PRINT Summer 1973


Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972

Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger), 272 pages, 128 black-and-white illustrations.

A point has been reached, with the publication of Lucy Lippard’s book The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, where certain propositions can no longer go unquestioned. The understanding of the importance of these propositions will come only from an investigation of the internal contradictions of the book itself which, in turn, will reveal its hidden theoretical and ethical implications. As is often the case, the covert meaning of the structure differs from the expressed intentions.

To document the history of six years of extremely active and possibly radical art requires a sense of responsibility to the spirit of the art itself. The bibliographic processes must be systematic, clear, informed, and consistent within the chosen theoretical framework. Lippard’s book does not satisfy these criteria. The plan of the book as presented on the jacket is an “intentional reflection of the chaotic network connected with so-called conceptual art. . . .” In her preface the author writes frequently and positively of “fragmentation”; “Fragmentation is more like direct communication than the traditionally unified approach in which superfluous literary transitions are introduced.” Support of this updated McLuhanism lies in the dense, chaotic, “fragmented” mixture of type sizes, faces, and weights which list, in constant and confusing reversal, books (alphabetically by author) and exhibitions or mailing pieces (chronologically by month and year). Lippard insistently substitutes the fragmentation method for what she considers the fallacia consequentis of continuity, i.e., “superfluous literary transitions.” The problem of this format is not one of “superfluous literary transitions” but of an arbitrary mode of selection camouflaged by a supposedly objective presentation of primary data. The visually impenetrable layout with its lists and jump-cuts presents a parody of her assumptions about the content of this art. The “design” mimics certain stylistic conventions of Conceptual art. While fragmentation is held to be a more accurate organizing principle, it is contradicted on every other page by the insertion of editorial comments and by chronological preferences. Chaos resulting from this type of operation is not inherent chaos, but a symptom of an unwillingness or inability to define particular issues.

A refusal to acknowledge more rigorous structural principles demonstrated by this art results in a book-length pastiche. Parodistic imitation appeared earlier in Lippard’s writing, most notably her introduction in The Museum of Modern Art’s Information exhibition catalogue, and her contribution to the Sol LeWitt catalogue published in The Hague, Netherlands, two years ago. For this occasion she did a typographic “rendition” of a LeWitt grid drawing with the heading “Imitation-Homage.” Imitation on the part of a critic is a form of indulgence. In this book, and several previous catalogues of exhibitions, it has been disguised as a “document” and presented in an unchallenged context because of the advertised closeness between artist and critic: “The editor has been closely involved with the art and artists since their emergence” (jacket blurb). This “involvement” lends an authority and uncontsestability to what is explicitly an uncritical endeavor.

The critic as historian is no more acceptable than the critic as artist, unless the methodology is changed. Without this change the surreptitious slide from one role to the other slurs the neutrality essential to the critical evaluation. Unlike the critic, who can function without criticizing the given assumptions of the artist’s order, historians are obliged to present a context for their examination of contradictions in the existing order. There is also a cultural distinction to be made. A critic has a “job,” a historian has a “post.” The language distinction reveals that the critic is accepted as a functionary of the endeavor (in the capacity of a distributor of information), but that the historian is accorded the privileges of distance from the marketplace. That Lippard would prefer to present her activities as history is not surprising. This suppresses the issue of partiality. But in her presentation, the role of historian is transformed from analyst to apologist, and the writing of immediate history tempts her to participate in its making. Because distance is sacrificed, and analytical thought dismissed as “literary transitions,” history is frozen into an individualistic perspective unaware of its undisclosed distortions and incapable of offering any insight into the relationship of the works themselves. The struggle between ideas is eliminated by bibliographies, timetables, or simple memoirs of individuals and accidental encounters.

In her own anticipated defense she writes “. . . the point I want to make is phenomenological not historical.” The use of the word phenomenology in the current art vocabulary is an abuse of its meaning. When Husserl wrote “go to the things themselves” he was not suggesting the compilation of lists of “things,” or the presentation of unexamined raw experiences. Phenomenology is the radical postulate of “presupposition-less lived experience” as a technique for the investigation of intentionality (how the world is our construction of it). It was not a withdrawal from analysis, but a method for bringing subjectivity under logical scrutiny. The consequences for philosophy itself inevitably involved a return to the questions of idealism and transcendental subjectivity. (This process came into the language of contemporary art criticism as a question of objecthood versus objectness—a case of trivialization, or simply a confusion with 19th-century Phenomenalism.) The problem of this misused terminology is that it incorrectly identifies the issues being argued in the art. It is the differentiation of the attitudes of these artists that is important, not the author’s projected similarity of their stylistic means.

When Lippard claims no theoretical basis for selection, she nonetheless admits that she could not include everything that happened during that period (which would be like the map in Lewis Carroll’s Silvie and Bruno, with the scale of one inch = one inch, obviating the need for any map at all). She offers the following rationale: “I would like this book to reflect that gradual de-emphasis of sculptural concerns, and as the book evolves, I have deliberately concentrated on textual and photographic work” (italics mine). The implications of the italicized words point up the contradiction between the expressed bibliographic structure of the book and the actual organizational principles. Lippard sees the book as having an internal evolution reflective of the evolution of Concept art from sculpture. Then she proposes the book as congruent with the period, setting herself up as the principle of selection by the method of concentration. Her statement above is a disguised confession, particularly when juxtaposed with the opening claim: “. . . There is no precise reason for certain inclusions and exclusions expect personal prejudice and an idiosyncratic method of categorization.” There is nothing “idiosyncratic” about this reading of history. It has been central to general art-critical awareness for at least four years. Lippard has personally emphasized this centrality in terms of the exhibitions she arranged, wrote about, and now cross-references.

In journalistically rejecting theoretical grounds, she ignores the covert line she is pushing. Acknowledgement of a theoretical basis for this art would reveal aspects antithetical to her premises: for example, it would become evident that many of the artists she lists outlined the premises of their art quite early, independent of more traditional concerns in sculpture, and that any development was not teleological. Lippard’s lack of perspective leads her to patronize intentions, “Some artists now think it’s absurd to fill up their studios with objects that won’t be sold, and are trying to get their art communicated as rapidly as it is made.” Her refusal to engage the complex and often contradictory intellectual questions being raised, reduces the intentions of an art attempting a forceful critique of the existing social and esthetic order into a series of purely promotional activities.

The principles of exclusion deserve more attention. A basic tenet of the book is that a piece of mail is to be considered a work of art. Ray Johnson is eliminated, however, because it is said of his mailings that they would “confuse issues,” and the book would become “unmanage able if some similarity of esthetic intention were not maintained” (italics Lippard’s). On the surface this appears to be an acceptable premise, yet why, then, does she exclude an artist of the stature of Dan Flavin, particularly since his art seriously investigated aspects of “dematerialization.” Flavin certainly is not to be excluded on the grounds of a lack of “esthetic similarity,“ as he was one of the strongest proponents of the “lean-pared-down-look,” and one of the first and most consequential artists to write theoretically about his art during the period in question.

The function of “fragmentation” can now be identified as a hidden exclusion principle. Lippard’s form derives from the French “nouvelle roman,” in books such as Sutor’s Mobile, which merely distort developmental logic rather than supplant it. In contrast, narrative fiction as a model yields a history of sequences . . . if A then B, if B then C, if C . . . etc. What is offered is nothing more than a disguised remodeling of the patrimony theory of art history. The machinery of art history is designed to bestow legitimacy by forging a sequential development which accedes to the demands of causal reasoning for the existence of specific works of art. Artists who do not fit the simplified a priori causal schema or who do not conform to prescribed attitudes are eliminated.

The Dematerialization of the Art Object is not a conscious corruption of history. It is a victim of the historical forces it is unable to acknowledge. To confront these forces requires an analysis of the political and economic issues that inform esthetic problems. Books such as this one have a predetermined use demanded by the system of distribution. They function to shore up a position, establish theoretical domains, create hierarchies of individuals for the market, try to provide definitive reference works, and indoctrinate supporters. It is only another ideological handbook. But it is potentially dangerous because Lippard fronts a phantom objectivity, an autonomy that appears so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its purposes. To jump from a listing for a 1968 work by Lawrence Weiner to this entry, “Sept. 26 (1968) Amsterdam: Boezem sends out map and documentation of the day’s weather report and meteorological analysis entitled ’Medium for the Furtherance of Renewed Experiences,’ ” is to debase the content of Weiner’s art by juxtaposing it with an obvious neo-Fiuxist ploy, such as declaring the weather map as art. This cannot b e defended, a s Lippard attempts i n the preface by saying, “I have included certain work here because it illustrates . . . how far ideas can be taken before they become exhausted or totally absurd.”

It simply is impossible for the uninitiated reader to distinguish a time-dissipation factor when the works enter the public domain almost simultaneously. Lippard’s notion of how art informs other art is one of misguided democratization, defined as everybody can understand everything. Specific content is not important. The effect of this process is to present a clarified mass of information, from which all contradictory and conflicting ideas have been factored out by juxtaposition. Yet Lippard proposes intuition and “fragmentation” in order to cover up the inconsistencies necessary to perpetuate the illusion of wholeness.

In the Lippard book, the inconsistencies are obvious. The volume is indexed. It lists the artists alphabetically and measures the amount of their comparative contributions. Lippard’s biases are easy to reconstruct. This process facilitates the rating of an individual artist’s “worth” by typographic weight. The index is a direct refutation of her opening claim to an “anti-individualistic” point of view, and functions as a very adequate replacement for “a traditionally unified approach.”

This book is in a unique position, one enjoyed by few other art histories, except some dealing with ancient art. Much, if not most, of the art it records is no longer in existence. The temporal continuity of these works is in the form and place given by this book. That is too arbitrary a process to let it slide unquestioned into the culture. The author has assumed a responsibility which cannot be reconciled with the technique of pasting old clippings and announcements together. This “assemblage” technique is rendered invisible by what Roland Barthes calls the “terrorism of the printed page.” The device of the invisible narrator is a 19th-century novelistic device for composing historical fiction, in order to manipulate the unaware reader’s responses.

Another serious issue is the self-fulfilling implication of the title itself. By attempting to imitate the future it distorts the present. Some art critics believe that their contribution to culture is enhanced by coining titles for “art movements.” Her term, “dematerialization,” has been filtering into general usage as a prescriptive device used in an ethical context. It suggests the immorality of artists who continue to make objects. A letter from the Art-Language group, published in this book, is an accurate analysis of the word and its misuse:

All the examples of art-works (ideas) that you refer to in your article are, with few exceptions, art-objects. They may not be an art-object in its traditional matter-state, but they nevertheless are matter in one of its forms, solid-state, gas-state, liquid-state. And it is on this question of matter-state that my caution with regard to the metaphorical usage of dematerialization is centered upon . . . That some art should be directly material and that other art should produce a material entity only as a by-product of the need to record an idea is not at all to say that the latter is connected by any process of dematerialization to the former [italics mine].

Does this dissuade the author? No. She replies in her preface, “Granted. But for the lack of a better term I have continued to refer to a process of dematerialization . . .” (italics mine). The terminology perpetuates itself until it becomes total nonsense. “Keith Arnatt comes to ‘idea art’ via process or behavioral land art (a constant interest in hermeticism and holes) and a something-to-nothing development.”

Because Lucy Lippard was able to acquire pertinent documents, and because she was in close proximity to the artists, this book, by virtue of its inconsistencies and misrepresentation of esthetic intentions, can only be found severely defective as a useful work of scholarship. And for its falsifications, it can be called an act of bad faith to art.

Wittgenstein used to say that the Tractatus was not all wrong: it was not like a bag of junk pretending to be a clock, but a clock that would never tell the right time.
—G.E.M. Anscombe, Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Mel Bochner