Art As Idea, The Roots Of Conceptual Art


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  • Last week we asked a range of questions about the way the meaning of art is constructed. We are dealing this week with a type of art that critic Tony Godfrey has said “challenges the traditional status of the art object as unique, collectable or saleable.” (Godfrey, p.4) Some historians consider the term to relate, in a strict sense, to the practice and theory of artists working predominately in America and Britain. Though we will take a somewhat broader overview of the disparate roots of conceptual art (which was itself international), this argument might be justified by the fact that Conceptual Art is a specific reaction to the values of modernist art – themselves Westernvalues.
  • A book that was very influential on a number of radical groups after the Second World War.Lefebvre, a Marxist critic, considers the intensity of living and life to have been suppressed by an (elitist) culture that devalues the everyday. For Lefebvre it is crucial that the human ‘spirit’ be rekindled, that passion be recapitulated in a revolution that can only have value if it takes place in everyday life (not the illusion of revolution presented in the arts). He stated, “Man must be everyday, or he will not be at all.” (Ibid, p.122) In other words the value of this resistance would be measured by itsimpact on an individual’s daily experiences – the minute details.“When the new man has finally killed magic off and buried the rotting corpses of the old ‘myths’ – when he is on the way towards a coherent unity and consciousness, when he can begin the conquest of his own life, rediscovering or creating greatness in everyday life – and when he can begin knowing it and speaking it, then and only then will we be in a new era.” (Ibid, p. 129)
  • From “First German Dada Manifesto” (Huelsenbeck, 1920)Dada was, in it German manifestation at least, a political movement.
  • Through the ‘eye-glass’ of Conceptual Art however, it was Dada’s questioning of the values underpinning art that was emphasised. In fact Duchamp’s Fountain is often considered to be the first piece of conceptual art (we asked the question last week of when modernism in art began – or postmodernism – here its hopefully becoming clear that this question has as much to do with the perspective from which a history is written as it is the ‘facts’)(R Mutt – Richard for ‘moneybags’, Mutt from Mutt and Jeff the cartoon, and also an allusion to the showroom from which it was purchased, J L Mott’s)Duchamp tried to exhibit it in New York in an ‘open exhibition’ (costing $6). The Society of Independent Artists declined to show it (William Glackens, a realist painter, was head of the committee) Duchamp said in a letter of resignation – for he was himself on the committee - that one of his female friends (possibly Louise Norton) had submitted the work under a masculine pseudonym. There was some contemporary support for the piece.This gesture, whether exhibited or not, constitutes a questioning of the values of art. What role might the artist have? Why can’t everyday objects be art? Why does art have to take recognisable forms?Focusing first of all on this as an act related to the type of ‘assault on culture’, as advocated by Lefebvre, rather than simply as the ‘origin’ of conceptual art we might move forward here by highlighting a number of movements after the Second World War that sought to enact Dada’s radical messages.
  • Key Members: AsgerJorn (Danish), Christian Dotrement (Belgian) and Constant (Amsterdam). Expanded to include about 50 members in about 10 different countries.This image is part of Jorn’s modifications series painted on top of works by anonymous painters. Constant wrote, reflecting their interest in Lefebvre, “Today’s culture, being individualistic, has replaced creation with ‘artistic production’, and has produced no more that signs of tragic impotence ... To create is always to discover what one doesn’t know... It is our desire that makes revolution.” (Jorn in Home ([1949] 1988, p. 11). Many painters the group generally adopted childlike imagery and painted on various surfaces and with diverse materials. CoBrA also established a commune near Copenhagen.
  • Guy Debord became one of the figureheads of SituationistInternation, a group emerging from CoBrA and the Lettrists.Detournement as a process was cheap and efficient, anyone could do it. It was part of the SI’s attempt to grapple meaning back from the spectacle, while being tied up with the utopian undercurrents of the movement:“The detournement of the right sign, in the right place at the right time, could spark a mass reversal of perspective. The one-way communication of the spectacle reduced all other speech to babble, but now the spectacle would fall back on itself; it would sound like babble and everyone would see through it.” (Marcus [1989] 2001)Little Mermaid was in Copenhagen.
  • The Naked City (1957) Derive was a passive way of moving through the city. Perhaps linked to the Surrealist notion of Automatism it was the free movement of people through a city, led by intuition rather than necessity. Here ambience and atmosphere are given special attention.
  • Founded in 1954 in Osaka, the Gatui movement embraced materials ‘as they are’. In the manifestoJiro Yoshihara states that “the spirit does not force the material into submission. It leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it states to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice”. (Yoshihara [1956] 2003, p. 699) In a similar fashion the manifesto celebrates decay and aging in architecture; the passing of ‘design’ back to nature. As Tony Godfrey writes, having had quite a submissive role to the dominant Western modes of art, Gutai’s radical departure from accepted artistic forms and its turn to nature, plays “upon the fact that before the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan was first forced to open up to trade with the West, there was no Japanese word for art as a separates and autonomous concept.” (Godfrey 1998, p.67-8) This
  • Promoted by George Maciunus Fluxus Group was a fairly disparate collection of musicians, poets and artists from America and across Europe.Influenced by the American composer John Cage (4’33 – 1952) who was an advocate of chance and purposeless play, Fluxus ‘Festivals’ often involved chaotic, random performances dictated by bizarre recipes and programs. Cage had a much more passive attitude than Lefebvre.
  • “Deprived... Of imaginary ideals, [the artist] must work towards an art that they see functioning neither for church nor state nor individual but in a subtle social complex whose terms they are only beginning to understand” (Kaprow [1964] 2003, p.49)In Kaprow’s works there seems to be a different idea of everyday life emerging. This isn’t necessarily the controlled ‘spectacle’ attacked by the situationists, but seem to be more about the complex subtleties of life. Kaprow has pushed his Happenings, gradually becoming activities, until they become less and less like ‘art’ – as a clearly defined activity.
  • (French born)Yvew Klein promoted himself as a kind of deity of the art world. Patented his own shade of blue. At an opening visiters were given a cocktail with methylene blue die in it, effecting the colour of their urine for days.
  • Also began to lines on sheets of paper and put them in a sealed tin, listing their length. Would also sign people as living works of art.
  • Rauschenberg had attended the experimental Black Mountain college with John Cage in 1952. Leo Steinberg phoned up to ask if he needed to see the picture before he reviewed it, Rauschenberg said no.
  • Kosuth’sArt After Philosophy (1969) was on of the most puritanical attempt to define conceptual art. For him, art is a tautology – i.e. It states ‘I am a work of art’. This shows his proximity to the thinking of various minimalists, particularly Donald Judd who said “It’s art if I say it is”. He argues that there is no conceptual reason that art has to be tied to aesthetics. Also, One and Three Chairs (1965).Kosuth is very critical of formalist criticism and argues that it rest solely upon taste, while reducing the work of art to mere decoration. To make conventional forms of art, i.e. Painting of sculpture, is to accept the ‘nature of art’ (Kosuth [1969] 1991, p.18) “The value of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art” (Ibid.). For this reason he argues that “Actual works of art are little more than historical curiosities.” p.19There is something quite dogmatic about Kosuth’s essay however, and it is very reliant upon the proximity of meaning and written language. The visual aspect of the art is being seen as secondary.“The ‘purest’ definition of conceptual art would be that it is inquiry into the foundations of the concept ‘art’, as it has come to mean.” p.26There is also a sense here that the material aspects of the reality of conceptual art are being denied.Exhibition opens on 7 August at Talbot Rice gallery.The same year Robert Barry created his closed exhibition piece.
  • Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin.Another work, Secret Painting was a white panel with the label The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only by the artist. (1968)
  • One of the challenges to puritanical readings is the reassert the importance of the material. Though Kosuth was adamant that his work simply existed at an idea, by the 1970s he was make a fortune from commissions. At the end of the day these photographs had a material presence, and whether or not they were the real artwork or not, or whether it was simply the idea, and were commodities that galleries could buy and sell.These artists represent the material constructs of language.More and more artists using words in there work. Bruce Nauman, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Nancy Spero, (Kay Rosen), Hannah Darboven (I write but I don’t read (1973))Vertical Earth Kilometer by Walter De Maria (1977) (American)
  • Conceptual art also gave photography a central position in art practices. Not only was it a means of documenting ideas, but it could be socially engaged (both politically and in the sense of advertising – that it could be widely disseminated). This image was actually distributed as posters around Newcastle.Burgin was also responsible for setting up cultural studies courses in Britain. (semiotics).
  • Art As Idea, The Roots Of Conceptual Art

    1. 1. Postmodernism in Art: An Introduction<br />Art as Idea: the roots of conceptual art<br />Tutor: James Clegg<br />
    2. 2. # 12v3: The lecture<br />Put tables and chairs in a formal arrangement within a room.<br />Put on a slide.<br />Invite people to a lecture about conceptual art.<br />Wait for 2 hours. <br />
    3. 3. Carl Sagan (1972)<br />Plaque for Pioneer space probe.<br />
    4. 4.
    5. 5. the roots of conceptual art<br />The assault on ‘Culture’<br />Critique of Everyday Life, Dada’s legacy, CoBrA, Situationism, Gutai,, Fluxus and Happenings.<br />(Interlude: The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau.)<br />Art as Idea<br />Yves Klein, Pier Manzoni and Robert Rauschenberg.<br />Idea as Art: Conceptual Art and beyond...<br />Sol Lewitt, On Kawara, Joseph Kosuth, Art & Language, Words, Victor Burgin and Mary Kelly.<br />
    6. 6. Art as Idea: the roots of conceptual art<br />Questioning the Value of Art<br />
    7. 7. The Critique of Everyday Life (1947), Henri Lefebvre.<br />“The true critique of everyday life will have as its prime object the separation between the human (real and possible) and bourgeois decadence, and will imply a rehabilitation of everyday life” (p.127) <br />
    8. 8. Dada’s legacy...<br />Have the expressionists fulfilled our expectations of an art that burns the essence of life into our flesh?<br />No! No! No!<br />Life appears as a simultaneous muddle of noises, colours and spiRITUAL rhythms, which is taken unmODifieD into Dadaist art, with ALL THE sensational sCREAMsand fevers of its reckless everyday psyche and with all its brutal reality.<br />
    9. 9. Dada’s legacy...<br />“The name of ‘artist’ is an insult. The denomination ‘art’ demolishes equality between men” <br />(Heartfield and Grosz in Godfrey 1998, p. 48)<br />to be an artist only by accident<br />
    10. 10. Fountain (1917)<br />
    11. 11. CoBrA (1948-51)<br />AsgerJorn (1959) Le Canard Inquietant<br />
    12. 12. Jorgen Nash (1972) Decaptitated Little Mermaid<br />Situationists: Détournement<br />
    13. 13. Dérive (drift)<br />
    14. 14. Gutai (1954~1974)<br />Saburu Murakami (1956) <br />SadamasaMotonaga<br />
    15. 15. Fluxus (1963~ 1978)<br />Bandaged Orchestra during the Fluxus Festival arranged by Yoko Ono at Carnegie Recital Hall, New York (1965). <br />George Brecht Re-enactment.<br />Shigeko Kubota (1965) Vagina Painting. Performed in New York.<br />
    16. 16. Allan Kaprow - happenings<br />Photo: Nancy Popp/LA Art Girls 2008<br />Detail of a poster for Fluids (with score), Allan Kaprow, 1967.<br />Remake in 2008 by the LA Art Girls, Museum of contemporary art Los Angeles.<br />
    17. 17. Allan Kaprow - happenings<br />“The Happenings are the one art activity that can escape inevitable death-by-publicity to which all other art is condemned, because, designed for a brief life, they can never be overexposed; they are dead, quite literally, every time they happen.”(Kaprow [1966] 2003, p.59)<br />
    18. 18. Art as Idea: the roots of conceptual art<br />Art as Idea<br />
    19. 19. Yves Klein (1928-62)<br />[Detail] from a Single Day Newspaper [spoof] (1960). The caption read “The Painter of space Hurl Himself into the Void”.<br />
    20. 20. Pier Manzoni (1933-63)<br />Base of the World (1961)<br />Artist’s Shit (1961)<br />
    21. 21. Robert Rauschenberg (1926 -2008)<br />Erased De Kooning(1953)<br />
    22. 22. Art as Idea: the roots of conceptual art<br />Art as Idea: Conceptual Art and beyond...<br />
    23. 23. Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)<br />“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 make the art.” (Le Witt [1967] 2003, p. 846)<br />“The idea itself, even if not made visual is as much a work of art as any finished product” (Ibid. 848)<br />142, Metropolotan Museum of Art<br />
    24. 24. On Kawara(1932 – “I am still alive”)<br />Date paintings begun in January 1966.<br />
    25. 25. Joseph Kosuth<br />Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) (1967)<br />
    26. 26. Joseph Kosuth<br />One and Three Chairs (1965)<br />
    27. 27. Art & Language<br />Index 01, Documenta 5, Kassel 1972<br />
    28. 28. Words...<br />Mel Bochner [backgound] (2008) <br />Robert Smithson (1966) A Heap of Language<br />
    29. 29. Victor Burgin<br />“By 1973 Victor Burgin had come to see ‘pure’ Conceptual art as the last gasp of formalism.” (Godfrey 1998, p.255) He was more interested in the way conceptual art had opened up new ways of questioning the ideologies underlying representation.<br />Possession (1976)<br />
    30. 30. Mary Kelly<br />Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document: Documentation VI: Prewriting Alphabet Exerque & Diary, mixed media, 1976-1977<br />Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document: Documentation IV: Transmitional Objects, Diary and Diagram, mixed media, 1976<br />
    31. 31.
    32. 32. Jape-O-Meter<br />
    33. 33. References<br />De Certeau, M (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. London, University of California Press.<br />Godfrey, T (1998) Conceptual Art. London, Phaidon Press Limited.<br />Home, S (1988) The Assault on Culture. Edinburgh, AK Press.<br />Huelsenbeck, R ([1920] 2003) First German Dada Manifesto in W and Paul Wood (eds) Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. <br />Kaprow, A (2003) Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. London, University of California Press.<br />Kosuth, J ([1969] 1991) Art After Philosophy. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.<br />Lefebvre, H ([1948] 2000) The Critique of Everyday Life. London, Verso.<br />Le Witt, S ([1967] 2003) Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing.<br />Marcus, G ([1989] 2001) Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. London, Faber and Faber.<br />Yoshihara, J ([1958] 2003) Gutai Manifesto, in W and Paul Wood (eds) Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. Pp. 698-701.<br />