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Conceptualism for Sale: How the Art World Uses Low Standards for Fun and Profit

Post #1469 • March 22, 2010, 9:21 AM • 41 Comments

A talk delivered at Winkleman Gallery in New York City as part of #class by Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida.

First of all, thank you Ed Winkleman, Jen Dalton, and William Powhida for having me today here at the gallery. For the record, I was invited by Jen and William specifically to give a talk at #class about why conceptual art is invalid. Actually, the original wording as it appeared on Ed's blog was a little more elaborate: "There are a vast number of people out there who don't like conceptual art, what Jen and William do, or what Winkleman promotes. Do you think we are bullshit? We'd like to hear from you! We are inviting any formalists, purists, and ideologues with open arms into the gallery for a frank discussion on conceptual art and even #class itself."

I appreciate being thought of as someone who could do justice to that topic, but immediately I saw a problem. I'm not just referring here to the framing of the discussion, pitting conceptual art on one side against purists and ideologues on the other. As if there were no ideologues among the conceptualists, or as if the people objecting to conceptual art were purists of some kind. No, the problem I saw was that nothing would validate the ascendancy of conceptual art in the contemporary art milieu quite like having a supposedly anti-conceptual artist and writer show up at the invitation of a conceptual art exhibition, allow him to vent for an hour, send him home, and afterward continue to operate as if nothing had happened. So, while the original title of this essay was "Conceptualism for Sale: How the Art World Uses Low Standards for Fun and Profit," I'm going to scratch that. The new title, in keeping with the Twitter aesthetic and the overall gestalt of this environment, is "Why Conceptual Art is Teh Awesome OMG!!!!!1"

To start, let me set out a couple of definitions. Conceptual art is art that relies primarily on its conceptual component to succeed. Most and arguably all art has a conceptual component. But you're supposed to think that a work of conceptual art is good because it's interesting to think about. I call the belief that underlies that idea "conceptualism." Specifically, conceptualism is the belief that ideas have value as art. If ideas have value as art, then interesting art is good art.

The first reason that this is awesome is that it gets around the problem of making something beautiful. Making something beautiful, not superficially so but sublime and wondrous, is a hard, hard problem. A little over a hundred years ago, the composer Gustav Mahler wrote, "Interesting is easy; beautiful is difficult." Little did Mahler know that he had mapped out a workaround for the contemporary conceptualist: don't try to make something beautiful - make something interesting and justify the work in terms of that interest. This is much easier, because everything is interesting if you look at it with sufficient attentiveness. Actually, that's not completely true. Sustaining interest over time, over the length of a novel, or even a song, takes a certain amount of craft. But sustaining it for the brief moments required by visual art is a piece of cake.

Hence the second reason why conceptual art is awesome. Because conceptual art is so easy, many more people can become artists than would be possible if beauty was an indispensable requirement. Quality is a distinguishing marker in most fields. I don't have it in me to be a great mathematician by the standards of mathematics. I probably could never be a great surfer by the standards of surfing. But I'm smart enough to figure out the priorities of the art world at the moment and cobble together something that supposedly evokes or addresses or questions them. I might be able to do it with stuff I have laying around my house. You might object that more people becoming artists is not necessarily a good thing. You try telling that to any doe-eyed, crayola-haired freshman enrolling in one of our many university-level art programs operating in this country and around the world. Way to crush somebody's dream, man. Better yet, try telling that to all the professors, administrators, recruiters, and other educational professionals employed by those programs. It's like you're stealing food right off of their plates.

The third reason that conceptual art is awesome is that you can involve a lot more people in the art world, as audience members, than you would ever be able to rope in if participation required having a lot of taste. At one time in history, art was made for a relatively small group of connoisseurs. These people had to have an eye, and having an eye is a relatively rare thing. It's not as rare as having a talent for drawing, but its more rare than, say, being able to read. But if ideas have value as art, and interesting art is good art, you can involve everyone who can read into the art world! That rocks. Nobody should be excluded from the art world. More people involved in the art world means more people in the galleries, more people in the museums, and most importantly, more people to buy artwork. It used to be that art depended commercially on a handful of rich bastards who happened to have a good eye. With that whole eye thing out of the way, your potential pool of bastards increases enormously. Remember, interesting is easy. Chatting up a prospective buyer regarding the assumed importance or intellectual content of a work of art is much easier than hanging out and admiring something with him, and it doesn't necessitate all those long, awkward silences while you wait for him to take in a work of art with his eyes.

Conceptualism accomplished a brilliant reversal. After Impressionism became accepted by the general public, the people who championed Salon-style painting looked like rubes in retrospect. We can forgive them for preferring that technical high realism to the Impressionist style, but the idea that someone would prefer the themes of ancient Greece as their subjects, or moralizing allegories, to the straightforward, here-and-now visuality of later painting makes them seem like they were caught up in their values instead of art. Conceptualism smartly turns that failure of taste into a virtue. With conceptual art, you can engage peoples' values instead of making something beautiful, and instead of their risking getting called out as rubes, they get to think of themselves as high-minded, concerned, aware, right-thinking citizens. The art lovers who stayed loyal to Salon-style painting thought of themselves in exactly the same terms, but they were wrong, and the aficionados of conceptualism are right.

Now even though we've established that conceptual art is awesome, there are always haters who come along and try to ruin the party. Let's look at some typical hater objections and how we can respond to them.

The one that comes up a lot is that beauty is important and we shouldn't just give up on it as far as visual art is concerned. If some eye-rolling and a few well-timed "whatever"s don't dissuade them, you want to take a more dismissive approach. The basic idea here is that just as those Salon defenders look like rubes for looking at art through their values instead of their eyes, you want to treat the self-appointed defenders of beauty like rubes for looking at art through their eyes instead of their values. Be sure to minimize the importance of beauty in any way you can. For instance, you could characterize it as something that Thomas Kincade is striving for, and say that people who love Kincade think of themselves as appreciating beauty. You could point out all the technically beautiful work out there that we don't regard as important art, and remind the defender of beauty that we contemporary art lovers are more concerned with importance. You could insist that he define beauty, which like many other experiential phenomena is not definable, and then express your frustration that he's asking you to value something even he can't define. You could point out that he doesn't necessarily regard the same things as beautiful that you regard as beautiful, so the appreciation of beauty must be some kind of arbitrary phenomenon that's indoctrinated by culture, not passed along by nature. (For bonus points on this last strategy, work in a crack about dead white males.)

Or you could talk about everything in the world that strikes you as beautiful - puppies, flowers, old bridges - and insist that art therefore offer you something more than mere beauty. This has the advantage of making you look like an aesthete, but one with more important matters on his mind. Continuing along those lines, you could claim to favor work that has some token level of craft associated with it, but simultaneously operates from a conceptual platform, thus delivering the best of both worlds. Even if it doesn't, no one will notice. It's not unusual these days for art critics to make claims of virtuosity for artists of decidedly average skill.

Occasionally you hear an objection that conceptual art typically doesn't deliver much of a conceptual experience, instead setting up false dilemmas, vague associations to some topic, or unexploratory political sentiment. Some of it seeks, at most, to instigate conversation or argument about itself. Indeed, art is not a great delivery mechanism for conceptual experiences compared to books, movies, and other language-based mediums. It's no accident that much conceptualist art either incorporates language or relies upon language, in the form of essays or wall text, in order to function at its intended level. It's also no accident that conceptual art is politically confined to a liberal-left worldview. Politics requires rhetoric and the rhetorical powers of art are relatively paltry.

Your salvation here is the fact that the intellectual standards for conceptual art are as low and shallow as a puddle of rain. Writers outside the art world have to construct cogent arguments according to agreed-upon principles of argumentation. Writers in the art world can get away with stringing together snippets of academic language into a lofty-sounding melange. Conceptual artists have it even easier. Memorize the following list of words: address, evoke, explore, invoke, question, challenge, critique, reference, appropriate, reflect, consider, contemplate, interpret, juxtapose. Someone like Philip Roth had to craft hundreds of pages of fiction in order to explore relations between the sexes; you need only claim that your pile of debris, torn piece of paper, or naked photograph of yourself evokes the same thing and you're good to go. For bonus points, use items from that list of words to string together the aforementioned academic language. For instance, see if you can get away with claiming that your work simultaneously questions and appropriates paradigms of sex and the capital-O Other while absurdly invoking performative rituals. Probably you can, at least to people who matter to your career.

If you find yourself utterly cornered, you still have two options available. The first is that if ideas have value as art, conversation is inherently validating. Say this: "If nothing else, this piece has provoked a discussion." Failing even that, claim that you have left the interpretation of your work to the viewer.

There's one more objection from the haters that I should mention. Despite the undisputed awesomeness of conceptual art, some people dismiss the very basis of conceptualism. Some especially hard cases insist that ideas have no value as art. Do not regard these people as capable of reason. Any mechanism for dealing with them, no matter how intellectually dishonest or ad hominem, is acceptable. First, offer to agree to disagree. If they persist, in an online forum, you could claim that you were really saying something else, to someone else, and that extreme reaction you're hearing - whether it was really extreme or not - says something about the person's character. If he makes art, attribute his opinion to his style of art, and then attack the art. Call them a conservative and liken them to a Fox News pundit, or perhaps a fascist dictator. If they're older than you, say that they're too old to get it; if they're younger than you, make note of your greater experience and worldliness. Call them rude and boring just for questioning you; treat the questions themselves as uninformed and impertinent. None of this will decide anything, but at least it will make a productive conversation harder to pursue, and will hopefully put a quicker end to it. Take it from me - I should know.

Thank you for your time.




March 22, 2010, 9:12 AM

That is expert judo. Well played. I'm interested to hear what the reaction was.



March 22, 2010, 9:22 AM

"But the Emperor has no clothes!"

Well said, and well worth saying.



March 22, 2010, 9:27 AM

Did no one take outright offense to being called a conceptualist in so many words?


John Sanchez

March 22, 2010, 9:45 AM

BRAVO!!!!! Excellent!!



March 22, 2010, 9:54 AM

What Sanchez said. Your sarcasm is appreciated, Franklin.



March 22, 2010, 9:58 AM

ahab, sit down with a few of your favorite brewskis and watch the tape.



March 22, 2010, 10:05 AM

John, I think I might have to do that too, although I don't think I can subject myself to watching from the very start... I've seen the opening minute of the video and it looks, as Chris suggests, like a PTA meeting in a one-room-schoolhouse. But, after reading Franklin's talk here, I found myself imagining the "beauty = patriarchy" thing might have not been so ridiculous as reports first suggested, since that does bear some relation to some of what Franklin was saying...



March 22, 2010, 10:14 AM

ok, duh, I can go back to the earlier thread to see how the talk was received. I don't know if I'm tough enough to watch the whole video but I think I'll try...



March 22, 2010, 10:29 AM

Come on guys, just be prepared to gut it out.



March 22, 2010, 11:15 AM

Damn good Franklin !



March 22, 2010, 11:27 AM

Franklin, this is excellent. It has a similar tone to your "materials" talk in Portland. The "awesome" spin is awesome.

Something like this would be devastating to an audience susceptible to clarity and reason but of course their lack of those qualities is exactly what you are poking at, so the effect is naturally limited.

The hesitancy you expressed about your delivery in the previous post probably stems from that reception. I still vividly remember telling an audience at the Modern Languages Association that Postmodernism was just plain silly (in 1983, no less!) and getting a stunned silence and virtually no applause. You are not the problem, believe me!

John, I don't think I can gut it out. I just can't commit myself to that much discomfort.



March 22, 2010, 11:28 AM

I'd love to see the video- am I missing something? Could someone point me in the right direction? thanks!



March 22, 2010, 1:13 PM

I believe the video is this one. My talk starts at 4 PM, so you have to advance through it.


Chris Rywalt

March 22, 2010, 1:20 PM

The video is here. Skip ahead to 2:10:00 to get to where Franklin starts, just about.

Do not under any circumstances sit through the two hours previous.


John Aaron

March 22, 2010, 2:23 PM

It has been my observation that some of the younger curators embrace these examples of poorly thought out simple-minded dreck because, it provides them with the opportunity to expound on work that is confusing in its self-befuddlement, and so light weight and unedited that they, the purveyors of culture, can wax at length about the artist's "much deeper intentions." They suggest, without saying so, that these "artists" are savants; and that is why the Curator's task is so difficult... they must enlighten the rest of us. True, it's hard to come up with something about nothing. These charlatans passing themselves off as conceptual artists are poseurs. 99% of today's conceptualism should be destined for only two locations- the furnace or the dump. The other 1 percent should take its rightful place in the galleries, museums and collections at the zenith of the art world. It seems, these days, that the art world insists upon celebrating too much talentless jive; in this whirlwind of mediocrity, too many truly great artists have been lost.



March 22, 2010, 2:37 PM

Franklin, there's always something to be said for polishing your delivery, but that was not the real issue in this case. What you did or attempted to do was worth trying, at least in principle, and it certainly couldn't hurt, but its effect was bound to be limited at best. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, your target audience has nothing to gain from getting your message (as in really getting it and acting accordingly), but it definitely stands to lose materially by doing so. You do the math.


Chris Rywalt

March 22, 2010, 2:47 PM

I do want to stress, Franklin -- and I realize I may have come off badly on this -- that my criticism of your reading your paper is really, really light. You did a great job doing something difficult. I just expected you to be fantastic and you turned out to be merely good. I thought you had more experience in giving talks since you're a teacher. But my wife, who's a professor and has also had to give occasional talks and presentations, says they're entirely different things. They seem the same to me -- you get up in front of a room with people in it and speak -- but she assures me it's very different.

So I'm sorry if I sounded too critical of your reading. I know it's not easy and you did very well. Certainly the lack of response had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the audience -- as I wrote in my account, the size had an effect, I think. A larger group would have had more infectious laughter, you know? Instead everyone was sort of checking to see if anyone else was laughing and then not.


Elaine Mari

March 22, 2010, 3:22 PM

OMG! Totally Awesome!


John Sanchez

March 22, 2010, 3:26 PM

wow yeah, it would be wonderful to make this a scene in a play. To see these words dramatized by an actor on stage or the big screen would be worth the price of the ticket. Kudos Franklin for delivering these words in their lair.



March 22, 2010, 5:11 PM

John A, welcome to the blog. Actually, it is easier to come up with something about nothing than something about something. When you there is nothing there you can make anything of it you want to, and that is what they do.



March 22, 2010, 5:14 PM

Chris, I don't know what you were expecting from Franklin. His presentation in Portland was pretty much faultless - clear, straightforward, energetically delivered. I mean, maybe he isn't Winston Churchill, but who is?


Chris Rywalt

March 22, 2010, 5:19 PM

What I'm trying to get across is that my expectations were unreasonable. I expected him to sound as he did when he was talking without the prepared speech, only while reading his prepared speech.



March 23, 2010, 1:29 PM

Hey Franklin, Did you make it to see the R Crumb show at Zwirner?



March 23, 2010, 1:55 PM

I did! It was a knockout.


Chris Rywalt

March 23, 2010, 2:15 PM

I considered going and then decided I'd had enough of a) comics treated as fine art in galleries and b) Robert Crumb being taken seriously. I mean, he's okay and all, but, like so many comic artists embraced by the art world, he's not really that good.

Was it that good, Franklin?



March 23, 2010, 2:26 PM

Yeah. They're showing the complete drawings for his treatment of Genesis. It made the Marlene Dumas show next door look even more sloppy and dreary than it would have in any case.


Chris Rywalt

March 23, 2010, 2:39 PM

It just struck me as such an obvious grab for gravitas: The infamous creator of Mr. Natural and lover of big-bosomed females tackles the Old Testament! And he does it straight!


Chris Rywalt

March 23, 2010, 2:40 PM

Although Crumb's Eve, as you might imagine, has a pretty big bosom.



March 23, 2010, 6:18 PM

Comparing anything to Marlene Dumas is bound to come off favorably for the anything part of the comparison.

She is one of my top picks for most overrated artist of our time, a prime example of the eyelessness of the collecting public.


Chris Rywalt

March 23, 2010, 6:35 PM

"Overrated" doesn't begin to cover it. It completely fails to communicate the sheer volume of my contempt for her work.



March 23, 2010, 6:54 PM

I do think Crumb is that good. Although I do agree that too much is made of too little when it comes to the art world and artsy comics.



March 23, 2010, 7:35 PM

Much ado about not much is a very pervasive practice, in all sorts of spheres. I suppose that's inevitable, but one would think the supposedly "elevated" art crowd would be a little less prone to it. That's obviously not the case.



March 23, 2010, 10:37 PM

Robert Crumb is no Jack Chick.



March 23, 2010, 11:12 PM

Chick tracts are cool. Weird, clueless, clumsy Christian propaganda, but cool.


Chris Rywalt

March 23, 2010, 11:15 PM

I used to collect Jack Chick tracts. Even did a parody of them once. I can't find it now but it was pretty damned awesome.



March 24, 2010, 8:09 AM

I have just about all of those Jack Chick tracts. Brilliant. Some are better than others.


Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave

March 24, 2010, 9:33 AM

Excellent. One might consider though the legions who were once dismissed, disregarded and wholesale dumped on during their working lives--but now have a solid place in the Master's section of the gallery.



March 24, 2010, 10:52 AM

Spacemoose was an exceptionally good comic strip running in my university paper when I attended, and it once featured its moose-headed-Trekkie main character in a chick spoof.



March 24, 2010, 1:57 PM

I like the angel's boner.


Wall De Villiers

March 24, 2010, 10:37 PM

Brilliant. Your article was far more brave, insightful, challenging, intelligent and discussion worthy than the onceptual art that you deal with.



March 28, 2010, 5:30 PM

What a brilliant piece of writing is this. It is interesting and it makes me think. Wait, a minute... methinks that makes it art.
I'm no critic, but I know what I like! And 'beauty IS its own excuse for being'.



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