Tuesday, December 06, 2016
Conceptualism and the Politics of the Art Object
“The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding ‘the notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic.’ This should be great news to both artists and apes.”
--Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”
As we move through the art of the 20th century (and beyond), from Dada forward, we move increasingly toward the dematerialization of the art object—from breaking apart the object in Cubism, to abstracting it in Abstract Expressionism, to eliminating it as a criteria altogether in movements such as Fluxus, which favored experience over the sacredness of the object, and Conceptual Art, which favored the idea of the object over its actual execution of lack of.
As with many “movements” within art, there is some contestation around Conceptual Art, including its origins and its time lines. Charles Harrison, former editor of Art-Language places Conceptual Art within a very specific time frame of 1967-1972, during which time he sees the existence of a “critically significant conceptual art movement.” (29) A 1998 exhibit, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, organized by the Queens Museum of Art, placed the movement globally within a much broader frame from the late 1950s into the present day. Likewise, Harrison traces the inception of Conceptual Art back to minimalism, with its anti-formal tendencies, a claim that Sol LeWitt, in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” denies by saying that no one he knows will admit to being a minimalist.
Dick Higgins’ “Intermedia Chart” is a useful reference, because it shows a number of contemporary cointerminous art movements and the way in which they intersect with one another. In it, we see Conceptual Art linked with both Fluxus and Happenings, and indeed, a number of artists’ work did fall into both Fluxus and Conceptual art, most notably Yoko Ono, whose performance pieces such as “Cut Piece” and “Piece to Hammer a Nail” emphasize the interactive, experiential nature of the work to the audience, whereas works such as the “War is Over! (if you want it)” billboards and Grapefruit fall into the realm of Conceptualism. In fact, I would alter Higgins’ chart to bring concrete poetry, visual novels, etc. closer to Conceptual Art in the matrix.
Without getting too bogged down in debates over origins and timeline, however, we can look at the tendencies that define historical and contemporary Conceptual Art, particularly as set forth by LeWitt himself in his “sentences” and “paragraphs” on Conceptual Art as well as looking at some of the politics of the dematerialization of the art object itself.
At its most basic, Conceptual Art privileges the idea over the object. In fact, according to LeWitt, whether the object is actually ever created or not is incidental. Point 10 of “Sentences on Conceptual Art” asserts that “Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” While talking about an art made of ideas and language may at first blush sound very cerebral and based in logic, “LeWitt is quick to emphasize the intuitive nature of Conceptual Art and desire to work against “rational art.” The logical exists only to be subverted.
“Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation, such as logic vs. illogic.”
While there are many examples of objects created by Conceptual artists, including the prolific LeWitt himself, pieces that have come to be known as “instruction pieces” such as Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, or text pieces with few, if any, visual elements that we have come to associate with “art” are what we generally reference when talking about Conceptual Art. In fact, textuality plays a major role in Conceptualism, both in the art works and in the works of the artist. At the most basic level,
Conceptual Art works have a tendency to be include text. “Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use an form, from an expression of works (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.” (Sentence #15). “If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.”
Harrison calls Conceptualism a movement of “artists who write” and there is a strong anti-critic streak within the movement. Even though LeWitt acknowledges that the artist may or may not fully understand his or her own work, LeWitt also criticizes the “secret language of the critic” . By conceptualizing the art from the outset, the artist becomes a sort of self-critic, eliminating the critic as mediator between the audience and the art. Writing about the art was as important as creating it and vehicles such as Art News, where Lewitt’s sentences and paragraphs were first published, as well as Art-Language, offered forums for conceptual artists to show themselves as critics. Even using a format such as sentences and paragraphs which sets up a grammatical, language-based approach, rather than invoking the form of the manifesto, which previous avant-garde movements relied upon, shows a break with past ideas of art objects as separate from language.
Conceptual Art reacted against Abstract Expressionism as not pushing art far enough away from the object, still privileging the art object as self-contained and as more concerned with its internal relationships than with the object’s relationship within the world. Abstraction, then, questions the image, but not the architecture of positions or the social relationship of the object. (Harrison, 31) Seeing painting, sculpture and traditional art forms as rigid and hegemonic, signs of an imperialist culture (41), Conceptual Art, as a movement of opposition, was self-conscious about its position among historical avant garde revolutions. Moreover, according to Harrison, the artists were not so much concerned with overthrowing, but to “reformulate and revalue modernism so as to validate their own enterprise as artistic . . . . clear[ing] a space for themselves to work.” (42) In fact, he contends that modernism needed to be current in order for the Conceptualists to establish themselves as avant garde. (42)
It is on this critique of the art object and of the architecture it inhabits that I would like to linger and focus for the remainder of this piece. Among the hegemonic institutions that Conceptualism was reacting to was the art museum itself. I’d like to go out on a limb and borrow from Peggy Phelan’s ideas about the politics of representation to talk about the politics of the art object and of removing the object from the gaze of both spectator and critic.
LeWitt distinguishes, first of all, between perceptual art, being art for the eye, and conceptual art, in which the concept is the most important aspect. Art that exists for the eye alone is subject to “the gaze”. Harrison describes the art object as “something contained within the ambient space of the stationary spectators gaze, its means restricted to whatever that gaze could pick out and animate.” In Unmarked, Peggy Phelan describes “the institional effect of the gallery” as putting the art object “under house arrest, controlling all conflicting and unprofessional commentary about it.” In this way, the gallery is able to maintain a degree of critical control over the work, and through controlling the placement and architecture of the piece, directing the gaze in certain ways.
In discussing art and representation within a feminist frame, Phelan suggests that “it can be effective to politically and aesthetically deny representing the female body imagistically, psychically, to bring about a new form of representation itself.” (164) 1 I contend that we can substitute the art object for the “female body” as a way of looking at the art object in this context of politics and representation.
Phelan draws a link between the gaze and commodification, and here, there can be no denying that Conceptual artists, concurrently with artists in Fluxus and other parallel movements, were indeed reacting against commodification of their work, and consequently, I would argue, against the gaze of institutions that wield power. As we can see in current political conditions, art is frequently on the front lines of political battles, either standing with or in opposition to, powerful institutions. Phelan describes an aesthetics of representation as offering a “pleasure of semblance and repetition [that] produces both psychic assurance and political fetishization.” (3) She further describes visibility politics as “compatible with capitalisms relentless appetite for new markets . . . The production and representation of visibility are part of the labor of the reproduction of capitalism.” (1)
Harrison talks in a parallel way about beholding as problematized by Conceptual Art. Specifically, how is the “beholder” qualified to view and judge the art object, to what end does “beholding” lead, and under what conditions is it taking place? (33) This gets to the heart of the gallery/critic system, in which experts decide the architecture and placement of the work as well as its aesthetic and critical interpretation. Indeed, this is what situates the gallery as a hegemonic, anti-democratic institution from which art had to be freed.
By emphasizing the idea of the object as primary over its execution, Conceptual artists bring into question the “value” of every piece of art that hangs in a gallery or museum. Sometimes refusing to create objects at all, they then sidestep the commodification of their ideas and their creativity. Some artists set up tables and sold small items themselves, including “selling” intangible objects or concepts for whatever their “buyers” were willing to pay for them (Camnitzer) and in the process, democratizing and subverting the system of selling art altogether.
Of course, it is the nature of the capitalist gaze to create commodities, which fits hand in hand with the nature of artists and their movements to want to be remembered. Consequently, Conceptual Art has not been able to completely escape the traps of representation. While they may have initially confounded the gallery system, the writings of many original Conceptual Artists and the textual nature of the work lend themselves to book publishing, and what objects do remain from previous moments of Conceptual Art now find their way into museums and traveling exhibitions. This is a tension that the avant garde has not been able to free itself from completely as it moves from present moment to retrospective. Nonetheless, Conceptualism has provided the opportunity for visual artists to challenge the very bases of their work: both the gaze of the spectator and critic, and the gallery system in which they encounter the art object. In its current practice, Conceptualism remains an art form that through its use of text and idea, lends itself easily to political and activist contexts and in doing so, continues to struggle with and confront these very issues.
1 While I don’t know that I am willing to argue that the art object itself is inherently female at this point, it cannot be denied that the subject of many masterpieces has in fact, been the feminine form. Thus the art object in those cases becomes directly implicit in the relationship of the gaze to the female body. And in fact, a number of feminist artists have turned to Conceptual art to produce works that confronted the male gaze outright. See Camnitzer et al.
Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson. Conceptual art : a critical anthology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999.
Camnitzer, Luis, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss, László Beke, Queens Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, and Miami Art Museum of Dade County. Global conceptualism : points of origin, 1950s-1980s / foreword by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss ; introduction by Stephen Bann ; essays by László Beke .. New York: Queens Museum of Art : Available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 1999.
Harrison, Charles. Essays on Art & language. Oxford [England] ; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1991.
Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
LeWitt, Sol. “Sentences on Conceptualism.” http://www.altx.com/vizarts/conceptual.html, Referenced February 25, 2004.
Munroe, Alexandra, Yoko Ono, Jon Hendricks, and Bruce Altshuler. Yes Yoko Ono / Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks ; with essays by David A. Ross, Murray Sayle, Jann S. Wenner ; contributions by Bruce Altshuler .. New York: Japan Society ; Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : the politics of performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.
Appendix 1: Intermedia Chart
Appendix 2: Sentences on Conceptual Art