Sunday, April 27, 2008

Foundational Document, or I Heart the Concept

Below is Sol Lewitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art," first published in 1969. IMO, it's contextual AND contemporary relevance cannot and should not be undervalued:
  1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
  2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
  3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
  4. Formal art is essentially rational.
  5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
  6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
  7. The artist's will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His wilfulness may only be ego.
  8. 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.
  9. The concept and idea are different. The former implies a general direction while the latter is the component. Ideas implement the concept.
  10. Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.
  11. Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order. They may set one off in unexpected directions, but an idea must necessarily be completed in the mind before the next one is formed.
  12. For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.
  13. A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist's mind to the viewer's. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist's mind.
  14. The words of one artist to another may induce an idea chain, if they share the same concept.
  15. 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.
  16. If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.
  17. All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
  18. One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
  19. The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
  20. Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.
  21. Perception of ideas leads to new ideas.
  22. The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
  23. The artist may misperceive (understand it differently from the artist) a work of art but still be set off in his own chain of thought by that misconstrual.
  24. Perception is subjective.
  25. The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.
  26. An artist may perceive the art of others better than his own.
  27. The concept of a work of art may involve the matter of the piece or the process in which it is made.
  28. Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist's mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
  29. The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.
  30. There are many elements involved in a work of art. The most important are the most obvious.
  31. If an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one would assume the artist's concept involved the material.
  32. Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.
  33. It is difficult to bungle a good idea.
  34. When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.
  35. These sentences comment on art, but are not art.
Although some may reify "craft," I think it is also important to note that "craft," in-&-of-itself, is a concept as well. Look no further than Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads." A "craftsman" in his own right, the poet's meter, diction, content, and images were based upon the concept of a poetic that contained "incidents and situations from common life and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement." Similar examples can be produced for most every aesthetic movement throughout literary (artistic) history. Innovations in "craft" are, inherently, conceptual formulations. "Craft" divested of concept is either a) parrot-talk or b) an un-ironic statement of self-deception. When one condemns "conceptual" art, one (perhaps) misinterprets the fact that "craft" stems from concept, & that radically different concepts manifest themselves in radically different aesthetics. That a work, in the case of poetry, does not "look" particularly poetic does not constitute a slapdash construction (i.e. one that can be produced in "30 seconds"), but requires the reader to fundamentally alter the manner in which one enters & evaluates a poem.

1 comment:

TC said...

Why does arguing against conceptual art have to be an argument for an art devoid of concept? By 'conceptual art,' I mean art in which the concept behind it, the concept as the 'meaning' or 'message,' is hierarchically the most important aspect of the art--in other words, conceptual didacticism. The art becomes mere code that must be deciphered by the audience, which would suggest that conceptual art is less immediate, less accessible, and, thus, more mediated, since the conceptual 'message' is the point. So, when the message is new, the conceptual art is relevant, but when the message has become cliche, such as the 'everything is art' message that is broadcast by conceptual pieces with a primary purpose to entirely eschew all received notions of a particular form, then the conceptual art is as banal as any other cliched historical forms. You cited a sort of manifesto for conceptualism, but besides saying that it still has relevance qua an opposition to a straw-man version of an argument against high conceptualism, ignore the date: 1969, which falls in the historical heyday of conceptual art. What I would most admire about a piece such as this manifesto is that it dared to challenge what was then a received, normative concept of art. So why is it that pieces that were composed in such a spirit are used to talk over attempts to do exactly what it did in its own time? If conceptualism would espouse a conceptual freedom, then why is it used in opposition to anything that would oppose it? By definition, the conceptual and avant-garde movements are death drives that don't want to die. The conceptual movement would make anything conceptually possible and grant total freedom in terms of conceptualization, which would thus render its very existence obsolete once such a freedom is possible. The same applies to avant-gardism. Its very existence as a concept depends on eliminating that which it depends on to exist: namely, that which has not yet been thought or done. It's like the Genesis Planet in Star Trek III--by definition of its own self-articulation, it must die once it self-actuates. Or, if 'die' is too strong a word, perhaps then this: once it realizes itself, it must give up the status which led it to the realization. But I see 21st century conceptual art as a sort of sic-et-non in denial. Not that there is anything wrong with sic-et-non, but there is if its in denial of its sic-et-non-ness.