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Celebrating Contingency


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Art Praxis Section





Let me start with a quote from Stanley Cavell’s most recent book, Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow: “May we think as follows, that philosophy of science can be taken to be what philosophy is. That is because Philosophy is and contended to be recognizable, or practical as a chapter of science. Whereas, were Philosophy of Art to make of itself a chapter of one or more of the arts, it would no longer be recognizable as Philosophy.”

Let’s celebrate contingency and get over it by considering the history. I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1969 to describe my work for the catalog of a rather quick and imperfect attempt to give a public presentation of what they saw as a downtown phenomenon of conceptual art. By participating in a group show called Information, this is how I could have been, and please forgive the pretensions of a 24 year old. “Every unit of an art proposition is only that which is functioning within a larger framework, the proposition. And every proposition is only a unit, which is functioning in a larger framework, the investigation. And every investigation is only a unit, which is functioning within a larger framework, my art. And my art is only a unit, which is only functioning within a larger framework, the concept art. The concept of art is a concept, which has a particular meaning at a particular time, but which only exists as an idea used by living arts and which only exists as information. To attempt an iconic grasp of, or only a part or unit of the above paragraph, which means to consider one action a potential masterpiece, is to separate the arts language from its meaning or use. The art is the whole, not part, and the whole only exists conceptually.”

No question, that is at least part of what I had to say in 1969. And, by the way, I haven’t spoken on this topic in a very long time, but that is what Warren asked for, so here I am. Whatever one would want to say now about that project called “Conceptual Art,” begun 40 years ago, it is clear now that what we wanted was based on a contradiction, even if an intellectually somewhat sublime one. We wanted the act of art to have integrity. To this end, I discussed it in terms of a tautology at the time. And we wanted it untethered to a prescriptive, formal self-conception. Paul Engelmann, a close friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein and a collaborator with him on the house for Wittgenstein’s sister in Vienna, has commented about tautologies that they are not “a meaningful proposition,” i.e. one with content, “yet they can be an indispensable intellectual device, an instrument that can help us if used correctly, in grasping reality, that is in grasping facts, to arrive at insights difficult or impossible to attain by other means.” Now, I want to suggest that we consider, as a distinction, a rather simple cartoon of something far more complex, from a standard textbook on a theory of scientific models. I’m thinking of one that distinguishes between models as being of two types, the first being of illustration, the second, a test. I felt, from the beginning, that art was essentially a questioning process. What I felt such questioning directed us toward, of course, was not the construction of a theory of art with a static depiction, a map of an internal world that illustrates. Rather, one that presumed the artist as an active agent concerned with meaning. That is, the work of art as a test. It is this concept of art as a test, rather than as an illustration, which must remain. But there is a contradiction. It is as follows: How can art remain a test and still maintain a cultural and thereby, socially formed identity as art. That is, continue a relationship with the history of the activity, without which it is severed from the community of believers, which gives it human meaning. It is this difficulty with the project that constituted both its failure, as Terry Atkinson has written about so well, as well as the continuing relevance of the project to ongoing art production. It would be difficult to deny that under the failure of conceptual art emerged a redefined practice of art. Whatever hermeneutic, and I really can’t think of a better word for it, we employ in our approach to the tests of art, the early ones as well as the recent ones, that alteration, as well as how we make meaning of those tests, is itself a description of a different practice of art and what proceeded it. It is not to say that this project did not proceed without paradigms. The one initiated practice, of anything, without applying, particularly if it sticks, is having something akin to a teleology. Indeed, the very concept of an avant-garde even one unspoken and presumed is, teleology. The fact, itself, of a perceived end of modernism, with conceptual art playing a major role in that, suggests a continuum. This is one of the ways in which conceptual art’s success constituted its failure. What it had to say, even as a failure, still continued to be art. Much of the art of the past couple decades internalized the basis of such work, though, such work no longer has to call itself conceptual. And, if that’s not obvious, I’ll say it again later. The paradox, of course, is that the ongoing cultural life of this art consists of two parts, which both constituted its origins, as well as remained, even to this day, antagonistic to each other. The success of this project, it was in fact finally believed to be art, which is of course while I’m invited here today to speak, was obliged to transform it in equal proportion to its success within precisely those terms from which it had disassociated itself from the practice of art as previously constituted.  Within this contradiction, one is able to see not unlike a silhouette, the defining characteristic of the project itself. It’s positive program remains manifest there within its failure as a usable potential. One test simply awaits the next test, since a test cannot attempt to be a masterpiece in the sense that it depicts an implicit totalizing reflection of the world. Indeed, the art I speak of was finally understood only to be reflective process, ultimately one comprised of some manifestation of thinking, and it is only over the course of time that the process of a practice can make the claim of describing more than the specific initial program of its agenda. Such work, like any work, is located within community, and it is that community, which gives it meaning. But meaning given is meaning which as such implicitly defines its own limits, and those limits, when understood well describe, what future work might possibly be. Art is always a project on limits. Now I ask you, how can a view of limits ever be an object.

Coming back we can ask, what is the character of the tests I discussed? As Wittgenstein put it, in mathematics and logic, process and result are equivalent. The same I would maintain can be said of art. I’ve written elsewhere that the work of art is essentially play within the meaning system of art. As that play receives its meaning from the system, that system is potentially altered by the difference of that particular play. Since anything really can be nominated as the element in such a play, and appear then as the material of the work, the actual location of the work must be seen elsewhere as the point or gap where the production of meaning takes place. In art, the how and the why collapse into each other, as the same sphere of production, the realm of meaning. As for the project of conceptual art, we know that what is different doesn’t stay different for long as long as it succeeds. Which is perhaps another description of its failure as much as its success. Thus the road to effective use of this practice of art was dependent on the practice of those individuals capable of maintaining a sufficiently transformatory process within which difference could be maintained. Unfortunately, practices begun and passed are subjected to an already determined view of art history whose presumptions are exclusive to the practice of art outlined here. The traditional scope of art historicizing, that is as a style attributed to specific individuals, is most comfortable limiting itself to perceived early moments, which are then dated and finalized. While such credits provide for the kind of tidy art history both professors, newspapers, and critics adore, we’ve seen that it stops the conversation just where it should begin. In actual fact, the continued test now of the original practitioners in those rare instances where they still constitute a test and not simply a recognizable market entity, should be considered on their own merit equally along with the test of other generations in so far as are present now, incapable of whatever effect now, and thereby comprising their own part in the present cultural landscape from which meaning is generated.

OK, let’s make it risky by trying to make it simple. Conceptual art began with the understanding that artists work with meaning. Not with shapes, colors or materials. Anything can be employed by the artist to set the work into play, including shapes, colors, or materials, but the form of presentation itself should have formal value independent of its role as vehicle for the idea of the work. Thus, when you approach the work, you are approaching the idea, and therefore the intention of the artists directly. An idea, or of course, as an artwork, can constitute a cultural force that is as contingent within the web of belief as it is complex. And when I have said that anything can be used by or as a work of art I mean just that. A play within the signifying process conceptually cannot be established nor limited by the traditional constraints of media, morphology, or objecthood, even as what it has to say is shaped by the limits, which permit itself to be manifest in the world. It is resisting those limits and compounding them that define what those less concerned can haply call “creativity.” If art has human value it is because it asks questions which other activities cannot. Time for a slide.

[shows slide]

As a concrete and early example, I will site my own work from 1965 from the Proto-investigations of which One and Three Chairs from the Museum of Modern Art New York, this is actually the shot in my studio before it made it to MOMA. Next slide please.

[shows slide]

And One in Five from the Tate Modern here in London would be representative. This work, using deadpan scientific style photographs, which were always taken by others, employed also common objects and enlarged text from dictionary definitions. The physical albums were never signed with the concept of the work being that this form of presentation would be made and remade. Necessary because the floor and or wall would show what one sees with the object. The reason for this was an important part of my intention. Eliminate the aura of traditional art and force another basis for this activity to be approached as art, that is, conceptually. The works of the first investigation beginning a year later were comprised only of text. Next Slide.

[shows slide]

Not to brag or anything of course, but when MOMA and the Tate bought these works, they didn’t know I did them when I was 20 years old. That’s either good news or depressing news for somebody.

[slides changing]

As it was for other artists at that time, the issues of modernism were rapidly becoming opaque. One effect of this work, meaning the earlier ones, was that to sum up modernism for me, and once that was visible I was able to use that view to get past it, as the work that followed showed. Thus for me, this work is the summation of modernism and the way out of it. Art can manifest itself and all the ways in which human intention can manifest itself. The task for artists is to put into play works of art unfettered by the limited kinds of meanings which crafted-objects permit and can succeed in having them be the production of artists as authors within a discourse, not simply one that demonstrates a search for authority and validation. Such a discourse is one concretized to subjective commitment and comprised of the making process. It is the historically defined agency of the artist working within a practice that sees itself as such a process—that an artist’s work becomes believable as art within society. To do that, work must satisfy deeper structures in our culture than that surface that reads in the market as tradition and continuity. The more enriched our understanding of that art becomes, so does our understanding of culture. The focus on meaning by necessity has focused our concerns on a variety of issues around language and context. These issues pertain to the reception and production of works of art for themselves. That aspect of the questioning process some, much later on, have called institutional critique began here, and it originated with conceptual arts earliest works. Need we say that without such work this critique, nor any other, would exist? My ongoing comments on this process, which some recognize as constituting a theory, really cannot be separated from the works that informed them. Useful for our purposes today, even if it’s understandably a bit tedious for me at this point, would be to consider my use of tautology in the mid-1960s. Its use in the Proto-investigations has generated variety of confused responses. One aspect of this work was the attempt to actualize the Wittgensteinian insight. By drawing out the relation of art to language, could one begin the production of a cultural language whose very function it was to show, rather than say? Such artworks might function in a way that circumvents significantly much of what limits language. Art, some have argued, describes reality. But unlike language, artworks, it can also be argued, simultaneously describe how they describe it. Granted, art can be seen here as self-referential, but importantly, not meaninglessly self-referential. What art shows in such a manifestation is indeed how it functions. This is revealed in works that feign to say, but do so as an art proposition, and do so while revealing their difference, while showing their similarity, with language. This was of course the role of language in my work beginning at the beginning. It seemed to me that if language itself could be used to function as an artwork then that difference would bear the device of arts language game. And artwork then, as such a double mask, provided the possibility not just of a reflection on itself, but an indirect, double-reflection of language through art to culture itself. “Do not forget,” writes Wittgenstein, “that a poem, even though composed in the language of information, is not used in the language game of fibbing information.” Whatever insights this early work of mine had to share, it did, and it initiated within the practice an essential questioning process, which for the past 40 years has been basic to it. It should be obvious that the bearing of the device of the institutions of art would begin at the most elemental level, the point of production itself, the artwork. Seeing artwork in such a context forces scrutiny of its conventions and historical bigotry, such as painting and sculpture itself, as an activity, first, inside the frame, then outside. One goal at the time of work like the second investigation, was to question the institutional forms of art. Next Slide.

[shows slide]

There was an exhibition that Harold Seeman did in Bern, Switzerland, called When Attitudes Become Form, and then it traveled here in London to the ICA. And my contribution, there was nothing at the museum, was two ads in these four small London newspapers. The Second Investigation was my response to this situation. While I felt such work as One And Three Chairs had initiated such a questioning process, it was increasingly limited by this new reading given to work by photography–we’re talking about in the 60s, because of the work of other artists in the following years using photography. The Second Investigation work used as its form of presentation, anonymous advertisements in public media, such as newspapers, magazines, billboards, handbills, as well as television advertising. This is understood to be the first non-use of such a context for the production of artworks, and it should be seen as something specific and quite different from the billboard art that followed in the next decade, even if they came out of my work, or if this presentational strategy was used as an end in itself. The content of the advertisements I utilized in 1968 were based on a taxonomy of the world developed by Roget as the synopsis of categories for use in his thesaurus. Each ad was an entry from this synopsis, which in fact put into the world the fragments of its own description, 7 of them. There’s the ad in the lower corner.

[Audience speaking]

This particular one of the group had to do with quantity. Go home, pick up your thesaurus, have a look.

What this initiated, of course, was a questioning of the ontology of artworks, the role of context, of language, of institutional framing, of reception. For me the concerns of this work focused clearly on what was to remain a central concern of my art. Yet, limited as it was in some regards, the tautology that I employed at the beginning of conceptual art was a useful device in blocking the mirror-effect, which can compromise works that utilize elements from daily life, even if it was language. And do so without telegraphing the knowledge that it was art to the viewer based on the choice of morphology or medias. The descriptive role of art was put into this equilibrium. One could construct a picture of relations, even if dynamic or contingent, and use it as a test by putting it into play within the meaning system of art. Such a work proved not to be an illustration but a demonstration, a test, and in so doing it told us some things about art and culture and the functioning role of both in society.

In summation, it was apparent to me by the mid 1960s that the issue for new work was not around the materialization or dematerialization of a work. The fact was not even concerned with materials. The issue that defined my work, as well as that activity that came to be known as conceptual art, was the issue of signification. What are the questions pertaining to the function of meaning in the production and reception of works of art? What is the application, and what is the limit as language as a model in both the theory and the production of actual works? Then, following from that, what is the role of context, be it architectural, psychological, or institutional, on the socio-cultural-political reading of work? It was these issues that separate conceptual art from the modernist agenda that preceded it, and it is this non-descriptive practice that has remained flexible enough to endure and, quite obviously, continues to provide a basis for conceptual art’s ongoing relevance to recent art practice. Indeed what I alluded to before, I find it interesting that when I started my activity I had to give it a special name, conceptual art, which was meant to be only descriptive, but seems partly apologetic, but the work of younger artists can now just be called art.

As artists, we all begin to construct with what is given. We take, we steal, we appropriate fragments of meaning from the detritus of culture and construct other meanings, our own. In the same sense, all writers write with the words invented by others. One uses words, all having prior meanings, to make paragraphs that have a meaning of one’s own. For artists, we steal not only words or images, virtually anything at all. As I mentioned a moment ago, it was clear by the mid-60s that the existing institutionalist form of art, the paradigm of painting and sculpture, could no longer itself provide for the possibility of making a paragraph of ones own. It had, for artists, become the sign and signage of idio-space of modernism, an over-enriched context of historicized meaning institutionally signifying itself and collapsing new meaning under its own weight. What I realized, and this is what I believe my work shows, is that by reducing any ingredient of cultural prior meaning to being a smaller constructive element, functioning as a “word element” one could say, I could then construct other meanings on another level, producing a paragraph of my own from what is culturally given and still remain within the context of art sufficiently enough to alter it. Once such work succeeds in being seen as art, it has altered it.  This has been a basic aspect of my practice, and has, over these years, necessitated some form of theft, now called appropriation, as is evidenced throughout my work. To this end I’ll quote Cavell quoting Wittgenstein, this from the opening section of Wittgenstein’s Investigations, when he said, “Explanations come to an end somewhere.

Joseph Kosuth is Professor at the Kunstakademie Munich and Instituto Universitario di Architettura, Venice, Italy. He is one of the pioneers of Conceptual Art and installation art, initiating language-based works and appropriation strategies in the 1960s. He has been Professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Künst, Hamburg (1988-90), and Staatliche Akademie der Bildende Künst, Stuttgart (1991-97). His work has consistently explored the production and role of language and meaning within art. His more than thirty-year inquiry into the relation of language to art has taken the form of installations, museum exhibitions, public commissions, and publications throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia, including five Documenta(s) and four Venice Biennale(s), one of which was presented in the Hungarian Pavilion (1993). Awards include the Brandeis Award, 1990, Frederick Weisman Award, 1991, the Menzione d’Onore at the Venice Biennale, 1993, the Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government in 1993. He received a Cassandra Foundation Grant in 1968. In June 1999, a 3.00 franc postage stamp was issued by the French government in honor of his work in Figeac. In February 2001, he received the Laura Honoris Causa, doctorate in Philosophy and Letters from the University of Bologna. In 2001, his novel Purloined was published by Salon Verlag. In October 2003, he received the Austrian Republic’s highest honor for accomplishments in science and culture, the Golden Cross.