He made banality blue chip, pornography avant-garde, and tchotchkes into trophy art. How Jeff Koons, with the support of a small circle of dealers and collectors, masterminded his fame and fortuneby Kelly Devine Thomas
Earlier this year some of the most powerful players in the art world attended a 50th birthday party for Jeff Koons, the controversial art star who rose to fame in the 1980s. Jeffrey Deitch, who helped bankroll Koons’s ambitious and outsize “Celebration” series and nearly went bankrupt for it in the 1990s, hosted the party at his SoHo gallery, where examples from Koons’s oeuvre were projected on large screens and miniature versions of Balloon Dog, an iconic work, were handed out as party favors.
Among the high-profile museum directors, curators, artists, and collectors in the room that night were Koons’s longtime New York dealer Ileana Sonnabend, with whom he has worked on and off since 1986; Larry Gagosian, who recently began showing Koons’s new works and is now producing his “Celebration” sculptures; Robert Mnuchin, chairman of C&M Arts, which hosted a comprehensive Koons exhibition last May; and dealer William Acquavella.
The deep-pocketed gathering was indicative of the level of support currently invested in Koons, the former Wall Street commodities broker who has polarized opinion in the art world for more than two decades and whose pieces have fetched as much as .6 million at auction. Koons disappeared from the art-world radar for much of the 1990s, when he went through a messy divorce and struggled to deliver his “Celebration” series—sculptures and paintings depicting toys and childhood themes blown up to fantastical proportions, such as the ten-foot-tall, stainless-steel Balloon Dog that weighs more than a ton. “He has a vision that goes beyond his collectors,” says Gagosian. “It’s a huge vision, and it’s out there. But he connects the dots in one of the more interesting ways I’ve seen.”
Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international cohead for postwar and contemporary art, points to the number of dealers who have recently aligned themselves with Koons as proof of the “feeding frenzy” surrounding him. In the past five years, his market has become “almost hysterical,” says art adviser and longtime Koons collector Estelle Schwartz.
How did an artist who sold his works for relatively modest prices two decades ago reach such peaks? Collectors, dealers, curators, and auction specialists who spoke with ARTnews say that Koons has masterminded his fame and fortune through a combination of charm, guile, and a talent for creating expensive art that inspires critical debate. Despite repeated requests, Koons declined to be interviewed for this article.
“As Koons likes to point out, someone in every generation has to be held up as a shining example of what is wrong with current art,” Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, once observed. “It is a dirty job, but Koons, who has the single-mindedness of a missile, has taken on the duty. Koons’s conceptual strategy is to reveal his ambition.”
Koons has achieved his ambition, sources say, with the help of a close circle of dealers, including Sonnabend, Deitch, Gagosian, and, more recently, Mnuchin, as well as a core group of collectors, among them, Los Angeles real estate developer Eli Broad, Greek construction tycoon Dakis Joannou, Chicago collector Stephan Edlis, newsprint magnate Peter Brant, and Christie’s owner François Pinault, who have made him a cornerstone of their collections and continue to acquire many of the new works that come out of his studio.
Over the years, Koons has persuaded patrons to pay for the fabrication of his sculptures, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has limited supply by placing these works with important private and public collections from which they are unlikely to be sold; and he has created artworks whose seductive surfaces, expensive scale and quality, and flawless execution cast them as luxury consumer objects. “He is a trophy artist,” says Chicago dealer Donald Young, who worked with Koons on his 1988 “Banality” series. “And he isn’t against being a trophy artist.”
With his eye on such artistic forebears as Duchamp, Dalí, Warhol, and Lichtenstein, Koons combines money, art, and publicity in a provocative mix that has landed him in the pages of Time, People, Newsweek, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. From the start he has promoted himself as a celebrity. In the late 1970s, when he first moved to New York and worked at the Museum of Modern Art, he attracted attention with his clothes—sequins, polka dots, and bow ties, an inflatable flower occasionally wrapped around his neck. Later, in advertisements for his 1988 “Banality” exhibition, he posed beside bikini-clad women like a rock star.
“From early on Jeff saw himself as carrying a torch in terms of his importance within his generation and within the hierarchy of the history of contemporary art,” says Young. “He thinks very clearly about how he puts his work out. He’s very conscious of his market. He thinks about where his work appeals and whom it appeals to.” To whom does Koons’s work appeal? Young responds, “The very wealthy.”
While artists typically separate art and money, Koons’s art addresses market forces head on. Says art historian Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, “Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’”
As Dan Cameron, chief curator at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, notes, “If all you want is a good time, he won’t let you down. But underneath the primitive thirst for delight and pleasure in his works, I think he is deeply engaged in some philosophical questions. Both Marxists and kids can enjoy it.”
Critical response to Koons’s encased vacuum cleaners, floating basketballs, gilded celebrities, and stainless-steel and porcelain tchotchkes has been extreme. “In 1939 Clement Greenberg wrote his famous denunciation of kitsch, but it is unlikely that even in his wildest nightmares he could have envisioned Jeff Koons,” wrote Eleanor Heartney in ARTnews in 1989. “Koons’s great claim to fame is his capacity to make the vulgar chic.” Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz has written that no one has “straddled the cosmic divide between innocence and cunning, hilarity and insidiousness, as effectively as Koons.” Time critic Robert Hughes has called his works “syrupy, gross, and numbing.” Even his fans have had trouble reconciling their love-hate relationship with him. Peter Schjeldahl, now an art critic for the New Yorker, once proclaimed, “Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that makes me the sickest. I’m interested in my response, which includes excitement and helpless pleasure along with alienation and disgust . . . I love it, and pardon me while I throw up.”
Koons, who lives in a 13-room town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, came of age as an artist during a decade when contemporaries like Julian Schnabel were aggressively promoting themselves, eager to expand their markets to the level of music and movie legends. Koons’s breakthrough exhibition took place in 1985 at International with Monument, in the East Village, when the neighborhood was the haunt of collectors like British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi on the hunt for young talent.
Over the past two decades, Koons, who has been quoted as saying that the “great artists of the future are going to be the great negotiators,” has built what he describes as a power base. “I have a platform now,” he told an interviewer in 1990. “I have all the support possible, as far as a stage for Jeff Koons to do his work.”
In addition to an increasing number of dealers who compete to handle his new works and buy those that appear at auction, Koons convinced collectors Joannou, Brant, and Broad, along with dealers Deitch, London’s Anthony d’Offay, and Cologne’s Max Hetzler, to invest heavily in the fabrication of the “Celebration” series, whose slow production during much of the l990s caused what Gorvy describes as a “cloud of confusion to hang over his market.”
Koons’s auction prices skyrocketed in 1999, when Brant paid a then record .8 million at Christie’s for Pink Panther (1988), a sculpture of the cartoon character hugging a buxom blonde, which was the first of Koons’s major porcelain works to appear at auction. Before 1999, his highest auction price was 8,500. Since the Pink Panther sale, more than 15 works have been auctioned for more than million each. Last May financier Thomas H. Lee paid .5 million for Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train (1986), which was originally priced at ,000 in 1986. Sources say that current interest in Koons extends to collectors such as Lee; Barnes & Noble founder Leonard Riggio; fashion designer Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli; New York real estate developer Aby Rosen; and Norwegian shipping magnate Hans Rasmus Astrup, who bought Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) at Sotheby’s.
Today Koons’s inner circle of collectors own many of the same sculptures, say sources, which are typically made in editions of three plus one artist’s proof. Sotheby’s noted in its sales catalogue for Michael Jackson and Bubbles—originally priced at 0,000 in 1988, it sold for a record .6 million in 2001—that Joannou, Broad, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art owned the remaining works in the edition. When Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train came up for sale, Christie’s advertised that Broad, Joannou, and Edlis owned the other examples.
The issuance of new works in the past five years has often coincided with the appearance of high-profile works at auction. Most of the art in the C&M Arts show last May—the same month as Christie’s well-publicized sale of Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train—was on loan from Brant, Edlis, Sonnabend, and other public and private lenders. Few of the works were for sale, but the exhibition set new price levels for those that were available. Mnuchin, according to sources, sold Wall Relief with Bird (1991) for about million, three times the price it sold for at Sotheby’s five years ago. “When you are practically a Frank Sinatra in the first place,” Mnuchin says of Koons, “you don’t need a heck of a lot of help.”
Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955. In The Jeff Koons Handbook, a monograph published in 1992 in association with d’Offay, his dealer in London at the time, Koons claims, “I was always an artist. I’ve been an artist since I was born.” He took art lessons from the age of seven. His father showed and sold the Watteau-style works Koons painted when he was nine to customers at his furniture store. He later attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and spent a year at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In his handbook a section called “Phrases and Philosophies by Jeff Koons” reinforces his persona as an existential art shaman whose contradictions run deep. Koons states, for example: “Art has always been a way for me to define my own parameters, to externalize myself. I have no perception of Jeff Koons, absolutely not. Your perception of Jeff Koons is probably much more realistic than mine, because to me I am nonexistent.”
Koons moved to New York in 1977 and got a job selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art, where, he claims in his handbook, “I was the most successful salesman in the museum’s history.” His earliest supporter was dealer Mary Boone, who met him in 1979 when she bought his green Mercedes as a birthday gift for Schnabel. Boone recalls visiting Koons’s studio, which was covered in mirrored tiles to which inflatable toys were affixed. “The experience was overwhelming,” she says. “Even 25 years later, it’s vivid in my memory.” She sold one of Koons’s early works, a vacuum cleaner and a fluorescent light mounted on a wall, for around 0, but Koons left her gallery after a year for Annina Nosei because, Boone says, she was able to sell only two works—to Saatchi and collectors Donald and Mera Rubell—during that time. His relationship with Nosei was also short-lived because sales of his work proved slow through her gallery as well.
In 1980 Koons installed a stand-up Hoover vacuum cleaner in a vitrine in a window of the New Museum and called it The New. Struck by the work, the Rubells visited Koons’s apartment. “We thought it was fantastic,” says Donald Rubell of the ready-made appliances Koons had displayed in his living room. “We bought a vacuum cleaner. We wanted to get a great refrigerator he had, but we couldn’t figure out how to get it out of there. It was a walk-up.”
The Rubells struck up a friendship with Koons and invited him to their Whitney Biennial opening party. Rubell says that Koons showed up unexpectedly a day late, the night after the party. The Rubells made dinner for him, and they talked until past midnight. “The next day, he sent us ‘flowers,’” says Rubell, who owns about ten works by Koons. “They were actually two of his mirrored pieces, one with a blow-up flower, the other with an old-fashioned black telephone.”
Still, Koons’s work, with its roots in Pop, Conceptual, and Minimalist art, was out of step with the brash Neo-Expressionist style of artists like Schnabel and David Salle, which was in favor at the time. Frustrated by a lack of sales, Koons moved to Florida in the summer of 1982 to live with his parents and save enough money to move back to New York in the fall.
For the next few years, he personally financed his art by working as a Wall Street commodities broker and exhibited works such as The New Jeff Koons, a black-and-white portrait of himself as a child with a crayon and a coloring book, in group shows. Koons has said he spent a lot of his time at Smith Barney consumed with a new series of sculptures, calling physicists to help him figure out how to suspend basketballs in water. “Equilibrium,” his groundbreaking 1985 show at International with Monument, included basketballs floating in aquariums, lifesaving devices cast in bronze, and reproductions of Nike advertisements featuring black basketball stars.
The basketball tanks, in editions of two, originally sold for ,000, and the lifeboats, in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof, sold for ,000, but those prices doubled within a matter of months. In recent years a lifeboat and an aqualung have sold for about million each at auction. Less in demand are the basketball tanks, whose top price at auction is 4,500, because, sources say, they are difficult to maintain and the balls deteriorate.
“With Jeff Koons, I was absolutely obsessed,” says Estelle Schwartz, who placed about a dozen works from “Equilibrium” with clients. “I was a more voracious collector than even my clients. I remember saying to a collector, ‘If I’m buying a snorkel vest, you should be buying an aqualung.’”
One of the things that made Koons’s work appealing, according to Schwartz, was the material. “He was making these accessible yet radical works in a material my collectors could put on their tables,” she says. “I was able to turn to a collector and say, ‘Look at it—it’s bronze!’ And I could sell it on those grounds.”
“Equilibrium” set off a whirlwind of exhibitions by Koons. Between 1985 and 1991, he showed five distinct but often overlapping series of works at galleries across the country and overseas. He also began to work with multiple dealers, including Daniel Weinberg of Los Angeles, who, like other dealers who have worked with Koons, helped the artist fund his ideas in exchange for a share of the profits.
The “Luxury and Degradation” series—alcohol accoutrements such as a traveling bar and a Baccarat crystal decanter, cast in stainless steel—was shown at Weinberg’s gallery and at International with Monument in 1986. The most expensive pieces in the show, the bourbon-filled Jim Beam trains (made in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof), sold for ,000 each. Saatchi bought one. So did Mnuchin, a high-profile Wall Street equity trader and a major art collector before he opened C&M Arts.
Also in 1986, Koons and three other International with Monument artists—Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton, and Peter Halley—were given a group show at the esteemed Sonnabend gallery. Bickerton has been quoted as saying, “Jeff was always just Jeff, gone off and away into Jeffdom. To him, we were all just a blur.” Koons exhibited his “Statuary” series, which included stainless-steel renditions of pop-culture personalities like Bob Hope, historical figures like Louis XIV, and his now iconic Rabbit (1986), a 41-inch-tall, stainless-steel sculpture of an inflatable bunny, originally priced at around ,000. The late Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe called Rabbit “one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target.” Today the four highly coveted examples are owned by Sonnabend, Edlis, Broad, and publisher S. I. Newhouse Jr., whose version has been publicized as a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art, where Newhouse was once a trustee. It is no longer a promised gift to the institution, according to a museum spokesperson.
For “Banality”—a series of objects inspired by souvenirs and pornography, rendered in porcelain, ceramic, and wood by German and Italian craftsmen—Koons began to work with Donald Young in Chicago and Max Hetzler in Cologne, along with Sonnabend, who showed the works in a three-city exhibition in 1988. “The idea was to have as much impact as possible,” says Young, who placed works with Chicago collectors Lewis Manilow, Gerald Elliott, and Edlis.
Prices ranged from ,000 to 0,000 for Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which Koons claimed at the time was the largest porcelain—more than three feet tall and about six feet long—ever made. “They were meant to be expensive luxury objects,” says Young. Koons was “taking the most banal objects and making them luxurious.”
In 1989 Koons met Ilona Staller, known as La Cicciolina, a Hungarian-born porn star in Italy, who became his wife two years later and inspired his “Made in Heaven” series, consisting of sculptures and paintings depicting the two in blissful conjugation. They were previewed at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and shown at Sonnabend in 1991.
The series prompted some of Koons’s most scathing reviews. “Just when it looked as if the ’80s were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Koons hit a home run with Puppy (1992)—his 43-foot-high, 44-ton topiary terrier—which debuted at an 18th-century castle outside Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany, in 1992 and was shown to widespread acclaim at New York’s Rockefeller Center five years ago. One of two versions of the work was acquired by the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997. Brant owns the other.
Koons began his “Celebration” series after Staller left him in 1993, taking their son, Ludwig, to Italy and sparking a long-running custody fight. Koons, who has said that the series was an attempt to communicate with his estranged son, has spent nearly million trying to regain custody, directing his lawyers to “leave no stones unturned,” and destroying all of the “Made in Heaven” works in his possession.
Koons, who has since remarried and has two additional children, later tried to contest his attorney’s fees as excessive, but a judge ruled last May that he had to pay the outstanding .87 million. He also fought a well-publicized lawsuit in the early 1990s that accused him of violating copyright law when he appropriated a greeting-card image for his 1988 sculpture String of Puppies. Koons defended his work as fair use, but a U.S. appeals court ruled in 1992 that he was guilty not only of copyright infringement but also of “arrogance” and “greed.” According to his lawyer at the time, Koons reached a confidential financial settlement with the photographer of the image and also settled pending lawsuits involving his appropriation of images for three other “Banality” works, including Pink Panther.
Koons has always acted as the head of a complicated operation that requires the cooperation and support of many people, but never before on the scale required by “Celebration.” In order to finance the series, Koons began working with Deitch, Hetzler, and d’Offay, who funded the project in part by selling works to collectors before they were fabricated. But the sculptures, which were sold for between million and million in the late 1990s, proved more difficult and expensive to fabricate than anticipated.
Eli Broad paid for Balloon Dog (1994–2001) and Cat on a Clothesline (1994–2001) in 1996, but he didn’t receive them until 2001. “Jeff won’t let go of a work until he thinks it’s perfect,” Broad says. The delays tested his patience and required more money from Broad, who declined to specify what he paid for them. He says he didn’t threaten to take legal action against Deitch, Hetzler, and d’Offay but did make his expectations clear. “These were three responsible dealers, and we had a contract where they had to perform.”
At one point, more than 75 artists were working for Koons around the clock as he tried to finish the project in time for a “Celebration” exhibition at the Guggenheim, originally scheduled for 1996 but repeatedly postponed and ultimately canceled. “It was a pure panic situation,” says an artist who worked for Koons at the time. “I would get a call from a manager saying that they’d run out of money and were going to have to shut down the studio for a week or so.”
Another former assistant, who says he made more than ,000 a year, estimated that Koons’s payroll spiraled up to more than million before he laid off most of his staff in 1997. It was no secret around the downtown Manhattan studio, says the source, that Deitch, Hetzler, and d’Offay, who would bring collectors and celebrities like Mick Jagger to look at the works, were displeased with how things were going. “Everything was backed up,” says the former assistant. “They hadn’t sold anything in a while, and they were hemorrhaging money left and right.”
In the mid-1990s, Koons sold most of his artist’s proofs to Broad and others to help finance his work and pay his bills. Broad bought three: Rabbit, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and St. John the Baptist (1988). Koons’s money troubles continued throughout much of the 1990s: the IRS filed a lien against him in 1999, claiming that he had underpaid his taxes by nearly million in 1996 and 1997. (Koons settled the judgment against him last year.) Says Sonnabend director Antonio Homem, “Jeff is an extremely romantic artist. He is ready to ruin himself and anyone involved with him for an artwork to be what he wants it to be. He wants it to be beyond perfection. He wants it to be a miracle.”
Koons’s perfectionism is well known. He tweaks his works up to, during, and after openings. He showed up at Christie’s to shine his Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train twice before the auction house sold it last May. In an extreme example of his attention to detail, he insisted about two years ago that Broad’s Balloon Dog, which had been exhibited at several major museums, be repainted a different shade of blue, at Koons’s expense.
After a five-year hiatus, Koons reappeared on the art scene in 1997, with a small retrospective at the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris. Then he produced a series called “EasyFun,” consisting of cartoonish mirrors and photorealistic paintings of surrealistic scenarios—a saint paired with a deli sandwich and swirls of hot chocolate, for example—priced between 0,000 and 0,000, for a solo show at Sonnabend in 1999, the same year that two of his major works appeared at auction.
When the nearly life-size Buster Keaton (1988) was offered at Christie’s in May 1999, it ignited a bidding duel between d’Offay, who bought the work for 9,500, and Philippe Ségalot, head of Christie’s contemporary-art department at the time, who was bidding on behalf of an anonymous client. The competition for Pink Panther was even more intense six months later, when it doubled its estimate of 0,000 to 0,000.
In 2001 Gagosian showed new “EasyFun-Ethereal” paintings—which included collaged images of parted lips, bikini bottoms, auto bodies, and mashed potatoes—at his Los Angeles gallery. Two years ago Sonnabend showed “Popeye,” a series of cartoon-laden paintings and sculptures of inflatable-looking creatures, like caterpillars, juxtaposed with ready-made objects, like ladders, which sold for 0,000 to 0,000 each.
Some of Koons’s recent paintings now sell for more than double their initial price. Saint Benedict (2000), from the “EasyFun” series, sold for .68 million last May, and the “Celebration” painting Bracelet (1995–98) sold for .25 million last November.
Koons’s works have prompted some tongue-in-cheek marketing ploys. When Christie’s offered the 1991 Red Butt (Distance), a 90-by-60-inch silk-screen painting of Koons engaged in anal sex with his soon-to-be wife, which sold for 9,000 in 2000, the sale catalogue coyly hid the work behind a foldout panel proclaiming “Warning: The Following Image Contains Graphic Sexual Content.”
Koons has cooperated with the auction houses on occasion. He posed for publicity photos promoting Sotheby’s sale of Michael Jackson and Bubbles and sat for a promotional interview with Brett Gorvy when Christie’s offered his Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train last May. “Some artists can be very suspicious of the auction process, but Jeff embraces it,” says Gorvy. “He is very aware of how a high price at auction can generate sales.”
A 1993 retrospective at SFMOMA was Koons’s last major museum exhibition in the United States. Sources say that Pinault—who has been approached about financing a new sculpture of an intermittently chugging train engine suspended by a 150-foot crane—plans to open his art foundation in Paris in about three years with a major Koons exhibition. But the Guggenheim’s desire to present a retrospective of his works has so far been thwarted.
“The question of a retrospective is still ongoing,” says Guggenheim deputy director and chief curator Lisa Dennison. “Determining the point when you want a retrospective that sums up your career is a tough one for any artist. I think it’s particularly tough for Jeff.”
The “Celebration” series, most of which went directly into private hands, has yet to be shown as a group. All of the paintings in the series—large-scale renditions of Play-Doh, birthday cakes, pink bows, and other embodiments of childhood joy—have been made and sold. D’Offay laid claim to at least five of them in liens he filed with the New York City department of finance. One of the works, Cake (1996), is being offered this month at Sotheby’s, where it is estimated to fetch between .5 million and .5 million. But some of the sculptures are still being produced and financed by Gagosian, who has been selling them for million to million.
A much-delayed exhibition of the “Celebration” sculptures is at least 18 months away, says Gagosian, who plans to show new paintings and sculptures by Koons—a continuation of his “Popeye” series—at his London gallery in the coming year.
While critics over the past 20 years have faulted Koons for debasing art with consumer fetishism, his supporters say they believe he is one of the most important artists of his generation.
“I think it was hard in the 1980s to take seriously a man who was saying that banality is the white elephant of our culture,” says the New Museum’s Dan Cameron. “But I think in 2005 we’re moving closer to Jeff. I think we’ll look back and say that he had it right on the money.”
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Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art
Edward A. Shanken, Duke University
Abstract: Art historians have generally drawn sharp distinctions between conceptual art and artand- technology. This essay reexamines the interrelationship of these tendencies as they developed in the 1960s, focusing on the art criticism of Jack Burnham and the artists included in the Software exhibition that he curated. The historicization of these practices as distinct artistic categories , 6 is examined. By interpreting conceptual art and art-and-technology as reflections and constituents of broad cultural transformations during the information age, the author concludes that the two tendencies share important similarities, and that this common ground offers useful insights into late-twentieth century art.
In the mid-1960s, Marshall McLuhan prophesied that electronic media were creating an increasingly interconnected global village. Such pronouncements popularized the idea that the era of machine-age technology was drawing to a close, ushering in a new era of information technology. Sensing this shift, Pontus Hultén organized a simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic exhibition on art and mechanical technology at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) in 1968. The Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age included work ranging from Leonardo da Vinci’s sixteenth-century drawings of flying machines to contemporary artist-engineer collaborations selected through a competition organized by Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc. (E.A.T.).
E.A.T. had emerged out of the enthusiasm generated by nine evenings: theatre and engineering, a festival of technologically enhanced performances that artist Robert Rauschenberg and engineer Billy Klüver organized in New York in October 1966. E.A.T. also lent its expertise to engineering a multimedia extravaganza designed for the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970. Simultaneously, the American Pavilion at Osaka included an exhibition of collaborative projects between artists and industry that were produced under the aegis of the Art and Technology (A&T) Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Ambitious as they were, few of the celebrated artist-engineer collaborations of this period focused on the artistic use of information technologies, such as computers and telecommunications. Taking an important step in that direction, Cybernetic Serendipity, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1968, was thematically centered on the relationship between computers and creativity. This show, however, remained focused on the materiality of technological apparatuses and their products, such as robotic devices and computer graphics.
Art critic Jack Burnham pushed the exploration of the relationship between art and information technology to an unprecedented point. In 1970, he curated the exhibition Software, Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, at the Jewish Museum in New York. This show was the first major U.S. art-and-technology exhibition that attempted to utilize computers in a museum context. Software’s technological ambitions were matched by Burnham’s conceptually sophisticated vision, for the show drew parallels between the ephemeral programs and protocols of computer software and the increasingly “dematerialized” forms of experimental art, which the critic interpreted, metaphorically, as functioning like information processing systems. Software included works by conceptual artists such as Les Levine, Hans Haacke and Joseph Kosuth, whose art was presented beside displays of technology including the first public exhibition of hypertext (Labyrinth, an electronic exhibition catalog designed by Ned Woodman and Ted Nelson) and a model of intelligent architecture (SEEK, a reconfigurable environment for gerbils designed by Nicholas Negroponte and the Architecture Machine Group at MIT) .
Regardless of these points of intersection and the fact that conceptual art emerged during a moment of intensive artistic experimentation with technology, few scholars have explored the relationship between technology and conceptual art. Indeed, art-historical literature traditionally has drawn rigid categorical distinctions between conceptual art and art3 and-technology. The following reexamination, however, challenges the disciplinary boundaries that obscure significant parallels between these practices. The first part describes Burnham’s curatorial premises for the Software exhibition and interprets works in the show by Levine, Haacke and Kosuth. The second part proposes several possible reasons why conceptual art and art-and-technology became fixed as distinct, if not antithetical, categories. The conclusion suggests that the correspondences shared by these two artistic tendencies offer grounds for rethinking the relationship between them as constituents of larger social transformations from the machine age of industrial society to the so-called information age of post-industrial society.
Before proceeding, some working definitions will clarify the terminology of conceptual art and art-and-technology in order to open up a discussion of their relatedness beyond the narrow confines of extant discourses. Resisting the arch formalism that had become institutionalized by the 1960s, conceptual art has sought to analyze the ideas underlying the creation and reception of art, rather than to elaborate another stylistic convention in the historical succession of modernist avant-garde movements. Investigations by conceptual artists into networks of signification and structures of knowledge (that enable art to have meaning) have frequently employed text as a strategic device to examine the interstice between visual and verbal languages as semiotic systems. In this regard, conceptual art is a meta-critical and self-reflexive art process. It is engaged in theorizing the possibilities of signification in art’s multiple contexts (including its history and criticism, exhibitions and markets). In interrogating the relationship between ideas and art, conceptual art de-emphasizes the value traditionally accorded to the materiality of art objects. It focuses, rather, on examining the preconditions for how meaning emerges in art, seen as a semiotic system.
Art-and-technology has focused its inquiry on the materials and/or concepts of technology and science, which it recognizes artists have historically incorporated in their work. Its investigations include: (1) the aesthetic examination of the visual forms of science and technology, (2) the application of science and technology in order to create visual forms and (3) the use of scientific concepts and technological media both to question their prescribed applications and to create new aesthetic models. In this third case, art-and-technology, like conceptual art, is also a meta-critical process. It challenges the systems of knowledge (and the technologically mediated modes of knowing) that structure scientific methods and conventional aesthetic values. Further, it examines the social and aesthetic implications of technological media that define, package and distribute information.
Art as Software: Burnham, Levine, Haacke, Kosuth
The title for the Software exhibition was suggested to Burnham by artist Les Levine. Burnham himself had interacted directly with software as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT during the 1968--1969 academic year. He reported on that experience in a public lecture organized by curator Edward Fry at the Guggenheim Museum in 1969, later published as “The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems.” Burnham expressed his interest in how “a dialogue evolves between the participants–--the computer program and the human subject–--so that both move beyond their original state” . He further theorized this bidirectional exchange as a model for the “eventual two-way communication,” that he anticipated emerging in art . Karl Katz, director of the Jewish Museum, heard the talk and invited Burnham to curate an exhibition.
Following up the ideas he outlined in “The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems” and in related essays, including “Systems Esthetics”(1968) and “Real Time Systems”(1969) , Burnham designed Software to function as a testing ground for public interaction with “information systems and their devices”. Many of the displays were indeed interactive and based on two-way communication between the viewer and the exhibit. Software was predicated, moreover, on the ideas of “software” and “information technology” as metaphors for art. Burnham conceived of “software” as parallel to the aesthetic principles, concepts or programs that underlie the formal embodiment of actual art objects, which in turn parallel “hardware.” In this regard, he interpreted contemporary experimental art practices, including conceptual art, as predominantly concerned with the software aspect of aesthetic production.
In his 1970 essay “Alice’s Head,” Burnham suggested that, like the “grin without the cat” in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, conceptual art was all but devoid of the conventional materiality associated with art objects. He subsequently explained Software in similar terms, as “an attempt to produce aesthetic sensations without the intervening ‘object’” . Burnham theorized this artistic shift as paralleling larger social transformations based in cybernetics and systems theory. Here, the interactive feedback of information amongst systems and their components in global fields eradicated any “separation between the mind of the perceiver and the environment” .
In the late 1960s, Les Levine was at the forefront of artistic experimentation using the interactive feedback of information systems to interrogate the boundaries between viewer and environment. He was represented in Software by three pieces, including Systems Burn-Off X Residual Software (1969). The original installation at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago was comprised of 1,000 copies of 31 photographs taken by Levine at the March 1969 opening of the highly publicized Earth Works exhibition in Ithaca, New York. Numerous New York critics and journalists had been bused upstate for the event. Levine explained that most of the 31,000 photographs, which documented the media spectacle were “randomly distributed on the floor and covered with jello; some were stuck to the wall with chewing gum; the rest were for sale” .
Levine’s artist’s statement in the Software exhibition catalog also outlined his concept of software and its relationship to art. He argued that the proliferation of mass media was changing knowledge into a second-hand mental experience of simulations and representations---i.e. software---as opposed to first-hand, direct, corporeal experiences of actual objects, places and events, i.e. hardware.
"All activities which have no connection with object or material mass are the result of software. Images themselves are hardware. Information about these images is software. . . . The experience of seeing something first hand is no longer of value in a software controlled society, as anything seen through the media carries just as much energy as first hand experience. . . . In the same way, most of the art that is produced today ends up as information about art."
Levine conceived of the 31,000 individual photos as the residual effects or “burn-off” of the information system he created---as the material manifestation of software. In other words, Systems Burn-Off was an artwork that produced information (software) about the information produced and disseminated by the media (software) about art (hardware). It offered a critique of the systematic process through which art objects (hardware) become transformed by the media into information about art objects (software). Whereas Levine stated that most art “ends up as information about art,” Systems Burn-Off was art as information about information about art, adding a level of complexity and reflexivity onto that cycle of transformations in media culture.
Systems Burn-Off can be related to Levine’s interactive video installations, such as Iris (1968) and Contact: A Cybernetic Sculpture (1969). In these works, video cameras captured various images of the viewer(s), which were fed back, often with time delays or other distortions, onto a bank of monitors. As Levine noted, “‘Iris’ . . . turns the viewer into information . . . ‘Contact’ is a system that synthesizes man with his technology . . . the people are the software” . Although these works demanded the direct, corporeal experience of the participant, it was the experience of seeing oneself as information---as transformed into software---that was of primary concern to the artist. In this regard, Levine provocatively has noted that, “Simulation is more real than reality. Reality is an over-rated hierarchy” . For many artists working at the intersection of conceptual art and art-and-technology, the particular visual manifestation of the artwork as an object was secondary to the expression of an idea that becomes reality by simulating it.
Conceptual artist Hans Haacke also utilized technology and mass media in the production of art. Perhaps best known for his politically-charged critiques of art institutions and industry, his work in the early 1960s evolved from kinetic sculpture and was included in a number of key Nouvelle Tendence exhibitions. These early works were predicated on the dynamism of natural systems, an idea that was integral to diverse strains of process and conceptual art, as well as to art-and-technology. Haacke considered himself a “sort of junior partner” of the German-based Zero group , renowned for their sky and light works of the late 1950s. The Howard Wise Gallery, the premier commercial venue for the presentation of artand- technology, gave Haacke solo exhibitions in 1966, 1968 and 1969.
A close friend of Burnham since 1962, Haacke contributed two pieces to the Software exhibition: News and Visitor’s Profile. These works were part of the artist’s Real Time Systems series, inspired in part by conversations with Burnham, who introduced Haacke to the idea of open biological systems developed by Ludwig Von Bertalanffy and to Norbert Wiener’s theories of cybernetics. Burnham’s article “Real Time Systems” differentiated between “ideal time” and “real time” with respect to art, a distinction that Haacke applied to his work. In ideal time, the aesthetic contemplation of beauty occurs in theoretical isolation from the temporal contingencies of value; while in real time, value accrues on the basis of an immediate, interactive, and necessarily contingent exchange of information.
News (1969) incorporated several Teletype machines that delivered a perpetual flow of information about local, national and international events, printed out on continuous rolls of paper in real time. The computerized Visitor’s Profile planned for Software was more technologically sophisticated than the manual version installed at the Information exhibition the same year. The computer was programmed to instantaneously cross-tabulate demographic information about the museum audience (age, sex, education and so on) with their opinions on a variety of provocative subjects, ranging from “Should the use of marijuana be legalized, lightly or severely punished?” to “Assuming you were Indochinese, would you sympathize with the present Saigon regime?”  Whereas the statistical data from the other versions of “Visitor’s Profile” were tabulated on a daily basis, the Software version was designed to perform these calculations in real time. As Haacke noted in his artist’s statement: The processing speed of the computer makes it possible that at any given time the statistical evaluation of all answers is up to date and available. The constantly changing data is projected onto a large screen, so that it is accessible to a great number of people. Based on their own information a statistical profile of the exhibition’s visitors emerges .
Like Levine, Haacke did not use technology as an end in itself, but rather put it in the service of the ideas that were central to his artistic practice. As in earlier technologically enhanced works by Haacke, such as Photo-Electric Viewer-Programmed Coordinate System (1966--1968), technology was employed as a means to enable art to become a responsive, real-time system that “merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a ‘system’ of interdependent processes” . Similarly, in the Software version of Visitor’s Profile, a computer received, processed and distributed information instantaneously so that the piece could interact with participants in real time by responsively gathering and evaluating information about the systematic relationship between art and society. In this regard, Haacke’s work shares common concerns with the conceptual goals underlying the work of many artists associated with art-and-technology, including Nicolas Schöffer’s CYSP series of cybernetic sculptures of the mid-1950s, James Seawright’s interactive robotic sculptures beginning in the mid-1960s, Sonia Sheridan’s founding of the Generative Systems program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1970, Myron Kreuger’s “artificial reality” environments beginning in the early 1970s, and the veritable explosion of art combining computers and telecommunications since 1980.
Like Levine and Haacke, Joseph Kosuth also has utilized mass media as a component in his work. However, unlike those artists, Kosuth has not made explicit use of technology such as video, computers, or telecommunications. Nonetheless, the technological metaphor of information processing offers an insightful model for interpreting his work. His contribution to Software, the Seventh Investigation (Art as Idea as Idea) Proposition One (1970), included the same printed text in various international contexts: a billboard in English and Chinese in the Chinatown neighborhood of lower Manhattan, an advertisement in The Daily World and a banner in Turin. The text was comprised of a set of six propositions:
(1) to assume a mental set voluntarily
(2) to shift voluntarily from one aspect of the situation to another
(3) to keep in mind simultaneously various aspects
(4) to grasp the essential of a given whole; to break up a given whole into parts and to isolate them voluntarily
(5) to generalize; to abstract common properties; to plan ahead ideationally; to assume an attitude toward the ‘mere possible’ and to think or perform symbolically
(6) to detach our ego from the outer world
Kosuth’s statement in the Software catalog emphasized his intention that the work not be reducible to a mental image, but that it exist as information free of any iconography: “The art consists of my action of placing this activity (investigation) in an art context, (i.e. art as idea as idea)” .
According to the software metaphor underlying Burnham’s exhibition, the art in Kosuth’s work was not the billboard or the other structural elements (hardware), but was manifested rather in the idea of contextualizing philosophical questions (software) within the context of visual art and simultaneously decontextualizing them in various public, non-art media. In this way, his work investigated the relationship between art and non-art ideas, the vehicles by which they are expressed, and the semiotic networks that enable and delimit their meanings in multiple contexts.
Applying the parallel Burnham drew between how computer software controls the hardware that runs it and how information directs the activity of the human mind to Kosuth’s work, one can interpret the artist’s propositions as operating like instructions in the mind of the viewer. But whereas computer software has an instrumental relationship with hardware, coordinating its operation, the artist’s propositions function as meta-analyses of the phenomenological and linguistic components of meaning. In other words, they demand that the viewer examine the process of processing information, while in the process of doing so.
Although Kosuth did not explicitly draw on computer models of information processing, his investigations follow similar modes of logic, while at the same time demanding a selfreflexivity that exceeds computational systems. By posing propositions that required viewers to investigate the cognitive functioning of their own minds with respect to the processing of information and the creation of meaning, Kosuth’s Seventh Investigation sought to interrogate how and why what he called the “language game” of art functioned in a larger cultural framework. This critical project reflects the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economic base, characteristic of the information age. Here meaning and value are not embedded in objects, institutions, or individuals so much as they are abstracted in the production, manipulation, and distribution of signs and information.
Resistance to Parallels between Conceptual Art and Art-and-Technology
In Art into Ideas, Robert C. Morgan credited Burnham’s “Systems Esthetics” with having clarified the “feeling that art had traversed from the object to the idea, from a material definition of art to that of a system of thought.” Morgan then described conceptual art as “a significant and innovative method or type (not a style) of artistic practice on the eve of the Informational Age” and noted a “parallel socioeconomic phenomenon . . . the penumbra between industry and postindustry” .
Burnham had already drawn a similar parallel in “Systems Esthetics,” which referred to the shift in industry from the control of production to the control of information that John Kenneth Galbraith described in The New Industrial State. However, in “Systems Esthetics” he also drew explicit parallels between conceptual art and developments in systems theory and computer information processing. For Burnham, these scientific and technological advances were inseparable from the sweeping economic and social changes that Galbraith and others were identifying and forecasting.
Morgan's alliance with Burnham ceases precisely at the point of drawing an explicit parallel between conceptual art and information technology. No art historian since Burnham has made that connection so emphatically; and nearly all have sought to dismiss it. However, it is unclear how the relationship that Morgan recognizes between conceptual art, the information age and post-industrial society can be explained without recourse to the specific technologies that emerged with them. If those relationships are going to be drawn (and I argue for doing so), then it will be necessary to address, as Burnham did, the scientific and technological advances that contributed to broader cultural and social changes.
Nonetheless, it is understandable why conceptual art and art-and-technology have been identified as distinct categories of artistic practice. Art-and-technology, which had offered a useful path of aesthetic experimentation throughout the 1950s and 1960s, no longer appeared to be a viable direction for many artists in the 1970s. Critics opined that it was dominated by the materiality and spectacle of mechanical apparatus, which was anathema to the conceptual project. Technical failures of art and technology exhibitions, like Software (which, ironically, was plagued with software problems), contributed to waning public interest, just at the moment a succession of large, successful exhibitions of conceptual art were mounted. Widespread skepticism towards the military-industrial complex after May 1968 and amidst the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and mounting ecological concerns all contributed to problematizing the artistic use of technology---and the production of aesthetic objects in general---within the context of commodity capitalism . Conceptual art, on the other hand, with its assault on the modernist object, became increasingly influential to a variety of au courant artistic discourses, including photography, performance, and installation. It stands to reason that artists, critics, dealers, curators and collectors invested in internationally prestigious conceptual art would want to distance themselves from associations with art-and-technology, which appeared increasingly peripheral to contemporary artistic concerns, if not simply passé.
These factors all contributed to exacerbating distinctions between the artistic tendencies, rather than revealing the fluidity and continuity between them. It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate the commonalities between conceptual artists and artists like Schöffer, Seawright, Sheridan, Krueger, and numerous others, who, like other mid- and late-twentieth century artists associated with art-and-technology, were concerned with process, real-time interaction and dynamic systems. Moreover, artists who applied a conceptual approach to exploring technological ideas did not easily fit either category. The example of Roy Ascott powerfully demonstrates the significant intersections between conceptual art and art-andtechnology, exploding the conventional autonomy of these art-historical categories.
Ascott, the British artist most closely associated with cybernetic art in England, was not included in Cybernetic Serendipity, because his use of cybernetics was primarily conceptual and did not explicitly utilize technology . Conversely, although his essay on the application of cybernetics to art and art pedagogy, “The Construction of Change” (1964), was quoted on the dedication page (to Sol Lewitt) of Lucy Lippard’s seminal Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966--1972, Ascott’s anticipation of and contribution to the formation of conceptual art in Britain has received scant recognition, perhaps (and ironically) because his work was too closely allied with art-and-technology. In this regard, Ascott’s use of the thesaurus in 1963 drew an explicit parallel between the taxonomic qualities of verbal and visual languages, a concept that would be taken up in Joseph Kosuth’s Second Investigation, Proposition 1 (1968) and Mel Ramsden’s Elements of an Incomplete Map (1968).
Sol Lewitt’s influential essay “Paragraphs of Conceptual Art” (1967) further exemplifies the complications and conflicts at the intersection of conceptual art and art-and-technology. In the second paragraph he described conceptual art as a quasi-mechanical process: “In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work . . . [t]he idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Several paragraphs later, however, he warned that “new materials are one of the great affliction of contemporary art. . . . The danger is, I think, in making the physicality of the materials so important that it becomes the idea of the work (another kind of expressionism)” . Although the idea of unifying art and technology held substantial cultural currency for much of the twentieth century, many artists, critics and historians came to perceive the junction as weighted down by (in Lewitt’s words) the “physicality of the materials,” which dominated the “idea of the work.” In her introduction to Conceptual Art, Ursula Meyer appropriated a technological metaphor and wrote, “Conceptual Art is diametrically opposed to hardware art” .
This sentiment was held perhaps more strongly in conceptual art circles where the battle against the formalism of modernist objects (and their complicity as commodities in reinforcing capitalist ideology) was being waged most fervently. From this anti-formalist perspective, the bells and whistles of art-and-technology appeared to be gaudy, expressionistic and commercial excesses that were extraneous and antithetical to the aesthetic investigation of superstructural ideas and questions of semiosis that defined key agendas of conceptual art.
The writing of art historian and critic Charles Harrison, a member of Art & Language (A&L) since 1969, demands close and careful analysis in this regard because of its centrality to the discourses of conceptual art. Harrison has written, “The rapprochement of art-andtechnology . . . tended to suffer from a trivial equation of ‘modernity’ with scientific and mechanical development. It tended also to be co-opted by the very representational technologies it set out to exploit” . He also stated that during this “time of E.A.T. … and of Cybernetic Serendipity … it seemed to some as if fascination with design and technology might be significantly injected into artistic modernism. The boot was on the other foot, however” . Paraphrasing A&L co-founder, Michael Baldwin, Harrison wrote that the “legacies of Pop-Artand- technology were never part of the Art & Language agenda,”  and further claimed that they never “furnished much better than chronic distractions from the more interesting and intractable problems of modern art” .
Although Pop art and art-and-technology intersected at certain points, they also represent two very different legacies. By collapsing them together, Baldwin and Harrison reduce the unique qualities and goals of each to their least common denominator, namely the use of technology as a formal element wielded in the interest of appealing to the masses. Indeed, Baldwin had in mind the “art-democratised-as-light-shows-or-cyberneticised-life-style machine” events of the UK group Fine Artz, with whom A&L co-founder David Bainbridge was affiliated . Burnham also denigrated the “chic superficiality that surrounded … many of the kinetic performances and ‘light events,’” which he equated with the sensation of “the uptown discotheque” . However, Burnham, being much more interested in and knowledgeable about art-and-technology, also recognized that its more theoretically sophisticated aspects---i.e., its concern with process and systems, the relationship between technological and aesthetic structures of knowledge, and an interactive, two-way exchange of information---were closely related to central features of conceptual art.
Despite his indifference to art-and-technology, Harrison acknowledged the interest in technology shared by A&L founding members Harold Hurrell and David Bainbridge. He described the former’s Cybernetic Artwork the Nobody Broke (1969) , and the latter’s Lecher System System (1969--1970)  as “flailing about---products of the search for practical and intellectual tools which had not already been compromised and rendered euphemistic in Modernist use” . But there is much more to these works than that. I suggest that they, as well as Atkinson and Baldwin’s 22 Sentences: The French Army (1967) , exemplify critical concerns at the heart of art-and-technology.
Hurrell’s spurious computer program for interactively generating color refused to allow the user to interact beyond the rigid banality of binary input. If the user input a number other than 0 or 1, the program proffered the message: “YOU HAVE NOTHING, OBEY INSTRUCTIONS!” If the user input a non-number, Cybernetic Art Work told him/her that there was an “ERROR AT STEP 3.2.” Lecher System juxtaposed a “‘sculptural morphology’ and an ‘electromagnetic morphology.’” The perceptual experience of interacting with the sculptural aspect of the system was intended to result in knowledge about the electromagnetic aspect of the system that, in turn, would create knowledge about the sculptural aspects. 22 Sentences included a key to abbreviations for the French Army (FAA), the Collection of Men and Machines (CMM), and the Group of Regiments (GR), then described the inter-relationships between them: “The FA is regarded as the same CMM as the GR and the GR is the same CMM as (e.g) ‘a new order’ FA (e.g. Morphologically a member of another class of objects): by transitivity the FA is the same CMM as the ‘New Shape/Order one.’”
This ironic passage reduced to absurdity the sort of systematic relationships between individuals, groups, and institutions characteristic of cybernetics (and is surprisingly similar to the anagrammatic rhetoric of Ascott’s “cybernetic art matrix”). Although not explicitly stated in French Army, the artistic avant-garde is also morphologically connected to the French military, from which the term comes. So the relations articulated in the work must also be mapped onto art relations. It is worth noting, moreover, that the French Army is “decimated,” in eight of the twenty-two sentences, hardly a coincidence given the war then being waged in the former French colony of Viet Nam.
Because these works by A&L members were infused with irony, their technological or pseudo-technological components must be interpreted as parodies of scientific structures of knowledge and their uncritical application in art and society in general. In challenging the systems of knowledge (and the technologically mediated modes of knowing) that structure scientific methods and conventional aesthetic values, these works have much in common with the objectives of art-and-technology. Indeed, the critical questioning of the implications of technology characterizes a wide variety of artistic inquiries in the domain of art-and-technology since the 1950s. Key monuments include Gustav Metzger’s theory of auto-destructive art (1959), Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960), Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe’s Robot K-456 (1964) and Oyvind Fahlstrom’s Kisses Sweeter than Wine (1966). The work of Stelarc, Lynn Hershman, Survival Research Laboratories, Julia Scher, Jodi.org and others continue this tradition of art-and-technology in a manner that challenges modernist aesthetics and technocracy.
Equating art-and-technology with machine aesthetics, kinetic gadgets, and other spectacles that feed on and sustain modernist discourses rather than interrogate them, Harrison and other critics of conceptual art were unaware of, unimpressed by, or disinterested in this critical aspect of artists’ use of technology. Yet, Harrison’s early-1980s description of Art & Language’s Index 01 (1972) , explicitly referred to the fields of artificial intelligence and what has come to be known as neurophilosophy, with strong overtones of cybernetics and systems theory. In this regard, his discussion of the systematic approaches of conceptual art is remarkably similar to Burnham’s theories on the systematic relationship between technology and conceptual art as exemplified in Software. A&L’s Index, moreover, can be thought of as a kind of manual hypertext system that allows for the interactive associative linking of ideas. As mentioned above, the first public exhibition of hypertext took place in Burnham’s exhibition. In these ways, both the practice and criticism of conceptual art and art-and-technology are much more closely related than the historicization of the artistic tendencies as distinct categories would lead one to believe.
Harrison’s accounts of Art & Language tend to focus on identifying the philosophical and political foundations of the group’s challenges to the aesthetic discourses of modernism. But by limiting its foil to pre-war notions of materiality and production and formalist aesthetic issues, his history of A&L (like the art criticism of conceptual art in general) is unnecessarily narrow in its implications because it fails to address the relationship of late-twentieth-century experimental art to the information age of post-industrial society. In addition to the relevant philosophical, political, and aesthetic issues, a more comprehensive account of post--World War II art must also take into consideration the specific scientific and technological theories and developments that contributed to larger social formations that impacted all aspects of material culture.
The continuities between art-and-technology and conceptual art are more readily apparent from a historical distance of three decades, removed from the aesthetico-political debates of that time. Advances in electronics, computing and telecommunications---and especially the advent of the Internet---have provided tools that enable artists to interrogate the conventional materiality and semiotic complexity of art objects in ways that were not available 30 years ago. Such developments also bring into relief the failure of critical discourses to reconcile how the work of an artist could be allied simultaneously with both art-and-technology and conceptual art. Haacke, for example, exhibited at the Howard Wise Gallery, and his work features prominently in key monographs on kinetic art and art-and-technology. Nonetheless, his work has been canonized primarily within the context of Conceptual Art. Other artists, like Ascott, remained simultaneously visible and invisible to each camp throughout the 1960s and 1970s, because of his close affinities to both. The critical reception and historicization of Haacke and Ascott says less about their work than it does about the institutional mechanisms that have created and reinforced categorical distinctions between art-and-technology and conceptual art at the expense of identifying continuities between them.
By respecting the differences between these artistic tendencies, while at the same time understanding some of the common theoretical threads that they have shared, a more comprehensive account of art since the mid-twentieth century can be formulated. Such a history will acknowledge cybernetics, information theory and systems theory as foundational intellectual models that, in combination with the advent of digital computing and telecommunications, played a significant role in shaping culture. As Burnham wrote in 1970, Information processing technology influences our notions about creativity, perception and the limits of art. . . . It . . . is probably not the province of computers and other telecommunication devices to produce works of art as we know it; but they will, in fact be instrumental in redefining the entire area of esthetic awareness .
A shorter version of this essay was first published in SIGGRAPH 2001 Electronic Art and Animation Catalog, (New York: ACM SIGGRAPH, 2001): 8-15 and is reprinted by permission of ACM SIGGRAPH. That version was expanded and reprinted in Art Inquiry 3: 12 (2001): 7-33 and Leonardo 35:3 (August, 2002): 433-38. Translated into Polish in Kwartalnik Filmowy (Film Quarterly) 2001, No 3-4. Special Issue: New Media. This version is forthcoming in Michael Corris, ed., Invisible College: Reconsidering “Conceptual Art” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Some material is drawn from the author’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Art in the Information Age: Cybernetics, Software, Telematics, and the Conceptual Contributions of Art and Technology to Art History and Aesthetic Theory,” Duke University, 2001. Research was supported in part by a LUCE/American Council of Learned Societies dissertation fellowship in American art during the 1998-99 academic year. I would like to thank Jack Burnham, Joseph Kosuth, Les Levine, and Hans Haacke for generously offering insights into Software and the relationship of technology to Conceptual Art. I am grateful to Kristine Stiles, Charles Harrison, Mel Ramsden, and Michael Baldwin for patiently reading and rereading this text and offering excellent editorial suggestions, and to Judy Fishman for nurturing my love of art.
Judith Benjamin Burnham, ed., Software, Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art
(New York: The Jewish Museum, 1971).
Jack Burnham, “The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems,” On the Future of Art (New York: Viking,
1970) p. 119.
Jack Burnham, “Notes on Art and Information Processing,” in Burnham  p. 10.
Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics” Artforum 7:1 (Sep 1968) p. 30-35; “Real Time Systems”
Artforum 8:1 (Sep 1969) p. 49-55.
Jack Burnham, correspondence with the author, 23 April 1998.
Jack Burnham, “Alice’s Head,” Artforum 8:6(Feb 1970), reprinted in Jack Burnham, Great
Western Salt Works (New York: George Braziller, 1974) p. 47.
Les Levine, artist’s statement, in Burnham  p. 61. Subsequent quotation from same source.
Levine quoted in Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970) p. 340.
Les Levine, telephone interview with the author, 21 January, 1999. Curiously, this recent
statement employs rhetoric that belies Levine’s anticipation of Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra.
Hans Haacke, interview with the author, 2 January 1999.
Haacke  explained that the Software questionnaire was almost identical to the version he
proposed for his solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, which the museum
canceled. See also Brian Wallis, ed., Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1986) pp. 82—87.
Hans Haacke, artist’s statement in Burnham  p. 34.
Hans Haacke, artist’s statement in Hans Haacke, exh. cat. (New York: Howard Wise Gallery,
1968); quoted in Burnham  “Systems Esthetics,” p. 35.
Joseph Kosuth, artist’s statement, in Burnham  p. 68.
Robert C. Morgan, Art into Ideas (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996) pp. 2-3.
Edward A. Shanken, “Gemini Rising, Moon in Apollo: Attitudes Towards Art and Technology in
the US, 1966--1971,” in ISEA97 (Proceedings of International Society for Electronic Art)
(Chicago: ISEA97, 1998); reprinted on-line in Leonardo Electronic Almanac <B>6<D>, No. 12
(January 1999), <http://mitpress.mit.edu/e journals/LEA/ARTICLES/gemini.html>.
Jasia Reichardt, interview with the author, 30 July 1998, London.
Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Stiles and Selz, Theories and Documents of
Contemporary Art, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 825.
Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. xvi.
Charles Harrison, Essays on Art & Language (London: Basil Blackwell, 1991; Cambridge, Mass:
MIT Press, 2001): 17.
Harrison  p. 260, n. 25.
Harrison  p. 261, n. 30.
Charles Harrison, “The Late Sixties in London and Elsewhere,” in Hillary Gresty, ed.,
1965—1972---When Attitudes Became Form, (Cambridge, U.K.: Kettle’s Yard Gallery, 1984)
Michael Baldwin, email correspondence with the author, April 9, 2002.
Jack Burnham, “Steps in the Formulation of Real-Time Political Art,” in Kaspar Koenig, ed.,
Hans Haacke: Framing and Being Framed, 7 Works 1970--1975 (Halifax, Canada: The Press
of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975) pp. 128--129.
Illustrated in Harrison  p. 58.
Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, and Harold Hurrell, “Lecher System,” Studio
International vol 180, no 924 (July--August 1970); reprinted in Meyer  pp. 22--25.
Harrison  p. 56.
Detail illustrated in Harrison  p. 52.
30. CAM/L EDUCATION
T1: The highly committed artist.
T2: A member of the new leisured class.
T3: Full time student.
Learning Net Coordinates…:
CI Concerns matters of personal identity, of role searching/playing and the
social relationship of the individual to his environment.
C2 Concerns material, physical conditions and processes, and the
limitations and possibilities inherent in them.
C3 Concerns the formulation of concepts and the examination of
HO Involves an intensive one to one relationship between the individual
and tutor (human or adaptive machine).
LO Involves group learning and social exploration of less intensity (with or
without supporting hardware).
iC intensify Creativity
iP intensify Play
iO intensify Operant Conditioning
The general needs of each Input Type can be codified as follows:
Ascott, “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision” Cybernetica, vol 10 (1967), p. 25-56.
Harrison  p. 72.
32. Compare, for example, Harrison  p. 72-3 with Burnham  p. 12.
Burnham,  p. 11.
BIO: Edward Shanken is Executive Director of the Information Science + Information
Studies program (ISIS) at Duke University. He is editor of a collection of essays by Roy Ascott,
entitled Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Dr. Shanken earned his MBA at Yale (1990) and
his Ph.D. in Art History at Duke (2001). He is a former Arts Administration fellow at the National
Endowment for the Arts and a fellow of the American Council for Learned Societies.
CONCEPTUAL ART AND THE CONTINUING QUEST FOR A NEW SOCIAL CONTEXT
Rochester Institute of Technology
In order to understand the meaning of artistic products, we have to forget them for a time, to turn aside from them and have recourse to the ordinary forces and conditions of experience that we do not usually regard as aesthetic. We must arrive at the theory of art by means of a detour (Dewey, 1934). In challenging the notion of formalist aesthetic taste during the late sixties, a scattered group of artists, centered primarily in New York City, began to reveal the wider implications of art which had been largely ignored by galleries and museums. Their efforts suggested that objects made and distributed within a somewhat limited art. context become part of a much larger social context; that, although art reflects the concerns of a society at a particular time and through a particular artist's interpretation, its attachment to that society is eminently clear. Whether art works exist in the form of objects, installations, propositions, or events, they have the power to effect and to be effected by the social structure which attributes meaning to them.
A decade ago, conceptual artists became the new mediators between information and culture. They chose to create statements instead of objects. These statements were presented in the form of language which translated their intentions into ideas. Language was also a vehicle of criticism for evaluating the content, often depleted, in the production of art objects. This further involved the task of examining the role of art in relation to the social and political structure--whether or not this structure was a conscious part of the work in terms of formal intent. In retrospect, conceptual art may be seen as a polemic gesture--a series of attacks which disturbed the seemingly rational aesthetics of critics who sought to dictate formal taste as historical fact. The subtle incentives whirh dealers began to impose upon artists as a result of these criteria--beginning with the advent of abstract expressionism as big business--was mistakenly correlated with substantive aesthetic value. Regardless of how abstract these images appeared or how much raw emotion was displayed, they ultimately became symbQlic representations of a lucrative and powerful social investment which needed the reinforcement of aesthetic taste.
The alternative, for the conceptualists, was to induce a form that could exist beyond the necessity of object-making altogether. Form might then be evaluated in platonic terms, that is, in its pure idea state, without the interference of conventional containers (objects) that were presumed to hold sensory and/or formal qualities. The Modernist complicity between viewer, critic, and object could be replaced by recalling attention to the artist's mode of inquiry. The viewer's patience or delight (as the case may be) could be shifted to the consciousness of the receiver; that is, the person receiving and evaluating the information on a visual-thought basis, rather than on a strictly formal basis. The role of the critic-historian was regarded as an unnecessary hybrid that tended to usurp the responsibility of communication from the artist. The credibility of the artist's moae of inquiry would still be dependent upon an informed audience with a willingness to unravel the cognitive aspects of the work.
Joseph Kosuth once argued that the basis of conceptual art was its "infrastructural analysis" of those issues which other. contemporary artists chose to ignore (1975, p. 89-90). He believed that art existed as a tautology--a language of its own making, an artist-intended structure-and that taste was an irrelevant fact.or. The substance of art could be evaluated in terms of its public (social context) but the intrinsic fact of the work was simply the information that it communicated. In reflecting upon the development of cOl'lceptual art during the middle to late sixties, Kosuth believed it to be an expression of social turmoil and political unrest. The extremes of this era were epitomized by Modernism on the one hand, and conceptual art on the other. Kosuth remarked:
The myth of Modernism, which includes painting and sculpture, collapsing at our heels, left only its shock waves--the sense of a more direct relationship with the cultural bias of western civilization. Perhaps there is some interwoven nature to the myth of America and the myth of Modernism, and when both have been sufficiently unwoven the autonomy of art may be seen for what it was: one colored strand and part of a larger fabric (1975, p. 94).
The need for a greater awareness of the cultural bias used in determining the validity of art works (as art) has become a lingering issue among younger artists currently working in England, Europe, South America, and the United States. The British artist-photographer, Victor Burgin, has written about this problem in evaluating art from the point of view of semiotics. Burgin, whose thinking is derived from that of the French critic, Roland Barthes, understands semiotics as the relationship of cultural signs as revealed through language (i.e., photography = visual language) to the identification of an ideology within the culture (1977, p. 37).
Rather than being a phenomenon unique to contemporary art, Burgin sees the ideology of Modernism as a development of stale aesthetic attitudes leftover from the Nineteenth Century. He feels that conceptual art was important because it "administered a rebuff to the Modernist demand for aesthetic confections and for formal novelty for its own sake (1976, p. 18)". Burgin further suggests that semiotics may replace Modernism as a viable artistic process. In so doing, it would serve as a vehicle to "unmask the mystifications of bourgeosis culture by laying bare its codes, by exposing the devices through which it constructs its selfimage (1976, p. 24)".
The synchronization of art and culture has become a tenuous issue. Although dependent upon each other, neither exists as the sale cause of the other. Burgin seems to conclude that if art works are to have any real significance in effecting social change, there should be. a topical inference built into their presentation. This point of view is perhaps more radical in theory than the majority of works presented by conceptualists in America during the sixties.
Whereas Ad Reinhardt's much quoted tautology exclaims "Art in art is art," Burgin seems to align art directly with culture for the purpose of revealing social attitudes which are designated outside the framed image. More specifically, Burgin perceives the social context of art as expressing the dogma of a past culture held in solemn reverence by the middle class. His polemic is, therefore, directed against Modernist art that signifies the past.
The relationship of art to the social and political protests of the late sixties was an underlying concern among the Fluxus artists in New York. Although less ideologically cohesive than the conceptualists, Fluxus influenced the important Guerilla Art Action Group which demonstrated or performed as the case may be, vehement protests against the art establishment (museums, galleries, etc.). On January 10, 1970, they issued a statement which declared:
Art is satisfied with being an aesthetic/machinery, satisfied with being a continuum of itself and its so-called history, while in fact, it has become the supreme instrument through which our repressive society idealizes its image. Art is used today to distract people from the urgency of their crises. Art is used today to force people to accept more easily the repression of big business (Hendricks. eta al., 1973, p. 79).
This document by Jon Hendricks, Poppy Johnson, and Joan Toche foretells Kosuth's explanation five years later that conceptual art was "the art of the Vietnam war era" (Kosuth, 1975. p. 94). It was also the era of civil rights demonstrations, Black power, urban uprisings, student protests, assassinations, hippies, communes, and environmentalism. Marshall McLuhan observed that a new awareness of media had brought a change in cultural attitudes, and that these changes were beginning to reach t.he American public in heavy doses. Whether or not one chooses to accept McLuhan's aesthetic attitude is irrelevant; the fact remains that a number of artists began using electronic and printed media. In lieu of painting and sculpture as a more direct and instant means for communicating their ideas.
The Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, once Wrote that "thinking is the endeavor to capture reality by means of ideas; the spontaneous movement of the mind goes from concepts to the world" (no date, p. 34). It was precisely this synapse between thought and action which became the embodiment of a new attitude about art. It was this new attitude that brought the Fluxus group and thell the conceptualists, whose work was essentially non-object oriented, into conflict with the existing social order. Conceptual art as defined by Kosuth and the Art and Language constituency in Britain, attempted to suspend aesthetic judgment in order to emphasize the existence of ideas. Often their ideas, or the verv fact that their work was free of any object association, had social implications that defied th~ existing infrastructure.
Another side of conceptual art, not entirely in agreement with Art and Language, presented ideas as systems, in order to emphasize their function and active engagement within the course of time. Such artists as Douglas Huebler, Hans Haacke, Agnes Denes, John Baldessari, Yvonne Rainer, Allan Kaprow, Don Burgy, On Kawara, Hanne Darboven, Les Levine, and Daniel Buren, dealt with sequences or linear progressions in their work. Their intentions were diverse and often complexly interwoven, including sources borrowed from science, social science, philosophy, art, economics and technology. In general, these artists focused attention on systems which allowed the repeated examination of patterns, motifs and structures to occur outside of any deliberate aesthetic manipulation. Some of these systemic works were attempting to depart from the conventional art context where the artist controlled the process or medium.
They sought a more literal structure, in order to allow new meanings to evolve through the engagement of social processes. According to critic Jack Burnham, conceptual art existed as an activity in "real time" thus operating concurrently with actual living processes rather than apart from them (1969, p. 50). Burnham defined this orientation as follows: A major illusion of art systems is that art resides in specific objects. Such artifacts are the material basis for the concept of the "work of art." But, in essence, all institutions which process art data, thus making information, are components of the work of art. Without the support system, the object ceases to have definition; but without the object, the support system can still sustain the notion of art. So we can see why the art experience attaches itself less and less to canonical or given forms but embraces every conceivable experiential mode, including living in everyday environments (1969, p. 50).
Burnham's statement shifts attention from the object as an entity unto itself to that of a cross-cultural matrix upon which art works acquire meaning. As a result of this shift, one might consider his or her aesthetic response to displayed objects as being dependent upon some knowledge of the original culture or sub-culture to which they refer. Brian O'Doherty has pointed out that a "neutral" viewing space never exists within the context of art (1976, p. 26-34). Inevitably, art objects assume a certain level of social mobility which often becomes the basis for their presentetion. Therefore, aesthetic response may be obfuscated by those attempts to disguise the relationship of art to culture by imposing neutrality upon objects which mayor may not be considered in terms of their decorative appeal. The estrangement of the art object from its cultural setting immediately puts the viewer in suspension and thereby attempts to enforce a social context which is devoid of complex meaning.
By refocusing aesthetic response as a means of thought processing, rather than towards the object as being an end in itself, one may become more aware of the derivation of meaning projected into objects made by artists. In this way, the experience of time may be felt as an intrinsic condition of aesthetic response and as a coherent part of the context in which the work is produced. Therefore, Burnham's emphasis on real time as a condition for experiencing the artist's idea becomes a critical notion in regard to meaning.
Douglas Huebler has emphasized the presence of time in carrying out various procedures or events which are then documented through the use of photographs, maps, written statements, postal receipts, newspaper articles, letters, legal papers, sketches, and other paraphornalia. quebler's attitude is one of deliberate detachment from the documents. Although he is engaged in the recording process to the extent that he defines the parameters of an idea, all future control is relinquished in order to allow the functioning of the work itself to reveal his intentions (Note 1). The relationship of time to the interrogation of various social myths is essential to Huebler's construct. He works directly within the social structure. Systems--such as city streets, post offices, news media, elevators, bird calls, etc.--are simply the raw material with which the artist works. The behavior of individuals within these systems continues to function--often unaware of the artist's intention on a level commensurate to that of any behavioral function in real time. In a catalog statement for his 1972 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Huebler states:
A system existing in the world, disinterested in the purposes of art, may he "plugged into" in such a way as to produce a work that possesses a separate existence and that neither changes nor comments on the system used (Note 2).
In Location Piece No.6 from that exhibition, for example, the artist solicited articles of "local interest" from various newspapers throughout the United States, which would be used as part of an "information processing cycle (Note 2). Huebler presented documents (software extensions of the piece) which included press photographs with captions and letters from those editors who agreed to participate. One might interpret Location Piece No.6 as a clear examination of the social context from which various provincial sub-cultures in America come to perceive themselves. Such a statement would not be likely to occur through the Associated Press; however, through this juxtaposition of images and captions, placed indeterminately in a random grid pattern, the artist represents an idea that is greater than the sum of its parts. This arrangement of documents reveals the social basis by which a work of art is perceived. Just as the experience of time has been a central concern in Huebler's work, a similar concern possessed the artist Hans Haacke. As early as 1962, Haacke was working with systems in such hydrodynamic works as Rain Tower (Vickers, 1939, p. 45). One of the artist's major considerations was the presentation of time through natural, physical occurences. Rain Tower appears somewhat mitlimalistic, consisting of ten acrylic boxes piled one on top of another in a vertical column. Inside these transparent cubes, the viewer perceives water descending from the highest box through a succession of boxes; each water level corresponds in ratio to the sequential position of each box. Given an equal area of interior space within each of the units, the air and water ratio determined itself systematically as evaporation began occurring at the highest level.
Haacke has emphasized the fact that he does not concern himself with the working-out of formal solutions to art problems as a primary issue; rather, his interests are directed toward comprehending the system of a particular phenomenon while observing its transformation by way of "natural time and natural laws" (Vinklers, 1969, p. 46). This comment was directed primarily at the artist's earlier works in which he was associated with the Group Zero in Dusseldorf, and the Groupe de recherche d'art visuel in Paris during the early 60's. Critic Betite Vinklers established that Haacke's use of systems is generally of two types: first, there is the production of a system which incorporates natural laws, such as gravity and evaporation; and secondly, there is the representation of a system which already exists, but to which the artist responds by tapping into it (1969, p. 49). This latter approach--one which has characterized Haacke's work since 1969--was powerfully evidenced in an exhibition at the John Weber Gallery in New York called The Good Will Umbrella (1977).
Haacke presented seven silkscreencd facsimiles of the Mobil Oil placard mounted across one wall of the gallery. Beneath the obtrusive word MOBIL, spelled-out in red and blue across the top of each unit, two pages of text were placed side by side. The major text was an advance copy of an address given by a public relations official representing Mobil Oil Corporation at a 1975 convention for advertizing executives. The address, entitled "Farewell to a Low Profile," indicated that the much-publicized generosity of Mobil Oil during the 70's was a necessary ploy in order to advance their "good will" ideology. It was further implied that while their support of "the arts" appeared altruistic, it was in fact, a necessary diversion used to defend other forms of exploitation. Haacke later had this comment to offer:
Ironically, the ideological stabilization of power in the hands of a given power elite is predicated on the mobilization of the resources for its potential overthrow. If "repressive tolerance" were as smothering as Herbert Marcuse fears, there would be no need to spend enormous amounts of money for propaganda and the public relations efforts of big corporations. These investments attest to the race between an ever more sophisticated public and newly developed techniques of persuasion, in which also art is increasingly used as an instrument (1977, pp. 101-108).
Haacke's recent work may be characterized as metacritical in the sense that it is commenting upon the social, political, and economic strata which continue to sustain Modernist tendencies as institutional parapets for various funding agencies, businesses, a"d methods of art appreciation in schools and museums. The irony in Haacke's work lies in the contradiction between the nature of his commentary and the conventional commercial dealership which enables his work to be taken seriously within the context of art. Were it not for the fact that The Good Will Umbrella (and related works before and since) was exhibited in a commercial gallery, it is doubtful whether such a statement could sustain its intensity as a viable social criticism. However, it should be noted that Haacke's work is largely effective because it transforms the meaning of art in current times--not by appearance, but according to function--from that of interior decoration to an awareness of its social signification, thus influencing "personal" tastes and thinking about art. Burnham has viewed Haacke's research into these systems as a succinct alternative to the formal criteria of modernism. He explains:
Rather than the manipulation of color, gestalts and textual surfaces, he has chosen to define art in terms of open and closed systems, self-regulating, as opposed to run-away systems, and hierarchical organization of physical relationships (l975).
Although objects and events may exist in and of themselves within the context of art, it does not necessarily follow that they will always be understood as existing within that context. Although this problem was introduced via Duchamp's anonymous selection of "readymades", the conceptualists were confronting it in a less subtle, more political manner. Les Levine, for example, believes that most artworks produced today do not go beyond the fringes of traditional aesthetics, i.e., the philosophy of beauty as perceived through the senses, in their consideration of content. Rather than designating art as a vehicle for examining the wider social and cultural nexus from which ideas emanate, the contemporary audience considers art as "a self-generating system which exists within itself and is neither affected by nor effects society or the state of the world" (Note 3). A number of projects by American artists have shown an increasing interest in the relationship of artworks to the social system. A classic example would be Robert Morris' notarized statement of 1963, entitled, "Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal" (1972, p. 28). The purpose of this gesture by Morris was to suspend any aesthetic reference to a piece of sculpture which he had placed on exhibition. As a result, people were encouraged to examine the work for reasons other than artistic enrichment or enjoyment. The issue, in this case, became the anonymous presence of the form occupying a particular space; the relationship of the viewer to his or her social space became more apparent than the validity of the object as art.
Dan Graham, who over the years has constructed a series of politically conscious video installations that manipulate the existence of social barriers as illusionistic space (1977, p. 52-61), mounted a window display at a non-profit gallery in lower Manhattan in January, 1979. The intent of Graham's piece was to project slides on to a rear screen facing the street, giving an "inside" view of current gallery exhibitions in the neighboring vicinity (Note 4). It just so happens that the neighboring vicinity abounds with artworks, lofts, galleries. artists and dealers. The superficiality of this scene may be epitomized in Graham's photographs of these standardized interiors, each of which presents thetr artists' works according to code. Although hidden from one another in real space by artificial walls and built structures, the gallery system is revealed as one continuous network of commercial and advertising interests. Graham's installation portrays the art world as reflecting the same set of values found anywhere else within the social structure.
During the present decade. a number of conceptualists have turned their attention directly toward the social and political implications of their art. The advocates of Art and Language (Note 5) continued to attract artists and theorists from America and elsewhere--especially during the early seventies, when conceptual art seemed to have peaked in terms of interest level and publicity. The artists who followed the thinking of Art and Language adopted various hybrids of Marxist philosophy in support of their position against the art establishment. Their attitude was generally anti-formalist and, therefore, cynical about the forced linearity of Modernism in post-war art history. Terry Atkinson maintained a significant influence along these lines and did much to sustain the credibility of his arguments.
The later publication of The Fox (Note 6) by the New York constituency of Art and Language became a vehicle for expressing antipathies against decontextualized exhibitions in galleries and museums. The importance of The Fox in its earlier issues was to offer a neo-Marxist style of aesthetic dissent. In the second issue, Kosuth wrote:
My reading of art history tells me that I now find myself capable of seeing for art (out of art) a tradition independent of and unmolested by a social coloration . . . which describes and reenforces the presently unacceptable social status-quo. In this-8ense the Marxists are correct when they claim that art cannot be apolitical. When I realize this I must ask myself: if art is necessarily political (though not necessarily about politics) is it not necessary to make one's politics explicit? If art is context dependent (as I've always maintained) then it cannot escape a socio-political context of meaning (ignoring this issue only means that one's art drifts into one). (1975, p. 95)
In an age of rapid transit on both a physical and intellectual level. the availability of art is no secret, that is, the availability of art information. The values are no more available today than they were centuries ago. Kosuth's reasoning is that differences in culture influence the social context in which art objects are seen; therefore only a very private segment of artwork is representative of human culture. The ideas inherent within this private segment (white, upper middle class) may not be as faulty as the push for standardization behind it, which tends to isolate the context. To open up the ground rules for the availability of art as information may indeed transform the aesthetic notion of "quality;" yet it also has the potential of spiritually satisfying those who exist without art yet seek social acceptance on the basis of their equally- refined signs and symbols. If conceptual art failed as a serious challenge to contemporary art history. as the critic Max Kozloff (1972, pp. 33-37) has implied, then it surely succeeded in pointing out the limitations of contemporary culture as a foundation for evaluating "good" art. On the other hand. the extremist position of The Fox has managed to confuse the absence of art production with normattve art history in order to substantiate premises for social change. The fact is that real social change is immune to the narrow rhetoric of art. The inevitable stuffiness of such reverberating polemics tends to be overbearing. At a time when conceputal art has been so completely absorbed into the academic mainstream, it would seem that a greater challenge exists for artists than the kind of cultural high-jumping that has appeared in various counter-art periodicals over the past few years.
Nonetheless, the first phase in the development of a conceptual art has been achieved. It has extended the basic Duchampian notion with regard to alleviating the pseudomystical (economic) attitudes given to static objects in contemporary art. Such myths involving aesthetic discrimination as an entity detached from the actual perception of objects, has been repudiated. Consequently, the role of appreciative viewer changed to that of active participant--not merely within the context of art. but through a heightened awareness towards self-inquiry. Hence, the reality of ideas became a source for renewed awareness directly linked to autobiographical concerns. Any art that extends the limitations of a shrunken value system tends to reflect the deeper experiences of individuals who question their relationship to it. It will take time before the visibility is clear enough to see the object distinctly. In the meantime, there are some good ideas and some important artists worth considering on the detour.
An earlier version of this paper appears in Journal: Southern California Art Magazine, Number 23, June-July 1979
1. Huebler, D. Taped conversation, August 15, 1976, in Truro, Massachusetts.
2. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Douglas Huebler (catalog). Exhibition organized by Christopher Cook in association with The Institute of Contemporary Art, 1972. Artist statements on front inside cover.
3. Levine. L. Catalogue of after art services. New York City, 1974.
4. Exhibition/Exhibitions. Franklin Furnace, New York, January, 1979.
5. Art and language refers to both a group of artists and a press, founded in Coventry, England, 1968. The group has exhibited their work off and on at the John Weber Gallery, New York.
The original title of their publication was Art-Language:
The Journal of Conceptual Art, which first appeared in May, 1969, included published works by American conceptualists such as Sol Lewitt, Lawrence Weiner and Dan Graham. The periodical Art-Languase has recently (1978) merged with !h!. Fox; thus representing both the British and American constituencies, which have changed membership somewhat in the last ten years.
6. The Fox 1. New York: Jaap Rietman, Inc. (distributor), 1974.
Burgin, V. Socialist Formalism. In Two Essays on Art PhotJsraphy and
Semiotics. London: Robert Self Publications, 1976.
Burgin, V. Looking at Photographs. ~Tr_ a c_ ~, 1977,1(3).
Burnham, J. Real Time Systems. Al·tforu~, 1969, September.
Burnham, J. Steps in the Formulation of a Real-Time Political Art. In H. Haa~ke, Framing and Being Fram~. Halifax, Nova Scotia: New York University, the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975.
Dewey, J. Art as E~eriencet 1934.
Graham, D. Three Projects for Architecture and Video/Notes. Tracks, 1977, 1(3).
Haacke, Hans. The Contituency. Tracks, 1977, 1(3).
Hendricks, J., et. all Towards a New Humanism. In G. Battcock (Ed.), The New Art (Rev. Ed.). New York: Dutton, 1973.
Kozloff, M3x. The Trouble with Art As Idea. Artforum. September, 1972.Kosuth, J. 1975. The Fox 2. 1975.
Morris, R. Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal. In H. Rosenberg, The Dedefinition of Art. New York: Collier Books, 1972.
O'Doherty, B. Inside The White Cube, Part II: The Eye and the Spectator. Artforum, 1976, April.
Ortega y Gasset, J. The Dehumanization of Art. New York: Doubleday Anchor, no date.
Vinklers, B. Hans Haacke. Art International, 1969, 13(7).
(Extracted from NAEA Convention Caucus Papers, 1981 at http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED336291 , on 5/7/2009)
Industry, commercialism and the bourgeois are very much with us. This whole notion of trying to form a cult that transcends all this strikes me as a kind of religion-in-drag, you might say. I’m just bored with it, frankly. —Robert Smithson¹
AS THE LAWRENCE WEINER RETROSPECTIVE at the Whitney Museum fades to white under multiple coats of Kilz and latex paint, and his various exuberant ephemera take up residence at LA MoCA before wending their way back to their rightful property owners; as Tate Modern and the ICA London emerge from momentary spells of whispered headlines, random sketching, streams of consciousness, and face slapping; as New York’s New Museum concludes its vestigial assault on the Work of Art, not to mention the etiquette of proper spacing, and as visitors to the new building experience the worst case of buyer’s remorse since the reopening of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; as the Metropolitan Museum’s Dutch paintings readjust to the staid organizing principles of artist’s name, date, and genre rather than hanging according to who bought what from whom (on whose advice) and resold it to so-and-so, who then donated it to the Met; and as the scent of modesty—prosaic, charcoal filtered, crystalline—emanates from the 2008 Whitney Biennial, now is as good a time as any to talk about money.
Not money in the massive, toxic sense that characterizes most mentions of it in the context of art, but money in the modest, expansive, nurturing sense that allows artists to pursue their work in its variegated forms. Any discussion of the global economy as a whole would be practically useless if it started from the assumption that General Electric and Sony and Microsoft were the only entities worth talking about, so one has to wonder how illuminating discussions of artists and money can be when they are almost always limited to superlative cases like Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons—limited that is, to whatever artworks accrue the most zeros in the preproduction, postauction universe. These artists, like Microsoft, are what an economist would call mature companies in established markets, meaning that everything that might be dynamic about them, and the effect that dynamism had on the market, has already happened. The bulk of their efforts are now dedicated to protecting their brands and inserting them into all available markets, from key chains to plaza sculptures. As in art, in economics the perpetual discovery and implementation of new materials, new technologies, and new business strategies—the sum effect of which Austria-born economist Joseph Schumpeter termed creative destruction²—have a ruthless, catalytic effect on all businesses, regardless of their age and size. In Schumpeter’s characterization, young, nimble, and/or eccentric enterprises present greater growth opportunities than do older, established firms because they are better positioned to adapt to the changes that their very existence brings forth. Key to Schumpeter’s vision of annihilating progress, though, is his observation that the race does not always go to the biggest or most capitalized competitor; rather, exclusive businesses like corner grocers and custom snowboard manufacturers can thrive no matter their size or technical prowess, simply because their operations are too small and incremental to bear the brunt of creative destruction’s perennial force. Schumpeter writes: “A system—any system, economic or other—that at every given point of time fully utilizes its possibilities to the best advantage may yet in the long run be inferior to a system that does so at no given point of time, because the latter’s failure to do so may be a condition for the level or speed of long-term performance.”³ This notion of long-term, inefficient, but ultimately superior performance applies exactly to the kind of artists I want to discuss. Not artists who, at every moment, maximize their capitalization and production and exposure, but artists who manage to make a living by minimizing those things, thereby expanding the value system of art and, by extension, the aesthetic of what “making money” looks like—the kinds of actions it might embody and the forms it might take.
In the course of doing so, however, I will need to loosen up several myths that have stunted many recent discussions of artists and money: (1) that art produced in factories is more explicitly (and critically) about money because it expends materials and labor in more obvious ways than art produced in a studio or on a laptop; (2) that money is only interesting in large sums; and (3) that if production only happens in factories and money is only interesting in large sums, then any less than spectacular pursuit of money by an artist must be a kind of death (not worthwhile, a self-imposed drudgery, etc.) or pornography (a willingness to do anything for a little money, no matter how degrading) or both, clearly distasteful and beneath the nobler pursuits of beauty and politics and thought.
Obviously, we can attribute the first myth to Warhol. Now, I admire Andy Warhol, but I think there is little about his oeuvre or his approach to making art that is of use to profit-minded artists now. The idea of art being made in a factory might have been a radical concept in the ’60s, but we would do well to remember that corporations at that time were already in the process of making Warhol-type factories obsolete, as labor pressures, environmental regulations, and supply-chain logistics rendered archetypal factory production untenable. Factories require preplanning, capitalization, operation, security, and maintenance. In a word, overhead: costs to be borne by the factory owner, be it General Electric or Takashi Murakami. Minimizing overhead is essential to creating the physical and mental spaces—the margins—from which an artist’s delightful, unforeseen profits can spring. Conceptual art exemplified this break from factory production in that, wittingly or not, its various approaches entailed such radical (and profitable!) new business strategies as mass customization, data mining, value adding, and inventory velocity. Conceptual art traded the efficiency of manufacturing as many identical things as possible up front (and then transporting, displaying, storing, and insuring them until people could be persuaded to buy them) for the efficiency of not making anything until somebody wants it and will assume production costs. There is no better example of this than the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt.
Last year, during the months of dismay and recovery that followed the news of LeWitt’s death, an amazing thing happened: Brand-new works by the artist sprang up all around the world, beautiful, vast, delicate images pulled from manila folders and executed to plan as if part of a vast file-sharing festival. Whereas the value of a typical artist’s work lies in the sensibility and rarity of his or her personal output, the value of LeWitt’s wall drawings is that they can be made by many people in many places, simultaneously and repeatedly, without LeWitt needing to be present and with no appreciable loss of quality. For a long time (and still), artists made money from their art by having its value understood as an object to be possessed, usually in exchange for money. Thereafter, both the cash and the artwork are subject to their respective markets, the vagaries of history, and either an increase or decrease in value. LeWitt’s wall drawings forestall this linear fate by shattering the irreversible moment of exchange: He never really has to surrender his product and is never really paid in full. In any wall drawing, the network of idea, institution, local draftsmen, and LeWitt (if not in body, then in spirit) determines the value of the work, a value that does not rest on any one substantiation but gets remade and recalibrated over time. Which is not to say that distribution and profit margin were LeWitt’s guiding principles, but that his instinct for how an artwork might “be” in the world embodies a fundamental shift in how and where we assign value. Like the best aspects of the Internet economy, LeWitt’s starburst Wall Drawing #273: Lines to points on a grid, 1975, collects and makes sense of diverse points in space without privileging any of them, creating value (and income) out of the relations between things rather than out of the things themselves.
I think all artists choose to work the way they do because they believe it presents their best chance to achieve the level of income that will allow their art to become an all-encompassing way of life. This does not mean getting rich so much as simply selling enough work for the prospect of making new work to become a self-fulfilling cycle of affirmation, a kind of fiduciary peace of mind, like being the only baker in Thorstein Veblen’s country town.? For such artists, money does not instill the want of more money but rather the desire to make new work, which, in time, generates more money. It is a simple distinction that usually bears itself out in the art that a particular desire generates: Artists who want to get rich want money for what its accumulation represents to others; artists who want peace of mind want money for what it makes possible for themselves. Make no mistake—all artists want money, even if they already have piles of it, because nothing is more affirming than the approval of a market, the market, any market. Artists who claim otherwise either have not yet realized what they want to do, have not yet found the right market for their work (and university art departments, nonprofit institutions, and government granting agencies are markets as well), or, most likely, have not yet persuaded any market, commercial or otherwise, to expand the definition of what it buys and sells.
When you grow up working-class in a remote place and have ambitions of becoming an artist—despite the fact that the nearest art museum is an hour away, the nearest contemporary art venue three hours, and you’ve never actually seen a work of art in person—knowing how to “be” an artist, let alone how to make a living as one, is a daunting enigma. As a college student, then, discovering artists like LeWitt, Weiner, Michael Asher, Adrian Piper, Hamish Fulton, and Laurie Anderson is a revelation because they demonstrate ways of being an artist other than making paintings or the sculptures that go in front of buildings—which you could never get your head around practically, could never visualize yourself doing, and were never really interested in doing in the first place, but that was the job description as it presented itself in Columbus, Ohio, and it sure beat farming and factory work. Discovering Anderson’s Big Science LP was what changed everything: art for .99! And not only that, the whole record sounded as if it had been conceived, written, and produced in one well-equipped studio apartment. That idea—of how and where and at what expense art could be produced—was just as meaningful as the record itself. Then, as now, choosing six or seven exact words to be painted on the wall, or going for a walk, or playing the violin in public while standing on a block of ice until it melts, sounded like admirable occupations, lovely trades. Why not celebrate that about them in addition to their critical and conceptual accomplishments? In fact, why not celebrate that tradesman’s genius as a critical accomplishment in itself?
Because doing so would mean confronting art’s final taboo, class, a subject that no one, regardless of background, wants to unpack, least of all artists, who never dare broach the subject out of fear that exposing the one mortal truth about their work—how much money they make from it—would annul whatever else they like to think their work is about. Likewise, art historians, curators, and critics—who as a group seem invested in protecting art from the corruption of finance—are reluctant to discuss the possibility that the modern progenitors of the kind of contemplative, nonproductive view of art that they prefer (Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin) were able to behave accordingly in part because their industrious families had already amassed enough capital to guarantee their unencumbered ruminations. And so, unable to imagine an alternative, we tacitly acknowledge the vitality of money in public on the condition that it remain suppressed, like blood in the veins, constantly circulating but to be hinted at only upon the death of an ancestor or the occasional blush.
Like the struggle between entrenched power and grassroots change that epitomizes this year’s presidential campaign, the violent emergence and stealth occlusion of class in art was nascent in 1968. The various revolutions of that fateful year institutionalized a kind of critical contempt for any artist openly seeking to earn a living from his or her work. In the reification of that politic, many artists who, for economic reasons, work on a small scale, use consumable materials, attempt alternative distribution strategies, or move to marginal locales have fallen prey to an insidious strain of art criticism that can see their production only in negative terms, that is, as a critique of the mainstream commodity makers and of money in general—the pursuit of it, and the capitulations to both consumption and spectacle that invariably follow. From this point of view, all portable, ephemeral, or otherwise modest artworks, by the likes of Rashawn Griffin and Mitzi Pederson or Trisha Donnelly and Tino Sehgal, are to be understood solely in relation to the big commodity makers and only as a reaction against them, as de rigueur dematerialization. Of the original generation of critical revolutionaries, only Lucy Lippard has recanted (and thirty years ago, at that), writing, “Some of the blame for this situation must fall on those who, like myself, had exaggerated illusions about the ability of a ‘dematerialization of the art object’ to subvert the commodity status and political uses to which successful American art has been subjected since the late 1950s. It has become obvious over the last few years that temporary, cheap, invisible or reproducible art has made little difference in the way art and artists are economically and ideologically exploited and that it can hardly be distinguished in that sense from Cor-Ten steel sculptures and twenty-foot canvases.”
Many critical artists (myself included) would agree. They understand that they could never exist outside or above the market but that their only viable option is to try to shape the kind of market they want to inhabit. Weiner, for one, has never critiqued the market by refusing to make commodities, as the lenders’ names on his current retrospective’s wall labels make abundantly clear. Rather, he has critiqued the market by making commodities in forms that it did not yet know how to evaluate. That we now do know the value—both financial and intellectual—of Weiner’s work is a testament to how much his participation in the market transformed the range of what it was willing to take seriously. Consequently, I understand artists’ motives as being quite different from those usually imputed to them, and although I do not speak for everyone, I am confident I represent a large demographic when I say that two of the most specious motives ever attributed to artists are the critiques of authorship and of the artwork as a salable commodity. Interesting concepts, certainly, useful for papering over a lot of otherwise callow and mendacious art, but debilitating to any citizen of a liberal, capitalist democracy in which name recognition is essential to the reception and purchase of an artist’s work, whatever form it might take. Unfortunately, from 1968 until your reading of this sentence it has been very, very hard to change the subject from an irrelevant class struggle that condemns artists to a state of purity or poverty or both to an appreciation of agile, realist, freelance artists plying their trade in an information economy.
Twenty-five years ago this winter, David Hammons appeared on Cooper Square in New York with some snowballs for sale. However well made they were, selling snowballs was not then, nor is it now, a lucrative enterprise. Nonetheless, Hammons has done just fine managing that and other sundry skills, the most profitable of which may be his ability to capture the attention of gadabout curators through the refined art of ignoring them (another lovely trade). As competitive as he is economical, Hammons refuses to commit to any endeavor unless he believes he can be the best at it, and his genius, like that of Weiner and Agnes Martin, lies in his ability to invent desire for skills no one else thought worthwhile to perform—for example, kicking the bucket. Hammons’s 1995–99 video Phat Free—a pun on both black culture’s love of largeness and white culture’s obsession with losing weight—is a protracted meditation on the fact that no matter what you choose to do in life, you are in some way killing yourself, so you might as well be good at it, enjoy it, and not give a damn what anyone else thinks. The video begins with a dark screen and the audio plays alone. When an image finally does appear, about halfway through the five-minute loop, what sounded like a clothes dryer tumbling a crescent wrench turns out to be Hammons kicking a bucket down the street. It’s interesting. The sound of the metal bucket coming into contact with the uneven sidewalk is joyfully calamitous, and Hammons is quite adept at keeping the eccentrically shaped vessel on a fairly straight course. That passersby pay him no mind is only a testament to his skill. After crossing the street and heading back in the other direction, the camera zooms in, and Hammons ups the ante. Having allowed the bucket to loll to a dead stop, he places his foot on the rim, presses down firmly, and then flips the vessel into the air, where it turns over once before landing in his outstretched hand, like a top hat of Fred Astaire’s. Then the screen goes black, the audio comes back to the fore, and Hammons kicks the bucket all over again.
I like thinking that Hammons stumbled on his bucket-kicking skill while on the way to doing something else—making art by more usual methods, perhaps—since smart people allow themselves to be inspired by those in-between moments when they are not making art at all. In such a state of mind, the avoidance of convention and the necessity of living can become a kind of rock and a hard place, a pressure point capable of squeezing out some pretty inventive work.
This past February, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London revived nearly all of Jérôme Bel’s dances, including Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2005), an arch and entertaining parable in which the two choreographers act out an inquisitive kind of cultural anthropology. It is a trademark of Bel’s thinking that a given thing—a pop song, the stage, an “exotic” person—can be taken so literally as to be crushed under the weight of its own familiarity, and Bel makes as many diamonds as he does bits of gravel with his exhilarating, pressure-packed approach. There is much about Pichet Klunchun and Myself that will raise eyebrows—the entire scenario, in fact. The choreography starts with the stage empty except for two ordinary metal chairs facing each other, placed about fifteen feet apart. Klunchun, from Thailand, is in the left chair. His hair is close-cropped; he is barefoot, and dressed in lean, lightweight clothes. His only props are two clear plastic bottles of water with the labels removed. Bel, from France, is in the right chair. He is scruffy and unkempt, dressed in shoes engineered well beyond any use he will have for them and baggy pants with many pockets of the same ilk. His props are a white MacBook Pro and a power strip with the cables streaming offstage. East meets West? Bel’s character goes first and proceeds to ask Klunchun’s character a few perfunctory, INS-type questions, before delving into the exactitude of classical Thai dance.
As the performance progresses, many grand assumptions are framed but left unstated—for example, that monarchy breeds virtuosity and that democracy breeds amateurism. At one point, after Klunchun has demonstrated a fraction of what appears to be the infinite symbolic subtlety of Thai movement (Klunchun is absolutely mesmerizing, even in demonstration), he asks Bel to show off some of his own choreography. Bel proceeds to stand, walk to the rear of the stage, and gape about for several minutes in silence, as if waiting for a bus. Stunned, Klunchun asks why anyone would pay to see such a thing. Bel shrugs. After making passing reference to The Society of the Spectacle and the panoply of available entertainment he would like to avoid, Bel avers (and here I am paraphrasing) that “in the West, it is the job of a contemporary artist to represent their lived reality as accurately as possible. And since reality is something to which we have no direct access but in fact, at every moment, are living, then spending money to see one of my productions is an investment in the future, in the continual substantiation of the unknown.” Soon after, in response to Klunchun’s wish for another example, Bel dies a slow, collapsing, very unswanlike death while lip-synching Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” It brings down the house.
Bel is not shy about the market he inhabits, nor is he ashamed that he has to inhabit one at all, whether it comprises the French government, commissioning agencies, paying customers, or some Venn diagram of all three. Instead, he seems content (well, as content as a French poststructuralist choreographer can be) that there are two or three hundred people on a given night who want to be part of his demographic. And if someone looking for Showgirls or even Paul Taylor wanders in off the street and accidentally surrenders £12, then so be it. Maybe they’ll realize they got their money’s worth anyway and will want to join Bel’s circle, too. At that moment, Bel’s infuriating and cathartic responses to any artist’s two most basic questions—“What do I want to do?” and “Where will my money come from?”—bloom into a homeopathic approach to market behavior that anyone could aspire to.
Joe Scanlan is a New York–based artist and an associate professor at Yale University.
1. Moira Roth, “An Interview with Robert Smithson (1973),” in Robert Smithson, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004), 85.
2. Joseph Schumpeter, “Chapter VII: The Process of Creative Destruction,” in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper Brothers, 1942), 81–86.
3. Schumpeter, 83.
4. See “Part III: The Country Town,” in Veblen’s Absentee Ownership: Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America, first published in 1923. Reprinted in What Veblen Taught: Selections from the Writings of Thorstein Veblen (New York: The Viking Press, 1936), 394–422. In this modest book, Veblen focuses on the peculiar exceptions to typically capitalist market competition that exist in the isolated conditions of a country town, the most prevalent being that monopolistic practices are tolerated by all members of the community because each of them provides a good or service that no one else does. Lack of competition causes prices to be higher, but it also forces a broader range of essential products to be made available. For example, if the town is not large enough to support two bakers, then an aspiring businessperson might decide to open a yoga studio instead.
5. Lucy Lippard, “The Structures, the Structures and the Wall Drawings, the Structures and the Wall Drawings and the Books,” in Sol LeWitt, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 27.
(retrived from http://www.artforum.com/inprint/id=19749 on 5/7/2009)
An interview with Mel Bochner on words, portraits, Roget’s Thesaurus, colour, Jorge Luis Borges, humour, nostalgia and political engagement
Born in Pittsburgh in 1940, Mel Bochner moved to New York in 1964, where he began making work and writing criticism for Arts Magazine and Artforum. A member of the first generation of Conceptual artists, with his sculpture, drawing and photography he explored the opacity of language and questioned the authority of knowledge over perception. From the mid-1970s these inquiries were pursued within the medium of painting. Recently the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva published Bochner’s early writings, and he has designed the Carnegie Mellon University Garden in Pittsburgh, which will open next year. Some of Bochner’s 1966 ‘word portraits’ of friends such as Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson were included in the Los Angeles’ MoCA show ‘A Minimal Future’ this summer, while his recent paintings – whose words are similarly sourced from Roget’s Thesaurus – featured in the Whitney Biennial earlier this year.
Mark Godfrey: How did you first get interested in using Roget’s Thesaurus in the context of making work?
Mel Bochner: I was very intrigued by the idea of portraiture. Within the self-imposed limitations of my work in 1966, how could one possibly make a portrait? Frank Stella had done a series of paintings that he titled with the names of friends: there’s a triangle called Leo Castelli and a square called Hollis Frampton [both 1963]. That willed conjunction between a word and a thing interested me. Rauschenberg’s Portrait of Iris Clert  was also on my mind, and, of course, Apollinaire’s calligrammes .I began wondering whether a portrait could be made using just words. But how could you only use words and not write poetry? Was there some way to use language outside poetry? One of the places to turn when you’re looking for words is the Thesaurus.
So everything started with the investigation of portraiture? You weren’t playing around with the Thesaurus before you came to portraiture?
No. I’d been working with numbers, as a kind of object-language. The Thesaurus represented another source of objectified language, a warehouse for words. I began by selecting a key word to represent the portrait subject. The device of the list, in the portrait of Ad Reinhardt, evolved from the practice of copying words out of the Thesaurus. For the portraits of Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson I wanted to change the viewer’s orientation to the page. To read the Hesse portrait you either have to continually rotate the drawing or else stand on your head. The Smithson is a verbal labyrinth: once you get in there, it’s hard to find your way out. If you do work your way to the end, it says ‘encore’ and you’re back to the beginning. The final problem was a self-portrait. It’s one thing to choose a word to represent someone else, but it’s very hard to objectify your own representation. So I took the words ‘self’ and ‘portrait’ as the key words. Self-Portrait  lists the synonyms for ‘self’ to the left of the spine and words for ‘portrait’ to the right. When you read across, a totally un-predetermined phrase is created.
So when you get something like ‘Soul Symbol’, that just happened?
Just by juxtaposing the two lists.
The portraits almost predicted what happened later in the work of Hesse and Smithson. Did they become slightly uncanny to you because of this?
Not really. We spent a lot of time together, and by 1966 everyone’s thinking was pretty well outlined. So I don’t know if they predicted the future or simply mirrored that point in time.
If traditional portraits involve stealing the sitter’s subjectivity, yours don’t presume to know anything about the sitter, apart from the first word. Were you thinking about the ethics of portraiture?
‘Ethics’ is a bit grand. I was thinking about how you could represent and, simultaneously, not reveal.
Are they portraits of the artists or of their work?
Both, I would say. Probably no one today could decode what was meant by certain words within that context. There’s a lot of humour in them, but there’s also a subtext.
So though they could be read as getting away from the old model of portraiture, you’re suggesting that there’s a shared private language?
Any group of friends shares a private reference system. But retrieving that system, or decoding it, is not the issue.
For Roget the Thesaurus was about classification and order. But your ‘Thesaurus Portraits’ scramble his aims, ending up with a sense of chaos and randomness rather than order. Did you see them as a critique of the Thesaurus?
Not the ‘Portraits’, but I do see my new paintings that way. In 1966 I was simply using the Thesaurus as a source book. More recently, after I read the introduction to the 2002 edition, I began thinking about Roget’s intentions. Roget was a man of the Enlightenment, imposing grand, rationalistic categories like Mind and Ideas, or Behaviour and the Will on language. But that’s like trying to hold smoke in your hands. His classifications inevitably collapse because there’s no outside to language.
Why have you started using the Thesaurus again?
When I dug out the ‘Thesaurus Portraits’ for my retrospective at Yale University Art Gallery in 1995 and thought about them again, it seemed like there was more juice left in the idea. But at that point I didn’t know what the next step was. Then in 2002 I came across the new edition of the Thesaurus, and was really surprised by the way it included not only more up-to-date vernacular, but also outright obscenity. Since this is a book that gets into the hands of young students, it represented a huge cultural shift in what was permissible. Whatever Roget’s intentions were, the Thesaurus was adapting to contemporary mores. So I bought the new Thesaurus and just started fishing for words, letting the words themselves take me somewhere.
So the words in your new paintings come from thesauri and not slang dictionaries?
Well, recently I’ve been finding things on-line, obscure idiomatic and slang dictionaries. But mostly I stick with the Thesaurus.
You say that one impetus for this series of work was looking back on the occasion of the Yale retrospective. Some of the key words, such as ‘Nothing’ or ‘Meaningless’, are very much associated with your art criticism of the 1960s. Is this deliberate?
Yes. Certain words are indicative of an ongoing way of thinking about the world.
So the idea of a self-portrait hasn’t entirely disappeared; in some ways these paintings are portraits of your thinking.
That’s a fair statement.
The early ‘Thesaurus Portraits’ required the viewer to orientate their body around the drawing. All these paintings are on the wall and in the same format - what happens to that investigation here?
The issues remain, the means change. In the paintings I’m using colour to create the discontinuity. Every word is painted a different colour. Certain words are so close in value to the ground colour that they virtually disappear. Other colours are so intense they pop off the surface. So you are constantly refocusing your eyes, which makes a continuous linear reading of the words very difficult. Your eye begins to roam and your mind begins to wander. At this point, looking at the painting subverts reading it.
When you look at a thesaurus, many of the entries leap out simultaneously. Do your paintings visually in some ways represent the experience of looking through a thesaurus?
Perhaps, in the sense of the space inside the text. It’s a kind of Borgesian idea, a ‘garden of forking paths’. The endlessness and exhaustion of the thesaurus seep into the paintings.
As you get towards the bottom of the picture the words get funnier, ruder and more bodily. Do these paintings articulate other aspects of your work? Do you think they help to pull out the humour of those early ‘Thesaurus Portraits’?
The humour in these paintings has something to do with the devolution of language, from the formal and proper to the vulgar and nasty. There’s a narrative in that downward spiral. Of course, that raises the question of who is speaking. The artist? The thesaurus? A voice in your head?
At the Whitney Biennial I was trying to pay attention to what people were saying in front of the paintings. The whole room became a kind of social space. Viewers were reminded of people they knew. One person said, ‘Oh, your father uses that word a lot.’ They were wandering around, looking at them and saying ‘that must be an English phrase’, or ‘I think that comes from this place’. People have a lot of personal memories when they look at them.
Don’t you think that’s because memory is essentially more verbal than visual?
In the Biennial there was also a group of works about teenage life. Some of your paintings seem to represent teenage speech, both in terms of the words and the repetitiveness.
[Laughs] Having a teenage daughter has probably influenced my paintings. Living with a teenager is like living in a language factory.
The Borgesian idea that you were talking about before is now replicated on the Internet. Do you think the paintings could be thought of in connection to the Internet and search engines?
That comparison only goes so far, because these works are paintings, and what they say is said on painting’s terms.
It’s an intriguing idea that the Internet might be represented effectively in a medium that some people say is obsolete, but I don’t really want to go down the road of painting’s obsolescence in this conversation.
A hundred years before Warhol, Flaubert wrote of painting, in The Dictionary of Received Ideas – ‘What use is it, as machines can make things quicker and better?’ So painting’s obsolescence is already an old conversation. For me painting is a place to focus consciousness, using a number of specific instruments, like colour, shape and scale. Every one of these elements is a character with a role to play in the development of my ideas. And it seems to me if you can do something new within the conventions of any medium, then nothing is obsolete, nothing is used up.
Many artists are working with words in paintings at the moment. Is this context something that is on your mind?
No. My argument is with certain background assumptions of Conceptualism, which posited language as a direct connection to the artist’s thoughts. To me this was as bogus as the notion that a brushstroke offers a direct connection to the artist’s emotions. During the 1960s there was a belief that language was transparent. You read the text, you got the point, the language dissolved into the idea. A lot of recent word painting still operates from that same uncritical position. But that misses the real problem, which is the politics of language, its hidden ideologies. All abuses of power begin with the abuse of language – just read Orwell. What interests me is the opacity of language, because I don’t believe language takes you anywhere, except around in circles. That’s why my paintings end with a comma.
Would it be possible to situate your new paintings historically, at a moment when language is being used politically in such constricted terms as ‘good’ and ‘evil’?
Every work of art, in that sense, has a political dimension, although it usually goes unacknowledged. For me an artwork has to come to grips with life as it is being lived. In my recent paintings I’ve tried to foreground the ways in which language can be debased, and the discourse manipulated. That recognition, in itself, is political.
Recently there’s been a huge interest in the art of the 1960s and ’70s among curators and artists. At the Whitney there’s a focus on the memory of the protest movements – for example, in drawings by Sam Durant and Andrea Bowers. As part of that 1960s generation, how do you read this work?
One of the risks of the newer modes of appropriation and sampling is that they fetishize style for its own sake. There’s a certain level of narcissism, a lack of real social or political engagement, a self-congratulatory hipness, which I find problematic.
Are you saying that the almost obsessive fascination with the protest movements and the art of the late 1960s risks a kind of depoliticization of the art of the present?
Some of those artists might say that the only way to be political now is to draw on models of earlier radicalism, or that all you can do is make a statement of the impossibility of radical protest now.
I don’t buy that. Not after two days of protest recently brought down the government in Spain. Nostalgia is a form of political passivity; all it signals is acquiescence in the status quo. The truth is, the 1960s weren’t all they’ve been cracked up to be. Anyway, it’s time to stop glamorizing them and get on with the work at hand.
Mark Godfrey teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. He is working on a book on Abstraction and Holocaust memory for Yale University Press, and a monograph on Alighiero e Boetti for Reaktion.
Retrieved from http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/language_factory/ on 5/7/2009
[As published in An Anthology (1963). Errors are corrected and punctuation is normalized.]
"Concept art" is first of all an art of which the material is "concepts," as the material of for ex. music is sound. Since "concepts" are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language. That is, unlike for ex. a work of music, in which the music proper (as opposed to notation, analysis, a.s.f.) is just sound, concept art proper will involve language. From the philosophy of language, we learn that a "concept" may as well be thought of as the intension of a name; this is the relation between concepts and language. The notion of a concept is a vestige of the notion of a Platonic form (the thing which for ex. all tables have in common: tableness), which notion is replaced by the notion of a name objectively, metaphysically related to its intension (so that all tables now have in common their objective relation to `table'). Now the claim that there can be an objective relation between a name and its intension is wrong, and (the word) `concept', as commonly used now, can be discredited (see my book Philosophy Proper). If, however, it is enough for one that there be a subjective relation between a name and its intension, namely the unhesitant decision as to the way one wants to use the name, the unhesitant decisions to affirm the names of some things but not others, then `concept' is valid language, and concept art has a philosophically valid basis.
Now what is artistic, aesthetic, about a work which is a body of concepts? This question can best be answered by telling where concept art came from; I developed it in an attempt to straighten out certain traditional activities generally regarded as aesthetic. The first of these is "structure art," music, visual art, a.s.f., in which the important thing is "structure." My definitive discussion of structure art can be found in "General Aesthetics"; here I will just summarize that discussion. Much structure art is a vestige of the time when for ex. music was believed to be knowledge, a science which had important things to say in astronomy a.s.f. Contemporary structure artists, on the other hand, tend to claim the kind of cognitive value for their art that conventional contemporary mathematicians claim for mathematics. Modern examples of structure art are the fugue and total serial music. These examples illustrate the important division of structure art into two kinds according to how the structure is appreciated. In the case of a fugue, one is aware of its structure in listening to it; one imposes "relationships," a categorization (hopefully that intended by the composer) on the sounds while listening to them, that is, has an "(associated) artistic structure experience." In the case of total serial music, the structure is such that this cannot be done; one just has to read an "analysis" of the music, definition of the relationships. Now there are two things wrong with structure art. First, its cognitive pretensions are utterly wrong. Secondly, by trying to be music or whatever (which has nothing to do with knowledge), and knowledge represented by structure, structure art both fails, is completely boring, as music, and doesn't begin to explore the aesthetic possibilities structure can have when freed from trying to be music or whatever. The first step in straightening out for ex. structure music is to stop calling it "music," and start saying that the sound is used only to carry the structure and that the real point is the structure--and then you will see how limited, impoverished, the structure is. Incidentally, anyone who says that works of structure music do occasionally have musical value just doesn't know how good real music (the Goli Dance of the Baoule; "Cans on Windows" by L. Young; the contemporary American hit song "Sweets for My Sweets," by the Drifters) can get. When you make the change, then since structures are concepts, you have concept art. Incidentally, there is another, less important kind of art which when straightened out becomes concept art: art involving play with the concepts of the art such as, in music, "the score," "performer vs. listener," "playing a work." The second criticism of structure art applies, with the necessary changes, to this art.
The second main antecedent of structure art is mathematics. This is the result of my revolution in mathematics, which is written up definitively in the Appendix; here I will only summarize. The revolution occurred first because for reasons of taste I wanted to de-emphasize discovery in mathematics, mathematics as discovering theorems and proofs. I wasn't good at such discovery, and it bored me. The first way I though of to de-emphasize discovery came not later than Summer, 1960; it was that since the value of pure mathematics is now regarded as aesthetic rather than cognitive, why not try to make up aesthetic theorems, without considering whether they are true. The second way, which came at about the same time, was to find, as a philosopher, that the conventional claim that theorems and proofs are discovered is wrong, for the same reason I have already given that `concept' can be discredited. The third way, which came in the fall-winter of 1960, was to work in unexplored regions of formalist mathematics. The resulting mathematics still had statements, theorems, proofs, but the latter weren't discovered in the way they traditionally were. Now exploration of the wider possibilities of mathematics as revolutionized by me tends to lead beyond what it makes sense to call "mathematics"; the category of "mathematics," a vestige of Platonism, is an "unnatural," bad one. My work in mathematics leads to the new category of "concept art," of which straightened out traditional mathematics (mathematics as discovery) is an untypical, small but intensively developed part.
I can now return to the question of why concept art is "art." Why isn't it an absolutely new, or at least a non-artistic, non-aesthetic activity? The answer is that the antecedents of concept art are commonly regarded as artistic, aesthetic activities; on a deeper level, interesting concepts, concepts enjoyable in themselves, especially as they occur in mathematics, are commonly said to "have beauty." By calling my activity "art," therefore, I am simply recognizing this common usage, and the origin of the activity in structure art and mathematics. However: it is confusing to call things as irrelevant as the emotional enjoyment of (real) music, and the intellectual enjoyment of concepts, the same kind of enjoyment. Since concept art includes almost everything ever said to be "music," at least, which is not music for the emotions, perhaps it would be better to restrict `art' to apply to art for the emotions, and recognize my activity as an independent, new activity, irrelevant to art (and knowledge).
Copyright by Henry A. Flynt Jr., 1961
Editorial notes on the text
a.s.f. abbreviation for “and so forth”
The 1963 printing may have had the word ‘intesion’ which was a misspelling of ‘intension’.
Published in Blueprint for a Higher Civilization (Milan, 1975).
A manuscript which Flynt worked on in early 1961. Flynt did not preserve the manuscript as such. Some of the material was transferred to later manuscripts in the “aesthetics” series, such as From Culture to Veramusement. The section which is germane here is “Structure Art and Pure Mathematics.” That survives and was published in Henry Flynt: Fragments and Reconstructions from a Destroyed Oeuvre (New York, backworks, 1982).
“Cans on Windows” by La Monte Young.
The embracing title is 2 Sounds (1960).
“my revolution in mathematics”
When Flynt submitted “Concept Art” for publication, he did not include this appendix. The argument of this revolution was transferred to Chapter 5 of the 1963-64 anti-art manuscripts (survives in holograph, was never published), and in “1966 Mathematical Studies,” etc., in Blueprint for a Higher Civilization. Academic notice of these claims appears in Graham Priest, “Perceiving Contradictions,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, December 1999.
the above copied from: http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/conart.html
I was a guest speaker on Empyre during the month of April 2005. The following text is a revision of two particular postings on Conceptual art, which I here use as launching platforms to reflect on the long debate that took place between Raul Ferrera Balanquet (CU/MX), Kate Southworth and Patrick Simons(UK), and myself. Other invited guests included Lucrezia Cippitelli (IT), Heidi Figueroa Sarriera (PR), Raquel Herrera Ferrer (ES), Lucas Bambozzi (BR), Andres Burbano (CO), and Joeser Álvarez. This text is also part of a larger essay which will be published at a later date in its entirety.
The conversation was fruitful in various ways, ranging from abstract theoretical propositions to more personal statements. The online exchange proved to be one of the most important experiences for me until now, because I learned that colonial ideology is more powerful than I expected. It is thanks to Raul's intervention (this is how he considered his writing) that I realized this shortly after the discussion came to a close. Such realization will be the subject of reflection for the second part of this series. In this first part I will focus on the premise proposed by Christina McPhee for the month long conversation.
The theme of the month:
Do conceptual art and curatorial practice merge in post digital cultural production? How are new media art, criticism and curatorial practice a 'transgressive' ecology"?
While it is true that artists part of the net.art group were influenced by a certain type of conceptualism, the premises behind conceptual art as it is understood from its origins in the New York scene is practically irrelevant in new media practice. When it is brought up it is often in allegorical form. In regards to this, we can consider a work that has been reviewed here. MTAA's One Year Performance, which allegorizes Performance artist Sam Hsieh's One year performance where he stayed in a cell for a whole year.
Conceptual art, mainly in the New York scene, developed in reaction to Greenbergian modernism; this is specific to Joseph Kosuth and his contemporaries. However conceptual practice became quite diverse and took on many approaches around the world.
Critical art practices since the turn of the twentieth century have relied on a materialist approach to art making. To be specific, the artist looks at the subject and considers key material elements to then make them obvious to the viewer, who if the work is developed carefully, will come to question it according to the exposed contradictions, coherences, limitations, and excess, which can be read as open-ended questions, or at times as forms subject to the sublime (the latter may be problematic for some conceptualists who are critical of ideology). The artist can claim that what she has done is nothing but show what was already there, thus appearing critical and detached with proper distance, thus questioning not only what the role of the artist is, but also the idea of originality. This is what Duchamp did with his famous Urinal. As it is commonly known, he did nothing but choose a work that exposed the artist's role in art practice and her/his relation to the growing industrial world. However, he was not directly questioning the material aspect of the work of art. Conceptualism did-New York conceptualism to be exact. Whether moving towards or away from the object; the point is that, in conceptualism, the materiality of the object of art was in question, or at least it was the subject of reflection. Yet, if this is to be contested, what can be said about Conceptualism is that its subject was the idea as the object of art.
With new media we experience works that are not materialized in the conventional sense to which conceptualism reacted. This is in part because new media works are easily reproducible. What is unique about new media art is that it did not face what other mediums had faced in the past to be legitimated. Issues of originality and purposiveness were previously dealt with by other media such as photography and most importantly Film. In fact, new media was understood so quickly as a vehicle for efficient dissemination that it swiftly moved to affect previously existing media. New media is considered to have pronounced major reciprocal effects, especially in Cinema. As Lev Manovich explains:
Computer media redefine the very identity of cinema. In a symposium that took place in Hollywood in the spring of 1996, one of the participants provocatively referred to movies as "flatties" and to human actors as "organics" and "soft-fuzzies." As these terms accurately suggest, what used to be cinema's defining characteristics are now just default options, with many other available.
Here we notice how new media's language comes to redefine how previous media is negotiated creatively. And so, it can be stated that new media art rides on the histories of previous media thus functioning allegorically. It uses the language of film and photography--not to mention painting to create works that take on different forms according to specific contexts, and the viewers accept such work because the codes at play are already common knowledge. The power of such language allows for the actual object to disappear and eventually lets information take over.
It is important to note that there is no physical object of art with many new media projects--especially Internet art. Of course we can say that we have moved on to the actual discourse and its form as information becoming the object, but when this shift happens the criticism also shifts. We can consider the role of an electronic mailing list such as Empyre in relation to intellectual capital and its new power position within the gift economy as an example where discourse becomes the object of contemplation. Their description reads:
Empyre facilitates critical perspectives on contemporary cross-disciplinary issues, practices and events in networked media by inviting guests-key new media artists, curators, theorists, producers and others to participate in thematic discussions.
In such a list, discourse is always incomplete, ongoing (as the list moves from discussions from month to month), and full of slippages due to the immediacy of e-mail correspondences. Yet, those who participate in such lists have intellectual Capital that can be spent online to further their network connections. The lists depends on the academic institution to make it possible for those with the knowledge and the time to write, to participate in an activity where no actual pay is expected. This is important to consider in relation to early paradigms of conceptualism, which aimed to problematize institutionalization and academization of art discourse in the art institution.
What actually happens with this shift from object to information is that the artist --in particular the new media artist--can develop work using a materialist approach following the parameters of conceptualism while not worrying about an object and this may be why some people confuse new media practice following a materialist analysis with Conceptualism as understood with the likes of Michael Asher or (to show the complexity of Conceptual art) Adriane Piper. However, the basic criticism that made conceptualism a specific movement of resistance is no longer there; meaning, the object of art is no longer expected to be present, or critiqued in order to call something art, in the realm of new media. This type of criticism itself has become institutionalized, becoming part of what today is called "Institutional Critique." This does not mean that there is no such thing as a conceptual online practice that of critiquing the object or the institution, only that the criticism of such practice is quite different because the object of art is information (data) that can be presented in various forms.
So, the object of art (of new media) is metadata/data. Materialization of information (however this may be) is an after effect of power relations ending in careful distribution through diverse forms--for the information can be reconfigured to meet the demand of a locality according to a global market. This is the object of contemplation in new media practice and this is where artists who have made works of note in such a field have focused. And here we can find renewed forms of resistance, and new forms of criticism.
To further complicate this, the new media artwork is not easily labeled as just "art"; much of it crosses over to activism, hacktivism, and pervasive media. Without going into detailed definitions of these terms, it should be pointed out that they are all activities that actually influence the political spectrum around the world. It would appear then that the lines between art for a selective audience and mass media start to blur in New Media Art practice. And this is the model that carries the conceptual trace. The reason being that in new media, and online practice because there is no actual object, the focus is by default on the idea. This is the major difference in the aesthetics at play; meaning that the type of resistance expected of a New York conceptual avant-garde practice is not expected of online practice. This does not mean that some artists are not critical following the tradition of previous conceptualists, it just means that such practice is actually a specific choice. The model for new media practice is dependent on ideas not forms, and this is particular to new media, just like objecthood is for painting and sculpture in the fine arts.
1 MTAA, http://turbulence.org/Works/1year/ See Review:
2 Alexander Alberro , "Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977," Conceptual Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: MIT Press, 1999), xvi-xxxvii.
4 The pros and cons are reviewed by Thierry De Duve, see Thierry De Duve, "Contra Duchamp," Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1998), 454-462.
5 Joseph Kosuth, "Intentions," Conceptual Art: a Critical Anthology, 460-469.
6 Sol Le Witt, "Sentences on Conceptual Art," Conceptual Art..., 12-17.
7 Lev Manovich, "Digital Cinema and the History of a Moving Image," The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: 2000), 293.
8 Empyre, http://www.subtle.net/empyre/
Copies from: http://www.netartreview.net/monthly/0705_3.html
The following essay is reproduced from "do it," the exhibition's catalogue which was produced by Independent Curators International (ICI). ICI organized the 'do it' exhibition and toured it in the Americas from 1998 through 2001. The accompanying book is available from ICI or through D.A.P.
The aesthetic 'attitude' is restless, searching, testing- it is less attitude than action: creation and re-creation.
-------------- Nelson Goodman1*
do it unites two strategies employed at key moments by the conceptual avant-garde: the generation of a work by following written instructions, and the insertion of chance in the realization of an artwork. Both of these techniques have also surfaced throughout the history of the avant-garde exhibition. The reason is not hard to find, for not only have such exhibitions sought to instantiate the ideas of the works contained within them, but advanced exhibitions have come more and more to be approached as artworks in their own right. Since the 1960's the contemporary curator has come to be seen as a kind of artist, an auteur creating visual and conceptual experiences related to those of the works exhibited. What we find in the pre-history of do it, then is something like three parallel narratives, development tied to changing conceptions of the artwork, the exhibition, and the curator.
In all of these areas, the critical progenitor is Marcel Duchamp. While one can look to the studios of the Renaissance, say, for works created by individuals other than the artist-of attribution, the modern tactic of removing the execution from the hand of the artist appears in 1919 when Duchamp sent instructions from Argentina for his sister Suzanne and Jean Crotti to make his gift for their April marriage. To create the oddly named wedding present, Unhappy Ready-Made, the couple was told to hang a geometry text on their balcony so that wind could " go through the book [and] choose its own problems..." Duchamp produced another instruction-work in 1949, when he asked Henri-Pierre Roch to make a second 50cc Air de Paris (fig.1) after Walter Arensberg's original had been broken, directing Roch to return to Paris pharmacy that Duchamp had visited in 1919 and have the druggist empty and re-seal the same kind of glass ampule as was used originally.2* Duchamp's use of chance had emerged earlier with the Three Standard Stoppages of 1913, created by dropping meter-long threads onto a canvas to generate new units of length that mock the idea of the standard meter. (That same year Duchamp and his sisters, Yvonne and Magdeleine, wrote Musical Erratum by placing notes on a staff in the order in which they were randomly drawn from a bag.) And as a curator, in April 1917 Duchamp installed the First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists by using, in effect, two chance procedures. For his New York show of 2,125 works, Duchamp directed that pieces be arranged alphabetically by artist's last name, determining by a lot the letter "R" with which the installation began.3*
Ready - Made, 50cc Air de Paris, 1919
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection.
While do it does not explicitly employ chance operations, its content is determined by a procedure whose results cannot be foreseen, so, as far as the curator and organizers are concerned, the process is functionally equivalent to chance. For viewers, on the other hand, the experience of the exhibition involves as awareness both of what is and what might have been. Both these perspectives point to the work of John Cage, whose role in the geneses of art-by-instruction is central. In a series of classes given at the New School for Social Research between 1956 and 1960, Cage influenced a generation of artists who would develop the performance script into an art form, and lay the ground for Happenings and Fluxus.4* Having earlier embraced chance compositional procedures as a means of effacing his own likes and dislikes (and, as he put it, " imitating nature in her manner of operation"), Cage encouraged students who already were using chance in their work - such as George Brecht and Jackson Mac Low - and prompted others - such as Allan Karpow, Dick Higgins and Al Hanson - to do so. And his classroom assignments led to instructions for events and performances that yielded some of the most important intermedia activity of the late 1050s and early 1960s.
Out of the Cage class came the kind of event cards for which Fluxus would become well-known, an evocative form whose power is best appreciated in the 1959-66 works of George Brecht published by the movement's impresario George Maciunas in a box called Water Yam. While most Fluxus event cards are performance scripts, Water Yam also includes instructions for the creation of objects or tableaux - obscure directions whose realization left almost everything to the realizer. In such works as Six Exhibits ("ceiling, first wall, second wall, third wall, fourth wall, floor") (fig.2) and Egg ("at least one egg"), Brecht applied to objects and physical situations the freedom of execution and openness to serendipity that is the hallmark of a Fluxus performance. As we can see in the pieces contributed by Allan Karpow and Alison Knowles to do it, alumni of the Cage class and their associates continue to work in this spirit.
Six Exhibits, 1961
More than Brecht, however, Yoko Ono was the artist during this period who most significantly focused on the creation of objects from instructions. Although she never studied with Cage, her husband at the time, composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, was in the New School class, and Ono was an active participant in the surrounding milieu. At the time Ono was best known for the series of events that she and La Monte Young organized in her Chambers Street loft, beginning in December 1960, but more interesting for us is her July 1961 exhibition at Ceorge Maciunas' AG Gallery. Here she displayed a group of works in the process of realization, made from instructions to be carried out by visitors. Painting to be Stepped On, for instance, called for viewers to walk on a canvas laid on the gallery floor, and Smoke Painting (fig.3) was to be realized by visitors burning the canvas with cigarettes and watching the smoke rise. Ono took next logical step in her May 1962 exhibition at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo, where instead of objects created by instructions she displayed only the instructions on sheets of white paper. In this show ideas - exhibited as verbal directions - were marked as central. Yoko Ono released her paintings in the world, in the form of instructions, like the butterfly whose release in the concert hall constitutes La MonteYoung's most poetic instruction piece. Calling for participation by others in an ongoing, free artistic process, Ono's instruction book Grapefruit, first published in Japan in 1964.5* An important aspect of such work is the tension between ideation and material realization, for while these pieces seem to be created by being imagined, as instructions for physical action they stake a further claim in the world.
Smoke Painting, 1961
Smoke Painting: Light canvas or any finished painting with a cigarette at any time for any length of time. See the smoke movement. The painting ends when the whole Canvas or painting is gone. 1961 summer
Art in which ideas are primary, and are presented via verbal description, would reach its apogee within a decade in the broader conceptual art movement. But the story of art-by-instruction first tales a turn into more rigorous sculptural practice with Minimalist fabrication. Of course sculpture has a long history of works created by craftsmen casting or carving from the artist's maquettes and directions. And certain modern masters, such as Joan Miró, had extended this practice by having pieces fabricated according to oral or written instructions.6* But the Minimalists were motivated very differently than earlier sculptors, for their use of industrial fabrication was a reaction - as was the work of Cage and Fluxus circles - to the aesthetic ideology of Abstract Expressionism. 7* When Donals Judd, Robert Morris or Dan Flavin had sculptures fabricated from construction drawings, they were striking a blow against that movement's focus on the artist's hand and the central position held by the subjectivity of the maker.
In Minimalist practice, as in do it, instructions and anonymous fabrication impose a distance between the artist and the realized artwork. The role of the artist is thus transformed from maker to conceiver. This connection between Minimalism and conceptualism was made clear by Sol LeWitt in his important " Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," published in June 1967 in Artforum. Here LeWitt valorized ideas rather than their physical instantiations, and he accepted unrealized concepts as works in their own right. And as concepts became the focus their linguistic expression was admitted as an artistic form. Artworks could be embodied in statements, and a collection of statements could constitute an exhibition.
The move from conceptual work to conceptual exhibition was made by dealer/publisher/organizer Seth Siegelaub in his exhibition Douglas Huebler: November, 1968. Lacking an exhibition space, Siegelaub presented Huebler's show in the form of a catalog alone. Here Huebler's pieces - space-time construction imperceptible at any one time or place - appeared as verbal descriptions, maps and other documentation. The next month Siegelaub published Lawrence Weiner. Statements, not explicitly introduced as an exhibition but clearly functioning that way. Weiner's works were presented in written form - " Two minutes of spray paint directly upon the floor from a standard aerosol spray can" ( fig.4) - and they each specified a material process that could be carried out in the world. ( Whether his instructions ever were carried out, whether the work actually was physically realized, was a matter of indifference to Weiner, who left that decision to the "receiver.") In January 1969 Siegelaub mounted his most famous exhibition in an unused office on East 52nd Street in New York, yet even here the catalogue was fundamental. For while the exhibition known as The January Show displayed in physical space pieces by Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, Siegelaub insisted that the catalogue was primary: " The exhibition consists of (the ideas communicated in) catalogue; the physical presence (or the work) is supplementary to the catalogue."8*
Two minutes of spray paint directly upon the floor from a standard aerosol spray can, 1968
Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. The LeWitt Collection.
By 1969 the international art world was exploding with art-by-instruction, much of it created for radical exhibitions mounted in Europe and North America. The proliferation of the form was driven by two factors: The nature of much new art allowed for its being made on the basis of artists' directions, and the great demand by curators of large shows for pieces from artists unable to travel to distant venues. I cite a few examples from two of the most important exhibitions of that heady year: Lucy Lippard's 557.089 and 955,000 (two versions of a show named for the populations of the cities in which it was mounted - Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia), and Harald Szeemann's When Attitudes Become Form: Works-Process-Concepts-Situations-Information (Live in Your Head).9* For 557.089 Robert Smithson sent instructions for a work consisting of 400 photographs to be taken with a Kodak Instamatic camera of deserted Seattle horizons (fig.5); and for 955,000, Jan Dibbets sent directions for recording a tape of the sounds of a car trip of up to thirty miles, with the driver verbally counting out the miles driven, to be played continuously in the exhibition under a map of the rout taken. For When Attitudes Become Form, Robert Morris instructed the Kunsthalle staff to collect as many different kinds of combustible materials as were available in Bern, and beginning with one kind add different sorts of materials at units of time to be determined by dividing the length of the exhibition by the number of materials. On the last day of the exhibition, with all the materials having been "placed freely in the space," they were removed and burned outside the museum. And for both Lippard's and Szeemann's exhibitions, Sol LeWitt sent detailed instructions for the creation of wall drawings. The work-by-instruction created by American and European artists during this exciting period, and the curatorial activity that often elicited these pieces, constitute the critical precedent for do it.10*
instruction card for
400 Seattle Horizons, 1969
Like many of the avant-garde exhibitions of this century, do it itself exemplifies the characteristics of the art that it contains. Just as important surrealist exhibitions were themselves surreal works in the form of constructed environments - witness Duchamp's installation of the 1938 International Exposition of Surrealism, or Frederick Kiesleer's design of Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century (1942) and of the Hugo Gallery's exhibition Bloodflames (1947) - do it is a work of the same kind as its components.11* do it is a do-it, a work to be realized from instructions, and as with other pieces of art-by-instruction it can be done simultaneously in more than one place. The exhibition comes with rules that must be followed by the institutions mounting the show; the requirement that works be destroyed after the exhibition for example. But like all art-by-instruction, do it is essentially open, allowing for a range of realizations according to the interpretations, choices and constraints of those who follow the directions. Like the works comprising it, do it is a multiple of potentially unlimited variety and number.
These features of instruction-works raise philosophical questions regarding the identity of such pieces, and therefore about the nature of this sort of artwork. The questions are of two kinds. First, what exactly is the artwork here - the idea as stated in a set of directions, or the actual words and instructions diagrams themselves, or the set of all realizations?12* Wittgensteinian worries about what it is to follow a rule - a consequence of any rule or instruction being interpreted in so many different ways - prompt a second set of questions: How closely must one follow the instructions of do it, or of the works comprising the show, to count as realizing this exhibition, or that particular work? How important in this regard are the curator's or the artist's intentions, and what other factors are relevant? It would be foolhardy to try to settle these matters here, but the pre-history of do it suggests answers that emphasize openness of interpretation and that move in the direction of freedom.
Freedom and openness to novel exhibition forms characterize do it and Obrist's curatorial work in general. Very much in the spirit if his avant-garde precursors - beginning with Jules Lévy, whose 1882 Arts incohérents exhibition in his Paris apartment looks forward to Obrist's 1991 and 1993 exhibitions in his Swiss kitchen and Paris hotel room13* - Obrist has sought to show art in new ways and in unexpected places. While he departs from his predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s by wholeheartedly accepting the museum as a legitimate venue, reasoning from the inevitable institutionalization of successful anti-institutional forms, Obrist has sought space for freedom within the museum by such artistic interventions as his Migrateurs series at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. do it also creates such a space within the museum.
This lack of being burdened by do it's historical predecessors also characterizes the work of the younger artists in the show, such as Jason Rhoades and Rirkrit Tiravanija, who are at home in the establishment settings that once made their older colleagues so uncomfortable. The spirit of do it thus is very much of our time, enjoying in post-modern pastiche both nostalgia for the 1960s and accommodation with the institution. This is clear from the exhibition title, which prompts two very different associations: Jerry Rubin's battle cry from 1968 - the year of Obrist's birth - and the familiar advertising slogan for Nike athletic shoes. do it is a delicate high wire act, balancing subversion with curatorial and artistic renewal. And with these instructions in hand, it is an easy act to follow.
Bruce Altshuler is the director of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum and author of The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the Twentieth Century
1. Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis, New York and Kansas City: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968), P.242.
2. Marcel Duchamp, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), P.212. On re-creating 50 cc Air de Paris, see P-374.
3. For this exhibition, Duchamp's installation and its critics, see Francis Naumann, New York Dada 1915-23 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), PP-76-r9i.
4. For a detailed account ofthis class, and its influence on the development ofintermedia art forms, see Bruce Altshuler, "The Cage Class," in Cornelia Lauf and Susan Hapgood, eds., FluxAttitudes (Gent, Belgium: Imschoot Uitgevers, 1991), PP.17-23
5. Yoko Ono has written that her primary interest in these works is in "painting to construct in your head," tracing their origin to childhood experiences of hunger in wartime Japan, when she and her brother "exchanged menus in the air." ["To The Wesleyan People (who attended the meeting)-a footnote to my lecture of January 13th, 1966" in Yoko Ono, Grapefruit (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1970), n.p.] Ono's piece for do it, instructing visitors to write their wishes on pieces of paper and tie them to a tree, recalls her Japanese childhood as well, when she would visit a temple and tie her wishes to a tree along with those of other supplicants.
6. According to Georges Hugnet in "Joan Miró, ou l'enfance de l'art" (Cahier d'Art, VI, 7-8, PP- 335-40), Miró sent instructions to a carpenter to make such works as the 193o Relief Construction now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For this reference I thank Anne Umland of the Museum of Modern Art.
7. Two artists associated with Minimalism, Robert Morris and Walter De Maria, first made such sculptural objects as part of performances related to early Fluxus. See Bruce Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harry A. Abrams, 1994), pp.223 and 233.
8. For an account ofthese works and exhibitions, see Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition, pp.236-43.
9. When Attitudes Become Form was mounted at the Kunsthalle Bern (Switzerland) in March-April 1969, and traveled to the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany and to London's institute of Contemporary Art. Instructions for works in both of these exhibitions are included in their catalogs, with the catalog for 557,o87 consisting of a set of four-by-six-inch cards that details each piece. Also see Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), pp.iio-i2, and Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition, pp.243-55 While instructions for works in such exhibitions generally were provided to the curator in written form, an important exception is Jan van der Marck's 1969 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Art by Telephone, for which instructions could be communicated only by telephone.
10. There are many subsequent instruction works, of course, and later exhibitions that embrace this form. Two noteworthy cases are Nina Felshin's The Presence of Absence: New Installations, organized in 1988 by Independent Curators Incorporated and containing instruction pieces by thirteen artists, and John Cage's Rolywholyover A Circus, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1993. The Presence of Absence traveled to eleven venues in 1989-9o, and-like do it-was realized simultaneously in different locations. Rolywholyover A Circus, which traveled internationally, included a huge number of non-instruction works, but the composition and installation of the exhibition constantly changed according to a Cage-created set of instructions employing chance operations.
11. For these exhibitions, see Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition, Chapter 7.
12. This last suggestion follows Nelson Goodman's rich analysis of performance works, in Goodman, Languages of Art, Pp.99-123 and 177-221.
13. For Jules Uvy's apartment exhibition, see Dennis Phillip Cate, "The Spirit of Montmartre," in Dennis Phillip Cate and Mary Shaw, eds., The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-garde, 1875-1905 (New Brunswick, NJ: Jane Vorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 1996), p1. |
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