist trapped in an “alt-rock” limbo as he intones his second verse to “Different Names for the Same Thing.” Ostensibly a song about travel to other lands, we cannot rule out the possibility that this deceptively simple pop tune engages the fragile essence of linguistics as it flirts with the ambiguity of language. The sparse piano arrangement (which vaguely recalls John Lennon’s “Isolation”) diverts one’s attention as Gibbard sings:

"the boundaries of language I quietly cursed
and all the different names for the same thing"

The post-structural understanding of language contends that “meaning” is never fully present in any one concept, or word, and in fact is “infinitely deferred.” This “deferral” exposes a limitless “excess” of meanings, “different names,” or signifiers, for the same “things,” or signifieds. It is probably no coincidence that Gibbard’s chorus reverts to a simpler and more ominous, line, which I hear as "deferring names, deferring names" as the song fades.

Gibbard’s naked grasp of these kinds of limits for communication under post-structural rules also reveals his stark perception of the vacuity of identities within “pop” culture, as well as the emptiness of individual identity within a “pop music” model.

The establishment of one’s identity as an “artist” in popular music is relative to one’s chosen “vehicle.” Conventional models such as “singer-songwriter” and “pop vocal group” are further divided into sub-categories, i.e. "alt-rock," "urban contemporary," etc. Working within a group setting, a writer of songs subsumes his individuality to the group identity and becomes a “cog in a wheel,” part of a team effort. This does not deny one’s unique perceptions or projections of ideas within this framework, as the now-familiar “sole” songwriting credits will attest on numerous liner notes. Nonetheless, this work is done from a perspective of denial, from the invisibility of a lone “voice” awash in group sound. This is the emptiness of which Gibbard sings, the “boundaries” of speech and denied ownership.

There is duality afoot here, as well. In “Soul Meets Body” the singer cries out for feeling, a desire for an emotive connection to something other than post-modernity and slacker irony, for “a chance of finding a place where they’re far more suited than here.” The struggle between ego and id gives fresh expression to the singer’s identity crisis in "Crooked Teeth” as he realizes that his conscious “self” will be inevitably usurped by his wilder and untamed "soul":

I’m a war of head versus heart and it’s always this way
my head is weak and my heart always speaks before I know what it will say

The “head” stands in for the “presence,” the conscious self-awareness of one’s authenticity; the “heart,” as its polar opposite, “speaks” through actions motivated by the impulse of instinct, often prior to knowing or control. The “recording artist” inhabits a darkness of “invisibility,” at once “here” through the audible recorded sound, yet “absent” from our space. This dual nature is part of the “magic” of recorded music, as its “existence” is based on our memory of the discontinuous notes, one after another, in a narrative of melody. So it is that, as uneasy inhabitant of a “vehicle” called Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard accepts the limits of his “pop” language with charming angst, to craft his “deferrals” of identity as a testament to the “pop songwriter” as the binary opposites of the “presence” of performance and the “absence” of the recorded art.

May 14, 2006

New York Minutes: Perfection, Compromise and Process

The recent sale of 65 Donald Judd sculptures at Christie’s Auction House provided a rare post-humous solo viewing of an original Minimalist. This experience was somewhat diminished, however, by the sudden realization that many works on view at Rockefeller Center were severely damaged. For example, an untitled 1989 Douglas fir plywood piece (Lot No. 11) had badly “chewed-up” edges, yet sold for $352,000. An untitled 1989 Cor-ten steel work (Lot No. 19) had obvious gaps in the joining corners, still sold for $553,600). We offer our condolences to the collectors who undoubtedly must invest additional thousands of dollars to repair and restore these pieces. Such an oversight by the Judd Foundation, which placed the Judd sculptures for sale by Christie’s, suggests a suspicious intent to “unload” defective works from their collection. Regardless, it was disturbing to see such imperfections in Judd’s works, particularly since Judd was known to have extremely high standards of perfection and would never have allowed these damaged works to be exhibited, much less sold.

More oversized steel boxes and mazes were on view at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. Richard Serra’s “desire to create works that respond to a specific site” has been somewhat compromised over the years by his public grandstanding over the “Tilted Arc” litigation and accusations that his “site specificity” may be perhaps contingent, as he has apparently allowed pieces to be “re-located.”

One of the original ideas of site specificity was that a work built in a particular place inhabited that space for the duration of the exhibition, to be dismantled after the exhibit. The specifics of “place” where the work existed shifted the experience of art back to the viewer experiencing this work in a particular place, unlike earlier, modernist sculpture, that sought to cart these works from museum to museum. Yet somehow the discourse surrounding “site specific sculpture” has grown lax and now seems to describe the earlier traditional forms of pedestal sculpture:

As only parts of these works can be seen from any one vantage point, they require that time be spent walking, looking, anticipating, and remembering. Moving in, around and through them, they change configuration with every step.
(From press release at

When Walter De Maria installed his “Broken Kilometer” site-specific “sculpture” of brass rods using a mathematical progression of distances between the rods, he was engaging the idea of the “process” of producing a work of art defining the form of the work itself. Since 1979, the DIA Foundation has preserved this work within a ground floor space at 393 W. Broadway in the Soho district of New York City, their commitment to the ideals of site-specific sculpture embodying a unique “institutional" validation of this kind of work, minus the obvious lack of a commodity to sell.

“The Broken Kilometer” is composed of 500 highly polished, round, solid brass rods, each measuring two meters in length and five centimeters (two inches) in diameter. The 500 rods are placed in five parallel rows of 100 rods each. The sculpture weighs 18 3/4 tons and would measure 3,280 feet if all the elements were laid end-to-end. Each rod is placed such that the spaces between the rods increase by 5mm with each consecutive space, from front to back; the first two rods of each row are placed 80mm apart, the last two rods are placed 580 mm apart.”

“Broken Kilometer” represents a union of site-specificity and “process.” The work exists in a seemingly permanent and specific “place,” a space solely devoted to its “presence” and preservation, created through a configuration of measurement that defines art as a procedural action carried out according to predetermined, conscious instructions. This is conceptualism with clarity of intention, an idea that could exist as “art” merely on paper, but an idea whose elaboration in space empowers our perception of the arrival of form through process.

Recently an L.A. artist named Liza Lou hired twenty Zulu women to apply glass beads with tweezers and glue to a large barbed-wire cage for her exhibit. Disregarding for the moment that these Zulu workers received no credit for their contribution to Lou’s “art” because she “didn't want to call attention to the fabrication process,” we dispute Lou’s characterization of “process.” Lou said, “Art has two lives, the process and the finished product. What an artist goes through to make the work is not necessary for understanding the finished work.”

This is exactly wrong for so many reasons. The process is the “life” of the product, significant to the “action” of making. Understanding the “process,” or the conception, or the idea, of an artwork is of paramount importance to the “understanding” of the “finished work.” This is one of conceptualism’s primary tenets, that the object is simply supplemental in our approach to the idea of the work itself. Walter De Maria’s “Broken Kilometer” has no “meaning” without a comprehension of his “process.” Our grasp of any Donald Judd sculpture requires an education about his principles of measurement and modularity. Without an appreciation of “process” an artwork is only an empty shell, devoid of the essence of its cognitive being.