Postmodernism and the Meaning of Art


Postmodernism promises endless creative play in contrast to Modernism, which, according to Roland Barthes (1916-1980), was a fraudulent attempt to find the universal in every solution. For Barthes, Structuralism, or the method of reading a text through the process of seeking its structure or boundaries, was an “activity,” and with this essential insight, he opened the way for the interactivity of Post-Structuralism. All meanings in literature are plural, and the ultimate (non)conclusion is (never)completed by the audience and/or the reader. The “work” is no longer a “work,” but is a “text.” The measure of a text’s success is not its finality but the amount of “production,” or activity, the text brings to the viewer. To read is to discover how the text was written; to view is to see how the painting was painted. One places oneself within the production (the process), not the product, and the audience is freed from presumptions of received or pre given meaning and can enter into the rite of creation itself.

In contrast to Modernism’s aristocratic/autocratic taste for authority, Postmodernism privileges change–better defined as choice–over necessity or singularity, and randomness over preconceived order. In contrast to the presumed “depths” of Modernism, in Postmodernism there is only surface. In contrast to the search for meaning that defined Modernist methodologies, in Postmodernism, there is nothing to be uncovered, no hidden world to discover, no seeking of purpose, just play, and the randomness of a work in process compared to the finished state of Modernist works. Postmodernism preferred metonymy above metaphor’s identification with one object or another. With the operation of metonymy, a play of associations and referrals and substitutions, each element can remain itself (as in allegory). Postmodern surface replaced Modernist depth, because the surface is where the activity of art making takes place between the artist and the spectator.

Postmodernism began to separate itself from Modernism about the same time Structuralism gave way to Poststructuralism in America, in the late sixties and the early seventies. Being preoccupied with the end of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of Conceptual art, the art world of fine arts in America was introduced rather late to this significant philosophical shift. The break between the dominant tradition of Formalist purism and a hybrid stance that (re)examined the older philosophical systems was paralleled by activities in the art world and the philosophical world. The new generation of the art world that Joseph Kosuth (1945-) wrote about in his essay, “Art after Art Philosophy” (1969) was extricating itself from the hegemony of formalism and “taste,” exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s generation of art criticism. In America, it was the art critics and art historians who defined art or decided what could and would not be deemed “art and the generation that the Marxist art historian, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), belonged to, the fifties, was a time in which the art world was very concerned with questions of “Style” (1953) or pure appearance. As Schapiro wrote,

To the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation. He studies its inner correspondences, its life-history, and the problems of its formation and change. He, too, uses style as a criterion of the date and place of origin of works, and as a means of tracing relationships between schools of art. But the style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works maybe measured.

These two articles, “Art after Art Philosophy” and “Style,” were considered groundbreaking in their time and, written some twenty years apart, establish an important position for the next stage of the art world. Their divergent stance towards art is mirrored by the difference between early and late Barthes: one assumes a definition of “art” and the other critiques that assumption. Kosuth began his book by separating himself from Formalism:

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 function was its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy which dealt with “beauty” and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bond to discuss art as well. Out of this “habit” grew the notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true. The idea drastically conflicted with artistic considerations before recent times, not only because the morphological characteristics of art perpetuated the continuity of this error, but also because the apparent other “functions” of art..used art to cover up art.

Schapiro’s essay, “Style,” was a summation of previous art historical attempts to distinguish art of one period from another, an exercise in connoisseurship inspired by Hegelian concepts of thesis and antithesis (compare and contrast) applied to a developmental model in which art evolved and devolved. The only difference between Schapiro and his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, was that Schapiro felt that style emerged from a historical context. For Kosuth, style was synonymous with taste with formalism and, like Marcel Duchamp, he sought to free art from materialism and to reinstate art as concept, free of physicality. But for Schapiro, art always has a purpose, if only to indicate a dominate mode of thinking of a particular society at a certain time. With this art historian who seemed to write with Heinrich Wölfflin’s “period eye” in mind, art is a manifestation of a culture, but he ended on a note of uncertainty—how to discuss art within culture from a Marxist perspective?

Writing just a few years later, in a series of monthly or bimonthly columns in Lettres Nouvelles between 1954 and 1955 culminating in the essay, “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes began to extricate himself from the strictures of Modernism. Barthes has a general audience and not being a traditional art historian he was free to embrace the vernacular as the site of his discussion of (popular) culture from a Marxist perspective. The collection of observations upon post-war politics in France was gathered together in one volume, Mythologies, which was translated in 1970 and produced in a new and unabridged edition in 2012. But Barthes also came to the point in his career where he realized that it was not the role of art to be in the service of society in the “reflective” fashion of vulgar or simple minded Marxism. He left “vulgar” Marxism behind, along with politically based art making, for what he called écriture blanche, or white writing. White writing, according to Barthes, was uninflected with politics (ideology), but, due to its lack of dependence upon codes and conventions,the neutrality of écriture blanche could intervene upon the reader’s expectations of received meanings.

If white writing is writing about writing, then the art world equivalent of white writing would be Minimal Art’s non-referential objects, uninflected by art world codes and gallery conventions. Barthes searched for a clean and clear language that could smash meaning: the “semioclasm,” perhaps best reached by the Minimalists insistence of a kind of “bracketed” form of perception of their “specific objects,” recommended by Edmund Husserl. Likewise, Joseph Kosuth spoke of a “blank” slate for art and returned to the Kantian notion of the a priori, noting that art was an analytic statement, containing its own definition. But Kosuth took Kant apart, discarding Greenberg’s use of Kantian notions of “art for art’s sake,” but returning to the philosopher’s first Critique on Pure Reason. In so doing, Kosuth placed art in a different place, in the site of language as a statement that contains its own definition. In following Marcel Duchamp, the artist moved away from object-based art that lent itself to a personal response based upon critical “taste.” In releasing art from “objecthood” and “taste,” Kosuth walked through the doors opened by Neo-Dada artists, Rauschenberg and Johns, and made the case that it is the art world that establishes “art.” Thinking along the same lines as Arthur Danto and George Dickey, Kosuth came to the conclusion that art was not a transcendent absolute. “Art” is an institutional entity.

Just as Kosuth fought against conventional definitions of art as a beautiful object, Roland Barthes, in his examination of literature, also was concerned with “style” as a middle ground for the prose writer who was trying to invoke something else, reaching beyond mere “realism.” The bête noir for Barthes was “realism,” a literary practice he saw as being composed of ideological codes that served to reinforce the very social system the writer was purporting to investigate. His struggle as a critic was to not only actively intervene as a critic and to expose the iconological underpinnings of literary practice, but he also struggled to re-imagine a new way to write. Barthes turned his back on “horizontal” writing, that is, writing that logically led to a conclusion and looked instead to a highly stylized écriture, writing with no purpose other than jouissance, for the writer and the reader. For Barthes, the structurality of Structuralism–the straight line from beginning to end–and its belief in style as depth was a form of ideology. He understood that realism was a form of style that reinforced the dominant belief systems, and the attempts on the part of Barthes to break the spell of good writing with neutral writing or self-conscious writing were also attempts to call attention to Formalism as an ideology of authority.

These decades between the 1950s and 1970s were the grounds for struggle upon which a series of transitional critics wrested Postmodernism out of Modernism. As will be discussed in future posts, it was Jacques Derrida who fired the final warning shot across the bow of Structuralism/Modernism in 1966 with his talk, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” which interrogated the structural theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Derrida warned,

The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the epistémé as philosophy or science—is contradictorily coherent. And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.

Intertextuality is linked to Deconstruction and the techniques of Deconstruction involve a kind of reading that fundamentally undermined unified or finalized meaning. Most famously practiced by Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction read text as pure productivity, a literary offering without essence or fixed meaning, an utterance that could not be unique only a re-writing of the already written. However, the text was also a singularity in that it is always repeatable and iterable–resayable. Freed from Modernist formalism, the postmodern text was seen as a “performance” by the writer, advertising the ability to collect, containing a record of other texts, or an act that re-en-acts. To “deconstruct” a text is to draw out its conflicting contained logics and to show that the text never means what it says or never says what it means. Borrowing from the Modernist practice of “close reading,” or analysis of a supposedly bounded “work of art,” Deconstruction inverted and reinterpreted close reading by making this form of exposition to a reading against the grain of the overt meanings and intentions of the text.

Laying the text bare to a new kind of Postmodernist scrutiny, Deconstruction is a form of activist reading, a search through the multiple texts, locating the “unconscious” of philosophy in signs and symptoms of the text’s repressed rhetorical and figural and metaphorical tradition that contain a surplus of meaning that spills over in its own excesses. Writing disseminates a surplus of meanings, like a sower tossing seeds into the air, allowing them to randomly fall and take root. Derrida claimed that language itself is always subject to dislocating forces at work which throw meaning in other directions. He followed Kant’s interrogation of the grounds of the possibility of meaning itself, and Deconstruction follows a mode of argument in which epistemological problems of knowledge, meaning, and representation are raised once again and redeployed to define Postmodernism. These questions–the grounds of knowledge, how meaning “works,” and how representation constructs the subject are the main issues of Postmodernism.

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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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.”



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.

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

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

[email protected]






Conceptual 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.


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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Podcast 45 Painting 11: Photo-Realism and Conceptual Art

Painting in the Seventies

The 1970s presided over the widely publicized “end of painting.” What the phrase really means is the Modernist painting came to an end. One one hand, the object itself disappeared, swallowed up into Conceptual Art. On the other hand, a movement in painting, still marginalized, Photo-Realism revived painting in all its technical glory and added a touch of the taboo—photography. Following the ideas of Marcel Duchamp, Conceptual Art can be seen as either the ultimate expression of the purity of Modernism or the extinction of the “objecthood,” but it is important to understand that Photo-Realism is an early expression of “conceptual painting.”


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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