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See this as Art Posted on November 12th

Burk Uzzle C-Print of Prada, Marfa 

The other day, an article on Artblog.net described art as a continuum, with conceptual art closer to philosophy (and therefore less art-like) and pure formal art unmoored from ideas as most truly art.

Here’s how Franklin puts it:

The pure play of concept-free forms is art. The pure play of form-free concepts is philosophy. The continuum lies between them.

The aim of the article is to classify conceptual art as “less art,” or, if it is too conceptual, to declassify it as art altogether. The example Franklin uses is an artist who declared all the shoes stores in Amsterdam as an exhibition of his work. This, according to Franklin, was an “act of philosophy with art as its topic” but not art. The closer something is to philosophy, the father it must be from art.

Before addressing my protests to the idea of philosophy and art being on opposite poles, I’d like to run-through the shoe store idea. What if a viewer took the artist up on his comment, and toured shoe stores as if they were art?

***

Picture it. You walk into a shoe store. Rather than simply heading over to your shoe size and rifling through boxes, you instead pause right in the threshold and quietly survey the store as a whole. You notice that athletic shoes far outstrip all other shoe types, taking up three aisles while sandals, work boots, casual and dress shoes only get an aisle each. Is this significant? you wonder. As you try to tease out the implications of so many athletic shoes (are we regressing into a society based on physical strength, like in Neanderthal times? Or is this the artist’s comment on our cultural denial of our increasingly sentient nature?) you walk over to a bin of marked down socks, some of them spilling out over the sides.

You’re careful not to unsettle a single sock, and instead take in the whole disorderly mass, noting some similarities to De Kooning’s late, inferior work. You crane your head to catch a detail of one of the tags: odor eating instep. Quietly, you move away, hands behind your back and begin touring the aisles. On the end of one of the aisles, several sandals are displayed on risers of different heights. You cock your head and consider the aesthetic merit of the arrangement, as a salesperson comes up behind you. “Can I help you?” You freeze. You didn’t read anywhere that this was an interactive piece. “No,” you mutter, not feeling up to participating. The salesperson, after being rebuffed, carefully begins shifting the display shoes this way and that, but by the end of her efforts nothing perceptible has changed. A comment on art-making?

 In the middle of an aisle, a stool with a built in foot-mirror reflects a chaos of open boxes, tissue paper, and mismatched shoes. The mirror is a nice touch, you think. It doubles the chaos on the floor, just like a disaster is refracted and repeated in every consciousness that experiences it. New Orleans, Iraq…the stool assemblage is really timely. You like this, and decide you’ve seen all you need to see. On your way out of the store, you stop and pick up a catalogue of the show, which you notice has been cleverly designed to look no different than a sale flyer for women’s walking shoes.

***

To ask viewers to see a shoe store as art is no different than an Impressionist asking viewers to see the play of light as art or abstract expressionists asking us to see forms and patterns as art. Art-making is a philosophical act, because the artist is choosing what he or she will ask us to see as art–whether it be a bowl of fruit, a shoe store, or a group of forms. No matter how much we romanticize taciturn, idea-wary artists like Jackson Pollock, his consciousness of himself as an artist–a chooser of forms to be presented as art–implicates him in the basic philosophical underpinning of all art. If more formal painting or sculpture does not strike us as philosophical, it is only because the philosophical request inherent in it–that we should see it as art–is so fundamental that we rarely reflect on it. 

Conceptual art is not “more philosophical” than formal art; it simply calls more attention to the philosophy intrinsic in all art.  It is only different from formal art in that it less deterministic in what it asks you to see as art.  Pollock’s painting are finished presentations of what he considers to be art-worthy in the world. Conceptual art–because it is often without form or finality–only hints that there is art to be found.  A shoe-store exhibition requires us to search for significance and aesthetic value in the drabbest of circumstances; it requires us to think as if we were artists. Formal art asks us to look at it as art, whereas conceptual art asks us to look for art within it.

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Some Responses to “See this as Art” :

  1. you are ight that Dekooning’s level fel down as he aged. But Pollock was hardly ‘idea way”. he made weird statements like “I am nature”. Of couse, the had nothiing to do with what he actually did. Like most atists, he should not have been allowed to say anthing about his work.

    Commented catfish on November 12th, 2007.
  2. I need a new keyboard. Should start out “you are right that …”

    Commented catfish on November 12th, 2007.
  3. We were unable to determine whether actually going to every shoe store in Amsterdam, or any shoe store in Amsterdam, was a necessary component of Brouwn’s work. From the way it was described, I think it wasn’t, and therefore your appreciative imaginings may be irrelevant. Even if they weren’t, there’s no reason to prefer an evocative scenario over an unpleasant one or a commercial one or one identical to a real shopping experience, because all are equally imaginary. This doesn’t have form, and is therefore an act of philosophy with art as its topic. You are not making art every time you ponder something or ask someone else to do so.

    Philosophy is not intrinsic in all art. As far as I can tell, nothing is intrinsic to all art except form. You are making an extraordinary claim that something with no form can be art, and as such will have to make the case for it. The first of many problems will be to distinguish art from non-art.

    Commented Franklin on November 12th, 2007.
  4. I’ve got a better keyboard today. One of the things that diverted my attention from philosophy to art when I was a kid was the directness of art. Not just in the enjoyement of it but in the making of it. When Franklin talks about form as being intrinsic to art, he is probably right. But for those who make art what is intrinsic is matter, media, stuff, like clay, like paint, like graphite, and so on. It is material that renders art specific, renders it real. And it is matter the conceptualists have eliminated. In doing so, they also eliminated art.

    A sophisticated mind can regard anything as art, even its own processes. A sophisticated mind can interpret anything as if it is art. Common sense, which ultimately rules, tells us this is foolishness. I don’t think you need to chase the art v. non-art question to understand that.

    The problem with the art v. non-art question is that anything can be set up as if it is art. And there is always the remote possiblity that it might succeed. So you are stuck with examining one instance after another after another, until you get sick of it. I prefer to go with the obvious. For 50,000 years or so materials have been the mode of existence that is always associated with art, good or bad, major or minor. That is not likely to have changed because a few sophisticated minds have claimed themselves as the “new mode” for making and having art. That is an easy way out and rather arrogant besides.

    Commented catfish on November 13th, 2007.
  5. Maybe I could boil this down a little. McFawn says let’s look at a shoe store AS IF it is art. In fact, anyone can say that about anything and make as good a case as McFawn makes for the shoe store here. A good wordsmith should be able to extend the analysis of the “as if” process to show how everything that exists is art. Some might say such a view is useless. I would simply say it isn’t true.

    Commented catfish on November 13th, 2007.
  6. Franklin,

    Conceptual art may be less art or bad art or whatever, but I still think all art is philosophical because the notion of “art” is not fixed, so therefore each artist is himself defining the term by what he makes. Art-making is art-defining.

    That is why people become fascinated by intuitive artists. These artists, we imagine, are unaware that they are making art, and therefore are free from the inherent philosophy (or hangups) that comes from the consciousness that one is making (and thereby defining) Art. When I taught humanities, I did a unit on intuitive art and many students commented that intuitive artists work was “more pure.” These students naturally preferred art that wasn’t conscious of itself, because it seemed less bogged down by philosophical self-awareness.

    Even if we eliminate conceptual art, we don’t eliminate all the philosophy in art. There is still a philosophy continuum, from intuitive artists to artists like Jeff Koons, who are very consciously loading up on associations. I think if one believes that philosophy waters down art, or makes art less itself, than the natural thing would be to hoist up ancient artisans and today’s intuitives as the creators of the most art-Art.

    Catfish–You’re right. The mind can see itself as art–what a thought! Next we will have a human personality exhibited.

    Commented admin on November 13th, 2007.
  7. Conceptual art may be less art or bad art or whatever

    I very clearly stated in the article that the condition of something having less art was not a value judgment and ought not cause any trouble for the proponents of conceptualism. You cannot simultaneously support an approach that devalues art as an honorific category and feel remorse when that honor is withdrawn from the work that uses that approach, at least not rationally.

    but I still think all art is philosophical because the notion of “art” is not fixed, so therefore each artist is himself defining the term by what he makes. Art-making is art-defining.

    The notion of toast is not fixed. (What kind of bread? How brown the singing? What to spread upon it?) Therefore every maker of toast is defining the term by what he makes. Toast-making is toast-defining. Hence all toast-making is philosophical. Either that, or the making of toast (like the making of art) is its own kind of activity to which one can attach philosophy without affecting the outcome for the better.

    …many students commented that intuitive artists work was “more pure.” These students naturally preferred art that wasn’t conscious of itself, because it seemed less bogged down by philosophical self-awareness.

    This is not much different than liking art that has a lot of details. It’s just another trait - rawness or primitivism or whatnot - that excites preferences for that sort of thing but is ultimately not linked to quality. The good examples are good and the bad examples are not.

    I think if one believes that philosophy waters down art, or makes art less itself, than the natural thing would be to hoist up ancient artisans and today’s intuitives as the creators of the most art-Art.

    Works that have the most art are maximally unsuitable for non-art efforts like storytelling and philosophy. That doesn’t favor ancients and intuitives, but abstractionists. Again, this is not a value judgment, because bad abstractions have more art than good narrative works but the latter are preferable. Purity is not always an enabling trait in art.

    Commented Franklin on November 14th, 2007.
  8. “next we will have a human personality exhibited” - I would not be surprised if that has alread happened.

    Commented catfish on November 14th, 2007.
  9. “The notion of toast is not fixed. (What kind of bread? How brown the singing? What to spread upon it?) Therefore every maker of toast is defining the term by what he makes. Toast-making is toast-defining. Hence all toast-making is philosophical. Either that, or the making of toast (like the making of art) is its own kind of activity to which one can attach philosophy without affecting the outcome for the better.”

    The toast-making comparison is funny—I like the line “how brown the singing?”—but it doesn’t shut down what I’m saying. Toast, unlike art, does not produce blog and blog of writers trying to hammer out just what it is. All I’m saying is that art making is a philosophical act in itself, because the artist must find a working definition of art in which to pursue. You cannot make art without deciding in your mind what art is, should be, or shouldn’t be. When you paint a figure on canvas instead of saying “my work is every piece of toast at Denny’s,” you are asserting what you believe to be art over something else. Art has form, you think, so my art will have form. Art is not christening something random as art, so I won’t do that. Art should do A, B, and C, so I will do A, B and C. Is this process not philosophical?

    “Works that have the most art are maximally unsuitable for non-art efforts like storytelling and philosophy. That doesn’t favor ancients and intuitives, but abstractionists. Again, this is not a value judgment, because bad abstractions have more art than good narrative works but the latter are preferable. Purity is not always an enabling trait in art.”

    This is sort of off the whole “is art-making philosophical” discussion, but it might be more interesting.

    Are you saying that works that are most resistant to criticism are most-art? You’re saying that the level of art in a piece is not tied to the quality of the piece, since you say good narrative work, even though it’s less art, is better than bad abstraction, even though it is more art.

    So artness is just a quality within a piece of art, one among many? Is this like toastness is just one feature of toast, but doesn’t determine its overall quality? It seems like you think there is an essential artness, and some works have more of less of it. But why is it useful to think of art this way? I’m interested in hearing what you think the implications of seeing artness as a feature of art might be. How might this be helpful for artists or critics?

    Commented admin on November 14th, 2007.
  10. Darn it, that should have been “how brown the singeing.” I hope it’s still funny.

    You cannot make art without deciding in your mind what art is, should be, or shouldn’t be.

    This isn’t true. You need only decide what you feel like working on. I don’t make paintings for philosophical reasons, but because I enjoy painting. Philosophy attaches to it afterwards or not like it could, perhaps, with toast. Making a painting defines art how, exactly? As something that may include painting? Other things that aren’t painting could still be art just because I make a painting.

    I have to add that a lot of alleged radicalism or progressiveness in contemporary work hinges on its position near the wide, fuzzy boundary between things that are art and things that aren’t. That position is an interesting philosophical problem but it is not an interesting artistic problem. Generating such objects is trivial.

    Are you saying that works that are most resistant to criticism are most-art?

    I wouldn’t correlate those. Criticism takes many different forms and the problem of making it work belongs to the writer.

    So artness is just a quality within a piece of art, one among many?

    I’m proposing that an object has art to some degree. If we’re already calling it art, then it must, or ought to.

    Toast is a fun analogy because it’s hard to define toast in a manner that excludes all edge cases like crackers and sandwiches in any form they could take. And yet there’s no real question about what toast is - people have a common understanding about that. What makes for a good piece of toast is a separate discussion. The only difference between toast and art in this respect is that there are big (albeit diminishing) philosophical payoffs for pushing the boundaries of art and there are not for pushing the boundaries of toast.

    But why is it useful to think of art this way?

    At the high-art end, it may not be. It’s probably meaningless to compare highly visually successful works in this way. But it does create a useful distinction between things that aspire to visual success and things that don’t.

    Commented Franklin on November 14th, 2007.
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