PRINT March 1988


I suspect that we have not yet gotten rid of God, since we still have faith in grammar.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Men fight and lose that battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out to be not what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.
—William Morris

I. To Remind

insofar as its public reception was concerned, Conceptual art was defined at birth in relation to formalism and, by critics like Lucy Lippard, in the language of Minimalism. The strategic reason (from my point of view at the time) for emphasizing dematerialization and antiobjectness was the immediate necessity to break away from the formalist terms of the time, that is, from an estheticized art philosophically conceived of in terms of shapes and colors employed for the good of “superior taste.” By removing the formalist-defined ‘experience’, it seemed obvious (our heuristic point went) that the condition of art would have to be looked for elsewhere. In this regard, what we initiated was a kind of readymade by negation. This removal, or cancellation, was really a defetishizing of the Duchampian readymade in the form (both figuratively and, in my case, literally) of a negative photograph of our inherited horizon of artistic meaning, and the simultaneous act of a positive negation of that.

We have seen how such heuristic devices became identified (as in product identification) with individual artists, as a kind of mutant ‘style’. It is as though the social event of that initial cultural rupture fixed a conversation, as a product of a time, into the shadow cast by its own reified moment. As artists, we had a choice: to resist this misidentification, or to readdress this celebration as part of the process. These two possibilities, of course, defined the struggle of the enterprise at that time as much as it would over the years define the limits and historical location of such work.

But to understand the present relevance of Conceptual art, it must first be separated from such work, which should be seen as post-Minimalism. Those artists who chose the latter, it can be seen since, have fairly consistently made work that neither evolved in relation to cultural or social change in the world, nor engendered much enrichment of our understanding of art (save what particular members of the critical establishment gleaned from the production of others and applied to them). By and large, such work continues to be basically stuck in a ‘60s frozen moment, with the gesture of that initial act representing a sole philosophical moment of practice. The replication of basically that same act over a 20-year period, however—whether or not it is a betrayal of original aims—certainly eclipses whatever those original aims were, offering up instead the empty meaning of an ossified ‘style’.

The context of Minimalism in the mid ’60s, was that moment when the two major forces in American art, Pop art and formalism, were just beginning to reach full stride. Pop art, because of unprecedented public interest and support, and formalism, due to an equally unprecedented hegemony in the art-historical/critical complex and its vast institutional support system, seemed to be part of a power horizon detached from the social and cultural unrest taking place in society. In such a context, Minimalism arrived as the beginning of the end of Modernist ‘avant-garde’ art movements. But that should not diminish for a minute the force and clarity with which that rupture made its debut. While Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were shoring up their minions and extolling an art that naturalized the prevailing institutions (inside of art and out), the Minimalists presented objects (not, at least then, ‘sculptures’) which were outside the space of institutionalized pictorial fictions, and in the world.

It was precisely this world, which contextualized and provided meaning for things (even theoretical ‘things’) used as art, and, furthermore, dealt with the effect of such meanings on the world, which gave rise to work such as mine. From my point of view at the time, Minimalism—as important as it was to us—still functioned as sculpture (and we now see it became sculpture), which meant that its dispute with formalism could be trivialized as one of taste (just a cooler one). Though Minimalism created the context in which it could emerge, Conceptual art, to be understood, must be defined in terms of a difference. Post-Minimalism took the formalist, and Modernist, concern with the limits of materials and techniques, used Conceptual art’s strategic device of negating that concern, and institutionalized this practice as a negative formalism. This provided the Modernist agenda with a revitalized ‘avant-garde’ face without letting go of the premise that the repository of central artistic concern was still in the object, if only in its absence. In this regard, post-Minimalism’s primary concern is with a radicalization of alternative materials rather than alternative meanings. But it is issues of meaning—the process of signification—that define Conceptual art and have made it relevant to recent art practice. The substantial import of such work, it would seem to me, has been the radical reevaluation of how an artwork works, thereby telling us something of how culture itself works: how meanings can change even if materials don’t.

With the subsequent “opacity”of the traditional language of art (painting and sculpture) in the sixties, the objects (paintings or sculptures) themselves began to lose “believability” (the language was losing its transparency). One was always in a position of being “outside” the work and never “inside.” With that began, through the sixties, an increased shift of locus from the “unbelievable” object to what was believable and real: the context. Objects or forms employed became more articulations of context than simply and dumbly objects of perception in themselves.1
—“(Notes) on an Anthropologized Art," 1974

II. To Propose: The ‘Made-Ready’ and the Readymade

It says no medium is pure. It is . . . the art of bricolage, of throwing disparate things together. It asserts that there can no longer be the isolated work of originality or genius that extends the possibilities of a medium. There can be no such originality; one cannot initiate one’s work from oneself.2

In the discussion of recent art, commentary like that immediately above is not atypical. The presumption in even such a comment is, of course, that traditional ‘primitive construction’ techniques of auratic art are basic to art production—despite the fact that an alternative practice (in the form of the readymade) has existed for over sixty years.

But the reason we must reject such a traditional practice is because it masks, within the aged baggage of a ‘symbolic’ value system, the actual signifying structure from which meaning is generated. There is no ‘hidden’ meaning in the metaphysical sense that the interpretive needs of an auratic art suggest. Rather, it is a layering of levels of meaning and the relations between them that subvert the banal reading of ‘goal-seeking’ elements of mass culture, and make possible ‘original’ work from such a bricolage. Indeed, it is only in constructive appropriation—what I’ll call here the ‘made-ready’—that the process of art is accountable and demystification is possible. The cultural system—with its visible social anchors——is part of the analyzable given, not removed from criticism through incorporation into an auratic, heroic cosmology.

Practitioners of the ‘made-ready’ are not guilty of the apocalyptic program of which they are accused. Obviously, what one person sees as the end, another sees as the beginning. So, first, it must be recognized that such appropriation is another practice of art—a practice that by its nature subverts, redirects, or negates theoretical assertions (or anything else) initiated elsewhere. Second, one must recognize the formalist bias in statements such as, "In reducing themselves to their most primitive elements they would have exhausted all possibility of further innovation; no further advance would be possible,”3 which locates the meaning of art in ‘elements’ rather than in the signifying dynamic inherent in the relations between elements and between them and the world.

Artistic activity consists of cultural fluency. When one talks of the artist as an anthropologist one is talking of acquiring the kinds of tools that the anthropologist has acquired—insofar as the anthropologist is concerned with trying to obtain fluency in another culture. But the artist attempts to obtain fluency in his own culture. For the artist, obtaining cultural fluency is a dialectical process which, simply put, consists of attempting to affect the culture while he is simultaneously learning from (and seeking the acceptance of) that same culture which is affecting him. . . . Now what may be interesting about the artist-as-anthropologist is that the artist’s activity is not outside, but a mapping of an internalizing cultural activity in his own society. The artist-as-anthropologist may be able to accomplish what the anthropologist has always failed at. A non-static “depiction” of art’s (and thereby culture’s) operational infrastructure is the aim of an anthropologized art.4
—“The Artist-as-Anthropologist," 1975

My initial reasons in the sixties for attempting to use language as a model for art (in ‘theory’ as well as introducing it as a ‘formal’ material in art practice) stemmed from my understanding of the collapse of the traditional languages of art into that larger, increasingly organized, meaning system which is the modernist culture of late capitalism. Traditional languages of art are controlled zones where specialized, fetishized markets are allowed to follow their own circular paths displaying ‘freedom’ safely out of the way of those mechanisms of organized meaning—which in varying ways amount to the increased institutionalization of everyday life. Conceptual art, as a critical practice, finds itself directly embedded in that realm of organized meaning; but historical understanding means that that work begins to understand itself ; it becomes critical of those very processes of organized meaning in the act of self-understanding. It criticizes this system through the act of criticizing itself. The point made in the sixties about “breaking out of the traditional frame of painting and sculpture” and the kind of work necessitated by such a break—seeing what art ‘means’ outside of such a traditional language, provided the possibility of seeing how art acquires meaning. Conceptual art then seemed to take two forms, either it evolved into a stylistic paradigm competitive with, while extending, traditional art, or it withdrew into theory. This paper, then, speaks from my critical, and intimate, relationship with both.5
Within the Context, 1977

I have focused, then (both in my work and in texts like those cited above), on the development of an art that is truly an alternative practice. We have no need for the isolated avant-garde gesture, which by necessity must feed off a traditional support and become its unwilling collaborator. Nor, for that matter, do we need the practice of artists who, having the right political message, nonetheless parasitically use the given forms of art, be they borrowed from an alternative practice or not, as though they were transcendent categories just waiting to be filled with the “correct” content.6 Fundamentally, both perpetuate a conservative idea of art’s potential. What separates Conceptual art from both is the understanding that artistic practice locates itself directly in the signifying process and that the use of elements in an art proposition (be they objects, quotations, fragments, photographs, contexts, texts, or whatever) functions not for esthetic purposes (although like anything in the world, a proposition can also be esthetic), but rather as simply the constructive elements of a test of the cultural code.

The ‘made-ready’ and the tradition of the readymade have shown us what the process of art is; the path of that showing has meant the development, through its self-reflection, to the critical location of an ideological self-knowledge; this alternative tradition sees art, simply put, as a questioning process. The various scattered agendas of formalism survive, finally, with only themselves—object and project—offered up in production; art, there, is seen as an answering process, satisfying society’s system of commodity need.

A Preliminary Map For “ZERO & NOT”

We have a cluster of contingencies: a text, which represents an order of arbitrary forms which make a systemic sense (believable while they teach belief). The words are meaningful, contingently, in relation to the sentence, and the sentence to the paragraph. The paragraph, from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud, is meaningful in relation to the exegesis of Freud’s work. The use of Freud’s work, in this context, is contingent on understanding its use by the “author” of “Zero & Not” (beginning with “Cathexis” in 1981) as a kind of conceptual “architecture”—a ready-made order that, while anchored to the world, provides, as a theoretical object, a dynamic system. This text, though, is also just a device: a surface, a skin. There is another syntax, also anchored to the world, which is the architecture of rooms which also orders this work. While the order remains there, the gaps and omissions (the entrances, exits, views in and out—that which puts the work in the world) rather than disrupt the order clarifies and qualifies the room (the world) and art (that which is Not, but within this order, is). The cluster of “arbitrary” orders has also a “made” order which unifies it, beyond the unification given to it by the architecture of the room(s) itself. It begins with a counting-off of the paragraphs, repeated until the walls are full; and that cancellation which constructs as it erases, suggesting “one thing” (a field of language itself) present, while removed. Not just absence presented, it is language reduced to words, making the texture of reading itself an arrival at language, an arrival which constructs other orders, ones that blind as they make themselves visible. The numbers separate the paragraphs as they unify the work. This provides the field in which the color-coding systemically underscores, repeatedly, the fragments that make up the unitary paragraph, a made-up order which constructs (or de-constructs) the paragraph differently than the other order (of the world) which makes the paragraph with sentences. And differently, too, than that order which made rooms out of windows, doors, changing ceilings, and those walls which presume the lives which will be lived within them.7
—Artist’s statement, “Chambre d’Amis” catalogue, 1986

The use of Sigmund Freud’s theoretical work as a ‘made-ready’—from my Cathexis, 1981, through “Modus Operandi,” a 1987 series of exhibitions in the United States and Europe—has permitted me to employ various strategies (and, for my problematic, risks) while continuing with the committed agenda outlined above. The theoretical object—the system of thinking of Sigmund Freud—was chosen not only for its rich generative complexity, for its use within a variety of discourses, and for the unchartable impact of its practical implication, but also because of its internalization in society and in that culture which forms, and dialectically describes, both. The pervasive influence of Freud continues to generate an effect on our reading of numerous cultural codes. We know where it locates itself, we can’t say where it doesn’t. ‘Looking for meaning’ in a Freudian context, out of context, provides a certain self-reflexivity in an art context about that process itself.

Beyond any instrumentalized sense of a ‘made-ready’ stands a prior ‘made-ready’: my own history. This means, to some extent, that we begin with a psychologically organized approach, a ‘target’ ethnology. There are frames of references and I, like any other artist who has worked for over 20 years, must account for my own work always, if only partially. Therefore, some of the bricolage of my practice negates by positively including reused fragments of prior work—out-of-context but reframed—so that one ‘text’ is canceling itself in another. In this way, individual ‘works’ maintain equal weight, and cancel, with finality, the psychologized ordering of auratic work and its unknowable suggested metaphysics.

My use of a Freudian ‘cosmography’ as a made-ready has a dual role. First, it provides a larger signifying structure which can locate specific art propositions, and a theoretical context which is nonassertive (a negated theoretical presence rather than a ‘to-be’ interpreted lack). In other words, it provides a ‘made-ready’ conceptual architecture. But these houses don’t close; there is no ‘inside’ or ‘outside’. Second, this Freudian cosmography functions as ‘meaning-active’ material for the construction of works; the setting up and the canceling out: a negated presence and a positive absence.

Such texts, as art, initially demystify themselves: they reorganize the nature of the relationship between the ‘viewer’ and the work. Rather than isolating the viewer as individual faced with an enigma (‘abstract’ art) or projecting him/her into another, fictional space (‘realism’) such work connects the viewer/reader on the level of culture through the language of the text while they deny the viewer/reader the habituated narrative or pragmatic/instrumental role and meaning for the text. Once connected with the text, the viewer, as reader, is active and part of the meaning-making process. By being inside looking out, the viewer/reader looks for meaning within relationships, relationships established within and between social and historical contexts.8
—“Text/Context," 1979

When viewed ‘normally’ the fictive space of the painting permits the viewer an entrance to a credible world; it is the power of the order and rationality of that world which forces the viewer to accept the painting (and its world) on its own terms. Those ‘terms’ cannot be read because they are left unseen: the world, and the art which presents it, is presented as ‘natural’ and unproblematic. Turning the image ‘upside-down’ stops that monologue; one no longer has a ‘window to another world’, one has an object, an artifact, composed of parts and located here in this world. One experiences this as an event, and as such it is an act which locates and includes the viewer. As an event it is happening now (in the real time of that viewer) because the viewer, as a reader, experiences the language of the construction of what is seen. That cancellation of habituated experience which makes the language visible also forces the viewer/reader to realize their own subjective role in the meaning-making process.9
—“Notes on ‘Cathexis’," 1981

The ‘equal weight’ that I referred to in section B can describe as well the relationship between the viewer/reader and the artist/author, and their joined moment as the collaboration of signification. The dialectical spin of such signification is the final construction which remakes and re-forms the ‘made-ready’, creating a dynamic constellation; signifying as it constructs itself within those cultural codes that punctuate the interface of meaning between the viewer/reader and the artist/author. The construction of the participating viewer/reader is not simply the completed and final work, no more than the act of reading, or viewing, is the act of possession.

The practice of the ‘made-ready’ has clarified, within its constructions, how specific elements (or forms) used within art, as within language, are by and large arbitrary; the sense can only be understood in the systemic whole. And it is such a systemic whole that not only makes possible the production of further meaning, but joins the viewer/reader and artist/author within a social whole as well.

Joseph Kosuth, 1987



1. Joseph Kosuth, “(Notes) on an Anthropologized Art,” Kunst bleibt Kunst, Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1974, p. 236.
2. John Rajchman, ”Postmodernism in a Nominalist Frame,” Flash Art 137, November–December 1987, pp. 50–51.
3. Ibid., p. 51.
4. Kosuth, “The Artist-as-Anthropologist,” The Fox 1, New York, 1975, pp. 26–27.
5. Kosuth, Within the Context: Modernism and Critical Practice, Gent: Coupure, 1977, pp. 14–15.
6. ”As a practice such work denies the philosophical implications and political character of culture; it assumes a separation between form and content, theory and practice. Work which presupposes the possibility of political content within a ‘given’ cultural form is taking an idealist position; the implication is that politics is located as content, and forms are neutral, perhaps transcendental. Philosophically, as a politics of culture, they are agreeing with the formalists: the actual practice of art is apolitical, it only waits for the artist to become politicized.“ Kosuth, ”Text/Context,“ flyer accompanying series of exhibitions by same title, New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, 1979.
7. Kosuth, in “Chambres d’Amis,” Gent: Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, exhibition catalogue, 1986, p. 102.
8. Kosuth, ”Text/Context.”
9. Kosuth “Notes on ‘Cathexis’,” in The Making of Meaning: Selected Writings and Documentation of Investigations on Art Since 1965, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 1981, p. 31.