October 20, 2009

Critic Wags the Dog

In a rather superficial critique of conceptual art, Denis Dutton cites Damien Hirst in his recent New York Times op-ed piece and uses Hirst’s medicine cabinets to draw a distinction between the “technical skill” of representational art and the “lack of craftsmanship” in contemporary conceptual art. The implication being that conceptual art that demonstrates little more than “skill in playing inventively with ideas” has less aesthetic “value” than a traditional art of “painstakingly developed artistic technique.”(1)

Dutton bemoans the continued adulation of “conceptual artists” like Hirst and was dreading an Oct. 16th Christie’s sale of “Post-War and Contemporary Art” that featured Hirst’s medicine cabinet on the auctioneer’s block.

Glancing through the various lots that were sold last week-end at Christie’s yielded interesting bits of news: several Richard Prince “photos” (appropriated) did not sell; while Vanessa Beecroft is still getting $17,000 USD for her ancient “VB-35” soft-core prints. Meanwhile, it helps to be dead, as usual: Martin Kippenberger selling from $1.7 to $3.7 million USD; Jorg Immendorf at $99,000; Jack Goldstein at $80,000.

So we can say that some of the “conceptualists” at least have an exchange value if not an aesthetic one. The Hirst cabinet, by the way, subsequently sold for $187,627.

In his opinion piece, Dutton expresses distaste for the “tradition of conceptual art” that is “admire(d) not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept.” Yet rather than critique the truly “creative” ideas born of 1960s conceptualism, Dutton focuses on a couple of contemporary sham purveyors (Hirst and Jeff Koons) who bungled one of the better “ideas” in the Duchampian oeuvre – appropriation.(2)

Instead of discussing any of the resilient and potent theories and ideas inherent in conceptual art, Dutton seems content to go after the one methodology initiated by Duchamp that metamorphosed throughout the 20th Century to become photo-appropriation (see Prince and Sherrie Levine) or worse still, second-tier copyists (see almost all of the yBa's).

Appropriation is a tough theory; difficult to apprehend and hard to teach. The general public often reacts negatively to works that are “borrowed” because of a knee-jerk response to art that is obviously not “original.” It’s a fair point and instigates impassioned debates on authenticity, simulacra and the authorial imperative that was so ingrained in visual art before Duchamp.(3)

Clearly though, Dutton’s intent was to draw readers in with a superficial attack on a "tricky" idea of conceptualism so he could meander off on his real topic: to speculate on whether prehistoric hand-axes were possibly the first works of art since their blades indicate they were unused. I will not pursue the logic of Dutton’s assumption that disuse equates with preciousness and, thus, that those axes are artworks. What I will do is point out some other ideas that came out of conceptualism that he missed and that continue as strong work by the best postconceptual artists.

Conceptual art questioned the traditional role of the art object as the conveyer of meaning. By exploring the elusive “art object” and its contested importance as a precious, well-crafted thing, conceptual art (and postconceptualism) accomplished its subsequent “dematerialization.” Art “objects” began to be “made” from impermanent materials (string, dirt, inert gases). Artists documented ephemeral experiences occurring in specific places over specific durations of time (spatio-temporality). Information became “art” and the “form” an object took was the result of a process. Conceptualists also made work that was participatory and incorporated the actions of others and even the viewing public.

But these ideas are harder to critique so Dutton went after the easy mark, appropriation. He does not seem to fully comprehend appropriation as a “concept” either, because he mistakenly includes Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” in his attack – Kosuth photographs the objects himself at the site where the object and its dictionary definition will sit.

Undoubtedly, the kind of weak attack Dutton mounted in the New York Times surfaces periodically about contemporary art that is challenging, and certainly the most challenging art these days bears an allegiance to conceptualism. Those visual theories and ideas that were originally posited by some artists of the 1960’s approached significant new ways of dealing with visuality. It is my belief that there are still a few who are extending these ideas to continue its impact as postconceptualism.


1. This and all subsequent quotes by Dutton are from “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?”

2. The only reason I show Hirst’s shark and Koons’s vacuum to my theory students is to emphasize the debt they both owe Duchamp.

3. I have posted frequently on appropriation here and my students have written about it, too. However, my response to Dutton’s piece – indeed, to any attack on conceptual art – is to remind all and sundry that there are more ideas in conceptualism than shopping at the hardware store.

October 16, 2009

1 or 2 Images

"Most artists only have one or two good images in them. Maybe four. My images come from a process - they are created by the process. The images are unimportant - the process is.

Unfortunately, artists who become successful at it try to make it a career - this means that their images eventually degrade, or weaken. Like Stella. Or Kosuth. Or Bob Morris. Find some other way to survive - teach - play music - but after the best images come, it's time to quit."

Notebook entry on 12/25/08.

October 7, 2009

Curatorial Missteps

Poor judgment in curatorial practice abounds but occasionally an error in curatorial decision-making becomes so glaringly obvious that it must be pointed out so that other curators can avoid the same mistake. Such is the case with the Chicago Art Institute’s poor choice of situating Bruce Nauman’s “Clown Torture” video installation 20 feet from Robert Ryman’s “The Elliott Room (Charter Series)” and sharing Gallery 295B in the Modern Wing.

The Rymans are gorgeous “oils” in his characteristic fetish whites on anodized aluminum panels, some as large as eight feet. The installation itself is clearly about one’s perceptual encounter with the panels; experiencing the pristine and exacting beauty of minimal art. Presumably a viewer could spend some quality time with these panels as the Art Institute has thoughtfully provided a large bench squarely in the center of the Ryman room.

This is where I seated myself in a recent visit to the Art Institute, to commune a bit with the Rymans. However, it was immediately apparent that my visual interaction with the wide expanse of luscious whites would not be peaceful, for the audio cacophony of Nauman’s “Clown Torture” spills over into the Ryman space. And when I say “spill” I do not mean just a trickle of sound.

“Clown Torture” is a disturbing work by any estimation, consisting of six channels running Nauman’s video:
The monitors play four narrative sequences in perpetual loops, each chronicling an absurd misadventure of a clown, who is played to brilliant effect by the actor Walter Stevens. According to the artist, distinctions may be made among the clown protagonists; one is the “Emmett Kelly dumb clown; one is the old French Baroque clown; one is a sort of traditional polka-dot, red-haired, oversized show clown; and one is a jester.” In “No, No, No, No (Walter),” the clown incessantly screams “No!” while jumping, kicking, or lying down; in “Clown with Goldfish,” he struggles to balance a fish bowl on the ceiling with the handle of a broom; in “Clown with Water Bucket,” he repeatedly opens a door that is booby-trapped with a bucket of water, which falls on his head; and finally, in “Pete and Repeat,” he succumbs to the terror of a seemingly inescapable nursery rhyme: “Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off. Who’s left? Repeat.”

I can appreciate the absurdity, the unhinged madness of Nauman’s work. Certainly it is as much a perceptual experience, albeit a more disturbing one, as the Ryman room just around the corner. But why would the curators place these works in such close proximity to one another? Surely they had a trial run with the Nauman video to check and establish sound levels and video quality. Wouldn’t someone, even an intern, have noted then that the sound from the Nauman installation, which the museum describes as “an assault on viewers’ aural and visual perception,” invades and disrupts the ostensibly contemplative experience of the Ryman paintings in the next room?

Surely it was not the intention of the Art Institute for my contemplation of the Rymans to have the unintentional “soundtrack” of Walter Stevens screaming at the top of his lungs, “No, no, no!”

But then again, stranger things have occurred in museums of late. Perhaps the curators were after some kind of ironic intervention to mock the idea of “contemplation.” If they wanted to pair the subdued minimalist beauty of the Rymans with distracting noise they should have rented storefront space down on Wabash under “The El.” There the viewer’s appreciation of those Ryman “whites” would have been as effectively destroyed by the randomly thundering rattle of the train overhead.