Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Coinage that Suits the Debate

We have gone rounds and rounds here about formalism versus conceptualism, with the formalist camps getting quite upset at times about the conceptualist camps alleged duplicity and the conceptualists somewhat luckily (for them) being able to simply point to this or that museum exhibition or this or that art magazine cover to defend the superiority of their position for them, without really ever having to get into the mosh pit. It has been an unfair advantage, in my opinion, but one I've relied on from time to time, as well. (Hey, I'm human.)

Now comes a coinage, from the keyboard of Roberta Smith, that I think might just level the playing field a bit and make the debate more fair. In discussing the current exhibition at the Whitney Biennial by Roni Horn, Roberta writes:
Ms. Horn’s work has both benefited and suffered from being what might be called “curators’ art.” Curators’ art is indisputably, even innocuously, elegant — with clear roots in Minimal and Conceptual Art and not much else. It tends to be profusely appreciated by a hermetic few, curators, artists and theorists, who fetishize its refinements and often take its creators pretty much at their word. Ms. Horn has always had a lot to say about what her work means and how it is to be viewed, and some of it is quite interesting, but artists don’t own the meaning of their artworks. [emphasis mine]
There is an elegance and, more importantly, compactness to Roberta's coinage and definition that makes it an effective bullet. It cuts through all the defense mechanisms out there that I know of. As unfortunate as it might be to think that even the talentless among the formalists will now feel empowered to dismiss some great conceptualist work as "curator's art" , I do happen to believe that anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Also, if it is your job to promote conceptual art and such a coinage makes it harder to defend the art you love, well, then, your job is harder.

In truth, the term is a bit unfair in reverse in that it's broad enough to be applied to just about anything not purely Formalist, but again...it makes the playing field more level, and to my mind that's appropriate. Let the new round of debates begin!

Labels: art appreciation, art theory


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well there was a recent profile on Roni Horn in W magazine. So...

11/10/2009 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Whatever Formalism and Conceptualism mean to anyone is essentially just an artifact of late 20th century thinking about art. While these two distinctions, a prying apart of essential elements of any artwork, appear to be unique, they have existed throughout history and all artworks can be quantified either way.

Earlier in the last century, critics spoke about "meaning" in paintings, analyzing their "symbolism" and "iconography" -- essentially this was the "conceptual art" approach. I believe that our current focus on the term "conceptual" occurred in part as a backlash against heavy handed formalist criticism in the 1960's and early 1970's which was spawning a lot of artworks which were at best just decoration.

Further, the formalist camp ossified and failed to apply their intellectual rigor to the artworks produced under the conceptual art aegis and essentially let their position decay. The conceptualist position runs afoul when it makes the assumption that some form of 'conceptual' content can carry the day, regardless of how the artwork is executed.

It should be apparent that any great artwork exhibits both conceptual and formal strengths. Our present attempts to polarize our artworks into one viewpoint or the other is, old fashioned and a poor pathway to choose for the future.

11/10/2009 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't disagree, George, but I do think the debate is raging and needs to be leveled to burn itself out.

11/10/2009 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Ed, is the "coinage" term you are speaking of “curators’ art?”

11/10/2009 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

This is just the Roni Horn backlash. I don't see Roberta as anti-conceptual. She's just stepping outside of that cosy little scene and taking a couple of deep breaths.

Obviously you don't have to buy Roni's interpretation of her own work, or her friends' restatements. But frankly, who can be bothered coming up with their own for that stuff?


11/10/2009 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Not the term alone, but it's framing.

It's a very precise summary of the typical criticisms lobbed at much of the work being exhibited in institutions these days:

"indisputably, even innocuously, elegant — with clear roots in Minimal and Conceptual Art... appreciated by a hermetic few...who fetishize its refinements and often take its creators pretty much at their word"

The value of the coinage is we now have a term that brings all that along with it. Not that that encapsulates the entire debate, or, as you note George, is particularly useful in advancing forward...but, again, I think we're stuck in this one spot because both sides think the other side doesn't get what they're saying. I think "curator's art" will be a helpful shorthand to get past that stuck point.

11/10/2009 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger ryan said...

Very interesting topic. I applaud Roberta Smith for bringing this issue out in the open.

The inaccessibility of Roni Horn's work is something I've pondered and discussed with several people -- and the conclusion has always seemed to be that Horn's work is too theoretical for the majority of people to understand (myself included). I have great respect for artists like Horn who are so committed to their ideas and a possess a certain 'intellectual rigor'. But I do question whether presenting work such as hers in a public museum like the Whitney is an appropriate venue. Is it worthy of being seen by a large audience or was the exhibition mounted so the catalogue would be written?

I too often feel curated exhibitions are visually lacking and out of touch with their viewers. I suppose if they're done at a gallery or private museum there's no problem with that -- but curators of public museums have a greater responsibilty to present work that their audience can visually appreciate -- without reading a 5,000 word catalogue essay filled with footnotes.

11/10/2009 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Well, maybe maybe not. "Curator's art" sounds suspiciously like "a painters painter" which is a mild form of dismissal.

Again "indisputably, even innocuously, elegant — with clear roots in Minimal and Conceptual Art... appreciated by a hermetic few...who fetishize its refinements and often take its creators pretty much at their word"

What does this really say? Academic?? In all honesty if one uses the term "minimalism" and "conceptual" in this context it is as old fashioned as championing Rosenberg or AE. It refers back to past art movements which have essentially burned themselves out. It represents a failure on the part of Roberta Smith to come to terms with the art in a way which is meaningful to more than a few specialists in the field. What is a critic supposed to be doing?

People are using the F&C terms like they mean something which inherently validates the artwork. This is clearly nonsense. Just because someone calls something "conceptual art" doesn't make it Art, and the same is true for the formalists. From a critical perspective the issues surrounding the ideas constituting that which is "conceptual" need to be analyzed formally. Right now they are just a smokescreen. Again the same holds true for the formalists which have championed a lot of art which lacks any conceptual rigor and falls into the abyss of "Phenomena, take it or leave it."

11/10/2009 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

But I do question whether presenting work such as hers in a public museum like the Whitney is an appropriate venue.

Are you serious?

11/10/2009 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

People are using the F&C terms like they mean something which inherently validates the artwork. This is clearly nonsense.

George, no one would be more be more pleased than me to move past the "f vs. c" debate, but it keeps popping up...so I'm trying here.

Just because someone calls something "conceptual art" doesn't make it Art, and the same is true for the formalists.

I can't believe we're back to someone other than the artist is declaring what is or isn't art.

I would, again, assert that that needs to be "Just because someone calls something "conceptual art" doesn't make it good Art, and the same is true for the formalists."

11/10/2009 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

For me there is no debate. There is a place for both, and the best
(fine) art involves both.

The big trend I've seen, regardless of formalism or conceptual (to me, Minimalism
is about form), is that "to do with the least" is the clever move. That move is starting to resound as less and less a smart one when the audiences become increasingly bored.

Cedric C

11/10/2009 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Ed, I don't think we really disagree here. What I think is at issue here may be the present day use of the terms Formalist and Conceptual in a way which now carry a meaning which refers to previous art movements rather than a philosophical position. By this, I am suggesting that the viewer colors the meaning of the terms in a way which makes historical preconceptions which are of the moment. How are critics and viewers going to discuss Roni Horn's work in 50 years after we've had time to sort this all out?

FTR, I'm a big fan of Roni Horn's work.

11/10/2009 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger Roy said...

Maybe what Roberta Smith meant by "curators' art," perhaps, is this: "Art that only a mother (or your mother) could love."

11/10/2009 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George said: "Curator's art" sounds suspiciously like a "painters painter" which is a mild form of dismissal.

Man am I stupid. I've always thought being called a painter's painter was a high compliment.

Though these sorts of reflective projects are healthy for practitioners, most museum goers feel rooked by artists and museums that turn in on themselves. They come to have a conversation with art but find they can't join it. Accessibility is a worthy concern.

How about a Museum of Curation?


11/10/2009 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger ryan said...

George, yes I am serious.

In terms of the audience, I think somewhere like Bard CCS would be a more appropriate venue for a Roni Horn exhibition.

Which is not to say it's not worthy of being shown, only that given the limited resources combined with the large number of traveling exhibitions museums can pick from for their programming, I think that audience accessibility is a fair criteria.

11/10/2009 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Cathy, yes that too but it also implies the painter has a limited audience, hence is less sucessful.

11/10/2009 01:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

If you fill the walls with similar photographs of a human face or water, it becomes a decorative motif. You could make a wallpaper from it and sell it at WallMart. It wouldn't loose the meaning of those who want to understand it, and besides, a photograph print is as much a transfer from the original neg than a wallpaper from a photograph.

So yes, no debate there. Horn can be decorative.

Cedric C

11/10/2009 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger patrickjdonovan said...

I interpreted Roberta Smith as commenting that curators are conservative, preferring safe bets grounded in minimalism (which I believe is a formalist style) or conceptualism. While a conceptual work may be more or less interesting depending on what the work is about, as a style or genre conceptualism is at this point, in the art world, mainstream, even middle-of-the-road. No curator is going to get into trouble by mounting an exhibition of conceptual work.

11/10/2009 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Going to see an exhibit about curation is like paying to attend an inservice meeting for a place you don't work at. Interesting once but probably not twice.


11/10/2009 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger Sean Capone said...

I liked the review in question by Roberta Smith. It's one of the only times I've seen her come out and make a judgmental, position-defining statement, rather than just describe the show. For this reason Roni Horn was provocational, at least to the degree that she represents the apotheosis/nadir of post-conceptual artwork which is more interesting to read about rather than look at.

I think the Whitney is an appropriate venue--they regularly mount shows that are intellectually rigorous, hand-wringingly precious, and dull as toast. The overly applauded Dan Graham show comes to mind.

I think that certain lines may start to be drawn; there definitely seems to be a backlash against the rise in dry, academicized exhibitions with exhaustive essays by curators "trying to convince us why looking at next to nothing is good for us". (another coinage, this one is a Saltzism). But those lines have always been there, like those that loathe the 'October-crowd' and the work they champion.

Perhaps it's more of a Sensualist vs. Non-Sensualist disagreement about the particular emotions and body parts that art is supposed to tingle.

11/10/2009 02:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Earlier this year I left the Boston ICA ranting to my wife that I wanted to make art for people who were not museum curators. Smith has come up with an apt coinage.

But this issue with work "with clear roots in Minimal and Conceptual Art and not much else" is not the "Minimal and Conceptual" part, but the "not much else" part. A given style is only as good as the work produced in its name, or has the bad luck of getting included into it categorically. What people call formalism produced some eye-wateringly bad work. So did the Renaissance, for that matter. The problem with Curator Art is its origins in a monoculture.

Contemporary art curators come out of an extremely uniform educational background which expects them to know, and take seriously, every postmodernist (both chronologically and philosophically) development in 20th Century art. They read extensively from that dreary canon, or pretend to, and are expected to conform. So we now have an establishment full of art professionals who trained on a model in which it is philosophically impossible to assign value to art for reasons intrinsic to the art. The fight is not really between formalism and conceptualism, but over how to assign value. Conceptualism assumes that interesting art is good art. This is an amateurish way of looking at art, without the ingenuousness of real amateurism. Formalism is a handy corrective but a flawed one. Some new synthesis is needed, and the academy too busy adhering the establishment model to produce it.

11/10/2009 03:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely put by Roberta. However, conceptualists (relational artists) are now the new Roni Horns. The same thing with a few more contextual references. A convenient period style that fulfils (to curators) an ideal of "High Art".

11/10/2009 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Cedric, I expected more from you than the glib assessment that Roni Horn is decorative. The multiple photograph portraits are quite beautiful and address the notion that a portrait is more than one single image. It's not Warhol.

Roni Horn is a very good artist, I don't think she is quite as obscure or inaccessible as some here suggest, at least no more so than a good painter might be to someone who doesn't have an interest in painting.

11/10/2009 04:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You avoid all true debate by letting anyone who wants to call themselves an artist be creators art. What if someone who doesnt think of themselves as an artist creates far greater art?

The truth is all words have definitions, including art. But as that there are so many types of art, one must delineate between them and their purposes. There is the creative art of the museums, that which lasts and touches the emotions as well as mind, and created of real world substances. Fine art to please the rich, over refined to enforce their sense of entitlement, control and grandeur. Graphic arts, like Shepard Fairey and all advertising, based on modernism for selling products, people too. Decorative arts as wallpaper of status. Illustration of enlivening stories and words. Applied arts of functional purpose. Pop arts born and dying with the media they come from, disposable. Made for mass consumption and quick impact, with very limited shelf life.

So what is conceptual art? I grant it is an art, but what kind? Is it seperate? It doesn't seem to fit any of these other categories, though it has a tie to illustration, but of ideas rather than stories. And pop in that it is just as good if not better in book form, it has no real life sitting on walls or in ones home. So if it is different what to do with it?

Where does it belong? Certainly not in MoMA or the Guggenheim, possibley the Whitney as it never truly pursued its stated purpose of post war Amercia art, but got sidetracked into supporting galleries, promoting immature talent and merchandising. The New Museum? Perfect.

Now, can we all go to our respective corners, venture out and see whatever form we please when we choose to see it, and not have one branch attempt to absorb and dominate all others by never even seeing them for what they are. Let them all live, but like different siblings. I will grant all are needed, maybe, but the complete and total domination of pop and conceptual over all other contemporary trends in galleries of the rich is simply absurd, and wrong.

I am sure there will be some clever rationalization of why art cannot be defined, but it is a word like all others, and purpose will seperate each into categories. Let us go to what we want to see for whatever reason we want to see it, whatever mood we are in for different types. Stop limiting output, and talent. It is strangling creativity, and turned the public away from art. Try a real debate, all I ever see I pontificating.

11/10/2009 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

seperate each into categories.


And put a stake through its heart.

11/10/2009 06:32:00 PM  
Blogger Mery Lynn said...

While I enjoy the intellectual challenge of some conceptual art, I admit that I gravitate to art which seduces me. Good seduction begins with the head but doesn't stop there.

So like others have pointed out above, the best art is often both cerebral and sensual.

11/10/2009 07:26:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I agree with Franklin that a new synthesis is needed, or maybe better to say a new understanding of an old synthesis. The other meaning of curator's art, which is just touched on here, is that it is somewhat empty so that curators can fill it with their own program. For me, this may also describe much conceptual art that is only that - without the sensual part, as Mery Lynn says. All in all, a silly argument (formalist vs. conceptual) - but it is one of the arguments of the day, so it must be sorted out. I look for a return to ordinary sensibilities in art, which I think Roberta often provides, and I disagree with the idea that she doesn't express her judgement. I think she does regularly but with a light and precise touch, as Ed has noted.

11/10/2009 09:32:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

"The truth is all words have definitions"

it has been mentioned to me anecdotally and from observation that many people use "conceptual" to mean "with content" and that the Conceptual art movement is not very well understood by many artists.

Simply this: artist like visuals, and you can't change that (yes be seduced if you must, even ravished! Aye, open up your kundalini chakra or eleveate your spiritual self with the aid of a guru (nothing wrong with proto-druid-nazi-facist-Blatvatsky!).

Making something "cool" to look at isn't enough though (cool is like coke, it doesn't last and it's pretty shallow - some people like life to be one long string of anecdotes - apocryphal stories. Others like to read the Bible for all it contains!

Is Nabokov better than Ezekiel? Both of them; writers!

We call them socialites.

Oh but how many artist actually talk about formal issues with their friends? Not very fucking many. At least thats what I hope. No, a lot of artists don;t even like to talk about art - its an east coast intellectual thing - this may seem phillistine - even anti-intellectual, but I think outside of academia it's pretty easy to adapt to the environment and learn to talk about other stuff while still maintaining intellectual seriousnous and formal rigour.

11/11/2009 02:26:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

As someone has already mentioned formalism lost its attraction when the works were no longer able to either sustain or even support the 'validation' that surrounded them. In my view a lot of conceptualist art is not merely dependent on 'validation' exterior to itself but that that validation is so entwined that in effect it becomes the 'work' & that what one accepts or rejects is not so much the work itself but the validation offered for it. This validating process has brought into exitence a breed of curators and art pamphleteers who function as intellectual Robotcops & like Robotcop they are largely unstoppable since they inevitably operate in fields of combat of their own-making where verbal complexity, quotation & intellecual obscurantism are the weapons of predilection. I must admit that the subject itself is entertaining but only if one likes going in circles. Being a simplistic type all I can say is drop the word & look at the work - no more.

11/11/2009 03:09:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

Just as an addendum it occurred to me that this process of validation perhaps owes its roots to a cross-over between the GoodHousekeeping Seal of Approval & The Terminator. Maybe there's even a cerebral movie here with the title of "The Validator" ?

11/11/2009 07:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you make "artist's art," not for the select few but for the hundreds of thousands of artists in the world, then more power to you! i love oil paintings of landscapes with grass and cows. congratulations on your pretty pictures. i'll be over here speaking with the grown-ups.

ps, i'm with zip on one thing here. "conceptual art" is a hugely misunderstood term, mostly by the artists who call themselves conceptual artists. in true conceptual art, the object means less than the idea (sometimes there is no object). just because that movement has influenced your object, that does not make you a conceptual artist. Ed, you too often say we still need to make something beautiful in the end....

11/11/2009 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I tend to prefer to phrase it "you still need to make something visually compelling in the end..."

11/11/2009 08:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

George, when I'm saying she "can be" decorative, I'm saying someone could grab her work under that angle and the response would still be valid. Therefore it's not purely conceptual. Behind the
process and the intent there is a graphical impact that we are not
supposed to mention, and wrether fine art people see this as relevant to the work is another issue than the fact it is present (repetition, order, grid, etc..).

While not being a fan of Roni Horn I do appreciate some of her art
for probably similar reasons than you do.

++Conceptualism assumes that +interesting art is good art.

You probably mean intellectual or theory-inclined art, because sheer and pure aesthetic experiences can also be very interesting. Interesting is pleasing. A pleasurable experience that you don't find interesting is because it's not great enough (or you already seen it too many times).

++Where does it belong?

Exacly the idea that obsesses me. This need that we have to categorize and compartiment visual pleasures and their "interesting" counterparts (what they mean behind what they look). Life would be more creative if we didn't have to explain how every object should be received.

Cedric Casp

11/11/2009 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

i love oil paintings of landscapes with grass and cows. congratulations on your pretty pictures. i'll be over here speaking with the grown-ups.

Well, there's a cheery addition to this thread. It's funny, because reading this fills me with desire to paint a landscape with cows, which I have never before considered doing. (And I guess anonymous flamebait is okay coming from the pro-conceptual-art camp. Grown-ups, indeed.)

I have long maintained that conceptualism, once the genuinely radical stuff had been accomplished by 1978 or so, became a strategy to involve people in the art world (and the art market) who had the intellect for it but not the taste. Whether that's true or not, people thusly involved think that beauty is easier than it is, and ideas are harder than they are. Ed has often said that he finds the old rusting bridges of the midwest beautiful, so what of beauty? But a century ago, Robert Henri wrote about how much he enjoyed going to hardware stores to look at the tools, not because someone made them beautiful, but because they were beautiful. Deliberately making a beautiful work of art turns out to be a remarkably difficult problem. Too, while perfect originality is too much to hope for, one wants to make a contribution, which makes it even more difficult. People who conflate the deliberately beautiful, the incidentally beautiful, the naturally beautiful, and the merely pretty don't have the eye to comment on the problem.

11/11/2009 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Cedric [1:05], to paraphrase: You are saying that if someone sees RH's work as decorative (are we saying decorative = beautiful?) it's not purely conceptual.

This is incorrect and poor position to attach to any conceptual practice. Further, true "Conceptual Art" from the 1970's is finished. It was an outgrowth of both late 20th Century reductivist philosophies and an overreaction to the excessively decorative formalist art of the same period.

Unfortunately, since then most minimalist conceptualist artworks are generally now reduced to bad graduate school one liners proving that anyone can have an idea but it doesn't necessarily result in good art. In a similar fashion, attempts to make "beautiful art" also seem to fail in a similar fashion because the artist is bound up in a self conscious attempt to force the viewer to see the artwork the way they intend. However it is arrived this application of self conscious intent closes off the artwork and effectively kills it by becoming claustrophobic.

11/12/2009 01:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Indeed, George, I meant to imply that conceptual art failed to a large degree because it infused its own aesthetics when it "thought" it was rejecting them. In fact, some of these anti-aesthetics can be found everywhere nowadays in the non-art world and are received simply as aesthetic strategies (you start from an idea or process knowing you will get an aesthetic result).

The problem is when my response to the potential wallpaper beauty of a work by Rony Horn is disputed as being invalid because it works against what the artist's intention was. Or that I'm blind and can't see the work. But to me it's very there, very "visual". A whole concept resulting in aesthetic clash.

If you don't want aesthetics, you have to leave the museum space empty. Even then the museum walls would aesthecize your work.


Cedric Casp

11/12/2009 02:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Some attempts to make beautiful art fail in the way George describes (that is one of the many difficulties), but not all of them. Some fail in other ways, and some succeed. Self-conscious effort in the direction of beauty is only a problem if it's a problem.

11/12/2009 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Cedric, your view of the premises of "conceptual art" parallel the idea of "flatness" in painting. What is generally assumed as part of the working process was in fact engaged at a less important level than the history books portray. Conceptual Art is characterized by its separation of the idea from the object, and this idea was appropriated by a number of later artists and misinterpreted as anti-aesthetics when applied to the object.

The problem is that adopting an anti-aesthetics stance requires some other compensating activity in order for the artwork (as objects) to be compelling. Unfortunately most artists are not up to the task and "anti-aesthetics" ends up just being bad art along with all the other bad art.

Further you start from an idea or process knowing you will get an aesthetic result Formulaic art? It's hardly ever very interesting. This is where students start, they emulate artists they like (or think they should emulate, or who they are sleeping with or...) It's a valid place to start but the field they will bury you in if you stay there.

11/12/2009 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree Franklin. More correction is usually involved to arrive at beauty. It requires nuance and so, precision.


11/12/2009 05:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Noah said...

I'm a little late to the party but am curious as to why no one has taken umbrage with this statement of Smith's (I checked so I hope I didn't miss it...):

"...but artists don’t own the meaning of their artworks."

Since When? Last time I checked I still did...

I may not be a good enough artist to convey the meaning I intended and you may not have given it enough thought to perceive that meaning, but it's there. Of course the viewer is entitled to think whatever they want about the work but, I as the artist am also entitled to say "You're doing it wrong." or "That's not what it means."

Of course this doesn't pertain to all Art, some is meant to be interpreted by the viewer in any matter they choose...

Perhaps this is just a matter of semantics but, it seems a little lazy making a blanket declarative statement like that coming from the NY Times...

2/22/2010 12:49:00 PM  

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