The estate of conceptual art

Print edition : November 11, 2000

Some questions about representation and substance.

"WITH the philosophical coming of age of art", the philosopher Arthur Danto writes in After the End of Art, "visuality drops away, as little relevant to the essence of art as beauty proved to have been." It is a startling claim (not least because Danto thinks that art has a 'transhistorical' essence); but philosophical coming of age or no, what counts as visual art these days does seem to bear him out.


Figure 1: Santiago Sierra, 465 personas remuneradas, 1999.-FROM ART FORUM

465 personas remuneradas

The picture of the young men here (Figure 1), who seem to have lined themselves up to one side of a hall or gallery, documents a piece of what for lack of a better word may be called conceptual art. The picture appeared in the January 2000 issue of Ar t Forum, the premier American art magazine. The accompanying review describes the work itself - which is titled 465 personas remuneradas, by a young Spanish artist named Santiago Sierra - as "a kind of performance": which took place on the ope ning night of a show mounted at a gallery said to be among the "most prestigious exhibition spaces for contemporary art" in Mexico City, housed in the Museo Rufino Tamayo. The review goes on to say that "visitors to the space after that night were greete d by the projection of a roughly three-hour videotape of the event, which had been recorded by a surveillance camera looking down on the gallery. For the opening Sierra had the museum hire 465 people, a number calculated to create an arbitrary density of five people per square metre of gallery space, through an employment agency. The artist stipulated that the museum request young, dark-haired male mestizo workers; these 'actors' were then told that they would be participating in a political thea tre piece and instructed to arrive at the gallery on opening night."

I quote to save the bother of describing, of course; but also to put on display certain things said. The videotape is described as "striking, at times even funny", and the way it shows what it does - an art gallery "crowded with dark-haired men gathered in groups, looking at each other in search of answers, or simply looking bored" - is said to be "loaded with social, political and cultural meaning". The young mestizos - Mexicans of mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry - are described as "at once prota gonists and outsiders" and, as everyone presumably expects, they "often act and look displaced".

It turns out, however, that those on view are not quite protagonists: they were only "used as art performers", we discover, "most likely without their full understanding". In "their appearance and sheer number they are reminders of the country's c heap labour force" and the "mestizo condition"; and even though they were earlier credited with "bringing the city streets into the museum with them", we now find that the persons we see have been "art-objectified, have become commodities: yet now of a d ifferent value, in a different system - the economy of conceptual art."

Figure 2: Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1950 replica of the 1917 original (now lost). Porcelain; h. 33.5 cm. Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington.-


Let us rehearse this transmogrification. An important factor, apparently, is that the Museo Rufino Tamayo is "a public institution central to the country's intricate cultural bureaucracy"; and we already know of the gallery's cachet. "The piece highlight s the exclusiveness of art circuits the world over", we are told: and informed further that "such cultural barriers are perhaps greatest in Third World countries". Such circumstances then - the social exclusiveness of the world of art, the Museo Rufino T amayo's being the preserve of a 'cultural bureaucracy'; and these factors coupled, apparently, with the fact that "ultimately, public money paid these workers-turned-actors" - all this, taken together with their having been used as 'art-performers' witho ut their full understanding, is supposed to have 'art-objectified' these mestizo men.

The reviewer concedes that "one might question the Spanish artist's use of young Mexican mestizo workers as his primary material". Is Sierra "merely reproducing a ruthless socioeconomic system that should instead be fought", he asks (on all our behalf, p resumably); and what, he goes on, are "the ethical implications" of Sierra's "manipulation of these workers"? But though "there is great deal of risk in the piece" - and "despite the ethical problems it would obviously pose to the strict Marxist" - our t ough-minded exegete concludes that "465 personas remuneradas raises crucial questions about the uneasy polarities - the museum and the city streets, intellectuals and workers, art and politics, culture and power - that are found all over the world ".

I have quoted at such length in order to try and bring out how 465 personas remuneradas might, possibly, be understood as a work of art. I had begun by labelling the work conceptual; but one would probably find epithets like "neoconceptual" or "co nceptualist" - or even "postconceptual" perhaps - thrown around in a discussion of it. On Danto's account of things it was with conceptual art that the 'philosophical coming of age' of the visual arts began; it might be useful to examine in some detail h ow our work was taken as art just now.

Figure 3: Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. Folding wooden chair, photograph, blown-up dictionary definition. Private collection.-

One and Three Chairs

We may put aside 'the ethical problem' first: there is not much of one. Duping the young mestizos in this way is about as morally heinous as peddling snake oil. Had one of the young mestizos come back to the gallery on some night after (wearing a rented suit, say) and seen himself on the videotape, he would no doubt be embarrassed, and excusably angry to have been made a jape for the pure-blooded 'hidalgos' and commissars of culture who might be there: for whose diversion, apparently, the Museo Rufino T amayo arranges its entertainments. But should our mestizo collect himself, and reflect on what he finds, he might well begin to wonder how such as these came to be his 'betters' at all.

Let us turn to the matter of 'art-objectification' next. Have the men - as a consequence of being duped and filmed without their full understanding - have they therefore become commodities in or for an art world? As workers - in the world around t he art world of 465 personas remuneradas - they may be commodities; or treated as such only, and as no more, by those patrons of the Museo Rufino Tamayo who serve as overseers, let us say, in the 'ruthless socioeconomic system' which the work is s upposed to 'reproduce'. And it may be that these mestizo men could be so used only because they are powerless within that system: but they have not therefore been 'commodified' or 'objectified' any more than they already were. Saying so is plausible, at all, only if the work does in fact reproduce Mexico's 'socioeconomic system'; but, far from doing so, it seems a byproduct, merely, of the smooth functioning of that system.

Now for the business of raising questions: which, incidentally, seems to be a good part of an art world's work these days. Ask a young artist or a fledgling curator what they are about, and chances are that they will reply with "asking questions". Just w hat the questions are, though, they will seldom say: just as our reviewer does not. One could, charitably, take him to be suggesting that 465 personas remuneradas calls into question whatever it is that creates his 'uneasy polarities'. But does it actually do anything of the sort?

Looking at the video, after discovering how it came to be made, might make its intended viewers uneasily aware of the social differences between themselves and the persons they are watching. But producing unease is not a calling into question, at all, of the power which maintains those differences: and so creates our reviewer's 'polarities'. How that power may be exercised without restraint, by those who have a great deal of it, upon those who have none, is likely to be very visible - and visible daily - in Mexico (as it is here in India); and if there actually are people for whom 465 personas remuneradas calls that into question - any more sharply than their daily experience does - one can only suppose they spend most of their lives in a moral vacuum.

Figure 4: Xerox of drawing by Sol LeWitt, 1966, photocopy on paper; 27.9 x 21.6 cm.-

THE work, 465 personas remuneradas, does not 'objectify' anyone, then, and neither does it call anything into question in any sharp way; we have to look elsewhere to see why it might be a work of art. (My guess is that one will have to begin with the pun in the title - "persona" in Latin names the mask actors wore on stage - and try to make what one can of the difference in register between the words "remunerated" and "paid": assuming that there is some cognate difference in Spanish.) But the wor k seems a negligible thing really (if it is a work of art at all); and I have taken so long over it only to point out how witless the goings on in art worlds can nowadays be.

The writing we have just looked at is not unusually feeble: most of what appears in art magazines now, and in the journals and books that are billed 'accessible', is just as weak. (The logical debility 'art theory' too often betrays is a more serious thi ng; but getting at that will need another essay.) So, for instance, students are likely to be introduced to conceptual art now through Phaidon's recent book on the subject by Tony Godfrey (titled Conceptual Art). In it they will be told, first, th at before Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (Figure 2) - the first supposedly 'conceptual' work ever - was thrust on the art world, "people had rarely been made to think what art actually was": a claim which will conveniently erase for them about 400 year s of speculation on the matter. They will then be informed that "a work of art normally behaves as if it is a statement"; while Duchamp's Fountain presents "a question or a challenge: Could this urinal be an artwork? Imagine it as an artwork!"

Some pages later we see how Duchamp's contemporaries did try to imagine Fountain as a work of art: with risible results. One viewer averred that Duchamp "took an ordinary article of life and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared un der the new title and point of view"; while "its lines recalled classical Buddhas" to another. (To his credit Duchamp had wanted nothing of the sort.) What these enthusiasts and our author both do is simplify beyond recognition the sorts of creature beho lders of art are: that one cannot relieve oneself in Duchamp's urinal does not make its 'useful significance' disappear; and works of visual art will 'behave as if they were statements' only toward those who do not understand them as such.

Before this Godfrey had introduced us to Joesph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (Figure 3) which, after Duchamp's Fountain, is probably the best known bit of conceptual art. What one actually sees is said only to document the work: and it is worth repeating what is added just after.

"The 'real' work", Godfrey declares, "is the concept - 'What is a chair?' 'How do we represent a chair?' And hence 'What is art?' and 'What is representation?' It (the 'real' work) seems a tautology: a chair is a chair is a chair, much as he (Kosuth) cla imed that 'art is art is art' was tautologous. The three elements we can actually see (a photograph of a chair, an actual chair and the definition of a chair) are ancillary to it."

The passage seems to be rehearsing what happens when one encounters the 'documentation'. The beholder is supposed to lose suddenly the certainty he ordinarily feels about what a chair may be, and about what may count as an image of a chair: and then, per haps because he took himself to be in the presence of art to begin with, he is supposed to begin wondering what art and representation might themselves be. There well may be people hapless enough to let just that happen: and to them it may come as an epi phany that 'art is art is art' just as much as 'a chair is a chair is a chair'.

It would take too long to say why what Godfrey says is only silly (and why it does not bring out how One and Three Chairs might have been taken for a work of art, in America, in the 1960s).

Let us go on to another bit of exegesis. Talking of Mel Bochner (who was one of the first avowedly conceptual artists) we find Godfrey explaining as follows: "As he began planning geometric models or sculptures, his drawings became more like diagrams, of ten executed on graph paper. Eventually he began to see that, as the simple mathematical forms he was using could be conceived easily in the head, the act of drawing or diagramming was itself the fabrication. Therefore was it really necessary to make the objects?"

These drawings were shown along with many other such (Figure 4) in an exhibition titled Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed as Art: which is often accounted the first show of specifically conceptua l art. What we are meant to grasp on seeing Bochner's drawings, apparently, is why or how the diagrams there might themselves count as 'fabrications' of the objects they depict: and so render any actual fabricating unnecessary. But if to do so is to do w hat Godfrey has Bochner doing in the passage just quoted, should we not go on to ask if it was really necessary to make the diagrams? 'Conceiving' a simple geometric form 'in the head' seems to amount here to nothing more than visualising it: and if draw ing can serve as 'fabricating', can visualising not serve as 'drawing'? To resist this Godfrey will have to maintain that the physical act of drawing simple geometric forms achieves something that only visualising them does not; but may we not then reply that physically fabricating the forms will achieve something that only drawing them out does not?

Godfrey had begun by informing us that conceptual art "offers a thorough critique of art and representation"; but before we are very far into his book we may begin to wonder whether conceptual artists were capable, ever, of mounting any sort of critique. Conceptual art must have been a more intelligent activity, to begin with, than Godfrey's account suggests; but it has come to be an empty thing mostly, it would seem, in the English-speaking art world at least. (Coming back now to the passage quoted at the very beginning, consider the phrase "a number calculated to create an arbitrary density of five people per square metre of gallery space"; this may suggest, to those who seldom meet with 'technical' language, that some hard 'conceiving' has gone on: but that is only an illusion.)

Figure 5: Rosemarie Trockel, Cogito, ergo sum, 1988. Wool; 220 x 150 cm, Monika Sprth Galerie, Cologne.-

Cogito, ergo sum

TOWARDS the end of Godfrey's book, one finds him saying that "if the paradigm for Conceptual artists in the 1960s was the philosopher, that for the artist in the 1990s has been the researcher." It is not clear that the very generic notion of research can , as such, supply a 'paradigm' for any sort of activity; but anyone curious about how conceptual art once mimed philosophy could try looking through Lucy Lippard's Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (which brings together a good de al of what got said about conceptual art through the late 1960s).Lippard's is not a tightly organised book, so the simplest thing now would be to look up Kosuth, say, in the index, to see what he might have said.

In one of the longer extracts we find Kosuth claiming that "at its most strict and radical extreme the art I call conceptual is such because it is based on an inquiry into the nature of art. Thus", he goes on, "it is not just the activity of constructing art propositions, but a working out, a thinking out, of all aspects of the concept 'art'..."; and following this we find excerpts from an essay by Art-Language - a well-known group of early British conceptual artists - which tries, seemingly, to get at the 'categorical complexity' of the notion of art somewhat as what is called analytic philosophy once did.

Lippard confesses that she does not understand "a good deal of what is said by Art-Language" (which is telling, since she is very much an insider here), and though "the chaos inherent in their reasoning fascinates" her, she finally finds it "infuriating to have to take them on faith".

Lippard was too distracted, one supposes, to notice an elementary problem with the sort of 'programme' Kosuth and Art-Language seem to be undertaking: which is simply that examining a concept or notion we possess will not amount, always, to an inquiry in to the nature of whatever it is, in the world as we have it, that the notion gives us some purchase on. (The notions of art current in America in the 1960s may only have obscured how, for instance, 15th century Florentines understood painting as an art; though votaries of the Formalist painting of the time - who were persuaded that it was disclosing the essence of the art painting was - would have had no such doubts.)

Figure 6: Sherrie Levine, Fountain, 1989. Cast bronze; 38.1 x 63.5 x 36.2 cm. Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis.-


Rather special circumstances would have to obtain, then, before the 'working and thinking out' of the notion of art one happens to have can become an 'inquiry into the nature of art'. Danto does, as it happens, suggest what such circumstances might be. W ith its philosophical coming of age, art is said to enter a 'posthistorical' condition: one in which its 'developmental' history comes to an end. This is said to be a state of perfect aesthetic entropy, when art can be whatever artists and patrons want it to be. Nothing now offered to the eye as art could, as such, possibly contradict what art is understood to be - or so it seems - and it is precisely this, Danto suggests, which brings the developm ental history of art to its close: and only then could a 'working and thinking out' of the concept of art conceivably disclose the nature or essence of art. But that sort of thing is best left to philosophers now, Danto thinks: though the early conceptua l artists are honoured in his story as the midwives, so to say, who began delivering art into its posthistorical freedom. (Danto's arguments cannot be assessed here: but one has to wonder, given what goes on in the world of art today, whether or not much what artists and their patrons happen to want bears any relation at all to what art has been.)

Danto's account of things scants the antinomian intent of conceptual art in the 1960s; and Lippard's book does make poignant reading, now, with its heroes setting out against the powers of their art world (and the market those powers controlled, especial ly). That the very institutions they thought to overthrow or undermine should now command their works - having made of them a corpus, an estate to be administered - is perhaps an irony. (I should mention here that Tony Godfrey is a lecturer at Sothebys' Institute for Contemporary Art; and he does not seem surprised, at all, that the 'documentary' relics of conceptual art should fetch the prices they now do.) But artists seem to have adapted themselves to the situation (look at Figure 5 or Figure 6), and just how 'tragic' one finds this particular irony will depend on what one thinks the natural relation between art and power might be.

Conceptual art came out of a millennarian impulse, it is tempting to say, looking back on it now, arising within the peculiar microcosm the American art world was in the 1960s: an impulse which carried the Formalist doctrines dominant there to unforeseen extremes (somewhat as, for instance, the more radical among the early Protestant sects took what Luther and Calvin had said to extremes they did not intend). One wonders if historians will come, eventually, to value conceptual art as a bizarre but illum inating episode in the history of writing about the visual arts; but for now we have to simply endure, it seems, whatever a market does with it.

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