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.


* said...

I guess this guy is a professor in New Zealand, but his argument sounds like he went into an art gallery for the first time the other day, was scandalized by the "so-called art" and decided he'd reveal to us all that the age-old reactionary cry of "where's the skill?!?" is correct after all. If you have to resort to hypothetical scenarios about cave men, your idea is in trouble...

ken weathersby

Richard said...

In a well know essay from 1967, Sol Lewitt wrote: "Conceptual art is only good when the idea is good." Sensible advice for then and now.

Richard Meade said...

In a well known essay from 1967, conceptual artist Sol Lewitt wrote: "Conceptual art is only good when the idea is good." Good advice for then and now.

Kim Matthews said...

Thank you! Some painter friends have taken the opportunity presented by the pans of Hirst's recent pathetic painting show to attack conceptual art and declare painting back from the dead. These views seem grossly oversimplified and more symptomatic of the ongoing War of the Critics than anything. Painting is not dead, conceptual art doesn't all suck, and asserting that craft is not the same as art doesn't diminish craft. What I'd like to see is the death of scholarly pomp, ego, and mediocrity, but then these are necessities of life in a relative world. Perhaps just a little less of them then...

Richard Meade said...

Although I must admit, I've always wanted to take a hammer to that Jeff Koons ceramic of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. I just don't have the deep pockets to sustain a lengthy law suit over my "conceptual" decision to destroy such a piece of crap. I really detest Jeff Koons and all he stands for.

tim said...

Dutton's axe analogy is not so sharp. if we can make the assumption that a work of art does indeed have an intellectual/emotional/political/virtual use, in other words a use within thought or within the mind, then 'pure' objects created without utilitarian concerns (such as a pristine axe) have no automatic status as 'art.' Even if such an axe functioned as a 'model' or some type of 'icon,' it would still have a definite use with a clear locus within discourse and would not be 'pure.' Who let Plato into the room??
...furthermore if Dutton needs to go back to the Neolithic era for justification, then something is definitely wrong!

MCB- kind of a weird question, but just playing with ideas-- if art went through such a process as 'dematerialization,' and art can now be realized as a form of information, then couldn't we begin to understand art as 'pure images' that exist independent of material (eg Warhol)? and if this is possible, then doesn't it bring us remarkably close to an attitude prevalent in Medieval icon painting, where craft was simply a 'techne' used to bring about an image whose power was supposedly independent of aesthetic impact?

Richard Meade said...

My one bone of contention with Dutton's piece is his inclusion of the work by Joseph Kosuth. I found the dovetailing of Kosuth's work with that of Koons and Hirst to be rather naive.

He fails to see the depth of "One and Three Chairs". The actual chair, the photograph of the chair and the definition of the word chair. All three exist on different levels visually and intellectually. The "chair" exists as a three dimensional utilitarian object to sit or stand on. The photograph of the same "chair" is really not THE chair but a representation of the chair. It can not be used in any way other than pinned to the wall as an object representing what a chair is. The definition of the word "chair" is neither the object its self nor the representation of the chair in the photograph, but a completely different representation of the original object, the "chair". The "chair" exits only in its definition and can only define what the object is.

Dutton seems to have missed this point completely and has done a disservice to Joseph Kosuth's work by linking his work with the likes of Koons and Hirst.

In regards to the axes, Dutton again seems to be short on a few conclusions. First and foremost that unused axes found in burials could be more likely funereal objects rather than the axe the deceased person once used. A brand new axe for use in the after life makes far more sense than a blunted used one.

But for me, his conclusion of the last collector holding either the vacuums in plexiglas or some toxic embalmed shark was exactly to the point and I couldn't help but to laugh.

BTW, as a kid I used to go to a teachers college outside of Chicago to look at all the animals, heads, brains they had in jars filled with formaldehyde. I never once considered them objects of art nor would I today. On another note, Los Angeles County Art Museum has one of Hirst's formaldehyde tanks donated by Eli Broad (huge tax right off and handing over a BIG problem to the tax payers of Los Angeles county). Just recently the barometric pressure in the gallery caused the tank to leak. The gallery had to be closed and a hazmat team brought in to clean up the mess. I can't help but think that this will be the future of the "Last man holding" this crap, museums.

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

My focus was elsewhere these past days as I worked with my brothers on musical “art.”

Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful comments. There's a bit of the Platonic in Kosuth's chairs, too, I think. And funerary axes is probably the best theory.

Tim asks whether art can be “understood” as “pure images” existing “independent of material.” I am not certain how his line of reasoning follows from my recognition of art as “information.” Art based on process or instruction isn’t bound to the visual image but the resultant document often is visually perceived. That said, I don’t think that qualifies as equating it with a “pure image.” When you start talking about pure images I think of Malevich’s Suprematism and seems to be a relic from the Modernist era.

If I read you correctly, Tim, you suggest that establishing a separation of matter (material) from image is a return to 16th Century icon painting and, thus (as you ask) is it not reverting to “craft” as “simply a 'techne' used to bring about an image whose power was supposedly independent of aesthetic impact(?)” I doubt that Medieval icon painters were able to divorce their craft from the iconic, to raise concept above the object itself. More to the point, the concept of immateriality negates images to the extent that the image is secondary certainly. Perception of the document (text) is an opening to the concept itself.

an-aesthetic said...

Conceptual art is very boring, Tedious, dry, verbiage, excuses, no skill, no aesthetics, no cognitive interest, no cognitive content. It is self regarding, self important, conflated anti-preo-pedeutic art for the under-achiever. Discussion is all - visual content nil, visual interest nil. Boring boring boring but most of all 90% of it is pure Kitsch and its enthusiasts haven't the perception to see this. Both Dutton and Scruton are absolutely right - acolytes are never interested in the truth about conceptual art !!!!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the general thrust of the critique of the New York Times article. But, blogger - "dematerialization," really? We are long passed the point of making serious discussion on conceptual art in the deprecated language of Lucy Lippard. Damien Hirst might as well title all his pieces, "Laughing in Lucy Lippard's face." Even Lucy Lippard would agree.