Art Writing as Conceptual Art

odditiespress-111411-001-617x416Reading art writing requires an extra cup of coffee for me to be able to stomach. I can more easily plow through a scientific abstract than smoothly digest art writing, which takes the simplest ideas and often strives to make them as complicated, vague and important as possible. I feel oddly guilty about this because I love art, I love exploring ideas, I love to learn, I am not intimidated by difficult text and art is my chosen field. Yet when I want to wind down with an article at the end of the day, art writing is not my choice. I fail to buy it, and get distracted and exhausted by my own judging and eye rolling when I notice the effort that the writer took to make a simple idea seem lofty or ambiguous. On many occasions I am bewildered by the first or second reading of a sentence. Art writing is the frame taking over the painting. Here are the types words that are favorites in the field: polymath, normative, palimpsest, transversal, polemic, zeitgeist, ziggurat, semiotic, polemic, etc. Sure, there are uses for them, but sometimes I feel like yelling, “Stop trying so hard! It’s just art!”  Here is an example of some drivel from a Whitney Biennial catalogue as noted in the blog of artist and critic Carol Diehl:

“Bove’s ‘settings’ draw on the style, and substance, of certain time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty, where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings.”

Really?

The conceptual art trend that started in the 1960’s valued the idea or concept behind the art rather than its physical identity. The “father” of conceptual art, Sol LeWitt, codified these ideas in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.  Here are some statements from that paper:

“Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.”

“The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.”

“When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations.”

“All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.”

The theory that anything is art and anyone with an idea is an artist infuses art thinking all the way into post modern and new media art of today. But if anyone with an idea is an artist, it doesn’t seem to follow that anyone with a pen is an art writer. Just as most currently celebrated art is conceptual in nature, so is the writing about it. This is not necessarily a no-brainer; in fact art writing historically was aesthetically based. But if art itself is no longer aesthetically based, it follows that art writing would become an account of the viewer’s experience of the work, but with so much of today’s art having no obvious meaning, meanings are deciphered by the curators and critics, and the accompanying vague and nonsensical gibberish has itself become part of the art. How would the art be received without it? As stated by Eric Gibson in his hilarious Wall Street Journal article, The Lost Art of Writing About Art, “The writer no longer [has] to base his critical observations on a close scrutiny of the work of art. He [can] simply riff.” This is just what Sol LeWitt (Artsy’s Sol LeWitt page) was talking about in terms of fine art so imagine how I died laughing when I came upon “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing” by Kenneth Goldsmith, an American poet/professor/artist who is driven by a preoccupation with “Uncreativity as Creative Practice.” Echoing Sol LeWitt’s sentences, he writes:

“Conceptual writing is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the writer, to lull the reader into the belief that she understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs. illogic). Some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually. The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable. In terms of ideas the writer is free even to surprise herself. Ideas are discovered by intuition. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the writer is concerned. Once given physical reality by the writer the work is open to the perception of all, including the author. (I use the word perception to mean the apprehension of the sense data, the objective understanding of the idea, and simultaneously a subjective interpretation of both). The work of literature can be perceived only after it is completed.”

His comical but to the point article on “how to be dumb” pushes  further the idea that taking inanity seriously is in itself a clever intellectual maneuver.  Goldsmith states:

“I am dumb. Dumb is an ill-prepared slacker, riding on hunches and intuition. Willfully amnesiac—History, what’s that?—dumb is a tabula rasa,  full of emptiness. Caring little for progress or narrative, dumb moves laterally, occasionally spiraling back in on itself. Dumb loves easy. Eschewing climaxes and crescendos, dumb favors stasis, grids, and predictable systems simply because they require less effort. Similarly, dumb favors re—recontextualization, reframing, redoing, remixing, recycling—rather than having to go through the effort of creating something from scratch. Dumb embraces the messiness of contradiction and revels in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious. Trading on the mundane and common, dumb plays a low-stakes game. Since dumb has nothing to lose, dumb owes nothing to anyone, and in that way it is free.”

And even more germane:

“There is dumb dumb and there is smart dumb. There is also smart smart. Dumb dumb is plain dumb and smart smart is plain smart. Smart dumb rejects both smart smart and dumb dumb, choosing instead to walk a tightrope between the two. Smart dumb is incisive and precise. In order to be smart dumb, you have to be really smart, but not in the smart smart way.”

It seems that silliness in art writing requires the sort of art that is devoid enough of obviousness that it can be the writer’s slate. This makes me think of Wade Guyton and his meteoric rise to darling of the art world. His appropriated inkjet “paintings” of keyboard “x” and “u” symbols, made by computers and inkjet printers, now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and are in permanent museum collections nationwide. Guyton was quoted in a New York Times article as saying, “I never really enjoyed drawing or art classes. I would prefer to sit in front of the TV or play video games… I chose the computer because it was right there.” But he says he’s not very sophisticated when it comes to technology: “I don’t do Facebook. My Photoshop skills are rudimentary. I’m lucky to download my e-mail.” After cringing while listening to him participate in a panel discussion on conceptual painting hosted by the Frieze Foundation  and chaired by art historian and critic Jan Verwoert, I started to think he is the ultimate exemplification of a slacker-surfer dude who was called to speak publicly but hadn’t read the material.  At points the audience chuckled at his responses, as did Jan himself. Maybe his presentation skills have improved since that talk, but I was truly shocked that his art practice seemed to primarily consist of aimlessly throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. I have to include some transcript from the talk, typed word for word as it was spoken:

Wade Guyton: “I was making these sculptures, um, … I wanted something really simple and immediate that would very quickly register as a sculpture, or, uh, linguistically, or sit in the space and do different things….” and “Okay, then I decided, okay, well this is kind of dumb, but, so, I felt like the “x” was becoming like this caricature, or, uh it was kind of becoming really ridiculous, um, so I was wondering, like, I’m really just typing, and I just type another letter, and the “u” seemed sufficiently abstract, and close enough on the keyboard, it didn’t change anything, really, so uh, so then I ended up using this, which ends up going through much later work……” and “All these events that happen, like the struggle with the printer, the material’s not right for the machine…”

Mr. Guyton goes on for an eternity like this, and then Jan offers, “So on the one hand you seem to identify your work or yourself with this kind of a certain drama of modernist self-reflective critique that we say, “How is it possible to make a mark or make a gesture in the face of history? What are the last possible moves to make to suggest a shift at all? And then sort of this conceptual struggle is also linked to the struggle with the machine and the possibility of sort of a failure that might come as a move…It’s almost the agony of making these last possible gestures.” Wow. Is that elucidation or extrapolation?

Mr. Verwoert then asks, “What would be the liberating dimension to this kind of struggle in the face of history?” to which Guyton replies,

“Well, I kind of feel liberated by them…uh, I guess… I also feel you know…. chained to the fucking printer too…and not knowing how you, um, do anything else…but, umm, uh, uh, let’s see…(big pause)…I mean, for me it becomes very mechanical and that kind of is attractive because I can kind of turn my brain off, and, well, and even though like they are mechanical but the printer can’t do it on it’s own, like you know you have to, like, work with it…but there is this, uhhhmmmm, I don’t know how to describe it, but its, uh …there is this space that opens up for me like, mentally, working with this kind of, ah, seemingly, uh, technological, uh, mechanical computer …I sit at my desk, I look at the computer, I move these windows around, I press print then I like think about, like, these ideas of like whether it’s a quality print, a draft print, you know….”

He rambles on a while longer. Finally Jan interjects hopefully, “Saved by the bell, in the face of history? Technology is the bell that saves?” Pause, and Guyton says, “I also don’t know what else to do…. ummm…” There is some more rambling, then Jan sums it up in a neat synopsis about reductionism. It is as though they were having two completely different conversations. This is certainly a good example of LeWitt’s point that the artist doesn’t necessarily have to understand his own art. I am not sure if Wade Guyton is smart dumb or just dumb dumb, but I do see that the subject of the art writing or critique is not connected to his process. Perhaps the blanker the better for the critic or writer. There is less subject to have to work around. About Guyton’s exhibit at the Whitney critic Jerry Saltz said, “This quasi-nostalgia gives Guyton’s work a troubling, lurking aura, implying a double-edged Romantic wish that art can again be what it once was.” Who knew?

This whole scenario reminds me of the nursery spider, Pisaura mirabilis, which presents its mate with a gift of silk-wrapped prey. While the female examines the gift, the male spends its time mating with her. If the gift is not wrapped the female just takes the gift and runs away before mating can occur. Over time this spider’s behavior has evolved such that the male is often wrapping useless husks of seeds, detritus, or even nothing at all, hoping to mate without first investing in catching prey. The males wrap their gift with so much silk that the females can’t tell what is inside, but mating is cut short as soon as the female notices deceit, resulting in fewer sperm being transferred. If the wrapping is the art writing and the mating is market success, there is no joy without the ball of silk, and what is inside the wrapped package ultimately matters but is not of primary concern. This weird evolutionary analogy is the only explanation I can fathom to explain the curious evolution of the art world to its current state of collusion between the artists, critics and curators who ultimately get the market to follow. My point is not at all that Wade Guyton’s art has no worth or that art writing is without merit, but that there is something farcical about the current extremes of the scheme. It makes me reassess my own aspirations in the world of art. I want to be part of the conversation but I don’t want to yearn to enter into a club that I don’t completely buy into, or strive to be smart dumb when I am more smart smart. Absurdity in art writing has become to me the symbol of what I don’t like in the art world, and if I am not aspiring to engage in that scenario then what scenario am I aspiring to?     UPDATE: read Sept 22 comment below.

Wade Guyton
Wade Guyton at Aspen Art Museum presentation

9 Comments

  1. Tania,

    Thoroughly appreciate your thoughts,
    very well articulated(smart-smart), that
    frame so well the part of our profession
    that frustrate and infuriate those of us who don’t buy into the horseshit.
    Of course there have been writers, such as
    Arturo Danto, recently deceased, whose writing on art is exemplary. But I’m sure he is dismissed by the current gaggle of
    self-important, bombastic, Cal Arts grads.
    I loved the chapter in Seven Days in the Art
    World where she sits in a a grad critique
    at CA. it epitomizes just of what you speak.

    Thank you Tania, for taking you time to write
    a timely and provocative piece.

    Yours in this fucked-up art world,

    Kris

  2. Hi Tania – Just a quick note to tell you how much I have enjoyed your last two blogs. You are an inspiration to me to keep painting and I’m really glad to hear it’s not just me that doesn’t understand a lot of the art writing that is out there. It has been intimidating to me when I feel “dumb dumb” when I just don’t get what the writer is expressing around the piece that I’m viewing.

    Unfortunately, I’m not able to make it to your opening this evening. I wish you all the best and hope you have a great turnout with big sales!  Take care, Barb ~

  3. Thank you Tania for this great blog. It really draws back the curtain. I am often confused by art writing and thought that maybe it was I who was “dumb, dumb”. Your writing and videos always make me understand the works of art you create more which also makes me admire and appreciate them more as well.

  4. Tom Wolfe blessed us with The Painted Word (’75), a short, fun, cynical book that is consistent with Tania’s and Kris’s thoughts. According to Wikipedia: “Wolfe’s thesis… was that by the 1970s modern art had moved away from being a visual experience, and more often was an illustration of art critics’ theories.” Though he criticized Warhol, de Kooning and Pollock, Wolfe’s “main target was not so much the artists as the critics.”
    I read it gleefully when I was painting only landscapes. Now that I’m also painting abstract too, I’m less sanguine.
    Though I entirely agree with Tania, Kris and Wolfe, I have to admit to using a bit of BS in promoting my paintings. I am impure.
    Thanks to Kris for suggesting Danto, an art writer he respects. Tania, are there any who you think are worth reading?

    1. My friend Jody Rhone wrote me some very lengthy, thoughtful responses to this blog post. I wish I could post his insights but feel I would need his permission first. He did tell me to read:

      Believing is Seeing – Mary Anne Stanisweski (another of my mentors)

      Inside the White Cube – Brian O”Doherty (recently reprinted)

      The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard

      The Invisable Dragon – Dave Hickey

      And to start with Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

  5. As Tania noted, we’ve been hainign a discussion in private. My first response is here in a slightly edited form, filling in some details and making clearer. She might then post her response.
    ____________________________________
    Your essay is very interesting and insightful.  I agree with a lot of it especially the whole “why bother to be part of a club you think is bankrupt” train of thought.  I definitely felt this way when I was showing and hustling for what seemed like an audience of 100 people.  The art world is very different now though and has expanded greatly allowing for more than one monumental “art world”  Conversely at the same time that monumental  “Art World” as embodied by Art Fairs has become a spectator sport and financial hedge more and more. That audience has grown in prominence and certainly in visibility, but this is mostly, due to the pervasive commodification of art and the related obsession with prices and “value” and the complete blurring of those two ideas.  That world is problematic in the extreme but not all the art caught up in it is bankrupt or lacking in real depth or value.  There is much “fesitival art” that has become indistinguisable form entertainment and “art fair art” that is churned out simply to fill the walls of galleries with product.

    As with most things now there is simply too much of everything: music, art, beer, wine, ideas, clothing etc…  There are too many choices and it’s impossible to sort through it all to make informed choices.  The human brain can only remember so many wineries and vineyards, or bands or artists so at some point you either commit to few and block out the rest or give up and drink what’s closest at hand.   

    The shortcut for the general public and unfortunately for a large section of the art world is to equate quality with price, to equate artistic value with monetary value and this is where the art world has lost it’s way.  That it is virtually impossible to look at so much art now without seeing it though a haze of dollar signs is troubling. I do believe there are people who care and really look at art and certainly there are artist, most I hope, struggling with this problem, but inevitably there are some who embrace it as a means and mode of expression.  Damien Hirst is only the most extreme example of an artist making work that is about being luxury goods for the world plutocracy    

    Is there a way out?  Not really, you and I are too smart and savvy to pretend the larger art world doesn’t exist and so one has to come to terms with it somehow.  To operate outside of it is province of the folk artist or hobbyist.  

    Art writing is justifiably pilloried and mocked as obtuse irrelevant drivel.  I have glazed over many time reading Rosalind Krauss, John Yau or hundreds of others who are really writing for each other in a game of intellectual back scratching and name dropping.   But I must also say that I have had profound insights into my own practice and that of others by reading intelligent and thoughtful writing about art.  Many works continue to stoke the fire of my creativity and inform how I see and understand the world and I’m grateful for having found them.  Being able to navigate art criticism and theoretical writing was a primary motivation for going to graduate school and I did get that and more.  In the same way there is simply too much of everything to sort through, there is way too much art writing as well, but I challenge you to find what speaks to you and helps make the world meaningful and true. And though I like Jerry Saltz and am sometimes interested in what he has to say, he’s not an intellectual so much as an art world gadfly.  If you are interested in a reading list, I’d be happy to suggest some things.

    Art was once seen as a tool to understand the world in the same realm as science and while this connection is mostly broken in the popular notion of ART, it is still true and still valid and I believe that your practice is often an exploration, concerned with learning and mastering skills and techniques – that beautiful objects are sometimes the result is nice benefit. Art is work, keep up the good work.

  6. Update:

    I would like to add that I had the good fortune of getting to meet Wade when he came to speak about his work at the Aspen Art Museum this summer. Of course all the contemporary art cognoscenti came out for the presentation. It was one of the last art talks in the old Aspen Art Museum building. As it turns out Wade is really a very nice guy and very personable, but as I described in my post, not the best speaker. Quite a few people filed out during his talk. It was a bit uncomfortable but didn’t seem to phase him. During the Q & A Mira Rubell asked him if he knew that he “had really drawn a line in the sand,” and asked him how other artists are supposed to proceed in the face of what he has put out there. I remember thinking that Marcel Duchamp had drawn that line a long time ago and many others had since so I didn’t think her question had much validity. I think she intended to give him a backhanded compliment, but Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the director of the museum, seemed to bristle, and asked why that was on Wade to answer, probably anxious for him because he couldn’t fend for himself. I raised my hand and asked what I had been wondering: If his visual expression doesn’t have some particular meaning, and if he always hated drawing, painting, and ostensibly most other things about the artistic process, what was his inspiration? Without missing a beat he said simply, “I wanted to be an artist.”

    So there you have it. It is not about Wade or the actual art he makes. It is not about what the work means, it is about what it means to make this work – mechanized, impersonal, computerized. His work is not the Facebook post, it is the idea of Facebook. Anyone could be Wade. Wade is a cog, and to me that is the gist of his art even if that is not what he intended. I actually think that if he had specific verbiage and ideas and inspirations to discuss his art would have no relevance. His art is the perfect example of art growing out of a specific era when the conditions for it are ripe. He is the Jackson Pollack of inkjet printing. Wade Guyton’s art is a product of the dehumanized computer age, made by a printer and an operator, and his is the face that goes along with it.

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