Massimo Donà, Arte e Accademia

Joseph Kosuth, Quattro risposte a quattro domande


Joseph Kosuth, Four Questions Answered


Q. Mr. Kosuth, you have been considered one of the founders of the so-called “public art” because you used to put artistic sentences (i.e. artworks) outside the galleries, using advertisements, insertions in newspapers and so on. Now many artists are working in public spaces and this phenomenon is really diffused. Do you think it is simply a fashion or do you think there is a theoretical background that is in continuity with your artistic experience?

A. Donald Judd once told me a story of how he arrived at the box form asasolution to problems he was trying to solve in his paintings. The box was the formal solution to problems which were basic and internal to his work, and indeed, were part of his personal evolution as an artist. Probably Judd, Robert Morris and Tony Smith had arrived at this form all independently in a valid way around the same time. But when the curator of the Primary Structure show at the Jewish museum in New York invited him to participate Judd was rather shocked to learn that the curator had put together a whole exhibition of twelve or fifteen artists, with most of them making boxes. It turned out that many artists had adopted the box form as a necessary entrance to the latest wave of new art: minimalism. So, this story comes to my mind when I read your question. The Second investigation (1968/69) was partially my own critical response to earlier work of mine utilizing photographs in both The Protoinvestigations from 1965, with works such as‘One and Three Chairs’, and, The First Investigation, begun in 1966, which was made of photographs (negative enlargements of texts such as dictionary definitions and etymological entries) which were, as a form of presentation, intended to be made and remade as a device to eradicate the aura and reliquary of painting so other questions could be raised about the nature of art, and language. As a result, photography eventually emerged within what later was perceived as a kind of ‘avant-garde’ practice and led me to abandon its use in 1968 for the next several years, and to begin The Second Investigation and its use of anonymous public media. While a kind of ‘fine art of photography’ had existed for some time parallel to the activity of painting, it had all of the problems of painting. It was both old conservative (with the popular appeal of ‘realism’) and new conservative (media-defined along with the best, and worst, of modernism).
With the arrival of ‘conceptual art’, as well as the need of ‘earthwork’ artists to have a gallery presence, it meant that photography was increasingly being seen as a part of an avant-garde practice in ways which it had not since Man Ray and other Dadaists earlier in the century. So, while this was a time when others were then beginning to use photography in their work, I came to the conclusion that photography was beginning to share many of the limitations of painting: defined formally and technically – be they the perception of either limits or innovation – and a priori establishing its meaning as art through the authority of such form. It seemed to me that all media-defined art activities were beginning to share this characteristic, and we know this to be a defining aspect of modernism. The nature of art, for me, had become the questioning of the nature of art and, while doing so, one reflects the context of meaning-making itself. Such a view of the production of meaning in culture has political and social implications. Yet forms of authority clearly stop this questioning process. And, keeping with how Clement Greenberg defined modernism at the time, the modernist institutional view of art was that it was comprised of a Kantian quest to find the limits of the medium. For me, however the question was a larger one: how does art produce meaning, first about itself, and then as ‘itself’ in the world? To find this out I felt I had to ask: how does art generate meaning as art outside of such a formally authoritative context? It was as ‘a work in the world’ that we can not only understand how art produces its own meaning, but also how culture itself is produced.
For me the use of public media as a presentation device was an obvious and necessary device for several reasons. It severed the event of the work from the kind of physical form of art which one associated with the high style of modernism. Since one didn’t expect to find ‘art’ in a space reserved for advertising (such as billboards or newspaper ads) it wasn’t defined as art a priori,aspainting, sculpture or photography is, which then stops the questioning process. These is no doubt with such work that a formalist approach would be absurd. Importantly, in this way, it could not appeal to certain inherited forms for its validation as art. Yet, in spite of this, it still was art. What this could then tell us was that there was more to the activity of art then, say, the manipulation of forms and colors. It enabled me to separate the activity of art from this conventional understanding of what art could be. In this way the work was able to ask questions within the practice itself which a more traditional form of art could not. These was an important political content to this process as well. I was part of a generation that had real questions to ask of institutionalized forms of authority of any kind in 1968. Painting seem insular and elitist. Using the organs of mass culture without the pandering to the masses (ala Walt Disney or product advertising) had a distinct appeal to me, and it would be difficult for me to separate it from the particular interests of my political activism at the time, although many on the right and self-appointed left have tried to do so since.
So, the use of public media in 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, I was concerned that it wasn’t increasingly being limited by a new interpretation being given to work using photography. The Second Investigation work used as its ‘form of presentation’ anonymous advertisements in public media such as, magazines, newspapers, billboards, handbills, and, as well, television advertising. As your question acknowledges, this work is considered to be the first known use of such a context for the production of artworks, and, yes, I feel it should be seen as something specific and quite different from the billboard art which followed in the next decade, and continues to today where this presentational strategy was often used us an end in itself, much more in keeping with the tenets of modernism. 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 effect, put into the world the fragments of its own description. (By the way, this itself reflects three of my influences at the time: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Borges.) 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.
It seemed quite obvious to me by the mid-60’s that the issue for artists was not concerned with the materialization or the de-materialization of a work. In fact, such work was not even concerned with materials. In this respect my work had a quite different location than that of arte povera. Signification itself became the issue which defined my work, as well as that activity which became known later as conceptual art. One had to ask: what are the questions manifested in works pertaining to the function of meaning in the production and reception of works of art? What is the limit of language as a model, and what is its application, in both the theory and the production of actual works? Then, one must ask, what is the role of context, be it architectural, psychological or institutional, on the social, cultural and political reading of work? The field of play of work wasn’t the flat surface of the painting or its edge, it wasn’t located in media at all, it was the context itself which was the area of play and which organized meaning. It was these issues which separated conceptual art from the modernist agenda which preceded it, and it is this non-prescriptive practice which has remained flexible enough to endure and, quite obviously, continues to provide a basis for conceptual art’s relevance to recent art practice. In this sense conceptual art constituted the arrival of a liberating post-modernity.

Q. While you created the experience of conceptual art (in particular I am referring to what you called the “Theoretical Conceptual Art”), Arthur C. Danto and then George Dickie gave rise to the so-called “Institutional Theory of Art”. There was a theoretical link between Conceptual Art and Institutional Theory in considering the nature of art or there was a difference or even an opposition?

A.The category of ‘theoretical conceptual art’ was imply a distinction intended to articulate an important difference between work which was asking the right questions, or maybe just asking questions (!) and work ala Judd’s box problem that was basically just an avant-gardist style. But all that was thirty-five years ago and relevant to that moment. On the other hand, I don’t find the divisions contained by your question really an accurate reflection of the history as I know it. I know of one text by Dickie which was interesting coming at that time from that context and more so since I’m quite sure it was independent of my writing. For me, a bit more of a pity is Danto. Essentially he took the ‘bones’ of my argument in ‘Art after Philosophy’ and added the flesh available to an academic philosopher. Many have found it curious that he’s never even mentioned ‘Art after Philosophy’ in any of his writing even though nearly everyone else has felt the necessity to at some point writing in this area, and even though his thesis shares such obvious similarities to mine. Why it’s a pity is that instead of acknowledging his debt to my text, and getting on with it, he rather hid from it. I was once introduced to Danto at a Guggenheim opening in New York and he sort of blanched, stammered and ran off. Be it bad conscience or coincidence Danto then spend the next thirty years avoiding any relationship to my writing or work, thus sending him, frankly, on to less fruitful detours, rather than those directions which would have made his theorizing more useful. I’m thinking, for example, of his writing on a rather minor figure like Mel Bochner, who made a brief contribution as a critic and curator to post-minimalism, but his work has contributed very little to the history of our practice. (Of course Bochner was one of the first to return to painting when the wind shifted, and has only recently focused on the small part of his practice he can call ‘conceptual’ with any hope.) Many of the directions of Danto’s writing seem to fall in a kind of gap between two disciplines without striking either one with conviction. His arguments, nonetheless, are interesting, even if his conclusions are much less so. So that was a loss. But the ‘Institutional Theory’ as you call it is less of a theory in itself than it is simply an argued conclusion based on earlier theories such as mine. There have been various attempts along this line, all of them rather unsatisfying, pointedly polemical or simply wrong, Benjamin Buchloh being one case and Thierry de Duve being an example of the last.

Q. What are you working about in this period?

A.Where to begin? We can start with the title of my recent installation in New York at Sean Kelly Gallery, A Propos (Réflecteur de Réflecteur)which actually came out of a conversation with someone, and I liked it because it is a general condition of specificity, while it suggests contingentness. ‘To the purpose’ which it originally and literally means, seemed a good title for a work made up of autonomous elements which work together in a contingent way to make an installation concerned with a genealogy of influence within French philosophy, beginning with René Descartes, it being a kind of chronology with post-modern interruptions. This all approached with an understanding of my work, as I’ve said, as a play on ‘the relations between relations’. Actually the parenthetic remainder in French of the title (réflecteur de réflecteur)is equally important. I found the term doing my research on Kierkegaard for the installation I’m doing in Copenhagen as part of the anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen, and it refers to a position of reflexivity the work imposes upon the maker and the viewer. Some asked me about the fact that this installation, as a work, is manifested in two ways. I have often done this with works over the years, and the installations are conceived as taking the two conditions into account. There is the ‘whole’, which is the installation. There are the individual parts of which the installation is comprised, but, which when alone, are also a ‘whole’, There is a certificate issued for the total installation as a work, and then there are certificates issued for each of the individual elements which comprise it. So, while they are physically made twice, they remain unique works. The individual works function as works since they retain both a trace of all my previous works in a general sense, but also a trace of the installation itself. Each quote reflects the thinking of one philosopher or theorist. It is representative of meaning produced by them. The installation is the meaning of the network of relations between them.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always maintained that an important part of my working material is the context itself. And, as you know, an aspect of installation has been basic to my work for about nearly forty years now. Even the earliest works like ‘One and Three Chairs’ include the wall and floor round the chair, as seen in the photo as well, as part of the work, thus necessitating that the chair had to be re-photographed if exhibited elsewhere. From the beginning the neons had to be mounted directly on the wall, never to be mounted to a board as a free-floating object. Being connected to the place organizing reception differently. To say the context means obviously the architectural setting, which also extends to a psychological setting, and so on, but in the case of projects for cities and museums abroad, it’s also the history and culture of the location. If the ultimate material of one’s work is meaning, as I believe it is, then all of these things are important. In the case of a gallery in New York the context becomes problematic in a different way. One is presenting work in a space that changes the show every month, and the viewer knows that the work is for sale, so there is a temporary store-like quality to the experience of the individual work. A work which is an installation, which fills and fits the architecture, cuts that experience somewhat. The suggestion is that a free-floating artwork that can go anywhere, thus not ‘integrated’, has less integrity than a fixed and located installation actually connected to the (social and psychological as well as architectural) space you are experiencing it in. You had to see it there, you had to be there.

Q. What do you think about the actual situation of art? Which are the aspects you consider the most interesting and the most disagreeable?

A. I think artists need to be mindful of the dynamic toward institutionalization inherent in our cultural/economic system. Because of that I’m concerned that so much of the most interesting new work is filmic, be it video or other kinds of projections. We could see this easily collapse into a kind of resuscitated modernist program, sort of becoming a new kind of paint, just less static. I’m looking for work which breaks this up and ruptures all this media happiness. You can’t go back, no, Transavanguardia is a recent memory of the truth of that! But some limits are more productive than others. Some define and direct, some just stop you. Now, in another direction, I’m very hesitant to look like I’m endorsing a younger artist. The careers of young artists are already too much of a horse race already, and I think it usually takes some time to see really what an artist is attempting to do. They often acquire a name in the market before that growing process occurs to a point in which it is rooted and it is often with disastrous results for them as artists. Younger artists need time to articulate their problematic as artists (shall we call it their project on ‘meaning’?) before they are themselves altered by the market, or, worse, the market itself manages to provide the meaning that they are responsible for the making of. All that said, I fed confident that the nature of Tino Sehgal’s work makes it possible for me to say that I find his project very unique and about as rich with questions about our practice as one could hope for at this moment. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.



N. 9
Marzo 2005