Joseph Kosuth and Conceptual Art
At the beginning of the 1960s, the New York art scene was going wild. World War II had created the conditions for the city to become the new capital of the world, and Americans were unapologetically seizing opportunity in every way they could. Not only had ‘Old Europe’ been physically devastated by the war, but its pretensions of moral and aesthetic superiority had also been blown apart. Like most of the world, Europe now had to scramble after the new superpower, unable to contest its economic, technological or military prowess. And, while the Soviet Union was still happily crushing every radical impulse in art in the name of Socialist Realism, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Ad Reinhardt and Donald Judd, along with many others, were paving the way for an aesthetic revolution. That some of the artists in this movement were expatriate Europeans only underlines the point: American liberal-democratic capitalist eclecticism allowed anything to be taken from anywhere, as long as it could be put to use.
Very quickly, it became clear that traditional forms of art were reaching their limits. American artists started to innovate by grafting different media species together. After the burst of Abstract Expressionism and action painting in the 1950s, there was an explosion of post-metaphysical minimalism, pop consumerism and performance-based ‘happenings’. Artists started recycling commercial materials, creating mixed-media presentations and employing lowbrow production techniques in the creation of high art. Every aspect of art was patently under interrogation, both at the level of content (Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book panels or Andy Warhol’s Coke bottles and soup cans), and at the level of media and technique (the use of screen-printing and installation). This process was also blowing raspberries at the critical ideologies of modernism, such as those promulgated by the great Clement Greenberg, for whom good modern art was properly characterised by each medium’s exploration of what it – and only it – could do.
The early twentieth-century avant-garde – Dada, Futurism, Surrealism and Suprematism – had also virulently contested the traditions of art, but this time the context was different, as Marcel Duchamp, one of the great heroes of the new art, had already recognised. He remarked that it was time for the recondite experiments of the century to be “diluted for public consumption”. And, where better than 1960s America for this watering-down – with, of course, the democratic proviso that this was not selling out, but a kind of selling in?
Out of this chaotic mix, a new art, drawing heavily on the world of philosophy, set about asking two pressing questions: How is it possible that all this stuff can be called art? and Where do we go from here? Joseph Kosuth was key in framing these questions and also in providing some answers – even if he couched them in an esoteric philosophical style. His argument went something like this: art is conceptual; art must now be an investigation of its own possibility; art has taken over from philosophy as the place where thinking and the world cross. Kosuth didn’t coin the moniker ‘conceptual art’, but he quickly became one of its major exponents. His early writings and manifestos, perhaps most notoriously ‘Art after Philosophy’, published in the prestigious magazine Studio International in 1969 (later the centrepiece of the 1991 collection, Art after Philosophy and Art), sent a convulsion through the English-speaking art world. Incensed punters were sending hate mail to the magazine for years afterwards.
For the young Kosuth, until then virtually unknown, what was most interesting about art was what happens at its limits. He believed art needed to challenge traditional boundaries between art and non-art, asking how these boundaries can be discerned, established, policed, reformed, and by whom. The answers to these questions would be given as art, not in reflections on art. As Kosuth said, “Texts about art works are experienced differently than texts that are art works.” Art had to be separated from aesthetics (for Kosuth, a degraded discourse), and any genuine artwork would now proffer itself as a proposition about Art Itself. All specific formal qualities are not art, but the materials for art.
This is why Duchamp was so important to Kosuth. As Kosuth wrote, “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.” Duchamp famously called himself an “an-artist”; emerging just a little too late to catch the wave of early twentieth-century avant-garde experimentation (he missed, for instance, the advent of Cubism), Duchamp turned his belatedness and relative lack of painterly talent into a relentless intellectual quest to examine and transform what could be acceptable as art. In a famous sequence of boutades – ranging from attaching a bicycle wheel to a stool, nailing a coat-rack to the floor of his apartment and naming it ‘Trap’, and, most notoriously, submitting an inverted urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’ and titled ‘Fountain’ to an art fair – Duchamp transformed the materials and meanings of art. André Breton, the so-called “Pope of Surrealism”, went so far as to praise Duchamp as “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century”. Less shrill and dogmatic than the Dadaists and Surrealists, Duchamp wanted art “to turn from an animal to an intellectual expression”. Artists should think, not just daub away, hooked on the smell of paint and turps like “olfactory masturbators”.
Kosuth’s own art is rigorously conceptual and often demands a great deal from its audience. Perhaps his most famous work remains ‘One and Three Chairs’ (1965). In Kosuth’s words, it is “a piece which consisted of a chair, a slightly smaller photographic blow-up of the chair – which I mounted to the wall next to the chair, and a definition of the word chair, which I mounted to the wall next to that”. This piece, of which there are now several versions, is impressive in its pared-down showmanship, but it’s also genuinely funny. Kosuth’s little installation criticises and displaces the Platonic distinctions, being at once entirely material and entirely ideal. It’s a work of art, but you can still sit on it (if you can avoid the museum guards). As Kosuth once put it: “All I make are models. The actual works of art are ideas.”
The American critic Peter Schjeldahl, who recognised the dogmatic moralism that pulsed through conceptual art, once denounced Kosuth as its Savonarola – the Dominican friar responsible for book-burnings and art bonfires in late fifteenth-century Florence. You can see what Schjeldahl means if you read Kosuth’s unpublished notes of the late 1960s: “Poetry is bankrupt for the same reasons painting and sculpture is bankrupt. They all come out of the same age, and it’s over. Aesthetic categorical gerry-mandering won’t save an artist from himself.” Kosuth certainly breathed the air of high-art fundamentalism.
Virulently polemical while dispassionately philosophical, Kosuth managed to irritate just about everybody. Unlike Duchamp, who was anything but pugnacious, Kosuth was very upfront about his dislikes – which perhaps brings him closer in spirit to some of his other heroes, such as the philosophers AJ Ayer and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He denounced fellow conceptual artists as “SCAs” (Stylistic Conceptual Artists) for not properly engaging in his brand of “TCA” (Theoretical Conceptual Art). He wrote tirelessly, organised public discussions, opened alternative art spaces, curated exhibitions, taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York (he went straight from being a student to working in the faculty), all the while following his rigorous conceptual line. One of the early shows he curated, entitled ‘Fifteen People Present Their Favorite Book’, delivered precisely what it promised: Kosuth presented 15 books in the gallery.
Such unbending effrontery can really split the art world, even today. On the one hand, Kosuth has garnered an extraordinary number of prestigious awards worldwide, including receiving the Decoration of Honour in Gold for Services to the Republic of Austria and being commemorated by a French postage stamp; on the other, he is still the target of vicious polemics by major art critics. Yet even some hostile commentators can’t help admiring Kosuth’s drive.
Thierry de Duve, for one, has written: “Irksome and self-serving as it is, Kosuth’s reasoning is in some way flawless, carrying [Donald] Judd’s escape from formalism to its logical extreme.” One Australian artist I spoke to about Kosuth exclaimed admiringly, “Ah, the grand old man of conceptualism.” Another sneered, “Boring old conceptual artist.”
I take this divisiveness to be an essential part of conceptual art’s program. It may irritate the hell out of you, you may not like anything about it, but it touches on real problems concerning art and aesthetic judgement, challenges art lovers to justify their likes and dislikes, and has proven extremely fertile in its inheritors and spin-offs. Visit any major contemporary Australian art gallery and you won’t be able to avoid confronting a child of Kosuth.
In a 1982 article about the French artist Yves Klein, Kosuth wrote: “One of the lessons to be learned about the art of our century, and Klein’s work shows this, is that if art is a game, it is about making rules, not following them.” Whether or not you want to play Kosuth’s games of creating self-referential neon texts or make little stamps that read ‘BULLSHIT’ (as the artist Sol LeWitt did in response to ‘Art after Philosophy’), you have to admit that Kosuth has made a few art rules to be broken.