TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1972

The Trouble with Art-as-Idea

In a sense, then, art has become as “serious” as science or philosophy which doesn’t (sic) have audiences either. It is interesting or it isn’t, just as one is informed or isn’t.
—Joseph Kosuth, “Introductory Note by The American Editor,” Art Language, Vol. No. 2, 1970.

I am a successful culture fucker.
—Lawrence Weiner, Avalanche, Spring, 1972.

My exhibition at the Art and Project Gallery in Amsterdam in December ’69, will last two weeks. I asked them to lock the door and nail my announcement to it, reading: “For the exhibition the gallery will be closed.”
—Robert Barry, October 12, 1969.

It is only when active artists willingly cease to be artists that they may convert their abilities, like dollars, into yen, into something the world can spend: play.
—Allan Kaprow: “The Education of the Un-Artist, Part II,” Art News, May, 1972.

Estheticism is an easy step away from nausea. It’s what’s left over when moral sophistication abandons hope.
—Amy Goldin: “Art and Technology In a Social Vacuum,” Art In America, March–April, 1972.

AS EVERYONE KNOWS, THE ENTERPRISE of modern art attains meaning in an atmosphere of unique belief. Esthetic credence may be as serious as religious faith, but it is continuously subject to judgment. It can be as amused and as worldly as in our commerce with popular entertainment, but it is far more expectant. A Rothko painting demands a far more committed and specialized belief, a far more impractical sympathy, than a western movie, which can be as respected in good faith as it is consciously indulged.

Usually we say that after it comes into existence art is defined within a field of open privilege by critics. That this field has become progressively free and potentially limitless, however, is because artists have led critics, who in turn have influenced other artists, to expect nothing else. Art writers may deny this only at peril of sacrificing their reputation for being sophisticates and insiders. They debate the steps represented by individual works, the hypotheses advanced here or there, but they rarely take issue with the protectionist status that gives advanced art meaning merely because it is . . . art. That status, enjoyed by certain people who call themselves artists, imbues some awfully peculiar activities with the rank of ideal. For the results of these activities are understood as symbolic and metaphoric models of ideal order, energy, thought, and sensation. Quite often, too, they are interpreted as the reverse of any of these, which makes them counter-ideals.

THE BELIEF SYSTEM SUPPORTING ART is nourished not so much by specific conventions that have entrenched rules and criteria, as in most professions, but by the accelerated replacement of conventions, by now an article of faith in modern art and a cliche of criticism. Anyone may be defined as an outsider to art overall, or to a specific artistic idiom, who does not willingly accept the metaphors and contexts at stake, or the necessity that these be periodically reformulated. Such a person, sudden or long-term literalist that he is, tends to put an emotional “discount” on the esthetic product, just as its exegetes give it a metaphysical “mark-up.” I do not use this blunt economic metaphor facetiously. All of us are engaged in firming the symbolic mechanisms that we need or may come to need as an important feature of psychic survival. But there is obviously a negative feature in this psychology. We let in only so much reality, only so much recognition of hard facts in our lives, that our symbolic needs and social identities will allow or tolerate. And so established is the permissiveness that accepts the turnovers and flip-flops of modern art that it has, I feel, become rigid, and lost its sense of scale.

These pessimistic thoughts have been prompted by happenings in the art world of the last four years (though with anticipations dating back to over ten). It is a period roughly coinciding with a shift by many artists from the creation of tangible objects to calling attention to the attitudes by which art has been or can be made. (This is not to say, by any means, that visual images or things have been done away with, but that when they do appear, the spectator is directed to some “problem” rather than their visual qualities.) The problem has been dubbed self-sufficient, and therefore, “art,” by its instigators. Theoretically, it distills the quotient of ideality present in more direct art procedures, into a purer mental substrate, one not dependent on the distracting contingencies or the possible shapes of matter. For it would uphold, if not examine, what all modern art has in common when appearances are considered secondary. As a phenomenon, this has puritanical overtones familiar enough. Occurrences that are dematerialized, devoid of sensory appeal or even, sometimes, attributes, can be promoted as spiritual events, mystic rituals, or the operations of high science. Joseph Kosuth, one of the artists I have in mind, does not hesitate to equate his language games with the exclusivity and rigor of theoretical physics. Not craftsmanly work, but the thought behind work, not sensibility, but the general and impersonal premise above sensibility: these are the priorities of much current art. They are, of course, part of a strategy, with a long tradition behind it, designed to impose greater demands on the faithful. Faith has been stringently defined as the acceptance of assumptions without the need to require evidence for them. But the mistake of this often repeated and always circular strategy in art—now, at least—is to suppose that it has no upward limits.

“Artwork may not need to be a denoted physicality and may be a study of the premises governing this denotation.”
—Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden

For the moment, though, I am more concerned with the unexpectedness of this development. And I propose to explain what there is of the unforeseen in it by resorting to a distinction between usual and unusual claims for art. Since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, and since his revival in the ’60s, increasing store has been set on the degree and the extent to which modern art resists legitimacy. Its claims in this field may be said to deal entirely with unusual or improbable modes of production. Here, a “mode” has to do with the decisiveness with which an artist switches his operational category. A sculpture made of ground glass is certainly novel, but horseback riding, considered as sculpture, is unusual. One of the wonders of modern artists, and sources of their prestige, has been their capacity to purge themselves of the credible, yet to behave, in a delicate balance, as if their eccentric gambits were thoroughly plausible.

“I’m not a poet and I’m considering oral communication as a sculpture.”
—Ian Wilson

Established plausibility, such as painting’s, is, however, not admissible because it is a fixed mode whose practice arouses no doubts as to its legitimacy. I regret to say that the reasoning behind this is grounded on nothing more than the evident fact that painting is physically a flat surface covered variously with paint. This is to observe nothing of the subjects, styles, expressive goals or achievements in painting, matters that have no place in the new esthetic. Robert Barry notes that he abandoned painting because he wanted to get away from framing edges and to be released from the wall. But this ordinary claustrophobia ties in with recent art’s contempt for the stable and vulgarly identifies a stabilized mode with a restriction on freedom. There is an elementary confusion here, too, because the physically finite space of painting is a frame for what can be symbolically infinite.

“There are so many different situations in which to look at something that standing right before the painting or walking around a sculpture could well be the most simple kind.”
—Jan Dibbets

Question: Does one’s physical position before a work of art cancel out feeling towards or thinking about it—and how “simple” are these?

Oddly enough, the practitioners of art-as-idea are exceedingly literal on this issue. With them, an unusual claim differentiates creators on the score of their medium of the moment, whether this begs, philosophy, laser, post cards, Xerox, lnstamatic photography, or set theory. These have their apparent limitations, too, but they have their advantages and make their point when introduced for unlikely consideration as art modes. The result is an unremitting exhaustion of possibilities of embodiment and gestures of renunciation, viewed as positive ends in themselves. (I would have guessed that this evinces a very American penchant for packaging were it not, through-and-through, an international development.) Haunted by the obsolescence and ephemeralness of his actions, the artist of unusual claims rededicates himself to inconsistency.

For though he may be very constant, even repetitive in his ideas, he is generally on record as prohibiting himself a coherent evolution furnished through style.

Ursula Meyer: “Would you agree that art is the more extreme the further it gets away from style?”
Robert Barry: “Yes, I agree. I cannot really give you my definition.”

We have had styles in art for many excellent reasons, chief among which is the artist’s desire to engender for us his view or views of the world. Not only does the advanced artist programmatically fail in this view, he categorically opposes any syntheses or cross-referencing of ideas. He prefers instead, deliberately undigested accretions of data, documentations without comment, the purveying of information for its own sake, and the measuring of meaningless quantities or changes in location of some object or phenomenon. It is all research of high selectivity and fulsome detail that goes nowhere and that neither distinguishes events nor draws them together. There has been much abstruse jargon justifying these maneuvers, but little power of abstract reasoning displayed in them. Nothing less is demanded than that we sanctify this real atomization in the name of art’s prerogative. And that is what is unusual about the last four years.

“The documents prove nothing. They make the piece exist and I am interested in having that existence occur in as simple a way as possible. Where a thing is located involves everything else and I like that idea much more than how I ‘feel’ about it or what it looks like.”
—Douglas Huebler

Let us imagine that the affirmative goal of what has been called “Conceptual art” is to achieve for each its actings-out a social aura of uncertainty and ill-definition, the point of which is to foster new conditions of awareness and to disturb conventional notions of art’s role. Something that is, or might be, operational or functioning, useful or consequential, has been taken, imitated or reconstructed from “out there,” and has been appropriated within art boundaries. So that the typical response encouraged is: “Why am I asked to look upon or judge, in a special light, an incident, an activity, a process, or a thought—verbal or oral—that has no singular quality in itself?” That is the classic question posed by modern art since Courbet. And when that art was esthetically successful, the appropriate answer was found in the imaginative transformation of initially unpromising material. In the early part of our century, this 34 kind of questioning and answer process was phrased in terms of a test—a test of art’s then known limits. Sixty years later, the idea that art had esthetic limits (I do not say moral or political limits), has worn out. The social brake against anything being called esthetic, as long as it remained esthetic for the art world, has faded away. You can step the brake down to the floor and nothing happens. Under the circumstances, the problem of avant-garde continuity was thought to be solved by the refusal to transform the art subject.

There were, of course, degrees of such refusal, but of late they have become wholesale and homogeneous, regardless of the endless variables involved in an ostentatiously random focus on a motif. The untampered or unmanipulated gobbet of “real life,” viewed as art, has canceled many obligations rewarding to artists who earlier made highly complex objects. But some might feel it has enhanced the illusion that artists were capable of participating directly in everyday experience and possibly of effecting the course of public events. Participatory occasions, inter-media mixes, ecological awareness, computer mimicry, environmental analyses, perceptual intensifications: these are some of the themes used by contemporary artists to solicit approval for their paraactivism, their meta-engagement in the world.

I am obliged to conclude, though, that these urgent-sounding concerns decrease in credibility the more they are contoured by estheticism. Further, the field of pretense cannot be made to match ever more closely the arena of involvement without becoming uneasy by the comparison. (The converse, I might add, is not true: a murderer’s deeds are not reduced in effect because he may happen to think of them in esthetic terms.) Good art can change our consciousness through its symbolic order, but an artist cannot, in good conscience, wish away that symbolism on one level and use it for insulation and immunity on another. His flirtation with literal potency only achieves its ends involuntarily when in conflict with hard-core literalists who either do not see that art was intended, or who couldn’t care less for its crazy privileges at the moment their symbolic structures are threatened. When Hans Haacke’s photo documentation of New York landlords was censored by the Guggenheim Museum, it was an accident of this sort, induced by sensitive material. When, in an act of deliberate provocation, the Judson Flag Show artists were busted, they were testing a law, not the limits of art—so their gesture entered the political rather than the esthetic annals of our culture.

But these exceptions do highlight the burdensome ironies faced by the immediate art audience itself. Art-as-idea’s ritualization of the unusual imposes upon that audience increased depths of specious response. The unexpected is so expected that a self-defeating element is introduced into our dialogue with art. I would say that this difficulty emerges no later than Duchamp whose work invites us to disregard the empirical status of the object, so that we decode, not the given qualities of form, but the reasons for considering the object other than what it is, and meanings as not what they appear to be. Decades later, our credulity is terrific. As art observers, we endorse that which our social selves find it ever less necessary or interesting to believe. Our over conditioning, I think, has become debilitating.

For, our commerce with art may go on nominally as it had before, but so weakened, precious, and attenuated as to make it almost a matter of indifference. Or, we disallow work whose principles rely on an earlier art to which we have given special dispensation, and thereby jeopardize the support system that we have ourselves defined and identified with. I do not imagine that projects having no hope of being carried out, or of being effective in the social world are reduced in meaning as art. But I am saying that such meaning ultimately endures insofar as it accords with our active psychology as social beings. And it could be asked here: what priority do we really give facetious behavior in the world? When Douglas Huebler photographs people at the moment they are told something about their appearance, the result may be a study of suddenly new, ruffled consciousness. It is a voyeuristic exercise which we may turn upon ourselves: what is the expression on our faces when we “experience” a Huebler?

Certainly it is hard to imagine it as one of shock. For the pleasures of surprise have been replaced by the comforts of the indeterminate. The tastemaking class is here still on the side of the mischievous, but its enthusiasm has been very much eroded. It may be hard to accommodate phenomenonologists into the art-star Broadway syndrome that wants to be carried over from the ’60s. It may be, too, that four years after the onset of art-as-idea, an inexorable acculturation has taken place, although no personality of real stature within the various new movements has been singled out by hind sight. The once euphoric tensions and flighty instincts of the last decade have given way to politeness and pedantry. And I suspect this to be the result of a demoralization that cannot acknowledge itself.

Very few hints are taken from many works that are themselves overt scenarios of impasse and paralysis. “On Kawara selects a pre-stretched canvas for his daily work, a carefully painted monochrome on which is noted the day’s date. If the painting is not finished by midnight, it is destroyed. By October 31, 1970 eight hundred and twenty-three of these works were completed” (Avalanche, Spring, 1972). During a prescribed period, Vito Acconci steps up and down from a stool at the rate of thirty steps a minute, for as long as he can without stopping. John Baldessari writes, “I will not make any more boring art” over and over again. Not merely are these performances standardized in terms of their units, but they are typical of their kind. A school of legislated nihilism has grown up around them.

Particulars related to the information not contained herein constitute the form of this action.
—Christine Kozlov, in a telegram to the Museum of Modern Art

Mostly the acts of this school—they would pretend to enter copy books or hospital reports—seem to occur preliminary or posterior to an artist doing his thing; the middle phase, execution itself, is dropped out, or is superimposed as a name upon the aftermath or the residue. “Residual art,” in fact, is a good name for what has happened. Its authors come on as compulsives, or deep in some kind of physical therapy.

A related group of artists places its accent on the human body, giving statistics of medical history, hereditary traits, and anatomical features. They provide a wealth of objective and incidental data, remote from what we would care to know about people as psychic beings. It is the frame, the margin, the edges of substance, the millimeters of biological growth, the dumb intervals between social exchange, that relentlessly attract the attention of many young artists. And they can expand, duplicate, or magnify these peripheries, these pauses between happening, with dogged, dispiriting insistence. They are prolix with unnecessary detail and generous to a fault with superfluities. Naturally I am aware that such behavior is an index of technique rather than a mistake in judgment. In the ’60s I characterized this impulse as a nostalgia for sterility, exemplified in a few neurotic and vivid artists. Today I am mobbed by actuaries of the irrelevant.

The scene is surfeited, then, with much information that goes a short way. We are barraged with data overloads, inertial lists, that are not communicative, and that are not even intelligible except by reference to a sullied faith in art. It is a turn of events that averages out a great deal of competitive energy. (The same thing, of course, happens in American culture, under the rubric of “administration.”) The loss of confidence in the concrete has been screened by a downpour of minutiae. Cause and effect have been disassociated, and human action trivialized, if we accept the message of art-as-idea. But what I notice above all, is the inability of the various mediums—process, Conceptual, etc.—to come to terms with what can be said of experience. It is as if a whole language has been reduced to punctuation marks, contained on forms on which the art world inscribes its initials.

There can be no doubt that recent events in art history have led to this hermetic situation. Minimal sculpture, earthworks, happenings, “distribution” pieces, these are merely the bases of the more extreme outcomes we see today. The artist as critic, serial or systemic modes of composition, the photographic documentation offering no inherent qualities of its own, the whole evanescent, biodegradable art leavings syndrome—all these prophesied what was to come. Even more obvious, though, is the literal ransacking by the current generation of every doctrine in modern art that has opposed itself to the ideals of sensory pleasure and the values of personal imagination. Cage, Duchamp, Reinhardt, and Malevich represent extreme degrees of unrestricted or over-restricted art goals that are seen by Conceptualists to amount to very much the same thing: the principle that philosophical attitude takes precedence over unique form. But the new figures are content to describe what had earlier been necessary to show or demonstrate. They have picked clean what was once fresh in such positions through literal illustration and perpetual replay. And they treat us now to a tired litany against the possessable and the material. Not for nothing has the word “re-cycle” become an almost mystical term of art parlance. And in the film loop is found the apparatus most instrumental in effecting a mood of such unconscious desperation that it does not know anymore of beginning, middle, or end.

In an extremely apparent sense, then, art-as-idea is highly conservative. It exemplifies an almost rote dependence on an art context and does nothing more than reveal passive attitudes towards advancing that context. To live off the subversiveness of the parent, to freeload from it, and to score unearned points for significance in its name: these tactics characterize recent activity. When this situation occurs in painting, instead of recondite propositions and theorems, its visibility draws immediate fire. Often ethereal in presence, the art of ideas is just as plainly compromised in its derivations.

As it turns out, however, a major proposition of this retread Dadaism is the longing to be free of art history. The tradition of art, after all, is culture-bound, and where is there a more effective way for the artist to declare himself independent and liberated from culture than to announce that he has disassociated himself from art history? The history of modern art is replete with artists who announced themselves impervious to historical categories.

From the Futurists to the Dadaists to the Constructivists one can detect an antibourgeois stance that opposed to middle-class rationality and liberalism a dream of apocalypse, the mockery of the absurd, and the utopia of the classless state. The Surrealists attacked history as a kind of superego that would oppress erotic instinct. Dubuffet stigmatized all western values as spurious when compared with the intensity of the insane. The Abstract Expressionists conjured up a timeless myth of the Sublime, broad enough in scale to enact those cosmic gestures that would reprimand American Babbitry. But the maintenance of spiritual tension and esthetic distance, of which all these were renewed dramatizations, began to dissolve in the ’60s. Now in our credit card culture artists recoil as if they were reading the fine print of Dadaism.

It is odd that their unrest manifests itself by recourse to language, and the technical language of philosophy or pseudo-science at that. To be sure, there is a short-term logic to be found in the proposal that since the history of art was a history of forms, to demolish physical form is to blink away the continuity of historical event in art. I suppose this is the ultimate rebuke to formalist esthetics whose definitions of radicalism always seemed to be incarnated by sleek, decorative artifacts. But the dialogue between art’s intentions and meanings is not so much transcended as shortchanged by abandonment of a sensory guise. Esthetic encounters have merely been transposed from the allusions that can be stimulated by art objects to a focus on the illusions of art ideology, neither of which is exempt—nor could it be—from the historical process.

“To abandon the search for a new form at any price means trying to abandon the history of art as we know it . . . .”
—Daniel Buren

“. . . and since I am not interested in problems of forms, color and material, it goes without saying that my evolution could not be esthetic.”
—Bernar Venet

One of the more extreme art-as-idea artists, Lawrence Weiner, denies neither the materiality of art, because everything an artist uses is material, nor the inevitable legitimization of his efforts by “culture.” But “as what I do becomes art history the minute the culture accepts it, so it stops being art” (Avalanche, Spring, 1972). Like the Groucho Marx who wouldn’t join a country club that would have him as a member, Weiner, less wittily, plays at being disreputable. Yet such an artist does not claim himself a pariah in any mood of ironic self-disparagement. Rather, it is assumed that art can only have art impact before it is recognized culturally as art. And it is implied that the work of the artist must be acceptable to a committed minority group by virtue of its, at least temporary, unacceptability to the “cultural” mass.

Culture, then, is often defined self-servingly by artists who would flatter their immediate sympathizers as a very exclusive club, an “inner culture.” From a once fairly accurate description of how modern art became assimilated, this seduction of the sophisticates has become a formula purveyed for its own sake. Those not initially involved in the consumption of the inaugural art statement are denigrated as a kind of entombment society. Carl Andre phrases the argument quite belligerently: “Art is what we do; culture is what is done to us,”—an ungenerous half-truth. The absorption of art into a framework of meaning beyond the mystique of its practitioners, necessary to the morale of all artists, is considered suspect, inimical, even a betrayal. Doubtless there are many risky factors operating in the trade-off between the avant-garde and its wider potential audience. What we see here, however, is the attempt to institutionalize a social antagonism without observing whether a base for such antagonism any longer exists. And even more, without substantiating a subversive slogan by a subversive content.

What, after all, has Lawrence Weiner done? To take a known example, he conceived this specification for a work or art: “an abridgment of an abutment to on, near, or about the arctic circle.” Lucy Lippard describes the execution of the work at lnuvik, arctic Canada: “Using whatever is at hand, in this case a cigarette package, he leans it against a broken pile of dirt.” It is a tale of little consequence that loses in the telling. But from such a non-event it is an ideological pebble’s throw to Weiner’s grandiose indications: “1.) The artist may construct the piece. 2.) The piece may be fabricated. 3.) The piece need not be built. Each (sic) being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership."

In other words, it seems a matter of indifference whether any experience takes place at all, as long as the notion that it may take place is suggested. This insinuation, after all, is the art part. It consists of begging such questions as to why something should be done, how it should be done, and for whom. How significant that Weiner uses the economic term “receivership,” a protesting too much that significance has only to be declared to exist. In an unsettling way, it deprives us of ever finding significance for ourselves.

For the optionality of Conceptual art is nonleading only on face value. Theoretically it represents a “further” stage in modern art where the withdrawal of constructive (in all senses of the word) decision, and the rejecting of responsibility for the thing presented closes the possibilities of interpretation. We are strenuously directed to see that thought itself is up for grabs. Yet it is also shrewdly anticipated that putting the exchange between the giver and the receiver in the conditional tense (may—may not) equates any conceivable outcome with any other.

Once more, therefore, the argument hinges on a bind. All “morphological” art, that is painting and sculpture, has been superseded and demoted to the status of a historical curiosity (Kosuth) because it does not question the nature of art. But Conceptual art induces only a mood of nonexpectancy because its questioning has no form, only a principle, and may be said to be an affair exclusively of absolute function. This position is fanatically tautological because it collapses all distinctions among the attitude of the artist, his product, and esthetic response. The “receiver’s” experience is his realization of the artist’s intent, just as the artist’s aim is to cultivate such realization. And this explains that whatever is actually done by the artist is of no weight or consequence because then it might have content, and someone might want to bear witness to that content, empirically, in a culture where distinctions are made.

Logically, this stand is rather mysterious. Art ideas rely as surely on an a priori art context as art objects and it is hard to see how that context is challenged because a new language is involved. Furthermore, “absolute function” is a contradiction in terms: what serves most appropriately in one situation will not do in another. But art does not have to be logical and I am more interested in asking, in any event, why some artists today adopt this posture as a cultural attack.

Is it enough to say, for instance, that art-as-idea is essentially a result of a predisposing gamesmanship in art history itself? One is tempted to answer yes, not only because of poor Duchamp who has been done to death but because the heavy emphasis on mode is so congenial to one side of the formalism that dominated much of ’60s esthetics, Once they overcame their bias for the primacy of sensation young formalists quite rightly had no trouble in replacing compositional with linguistic analysis. With them, method—and it is essentially a method of describing, ordering, and locating—justifies criticism. And the conversion of ends into means (methods) has been precisely what Conceptual art has been about.

If all this is insular, then it is still an insularity that has its social as well as its cultural co-efficient. Amy Goldin remarks that “Theories of art have always embraced culture-in-general, and left society out of account—which clearly must be remedied soon.” (“Art And Technology In A Social Vacuum,” Art In America, March–April, 1972.) What, for instance, does a young generation yearning to connect feeling with action share with this art in absentia? Perhaps they have a common social understanding that objects alone are not what civilization deals with. But the eliminating of objects is suspect in a crew of artists who have a fear of being explicit and a horror of being held accountable. A credibility gap exists in our art life just as it does in our political world, for the reason that, in both, people are systematically abstracted from their humanity and considered as receivers of stimuli—a mass that exists only to be conditioned. Conceivably the art scene here is a frivolous microcosm of big power rhetoric and manipulations. I am impressed, in any case, by the bureaucratic tendencies of art-as-idea—the fact that ever more extraneous, repetitious, and purposeless work fills the air with crypto-efficiency.

Instead of making art I filled out this form.
—Frederick Barthelme

The root of the problem, it seems to me, is the accentuation of a hidebound playfulness. The more various barriers against the acceptance of art modes are removed, the more artists are compelled to formulate their activity as a game. If Lawrence Weiner is truly the Marxist he claims to be, it is wondrous to imagine how, if at all, he related the placing of his cigarette package to the exploitation of the Eskimos he is reported to have seen all around him. One of the very few artists to comment on the toxic effects of the art game is Allan Kaprow, but his proposed escape from its pretenses is the most delusional I have heard (“The Education of the Un-Artist, Part II,” Art News, May, 1972). His recipe, in brief, is that society would not need an art life if all urgent, purposeful, and effectual activity could be liberated by play! Our hang-ups about money, practicality, competition, and survival are the obstacles that bar entry into an exquisite world of irresponsibility. Let the artist abandon his own identity among his peers, let him missionize for indulgence in the outer world, let him become a zealot of relaxation, “Art work, a sort of moral paradigm for an exhausted work ethic, is converting into play. As a four-letter word in a society given to games, ‘play’ does what all dirty words do: it strips bare the myth of culture by its artists, even.”

My guess, however, is that it is not the work, but the play ethic that is exhausted, at least as represented in Conceptual art. Freedom from logic, moral sanctions, and formal seriousness: none of these are issues for me as long as they do not become a reason of his being for the artist. They are among conditions under which some work has to be accomplished, but they are not a principle of art-making, nor can they be equated with content. Yet the aggressive “take-it-or-leave-it” psychology of much recent art betrays, I think, uneasiness on this score. That we are defied “to leave” the art, that we are often offered nothing, effectively, but this defiance, is the piece’s justification. Why else do we have so much theory misconceived as practice, thought considered as itself an object, and hypotheses replacing experience? At this point, play becomes desperate. Unrefreshing in itself, the contrast between the frivolity of the premises and the puritanism of statement in art-as-idea is also unilluminating. It is a weird deadlock.

Max Kozloff