Conceptual Art and Philosophy, Part One



To discuss the relationships of artists to any particular philosopher or to discuss the relationship of any work of art to philosophy is to enter upon dangerous ground. First, artists are not philosophers. They may study philosophy or they may have taken courses on philosophy in college, but artists are not trained as philosophers. Such training takes years and must extend to graduate school and beyond. Any knowledge an artist would have of philosophy would have to be casual, piecemeal, and unsystematic. Second, artists are not illustrators; they are artists. No artist would reduce his or her art to an “illustration” of a philosophical precept. That said, serious artists discussed difficult philosophers seriously when explaining their art. So what the the art audience to make of the philosophical claims of art based upon concepts? As Sol Le Witt wrote in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967),

Conceptual art doesn’t really have much to do with mathematics, philosophy or any other mental discipline. The mathematics used by most artists is simple arithmetic or simple number systems. The philosophy of the work is implicit in the work and is not an illustration of any system of philosophy.

When it comes to Minimal Art what is “implicit” or obvious is that the artists were basing their works on a system. Minimalism was concerned with systems with components arranged or conducted according to a system. The choice of system is personal for the artist and this choice sets limits to system. Minimalist Art is characterized by a basic composition that used over and over, featuring materials that are factual and empirical and concrete. Because the artist determines the system, the end state of the installation is known prior to completion. Once again, Sol Le Witt explained how the system worked,

I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work.1 When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry.

Without claiming that the artist in question has deployed any “system” in particular, Minimalist painting also uses a priori or pre-existing systems or concepts. The system is a (thought) process, which occurs off canvas and develops an economy of form or of procedure. The paintings of Brice Marden are a case in point. His early works were simple fields of color, divided into two or three colors and his later works were curvilinear calligraphic tracings over the canvas. This writing or doodling was contained within the shape of the support. In his early works, Marden avoided figure-ground contrast, meaning that the entire painting becomes a unit.

As a concept, Minimalist painting is Oedipal in that it, like the three dimensional objects, is an oppositional gesture against Abstract Expressionism. Minimal art, including painting, is non-expressionist and is guided by a pre-existing conceptual order that rules the outcome with a relentless clarity. Lacking any reference to the outside world, the work of art is defined by artistic order, determined by a priori decisions, which are the antithesis of artistic thinking. In explaining The Serial Attitude (1967), Mel Bochner wrote,

In linguistic analysis, language is often considered as a system of elements without as- signed meanings (“uninterpreted systems”). Such systems are completely permutational, having grammatical but not semantic rules. Since there can be no system without rules of arrange- ment, this amounts to the handling of language as a set of probabilities. Many interesting observations have been made about uninterpreted systems which are directly applicable to the investigation of any array of elements obeying fixed rules of combination. Studies of isomor- phic (correspondence) relationships are especially interesting. Practically all systems can be rendered isomorphic with a system containing only one serial relation.

Minimalism is making a statement that art is intrusive in that art is Other than the ordinary object and comes into the world without useful purpose and unnatural in that art is not necessarily an extension of the human being or of individual subjectivity. Like Minimalist installations, Minimalist painting is phenemonological in that the entire being of an object is based upon appearance which is the limits of knowledge. In fact Bochner quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein in his essay: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Art, for the Minimalists, is based on application of rigorous governing logic but what is the connection between systems, logic and phenomenology? That would be Edumnd Husserl, the philosopher whose work is often termed the “first philosophy.” His 1901 book The Logical Investigations posited a “truth” of mathematics or simple arithmetic (the sort the Minimalists favored) that could not be impacted or changed by conditions on the ground (empirical evidence) or human psychology (feelings and subjectivity).

In Idea I (Ideas on a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, 1913) Husserl dealt with human consciousness on its most basic terms. Any mind (consciousness) must have an object to focus upon in order for it—the individual—to have an awareness of things. In other words, the philosopher was concerned with the consciousness of the object and not necessarily upon the object itself. The important point here is that, although it is the focus or focal point, the object itself is secondary to the ignition of consciousness (awareness). What is significant is the act of intention or intentionality. It is this intention which is directed towards an object that allows objective meaning.

The kind of consciousness must be concentrated and must achieve a state of epoché, meaning a suspension or bracketing of any external meanings or considerations or knowledge of the existing form. The result is pure consciousness as the result of phenomenological reduction. For Husserl, the “truth” of the object must be intuitive or necessary. He distinguished between empirical intuition and the intuition of essences. In other words, one must not confuse the representation of a thing with its essence or, to put it another way, one must not confuse psychology with intuition which shows that which is necessary and essential.

Minimalism, whether three-dimensional or two dimensional, presents objects that insist on being independent things in their own right. The objects are governed by empirical and pre-existing systems that allow a kind of “bracketing” on the part of the viewer who is thwarted from seeing Minimal Art as “art.” As with Robert Ryman’s white paintings, these systems are regular, thorough, and might seem repetitive, even though the process pursued by the artist must be methodical, consistent, and progressive in the sense that no system is ever complete.

Minimal Art is often described as the beginning of the “anti-aesthetic,” or the end of the eighteenth century definition of art. Aesthetics, in its simplest form, is the grounds of condition of the existence of art. But in the eighteenth century, “art” was linked to “beauty” which, in turn, emanated from the Greek ideal. No where are these implicit and unquestioned assumptions expressed more fully than in Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795). In Letter XX, Schiller wrote to his patron, Friedrich Christian:

Thus, to pass from sensation to thought, the soul traverses a medium position, in which sensibility and reason are at the same time active, and thus they mutually destroy their determinant power, and by their antagonism produce a negation. This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation; and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the æsthetic.

Like Husserl, Schiller was writing during a period of great social conflict. But the two writers came to different conclusions. Schiller saw aesthetics as being a middle ground where beauty could be a refuge from the dialectics and opposing influences that were tearing his world apart. Husserl, horrified by the irrationality of the Great War spent the rest of his career attempting to cancel out subjectivity. As Gianfranco Soldati explained in Husserl: a Short Intellectual Biography,

Husserl had learned the lesson and from that moment on he started to inquire into the reasons that could have led a society scientifically and technologically so advanced into irrationality and moral disaster…he suggested that philosophers have underestimated the importance of the critical role their discipline has to play with respect to modern science and society…It is in this context that Husserl introduced the famous, albeit equivocal notion of the Lebenswelt, the life-world, a notion that plays a crucial role in Crisis (of the European Sciences) (which)…led Husserl to recognise that a full understanding of human consciousness and of its products could not be attained without considering the role society as a whole, with its history and culture, played with respect to it. A phenomenological analysis of the life-world, of the world as it appears to us in our daily experience, ought to endow us with the critical means to evaluate the human, existential and moral import of scientific theories along with any other cultural product in its historical evolution…

This description of the final years of a great (and disillusioned) philosopher who died in 1938 is particularly interesting in light of the assertion of artist Joseph Kosuth that Conceptual Art, or as he called it “CA,” was the product of the Viet Nam War. Part Two of this discussion on Conceptual Art and Philosophy will discuss the Wittgenstein Connection.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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