Conceptual Art and Philosophy, Part Two



“Art is art. Everything else is everything else.” Ad Reinhardt

The artist, Joseph Kosuth, insisted that Conceptual Art was a child of the 1960s, not the Civil Rights sixties, not the Stonewall sixties, not the Women’s Movement sixties, but the war protest sixties. As Kosuth stated, Conceptual Art was “…the art of the Vietnam war era.” Previous posts discussed the extent to which this era was an overthrow of authority figures and certainly, the male-led protests against the Viet Nam War were Oedipal, as young men refused the lead of the old men. One of the main elements of writing on Conceptual Art as it was conceived by the artists themselves was the overthrow-the-father intentions.

Following the example of the Minimal artists, the Conceptual artists, who were very much in the same circles, wrote their own art movement. These artists, Mel Bochner, Sol Le Witt, and Joseph Kosuth and the Art-Language group, wanted to wrest control from the art critics who had always subordinated artists to their words, overwriting works of art with works of language. That said, as shall be seen, the seizure of the right to define is far more important than a mere Oedipal rebellion. In his essay, Introductory Note to Art-Language, Kosuth asserted that true conceptual art “is based on an inquiry into the nature of art…this art annexes the function of the critic…”

The right to define Conceptual Art on the grounds established by the artist led to larger consequences. Conceptual Art was anti-art and an outright dematerialization of the object. Anti-art was not necessarily connected to either anti-aesthetic or to dematerialization but was an independent attitude which rejected the traditional notion of “art.” As the Brazilian artist, Hélio Oiticica, wrote,

Anti-art, in which the artist understands his/her position not any longer as a creator for contemplation, but as an instigator of creation—“creation” as such: this process completes itself through the dynamic participation of the “spectator,” now considered as “participator.” Anti- art answers the collective need for creative activity which is latent and can be activated in a certain way by the artist. The metaphysical, intellectualist and aestheticist positions thus be- come invalidated—there is no proposal to “elevate the spectator to a level of creation,” to a “meta-reality,” or to impose upon him an “idea” or “aesthetic model” corresponding to those art concepts, but to give him a simple opportunity to participate, so that he “finds” there something he may want to realize.

In other words, “art” was an aesthetic given, presented to the viewer for contemplation and delight. Anti-art is a joint process, not product, an exchange between the artist and the spectator. If anti-art is creative activity, then the need for an object is problematized. As Lucy Lippard and John Chandler explained,

As more and more work is designed in the studio but executed elsewhere by professional craftsmen, as the object becomes merely the end product, a number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art. The studio is again becoming a study. Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialization of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object’s becoming wholly obsolete.

Writing in the wake of Seth Siegelaub’s “exhibition” of Conceptual Art in January 1969, Gregory Battock wrote, Painting is Obsolete,

The works in the show are ideas that are not intended to be any more than ideas. As such they are pretty much invisible, which itself is a good idea. We’ve suspected, for some time now, that art perhaps can be invisible and now it is. Therefore there’s nothing to steal, nothing to damage, no images to remember later, and we don’t have to worry about slides and lighting. If 69 contributes to the history of art invisibility, art history students from now on will remember us fondly.

Another thing about this show is that perhaps it isn’t art and maybe it’s art criticism, which would be something I’ve suspected all along, that the painter and sculptor have been moving further and further away from art and in the end perhaps all that would remain is art criticism. (. . .) What a show like this does is, in one stroke not only demolish the Museum of Modern Art (the Whitney demolished itself last week) but all those painting courses they are still cranking out in the “art” schools, which were doomed a decade ago but nobody noticed, oh well it’s too bad, after spending all that money on paints and everything.

But this elimination of the object, especially painting, was only one part of the rebellion against the previous generation of artists. The felling of the great edifice of Abstract Expressionism and with it painting cannot be totally separated from the slaying of the other great edifice of Modernism, Clement Greenberg. In Art after Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth conflated formalism and aesthetics and modernism and Greenberg’s theory of the necessity for Modernist art to purge itself to its essential and intrinsic elements. Greenberg’s aesthetics, the way in which he designated “art” was based solely upon the look, appearance and the physical existence of a unique and specific object. It was this kind of definition of art which was object based that Kosuth rejected in favor of a questioning of an “art” based upon its impact on the retina.

In 1969, the artist elevated the late Marcel Duchamp as an alternative to Clement Greenberg. Whether or not Duchamp put forward an entire philosophy or an aesthetic is doubtful, for he was a provocateur who wanted to mock the notion of “art” as a sacred relic, resplendent in its own aura. Kosuth needed to establish a new way of thinking about art and in order to do so he stated that,

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s functionwas its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy that dealt with beauty and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bound to discuss art as well. Out of this habit grew thenotion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true.

Kosuth stressed that because aesthetics is disconnected from function or use that it is connected to “taste,” which brought him to Clement Greenberg, described as “the critic of taste.” Taste resides in “judgment” which is part of the job of being a critic who passes judgment, but, as Kosuth pointed out, Greenberg’s “taste” was tied to the fifties and hence, the artist intimated, out of date and out of step with the time. Certainly there is a great deal of truth in this suggestion—art had exceeded the limits of Greenbergian formalist theory. The reason that art moved beyond Greenberg’s critical grasp was that the artist, following the lead of Marcel Duchamp questioned “the nature of art.” Interestingly, Kosuth asserted that the “function” of art was the same as the “nature” of art.

One could object to that equation on Kantian terms, stating that art should have no function or purpose, but Kosuth was saying something else. In a later essay, Introduction to Function, he said simply, “Function refers to ‘art context.”” Regardless of its purpose, art functions as language or art functions linguistically. As Kosuth insisted,

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context—as art—they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art. Thus, that it is art is true a priori (which is what Judd means when he states that “if someone calls it art, it’s art”).

Kosuth then, strangely, brought up A. J. Ayer who reiterated Kant’s definitions of analytical and synthetic propositions rather than Kant himself. Ayer defined analytic statements as tautologies, meaning that an analytic statement is true under all conditions. A synthetic statement, unlike an analytic statement, does not contain its definition in itself, but depends upon empirical evidence or authorization. Neo-Kantian Ayer explained,

In other words, the propositions of philosophy are not factual, but linguistic in character – that is, they do not describe the behaviour of physical, or even mental, objects; they express definitions, or the formal consequences of definitions.

Or as Kosuth expressed it,

…what art has in common with logic and mathematics is that air is a tautology…art cannot be…a synthetic proposition…to consider it as art it is necessary to ignore this same outside information, because outside information(experiential qualities, to note) has its own intrinsic worth. And to comprehend thisworth one does not need a state of art condition…Art’s only claim is for art. Art is the definition of art.
While this early essay made it sound that Kosuth was crudely and bluntly presenting a work of art as a tautology but his intent was more inclusive. He recognized that the recognition of art as art depended upon the context. “Advance information about the concept of art and about an artist’s concepts is necessary to the appreciation and consideration of contemporary art.” And towards the end of the essay, Kosuth gave a Kantian assertion, “Art indeed exists for its own sake.”
Perhaps the most famous influence on Kosuth were the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In An Interview with Jeanne Siegel, Kosuth admitted that although there was a “too obvious relationship” between his art and the philosopher. However, he cautioned Siegel that there was the early and late works of Wittgenstein, with the late works refuting the earlier. That said, the early seminal work by Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is perhaps the most clear on how language allows us to talk about reality through propositions.
From 1966, Kosuth produced a series of Propositions—photostats of words—implying that he was presenting a proposition, a word, which was the elementary part of language. But the word can function only within a sentence (proposition) that pictures something about the world. This is the famous “picture theory of language.” “Pictures” are strung together into a sentence structure which logically presents the world. In other words, the structure of reality determines the structure of language.
In Art after Philosophy Kosuth quoted Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, “Meaning is in the use,” from Philosophical Investigations (1953) in which the philosopher shifted from the idea of a picture theory to the metaphor of language as a tool box. Different words are different tools which are used in different ways, depending on the occasion. This concept is a reversal of his position in the Tractatus. Wittgensten came to realize that meaning could not be a picture theory, in other words, that language could picture (reflected) the world. The tool box idea of Investigations suggested the idea of “language games” which are bundled together in terms of “family resemblances.” Words did not have “essences” and their use is social.
Wittgenstein’s turning away from the essential dismissed his earlier position that words are essentially meaningful because they are associated with objects. Now he is saying that words have meanings that are dependent upon the “use.” Language was now thought of as a form of life. Meaning was now unfixed and became fluid, guided by rules which were subject to change. When Kosuth asserted in 1969 that art is understandable within a context or that function is context, he was attempting to fix art firmly into an art world where it could safely exist as a proposition. Like the early Wittgenstein, he was limiting what it was proper to “say” about art, but, like Wittgenstein, the later Kosuth came to understand that art, like language, was a product of social and cultural forces. The meaning of art, ultimately, would have to be in its “use.”