June 20, 2009

Critical Fragments: Anonymity


“In all respects the traditional artist devotes himself to the good of the work to be done. The operation is a rite, the celebrant neither intentionally nor even consciously expressing himself … [W]orks of traditional art, whether Christian, Oriental or folk art, are hardly ever signed: the artist is anonymous, or if a name has survived, we know little or nothing of the man. This is true as much for literary as for plastic artifacts. In traditional arts it is never Who said? but only What was said?”(1)


The necessity of establishing a relationship between an artist and artwork became significantly more focused when paintings became portable. The advent of easel painting signaled the beginning of artworks traded as a commodity that was readily identifiable with an artist. Thus, the identification of individual artists with an artwork recognizable by a subjective style helped solidify the ready exchange of paintings.

Clearly the seduction of fame stoked the exchange value of art. Coomaraswamy notwithstanding, we would be unworthy lovers of art if we were not able to rattle off names of major artists by gazing mere seconds at the referent paintings or sculptures.

Like many institutions during the 1970s, the art world was given a brutal critique. Having undergone over one hundred years of excessively focused attention on the mystique of the artist - whose guise was often paired conveniently with “movements” by critics, i.e., Fauvist, Impressionist, Bohemian – it was understandable that young practitioners took a dim view of the commercial aspects of art marketing. These conceptual artists eliminated the making of objects as their concepts began to designate what medium or form would become the carrier or conveyor of the idea.

It is remarkable to consider now that conceptual art was once persona non grata in the commercial art world. Eventually, with increased critical support through essays and lectures by art theorists (and artists themselves – a welcome attitudinal change from the AB-Ex position of “the work speaks for itself”) commercial galleries would acquiesce to critical pressure and begin showing these text-based works, de-skilled photographs and sometimes even anti-aesthetic objects.

The possible use of anonymity as an additional way to address issues of fame as a capitalist construct was side-stepped by most conceptualists; given the opportunity to pair their name with a gallery was a nice substitution for having a recognizable “style.”

One artist in particular who purposely sabotaged his “stardom” was Christopher D’Arcangelo. In the late 1970s, D’Arcangelo used “utilitarian carpentry” as his art practice, making “works” characterized by the “input of labor and materials rather than by any phenomenal aspect they might possess.”(2) In “Thirty Days Work”, D’Arcangelo built an anonymous wood stud and sheetrock wall for a 1979 show at 84 West Broadway, New York. This otherwise nondescript wall was not identified as his.(3)

The practice of making art ought to bear no allegiance to one’s subjective ego. In its emphasis of concept over object, conceptual art may have re-introduced this egalitarian fascination with anonymity. What better way to heighten the theoretical focus than to eliminate the putative “self” behind the work. The conception then becomes more an ethereal thought that floats in the minds of both artist and viewers; “artworks” as ideas that launch discourse through intellection.


Image: “A Brief History of Art”; from Suicide Blonde.
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1. Coomaraswamy, Ananda. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, New York, 1956, 39-40.

2. Crow, Thomas. “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art” in Art After conceptual Art (A. Alberro, S. Buchmann: eds.), Vienna, 2006, 62.

3. Ibid., 62 [D’Arcangelo’s willful anonymity was earlier evidenced by his “contribution” to a 1978 exhibition at Artist’s Space where he merely removed his name from the installation, catalogue and from all publicity about the show.]

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