April 23, 2010

Critical Fragments: Circularity

"Artists 'make meaning' to the extent that they can articulate that same context that provides, and limits, meaning."(1)

Citing his oft-quoted and influential essay from 1969, Art After Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth, in his more recent The Making of Meaning, alludes to his attempt at explaining the tautological foundations of art and entrenched definitions of art as flawed at the very least. Now engaged in his new pursuit that has to do with the “demystification and restoration of meaning,” Kosuth is understandably wiser from both vantage points of chronology and art world success.

Still, we remain unconvinced that the underlying conveyance of that meaning, the structure of language is sound and, like a frustrated carpenter who can't make a joint, we are saddled with doubt. If the conveyance of meaning in art relies on that “discourse” provided through text, speech and writing then are we not back at the same post-structuralist position, like the poor worker who can only blame his tools?

Though Kosuth considers art through the “lense” of epistemology, he realizes that this is contingent upon language; all discourse comes from language. This refers to the “circularity” of art; art transforms content into form as a “language system.”(2)

Possibly mellowing from his earlier rebellions against formalist art (Minimalism, et al.), Kosuth now allows that placing an emphasis on either form or content is “conservative.” Thus, “formalist or ‘art for art’s sake’ conceptions of art are one-sided: in omitting from the practice a consciousness of such mediation the ‘practice’ perpetuates the ‘theory’ (and vice versa).”(3)

This is rich with restorative properties: retrenching conceptualism to considerations of form, i.e., the object, allows artists to once again “make” things. Or at least meld the conceptual (the content) into valid forms. But before you run down to Utrecht for art materials, like the true iconoclast he is Kosuth negates the possibility of a “conclusion” with this:

“On the other hand, the attempt to use art to ‘speak directly’ contains its own paradox; one is always saying something else, that else being the prevailing structure of art, uncritically being replicated. In art one must speak in a circular fashion; that is, through the attempt of understanding the language system itself: in the process of that circularity the art process shows and is affected by its collective character, its historicity, its actual location.”(4)

Image: Cathexis 8 & 9 (1981); © Copyright by Joseph Kosuth.


1. Kosuth, Joseph. The Making of Meaning: Selected Writings and Documentation of Investigations in Art Since 1965, Stuttgart, 1981, 51.
2. Ibid., 57.
3. Op cit.
4. Op cit.

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