Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

ONE MORE TIME—WHAT IS ART?

This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.” Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art. There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form. Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices. By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists. Indeed many street artists, such as JR, pride themselves on keeping a distance from the art market.

Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art. The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers. The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune. Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics. The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style. Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.

On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists. But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm. A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one. At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife. He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.

Street art has been around for decades. One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or become historical and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf. During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located. Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans. To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone. To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come. Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.

Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law. Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled. Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings. The police control the streets. No unauthorized signage is allowed. The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners. For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame. Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits. The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.

Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names. He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the French artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris. Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces. Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across. All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity. The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.

Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion. But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape. He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts. As “Mr. Brainwash,” he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera. Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines. The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.” In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be. If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is. The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive. Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire. Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.

From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters. But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.” The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.” The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts. The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art? Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true. He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone. How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary? All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.

For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis. Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial. It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening. As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art. What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes? Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.” An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other. To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter. Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.

By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else. But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists. They knew what they were doing and why. But that was decades ago. Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child. He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others. All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.

To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London. He learned from Basquiat. A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example. You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans. It will fall, making no sound. Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility. The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight. And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie. His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.

Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene. By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible. But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed. The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap. There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Keith Haring, who used white chalk on black paper. The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants. We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces. Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components. Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper. All of this costs money. Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.

But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist? From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is. He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place. Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years. But that does not answer the real question: is he making art? The short answer is No. The long answer is No Way. Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art. This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism. I am not condemning the man. I am simply describing how he works. Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.” But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra. What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication? Thierry Guetta. Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion. By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists. If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits. Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not. Like pornography.

That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world. He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery. Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition. Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time. They would give their art; the authorities would take it away. Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act. Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor. The art could be seen but not for long. It could not be owned nor possessed. The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach. The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop. But it is Desire that creates art.

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The Institutional Theory of Art

HOW OBJECTS BECOME “ART”

In writing The Artworld, art writer and philosopher, Arthur Danto, laid out a history of how art history had to change its theories of what art was supposed to be in the face of new objects. He said, “Suppose one thinks of the discovery of a whole new class of artworks as something analogous to the discovery of a whole new class of facts anywhere, viz., as something for theoreticians to explain,” and mentioned the shift away from the Imitation theory of art when Post-Impressionism came on the scene. He continued, “Suppose, then, tests reveal that these hypotheses fail to hold, that the theory, now beyond repair, must be replaced. And a new theory is worked out, capturing what it can of the old theory’s competence, together with the heretofore recalcitrant facts.” This was Danto’s way of laying the groundwork for yet another aesthetic reordering.

By the time Danto was writing in 1964, a new definition of art was long overdue. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp opened the door to a question everyone thought had been answered: “What is art?” If “anything”, even a bicycle wheel, even a bottle rack, even a urinal, could be “art”, then how can the “precincts” of art be protected from “non” or “not” art? The power shifts from the “art” itself to the gatekeepers, those–the artists—who are (self)-empowered to define “art”. Today this outcome seems self-evident, but in the early years of the twentieth century, Duchamp was an underground artist, understood only by a very few individuals. He was absorbed first into Dada and then into Surrealism,where the fact that he had redefined art and artist was interpreted as “anti-art.”

Whether they were influenced by Duchamp or not, both Neo-Dada and Pop artists began (re)making ordinary objects. Danto approached the results with caution. On one hand there was enough artistic intervention—Jasper Johns painted, Robert Rauschenberg dumped paint onto a bed, Claes Oldenburg built a bed, shaped like a rhomboid—to make these objects “art” in the traditional sense. But Danto had doubts, “What, after all, prevents Oldenburg’s creation from being a mis- shapen bed? This is equivalent to asking what makes it art, and with this query we enter a domain of conceptual inquiry…”

Several pages later, Danto reaches the heart of the matter: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, shown at the Stable Gallery. “Mr. Andy Warhol, the Pop artist, displays facsimiles of Brillo cartons, piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of the supermarket. They happen to be of wood, painted to look like cardboard, and why not?” Danto asked, “In fact the Brillo people might, at some slight increase in cost, make their boxes out of plywood without these becoming artworks, and Warhol might make his out of cardboard without their ceasing to be art.”

After puzzling over the Brillo Boxes and their status as “art,” Danto concluded,

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art, and in order to see it as part of the artworld, one must have mastered a good deal of artistic theory as well as a considerable amount of the history of recent New York painting. It could not have been art fifty years ago.

So, art is made by the theory of art which is in turn made by at the art world. Art is what the art world accepts. The concept of the “artworld”—one word—was taken up later by the aesthetician George Dickie who suggested a more complex theory of art that rested upon the institution, which was known as the “institutional theory of art.” As Dickie pointed out later, the artworld was at the heart of the institutional theory. “A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or some persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).” Dickie was concerned about the framework of the institution.

For the philosopher the artist and the audience were the necessary elements of the institution’s framework. The artist is aware that what she is producing is art and the audience is aware that what he is looking at is art. In addition to these two major actors are what Dickie call “supplementary” actors: critics, curators, teachers, directors, and dealers, all of whom are part of the institution. All of these agents and their acts are governed by rules. These “rules” are conventions.

On the surface, it would seem that the theories of Danto and Dickie, who are often coupled, are co-extensive but, in fact, there are important distinctions between the two. Danto, an art critic, had to account for the presence of a set of Brillo Boxes as “art.” Dickie, an aesthetician, had to redefine art. For Dickie the ontology of “art” was its artifactuality, i.e., it had to exist as “art.” The issue of intrinsic or extrinsic properties was neither here nor there as long as the artifact deemed “art” existed. However, after two decades of dealing with the impact of Duchamp on the definition of art, by 1984 Dickie had to rethink this early theory of art as artifact and take into account the fact of an object that was untouched by the artist. In other words, the emphasis shifted to the institution or the artworld.

An art world system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an art world public,” Dickie concluded. In his 2009 book, How to Study Art Worlds, Hans van Maanen, concluded his chapter on George Dickie by explaining the importance of his theory:

Firstly, there is his concept of roles and rules, which clarifies the significance of conventions in making an art world system op- erate; secondly, there is his emphasis on the essential role of the public, a public which exists as a more or less prepared addressee of the artist’s activity.

The modernist or traditional perspective was that art was eternal and absolutely recognizable and independent of the system of cultural production. An institution cannot make art, only an artist can make art. Art comes, not from a site of production but from art itself. Only an artist makes art. However, starting with the belated recognition of the importance of Duchamp, from Neo-Dada to Pop to Minimalism to Conceptual Art, it became clear that the the two hundred year definition of art was untenable.

Danto and Dickie inherited the problem of how to patrol the borders of the art world. For Danto it was a question of who or what was to be admitted to the precincts of the artworld. For Dickie it was the nature of the framework of the artworld and the mode of its reception of the artifact. Who or what would be empowered? Who or what would be would be anointed? When George Dickie implied that an object could become legitimized as “art” if it was “recognized” as such by the art institutions, his institutional theory of art refuted the notion that there was an essential ontology to art.

Art was relative, contingent, and dependent upon the existence of institutional space. The art institution was more than a physical one of museums and galleries, it was also a product of reading about art by an art audience, writing about art by art historians and art critics and current conversations about art–art discourse, all of which contributed to the “making” of an artist or a work of art through naming and designation. With the work of these two writers, “art” was disconnected from its traditional moorings—beauty and Greek art. Suddenly art could be anything; an artist could be anyone; the audience could be everyone; art could be anywhere. All the “institution” had to do was to acknowledge the presence of the artifact and “art” was “made.”

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

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Conceptual Art

ART AS IDEA—IDEA AS ART

At mid-century, the question of what is art? was raised again for the first time since Emmanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Judgment in 1781. Starting in the mid-fifties, Neo-Dada art and Minimal Art challenged the presumed Modernist definition of “art,” as channeled through Clement Greenberg’s theories. Neo-Dada artists did not create, instead they borrowed and appropriated already available imagery. Pop artists mocked the pretensions of “high” art with their mimicry of “low” art. Minimal artists did not make works of art, they arranged encounters for the audience. If there was no difference between art and life, if there was no difference between the object and the spectator, if there was no such thing as independent art, if there was no sacred art space, then what was art? and why was this object designated as “Art?”

By the end of the Sixties, the art world was splintered and fragmented between the lingering effects of Modernism and the continuing tributes to Abstract Expressionism and new challenges to the hegemony of European high Modernism and to the aging Greenberg himself. Anti-modernist Pop Art and Minimalist Art and Fluxus and pro-modernist Post-Painterly Abstraction existed side by side, but in 1970, Conceptual Art emerged out of Duchampian-based interrogations of Modernism. As a movement that generated works of art, Conceptual Art might have been less important for its disdain of objects than for the fact that it presided over the final act of Modernism.

In 1964, it was a suite of Brillo boxes re-fashioned by Andy Warhol that stopped critic Arthur Danto in his tracks at the Stable Gallery. Clearly, a new theory of aesthetics—a new definition of “art”—had to be conceived. In his 1964 essay on The Artworld, Danto pondered this state of affairs:

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art…

Independently, philosopher George Dickie began to refashion aesthetic theory and in 1974 something new emerged: the Institutional Theory of Art, which states that “art” is legitimated by institutional processes. Art does not exist on aesthetic grounds and has no inherent or intrinsic properties. Art is an object “annointed” by the art world. The new functional analysis of the suitability of a candidate for the designation as “art” takes place within the institutional frame and destroys any possibility of the nominalism established by Greenberg.

Questioned by the intellectuals and attacked by artists, formalism collapsed. By 1968, Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth completed the destruction of Modernism by revealing that the “quality” upon which high art was based was nothing more than “taste,” and the taste of Clement Greenberg himself—one man with a good eye for art. “Above all,” he wrote, “Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgment, with those judgments reflecting his taste.” In addition, Kosuth pointed out, the “condition” or definition of art rested upon “morphological” grounds—physical attractiveness. In contrast to the formalists who did not question the received concept of art, the role of the artist was to question the very notion that art had to be an object.

Although Kosuth would be connected to Conceptual Art, his essay is a definitive re-positioning of art. Based upon Marcel Duchamp’s criticisms of “retinal art,” Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Philosophy,” 1969, was a definitive art critical end to Greenberg’s Modernism. Kosuth suggested that an act of art was an act of language.

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.

TRANSITION TO POSTMODERNISM

The late 1960s and the early 1970s is a time marked by an artistic withdrawal from the established art rules and by a distaste for making saleable objects. Conceptual Art was the first important gesture against the highly profitable art market, attracting artists who refused to make things anymore and/or who had a more intellectual bent. Sol LeWitt was an important transitional figure between Minimal and Conceptual art, and many Minimal artists drifted towards Conceptual art. According to LeWitt’s well-known dictum, “The idea is the machine which makes the art.” The term “conceptual” Itself had been around since the early 1960s, meaning art, which was not sufficiently expressive or personal. The German art movement, Fluxus, was considered “conceptual,” but Sol LeWitt’s 1967, essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” gave the term its first theoretical exegesis. By 1969 the term referred to the works of Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Thanks to the first exclusively Conceptual exhibition, January 5 – 31, 1969, arranged by Seth Siegelaub, their dealer, Conceptual Art announced itself. The object had been eliminated in favor of the idea.

Art became Philosophy. Art was now understood to be an idea that could be expressed in language and did not need to become an object. The Art-Language group in London published “Art and Language Point of View” in Art-Language magazine in 1967, stressing the fundamental role of language in the development of art. This group consisted of Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Howard Hurrel who worked with Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden. Conceptual artist from London to Tokyo to New York began to foreground the mental processes of the artist and to present, not works of art, but ideas about art in the form of declarations, statements and documentations of artist’s activities. As Raoul Noortmann wrote in 2012,

It can be argued that Art & Language is the most interesting expression of the resistance of conceptual artists against an alleged oppressive discourse in this decade. Their journal stood as an independent force within the artworld of this decade.

Written material, such as artist’s books and dealers’ catalogs, were presented as evidence of the mental activities of the Conceptual artists. Following the lead of the Minimal artists, these Conceptual artists took an active part in art writing. The writing of Conceptual Art was not intended to be either a work of art or of art criticism but an artist’s idea, which takes the place of a now-unnecessary art object. In contrast to Minimal art which had emphasized the perceptual experience of an object, Conceptual art re-located art in the mind of the artist and in the mind of the spectator. Supported by the austere philosophy of British analytical philosophy, particularly that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Conceptual Art represented a total withdrawal from object-ness into a discourse about the philosophical nature of art. As Kosuth wrote in “Art After Art Philosophy,”

It comes as no surprise that the art with the least fixed morphology is the example fromwhich we decipher the nature of the general term art. For where there is a contextexisting separately of its morphology and consisting of its function one is more likely tofind results less conforming and predictable. It is in modern art’s possession of a language with the shortest history that the plausibility of the abandonment of that language becomes most possible. It is understandable then that the art that came outof Western painting and sculpture is the most energetic, questioning (of its nature), andthe least assuming of all the general art concerns. In the final analysis, however, all of the arts have but (in Wittgenstein’s terms) a family resemblance.

Post Minimal Art or Conceptual Art changed the notion of abstraction in that the art no longer refers to reduction of form only but to Abstraction as an idea for it’s own sake. 1966- 70 was a watershed year in American art, as options derived from Minimalism, from the elimination of the object—Conceptual Art—to an expressionist revival of painterly issues as seen in Process Art which is a break with Minimalism. Process Art restored the non or anti-object resulting in “the de-materialization of art,” as Lucy Lippard said. Both Conceptual Art and Process Art reject the physicality and the literalness of Minimalism. Conceptual Art completely eliminates the object in favor of texts and language. Kosuth produced a series of Photostat texts-as-art, “Art as Idea,” consisting of definitions of, for example, “red” or “water” or “art” as propositions.

Influenced by the analytic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kosuth saw art as a proposition, that is, a statement of reality put forward to be analytically understood. A proposition “creates” the event or the object and comes out of an a priori concept. “Art” is a proposition that must precede any “art object.” If that is the case, that art is, a priori, a proposition, then there is no need to produce the object. All one needs is a text that defines “red,” and there is no need for a red painting. The viewer is intellectually activated far more than s/he was with Minimalism.

As Sol Le Witt expressed it, “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” When one reads one of Weiner’s enigmatic phrases, such as “…the joining of France and Germany by a rope…” written on a gallery wall, one is forced to “think” or “conceive” of what this “joining” would look like. When Robert Barry announces that he is presenting a photograph of a mile high column of air, one must attempt to envision such a column in the mind. The stress on art and language meant that art and language are interchangeable concepts.

Although any account of Conceptual Art must discuss Marcel Duchamp as a precursor, Duchamp was essentially an artist of the object. Duchamp’s main contribution to the end of the Modernist definition of art was to expand meaning beyond the object. “Meaning” in art was no longer inherent in the object or as an art meaning. Duchamp’s work suggested that meaning is multivalent, that meaning exists as a surplus, spilling over the supposed bounds of the object. In contrast, Conceptual Art was not concerned with meaning per se. Meaning is an externality that is of little interest. What concerned the Conceptual artist of the seventies was the tautology that is art. If Art is a Linguistic System and if Art is Information, then Art is Language.

Conceptual Art opened the door for artists who were writers, such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Kruger and Holzer installed a form of communication or speech-making in galleries and museums, directly addressing the audience who “reads” directives and exhortations. “Your body is a battleground,” as Kruger asserted, was not an analytical Wittgensteinian proposition, but a political statement. Kruger was a designer who stamped out slogans. Holzer wanted to write simple sentences. Had these artists begun their careers twenty years earlier, they would have been expected to paint, but after Conceptual Art, the two women had the art world’s “permission” to turn words into objects.

As Holzer stated in her Truisms, A SENSE OF TIMING IS THE MARK OF GENIUS.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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Post-War Culture in America

FROM MODERNISM TO POST-MODERNISM

POST-WAR ART IN AMERICA

After the Second World War, the art world was characterized by “triumphalism” in New York and a feeling of having won, not just a military war but also a cultural war. The French and their School of Paris had been routed. Also defeated was American Scene painting and its nativist illustrations of a naïve nation. Now, the triumphant society would be represented by works of art that expressed America metaphorically, through sheer size or potent symbols. American art, like American culture, was a global phenomenon with New York at its core. There were “secondary” and usually ignored centers in the Midwest (Chicago) and on the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco), but New York seized the lead, consolidating major art critics, major artists, major art dealers, and major art nstitutions, from museums to art departments, and, perhaps most important of all—important art collectors. Until the 1970s, this scene was the site of rival movements, co-existing and reacting dialectically—Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Pop Art, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, Op Art, and so on, until the great seventies dissolve into incoherent Pluralism. It can be said that, after Abstract Expressionism, most of these movements defined and positioned themselves against the aging artists of the New York School and their continuation of the European tradition.

This cacophony of movements was presided over by art critics and art historians who wrote for a small number of magazines that fulfilled the function of legitimation and validation of artists, their art reputations and careers. As a financial town, New York provided the support system willing to invest in contemporary art, but only the art went through the system of approval from what Arthur Danto called “the art world.” Danto and the aesthetician, George Dickie, conceived of the “institutional theory of art,” meaning that “art” was designated, not on an aesthetic basis, but upon the basis of institutional acceptance. From Neo-Dada onwards, the traditional definition of art was in a state of crisis, brought on by the acceptance of Marcel Duchamp’s alternative concepts of art.

Instead of an attractive object, characterized by “taste,” a work of art was a concept. Instead of an artist who worked with hands and heart, the creator was a conceptualist who conceived of art as language. Far more challenging than Duchamp’s insistence that art should be put “in the service of the mind,” was the logical consequences of Dada’s new artistic freedom. If art was a thought manifested by an arbitrarily found object, then any item from the world outside of the confines of fine art could be termed “art.” Once “art” announced itself with its significant presence, its beauty, its grandeur, its profound intentions, by the Sixties, Danto pondered the difference between a “real” Brillo box and a Brillo box by Andy Warhol.

What is the difference between a mural sized field of glorious color titled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950), a painting hanging on the wall, where it belongs, and Monogram (1955) a stuffed goat with a tire girdling its middle, standing proudly on a canvas, laid down like a “field” on the floor? The gap between the two is the distance between generations, the gulf between America before and after World War II. What happened during the fifties and the sixties to produce such a schism between the nobility of “Man, heroic and sublime” and the ignobility of an abandoned goat, straddling a painted arena, where the heroic artist once did battle with the forces of art and tradition?

The Fifties seemed to be Clement Greenberg’s nightmare of popular culture come true, with the invasion of kitsch—Rauschenberg’s goat and stuffed chickens in the museum just one room away from the abstract purity of Newman’s absolute spiritual state. Life had invaded art in a most unexpected way. Newman’s piece is all about the human spirit at its most glorified, idealized, spiritualized form. Rauschenberg’s work is about life, the quotidian, the overlooked, the ignored. But life in all its inglorious aspects, Rauschenberg is asserting, is worthy of our attention. The distance between Newman and Rauschenberg is the long delayed consideration of Duchamp’s challenge to high art and all its serious pretensions. Instead of the involvement of gesture, we have the detachment of gesture. Instead of the triumph of art, we have the success of art’s acceptance of anything and everything as art.

The ground was fertile for the ideas of Duchamp by the 1950s because of the need to debunk Abstract Expressionism and because of the commercial success of American art. The burgeoning demand allowed the artists scope and freedom to defy rather than to extend and re-define tradition. The success of American art was inseparable from the tragedy of Jackson Pollock. Pollock took a deep breath about 1947 and managed to hold it and his life together for about three years. During this dry spell, Pollock produced some of the most sublime images of the century, and then willfully, capriciously, childishly, he exhaled. His life’s breath drifted out and his art drifted away, and one August night in 1956, Pollock drove his car into a tree, killing himself and a passenger. Great story. American art now had its martyr. The New York School now had its Grand Récit, complete with the tragic arc. Greenberg would recall Pollock’s “run” of about ten years, leaving behind a cult of personality and a Studio full of relics and a keeper of the flame, “the art widow,” Lee Krasner.

In order for the art world to move on, this hagiography had to be combatted. Piece by piece the vaunted characteristics of Abstract Expressionism would be attacked and discredited and discarded, and by the Eighties, the movement was consigned to a Modernist history. Ironically, the “triumph” of the New York School was immediately followed by the challenge of Neo-Dada. Neo-Dada eschewed originality for appropriation, bringing the jewel in the crown of modernism—creativity—to an end. It is here that Modernism ends and Postmodern begins. The art world’s continuing challenges to Modernism and its defenders, Clement Greenberg and his followers, would be expanded to that of a critique of Enlightenment and all that it had wrought. That critique was Postmodernism. Postmodernism was a re-examination of Modernism and was based in philosophy and literary theory, rather than in the visual arts or aesthetics. Therefore, postmodernism could not generate a style or a movement.

As a philosophical critique, postmodernism or post-structuralism was a European phenomenon, dating from the decade of the mid to late Fifties to Sixties. Fueled by the collapse of the Left, following “May, 1968” in France, postmodernism was a re-reading of Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that had proved inadequate to the challenges of the Twentieth Century. In Germany, postmodernism was really a form of post-Marxism, again, generated by the inadequacy of traditional Marxism to social and cultural changes, especially mass media. As an exercise of re-examination, postmodernism took the stance of “belatedness,” everything had already been done, all had been said, and the kind of historical progress promised by the Enlightenment was unlikely to occur.

For years, most Americans in the art world paid little attention to postmodern theories, whether out of philosophy or literary theory. The reason for this neglect are various and include American self-satisfaction with the leadership position in visual culture, the slowness of translation, and the entrenchment of traditional art historical methods. When Americans became aware of the significance of postmodern thinking in the 1980s, most of the important works had either been written or were well underway. Suddenly belated, American art could only try to respond and to catch up to European thinking. The visual arts shifted into “theory” and language and philosophy, as artists began to critique Modernist art and to reject or re-examine its precepts.

With the occasional exception excluding women and people of color, the post-war art world was an all male, all white enclave. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s challenged the art world and revealed the racism and the sexism that favored the production of white men. After the Stonewall Uprising in 1968 and especially after AIDS, the gay and lesbian community also demanded more visibility. Coincidentally or not, postmodernism became prominent in America during the Reagan presidency, which was characterized by attempts to roll back the gains of women and people of color and by neglect of the AIDS epidemic. Because postmodernism re-reads traditions of the past, it is an inherently conservative study, re-examining the work of white males, mostly dead. That said, “theory,” especially post-Marxist theory provided women, gays and lesbians, and people of color a theoretical basis to challenge the more reactive elements of postmodern theory.

For the visual arts the consequences were profound: there was freedom and anarchy and lack of a center. Without an avant-garde, postmodern artists seemed doomed to reactiveness to the past. But folded into the postmodern period, were Late Enlightenment adaptations of social theories, co-existing with postmodern assertions that revolution was now impossible. The so-called “minorities” had the tools to resist the hegemony of the status quo. The question that begs to be asked is, if late modernism and postmodernism co-mingle, when did postmodernism begin or when did modernism end? The answer depends upon where you are, which culture you come from—the Sixties in Europe, the Eighties in America—in terms of response to Enlightenment philosophy. But if one uses another criteria, “the postmodern condition,” then the shift is more cultural, rooted in mass media, and therefore global. This “condition” that is Postmodernism is a post-war response to the loss of mastery and the disillusionment in a disenchanted world.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

 

 

Podcast 44 Painting 10: Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol and “Decorative Art”

Andy Warhol played many roles in the art world of the sixties. Although he produced more films than paintings and sculptures, he re-defined “painting” and “sculpture,” bringing these traditional practices into the modern age. Using serigraphy as a metaphor for commercialism and consumerism, Warhol brought his advertising sensibilities to fine arts. Wooden boxes with purloined logos suggested that the art world was a market place for the high-end consumer. Casting aside hierarchy and judgment, the artist consumed the ubiquitous imagery of his time and put together an encyclopedia for his decade. Acting like a bricoleur, he gathered the pictures of mass media and re-produced and re-presented the already known and the already seen and forced the viewers to examine the overlooked and the banal of the culture.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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