The Journal of Applied Impossibility
I recently read an article from Huffington Post about the “I could do that” response to so-called conceptual art.*
The opening paragraphs read:
"Ideas alone can be works of art," Sol LeWitt explained in his epic "Sentences on Conceptual Art," a pretty brilliant primer on the ins and outs of modern art making.
I would like to ask my favorite unpopular question: Is this true? I am willing to table the question, as long as I may ask it first. That is, this is the thing I want to know. Right now, I’m willing to withhold my final judgment from the issue, so long as the record reflects that it is important to consider. So instead, let’s ask the next important question that upsets people almost as much as the first:
What if this is true?
I beg the indulgence of the reader if, in order to inquire into such questions, I proceed methodically (on the cusp of robotically). Such is the occasional cost of precision and clarity. And I would remind you that it is the inane and muddled nature of the initial claim that requires the response to be so plodding.
There are, by my count, six propositions to consider:
(1) Ideas alone can be works of art.
(2) Ideas need not be made physical [in order to count as art].
(3) A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer.
(4) There is the possibility that the idea may never reach the viewer.
(5) There is the possibility that the idea may never leave the artist’s mind.
(6) All ideas are art if (a) they are concerned with art, and (b) they fall within the conventions of art.
Propositions (6.a) and (6.b) give two necessary conditions which, taken together are sufficient for an idea to count as art. In contrast, (2) dispels a belief (I think rather commonly held) about physical implementation counting as a necessary condition. So (2) and (6) are elaborations on (1).
Propositions (4) and (5), taken from a single sentence, continue the elaboration on (1) initiated by (2).
Proposition (3) sounds the closest to a general definition of art. And if (3) is correct, then (1) might be correct, so the rest of the statements which elaborate on it could likewise be correct. Let’s re-order them into a framework that will help us to understand LeWitt’s “epic” and “brilliant” notion of conceptual art.
One possible understanding of art that would count as sufficient is “as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer” (from proposition 3). According to this understanding of art, Ideas themselves -- with certain qualifications -- fall under the concept of art (according to proposition 1). The list of those qualifications includes things which are necessary and things which (contrary to widely held belief) are not necessary. Most notably, it is not necessary that the artist do anything beyond “having an idea.” Consider: the idea does not need to be instantiated in any physical way (according to 2). While (3) claims that art is a “conductor” between minds, it doesn’t have to be successful (according to 4). And according to (5), the transmission doesn’t need to even be attempted! With this in mind, I do not understand what the so-called “conventions of art” are that (6.b) mentions. It would appear that the only requirement for an artistic idea is that it is (i) an idea that is (ii) concerned with art.
The problem with admitting (ii) into our method for categorizing something as art is that the category immediately becomes circular:
Me: How do I know whether something is art?
LeWitt: If an idea is concerned with art, it would count as art.
Me: And how would I know whether it is concerned with art?
LeWitt: It's concerned with art if...it's...about art?
Thus, anything is about art if we stipulate that it's about art. Art is anything you can get away with.† If this is how we are to understand art, then this essay is a work of art.
Moreover, the version of this essay in my head is a work of art.
What is the difference?
If this is art, is it thus immune to critique?
* For definitions of "recently" which include September 7, 2015. Oh, for the time when I took HuffPo to be something worth reading and thinking about. For the curious, the article is here:
† I have heard this quip attributed to Andy Warhol, but I don't think that he was actually smart enough for that. I found it in McLuhan & Fiore's The Medium is the Massage. They don't number their pages. It's near the back. There's a giant woman you walk around inside. Three guesses how you get in. It's a weird book for a weird world. More on McLuhan to follow.
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