Saturday, July 12, 2008

conceptual art

James Poulos has a post up about conceptual art, riffing on a discussion between Andrew Sullivan and Tyler Cowen. Let me inject my own little defense of conceptual art. James says
‘conceptual’ art jumped its own shark when it became as aggressively anti-conceptual as it did, what with drawings studiously erased by their makers debuting in galleries leading eventually to exploded/segmented cows. Exactly what ‘idea’ is being expressed there? None, of course, except maybe Death, which is the original anti-idea when dressed up in the drag of Art.

Ah, but this is always the claim about art that people don't like-- not just that it is bad art or failed art, but that it isn't art at all. There are quite a few people, after all, who will declare just about anything outside of Norman Rockwell "not art." (Wasn't Les Demoiselles d'Avignon similarly rejected when it first hit the scene?) I find these kind of claims to be unproductive. If we're going to allow that the fundamental privilege of the artist is to decide the scope of his own work (not the quality), then we have to allow R. Mutt and cans of shit and Piss Jesus and whatever else into the conversation. Once it's there, of course, James is free to ridicule and denounce it, and perhaps he would be right to do so. But crossing our arms and claiming that something simply doesn't fall within the bounds of art seems to me to be authoritarian. And I ask again which artists, if we were to take a vote, would continue to be able to take that name? Would Picasso? Basquiat? Warhol? Duchamp? Anyone after Rembrandt at all?

My older brother loves noise music. Japanese noise music, most of all. And he says that his constant frustration isn't that other people don't like the same music he likes; that's no problem. His frustration is that others insist that he "can't really like it", that his professed admiration for Melt Banana, Merzbow and Masonna is only affect, that he listens to appear hip. That, and that his favorite kind of music isn't music at all. It's not within certain bounds, so it's not music.

Perhaps I can demonstrate my enthusiasm for certain conceptual art.

This is A Portrait of Ross, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. At first glance it would appear to many to be the perfect parody of contemporary art. "Why, it's only a pile of candy!" Those more inclined to actually interrogate it as a work of art might be more charitable. They might interpret the color, the texture. They might realize how the haphazard nature of the candy's piling makes it's final form mutable. And if they were bold enough, they might take a piece of the candy and eat it and enjoy it, and realize that this work of art gave the viewer some sort of tactile reaction and sense manipulation that a Monet or Martini or Mondrian couldn't.

If they really took the time, they might even read the placard on the wall. If they did, they would learn that Ross was Gonzalez-Torres's lover, and that Ross died of AIDS. When Ross was first diagnosed, his doctor told him his ideal weight was 155 pounds. Every day, the candy is weighed and 155 pounds is placed out. Visitors to the museum are encouraged to take a piece. So it's a giving, generous work of art; but with the dark edge, for as the candy gradually diminishes it symbolizes Ross's weight loss due to AIDS. But every morning, again, the candy is weighed out, so art (unlike life) is eternal.

This is beautiful and it's heartening and reminds me of what it is to be alive. It is also something that very many would banish from the designation "art". It's easy to parody and mock, and many have. When I lived in Chicago this piece was at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had a membership. I would go at least once a week. And there were couple different reactions that I tended to notice. A common reaction was a kind of quizzical skepticism, but one tempered by curiosity. I would always walk up to the pile and take a piece of candy in front of a group of onlookers, and they laugh and I would smile, and do my best to invite them into the work. But there were others who were impervious to its charms; they tended to walk in, see it, snort, and move on, wondering aloud how anyone could see that as art. My suggestion is that, a little bit, James is acting like one of them.

Once we've invited these works into the discussion of art, of course, we are free to accept or reject their value. No one has any obligation to enjoy or admire or respect A Portrait of Ross. And nothing compels James to like or respect $12 million dollar sharks or dissected lambs or paintings made with elephant dung. But that's precisely why he shouldn't eject them from category "art"-- it's his opinion of them as art that I'm interested in. I think a conversation where we take in all comers, and judge them vigorously, is a more interesting and valuable one; there's room for all. I want and expect a skeptical artistic eye that challenges the work it examines. But it's criticism I'm after, not taxonomy.


Justin said...

A Portrait of Ross seems to be an interesting and engaging piece of art, but only when one becomes aware of the idea behind it. Far too often do I see conceptual art with no explanation and titled in an opaque fashion (like Untitled #17). Art must be challenging to the viewer to be interesting, but it also needs to be approachable. If there is supposed to be a concept behind work, it's better if it's not banal.

individualfrog said...

Brother in question here.

Actually, they are spelled Merzbow and Masonna, and I don't mind if someone says they are not music, since that case could be made. Just the part about how I can't actually like them. Or, for another thing, that I can't like them exactly the same as I like Mandy Moore; I have tried to find any difference between my aesthetic experience of the Anakin/Obi Wan lightsaber fight, a Virginia Woolf passage, a good run in Katamari Damacy, a Picasso drawing, and a Hijokaidan CD, but I have concluded that they all provoke the same feeling in me. Perhaps this is why I have to stop myself from laughing inappropriately at a good performance of Hamlet or whatever.

Pau said...

isn´t that de MALBA in Argentina?

katiebakes said...

Came here after the Awl link - I know zero about this topic, but this was highly educational! What a great post.

Kelly T Keating said...

Nice post- smart. I also wrote about a work by Gonzalez=Torres, the "Untitled" empty bed.


Kelly Keating

SAV said...

I think you are mistaken the pile of candy is supposed to be at 175 pounds as displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago