I wrote this in graduate school in a seminar with Peter Lunenfeld on “The Maker’s Discourse.” I was wrangling with the relationship between maker & critic and how blurry that line is, so this was an attempt to understand the interplay of the roles. Re-reading it, I think I should read more Tony Conrad.
The artist’s discourse is defined by its ability to expand and manage the interpretive potential of art production. The critic is the primary interpreter of art, the critic may take the form of art peers, the public-at-large, the market, or other audiences, but this dialog is necessitated by the art objects existence in the subjective space of interpretation. The material qualities of the object invoke layers of analysis, decoding, referential networks, comprehensive strategies, prior claim, and illustrative narrative. Art generates implications as textured as the overall numbers of impressions that the object receives.
The art object without an audience is the proverbial tree in the forest. Less in question is whether the tree makes a sound but what sound did it make? Determining the timbre, the note, the volume of the sound is part of a qualitative construction of language for determining the aesthetic value and implications for the cultural construction of meaning. The act of interpretation launches all of the problematized dynamics and serves as a reverse print of the culture at large. The politics cascade and illuminate value-systems. Like a strobe pulse, the act of interpretation delineates relationships and evokes a landscape. The policing of the dialogue is managed through the network dynamics and social infrastructure in order to maintain a consistent grammar and syntax. In this forest, the question is raised as to how well you heard the tree and if the event of the tree’s action is worthy of the record.
In this model, the object is the event, a moment of possibility for the collective corporeal. The artist divorced from the object has no agency, the object has no biography other than those prescribed by its moment in time. The forces that define its inception are inscribed by their own subjectivity and extant. The artist is a powerless actor beholden to her arts inherent qualities, it’s fundamental power. The artist is simply an agency for the event, reliant on the potential energy of the object. Removal of the artist from the subjectivity of interpretation attempts to isolate the fundamental, the crux, of the cultural object and its ability to provide an expressive possibility. In that case power is granted to the interpreter, the critic, whose analysis of the object attempts to determine the philosophical implications, it’s aesthetic virtues. The critic receives the empathic abilities of the object and in this visceral act of comprehension chronicles the event. The critic cannot help but perform a role that befits their own intentions and subjectivity. Yet these intentions and predilections also bely those of the culture writ large. The critic is a culture emissary, an epicure of aesthetic devotion. This dynamic can serve the artist well, the interpreter is an amplifier of the meaningfulness of the object and can help to increase the aurora of the objective significance. The artist’s responsibility in this situation is to simply broadcast their note, reliant on the quality of reception and the trust that all things remain equal except where divination occurs. Relieved from the responsibilities of understanding their object they can focus on realms of aesthetic divination. This ancient model of interaction between artist and critic is illustrated in Socrates discussion of art with the poet Ion,
￼For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles..
For in this way, the God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed.
To which Ion replies, “Yes indeed Socrates.” 1
The dynamics illustrated in this example underscore the power dynamics that are part of the artist and critic dynamic. The critic can anoint the artist with the divine and the artist powers the critic’s judgement with art. While is sacrificed in the exchange is the artist’s comprehension of their own work and the critic is bound to an inextricable process where their value and agency are determined by their success in finding who the Gods are speaking through now. Since there are many different Gods, there are then arguments between critics over which God is on-the-line and whether that God was really speaking through this artist or the other. The system builds into a marketplace of visions, art objects, and receivers where a continual value matching exercise is attempting to achieve efficiency by sorting the critic and their intellectual patronage to the artist who a God happens to be speaking through at that very moment. This marketplace determines values in the moment, retroactively, and also looks to find the place where the next God will be speaking, any minute now. And as in any market, efficiency is rarely achieved, dark pools of liquidity form, monopolistic practices emerge and the political dynamics of the system emerge and the law of diminishing return reveals the ineffectuality of the gory mechanics, and its political implications.
In Rothko’s posthumously published “The Artists Reality: Philosophies of Art,” the lineage of the critical audience is documented to this point. From Aretine, the doctors, social moralists, and critics who specifically ask that artists represent the common held truths of culture to our modern society, the audience dictates the divine’s representational form. This power of “the critic” atomized and disseminated into fields of critics, from laypeople to philosophers fight for their own relevancy in a larger field of art consumers which creates for Rothko, the artist’s dilemma.
In matters of art our society has substituted taste for truth, which she finds more amusing and less of a responsibility and changes her tastes as frequently as she changes her hats and shoes.
And here might the artist, placed between choice and diversity raise his lamentations louder. Never did his afflictors have as many shapes or such a jabbering of voices, and never did they exude such a prolixity of matter. 2
This lamentation can take many forms, and angry manifestos seem to be the hallmark of the early 20th centuries art movements. The archetypical lamentation of the antibourgeois, avant-gardist who decries capital and lives the ascetic life of the aesthetic spiritualist condemns the antecedents, those who have buckled, the disingenuous “newish” and manifests or at least attempts to carve out the new “new” within the form of a social movement, a new politic identified with a new vocabulary for artistic production. Values and political parties subject to change on account of material success. Eventual suicide or madness will provide evidence of the efforts high purity and integrity.
Yet this discourse still maintains the relationship defined by Socrates dialogue with Ion, the subversion is accounted for in traditional methods of adoption.
Incomprehensibility reifies the traditional dynamics between artist and society. The discourse becomes part of the art, the ephemera of a philosophy most or least significantly evidenced in the object itself. The avant-garde manifesto is another system overlaid to the work demanding additional interpretation. The manifesto creates a coterie of artifacts to extend the arts mythic reach. Additional nodes grow from the art object increasing the surface area allowing cultural discourse new opportunities for binding. This binding process is where critique manifests as its own philosophical inquiry into the nature of culture. The analysis and synthesis of art objects in the critique process stimulates an expanding economy based on the adoption of interpretation. This adoption has many extra factors to its dynamic, including economic, social, and political relationships. So the critic while concerned with their personal relationship to the aesthetic via an objective perspective is bound by a liminal field of purvey determined by their own facility. The critic finds themselves in the same philosophical conundrum as the artist asking himself, “Will they hear me out there?”
Mid-20th century art and its criticism evidences the mutual dependency between the artist and the critic, with critics becoming more famous and influential to artmaking than artists and artists adopting the methods of critics to become their own￼theorists. The art critic, Clement Greenburg famously said, “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first,” and in that statement razed the language of critique that had previously staked a claim at the subjectivity of critique and also produced a self-fulfilling prophesy of a generation of “ugly” art. The rules by which the standard can be enforced are in constant flux based on the input of both critic and artist. The interplay of their actions and reactions live in a realm of equivalent value as determined by their overall success at adoption. Their loose tango has frequent partner changes but is consistent in it’s active attempts of meaning construction. The critic and poet, Jules Lemaitre defined this relationship as,
Criticism, whatever be its pretensions, can never go beyond defining the impression which, at a given moment, is made on us by a work of art wherein the artist has himself recorded the impression which he received from the world in a certain hour. 3
Self-aware subjectivity is anathema to the market dynamics that drive the valuation of meaning and the interpretation’s mettle in its theoretical arena. And the subjectivity of interpretation can distort comprehension 4. Fortunately the compromises of the critic are countermanded as a new movement arrives and is named by its critic, equilibrium is maintained and the discourse regulates. The reflexivity of the critic and artists performance together creates a mutually assured constructive process, where roles become ￼fluid in their ownership of meaning construction. Tony Conrad underscores the variability of relationship in his lecture, “A Few Remarks Before I Begin,”
There is no objective of art or media clearer than the making of money, within the economic reality of our capitalist-socialist world. However the intellectual community resists this reality to some slight degree thru a vestigial awareness of other valuational schemata. 5
In this interplay, the critic states his own subjectivity while the artist posits an objective relationship to the translation of art into capital. The muse may glitter, but Conrad also reframes the possibility of art making as “pure reason.” The relational structure of thought and communication, the discipline of mapping the code, and the conjugation of code and its elemental pairings is the opportunity to ground art practice in “thinking.” There is no object to speak of in this performance (Conrad’s definition) and the artist changes out of their smock and becomes a philosopher for this performance, formerly, mathematician, filmmaker, and musician. The artist’s generative process is all-encompassing, shifting fields and methods of production, confounding interpretation, even as Conrad describes a methodology of art-making that is fundamentally interpretation. Self-aware and conscious art practice pushes Conrad into yet another role, the role of the theorist.
The theory of art and its practice are obviously not mutually exclusive, writing the philosophy that describes the work could be an extension of the classical inspiration, that naggingly ever-present Muse. Like a Midas touch, but of personal aesthetic, the artist touches constructs many things which reconstruct into forms that express their own aesthetic concerns, everything they touch turns to them as their new universe of their own aesthetic value propagates. This cross-media expertise still requires a mastery of material and form in order to translate that aesthetic concern. Whether working in painting, film, writing, the connectivity of the work is the artist as intention driven philosopher of aesthetic practice.
Nihilistic, aphoristic, onanistic, pop pope, Andy Warhol embodies the quandary of simply taking the artists philosophy as a facevalue self-critique. The artist cannot be trusted with self-awareness. The vested self interests continually queer the discourse and remove the potential of an objective analysis. Yet Warhol while historically employing the Socratic relationship between artist and critic, with his “Umm’s and Gee’s,” his continual stand-ins and surrogates, Andy also leaves an enormous record for interpretation. Massive scale and overall volume of production are their own amplification method beyond the interpretative dependancies dictated by prevailing modes of aesthetic discourse. This act of denying specificity in order to create a totality embraces a dialogue that goes beyond peer-to-peer and attempts to become mass communication. This effort subverts the power polemics of critique to embrace art production as a method that has its own inherent value. The act of making is paramount to Andy and the sheer quantity of work prompts a proportional amount of discourse.
So you should always have a product that’s not just “you.”
An actress should count up her plays and movies and a model should count up her photographs and a writer should count up his words and an artist should count up his pictures so you always know exactly what you’re worth, and you don’t get stuck thinking your product is you and your fame, and your aura. 6
Knowing your product and knowing you’re product as you unite those directions gives the artist a larger stake in the game of critique. The art expands to incorporate and inoculate critique. Warhol as a late addition to the Pop game, learned from its initial progenitors how to establish the new order. Complete openness to interpretative strategies becomes a foil for the artist. No artist marks, no artifacts of the paint brush, subjects that embraced the passivity of an image based culture, Warhol’s blankness and silver surface painting serves as a reflection back on the game. The superficiality presented creates an infinite mirror for discursive practice both for the artist who anticipates the gaze and generates an ever greater volume of art production.
This self-awareness and performance as the “Artist” and its redefinition of the artist as a pop-star found on the front pages of supermarket tabloids, affects the tenability of the artist, critic dynamic. If the critic is channelling the market and is implicated in the market dynamics which Warhol embraces whole-heartedly, motivations are now transparently suspect. If the artist is a mirror then they cannot be held accountable for their intentions, simply the success of its strategy and everything the artist produces is art strategy. All of the detritus of production is there to inform the work. Warhol did not invent this strategy but he outed its role in myth construction and sold it, lock stock and barrel. Intent is not owned by the artist, intent can determined by the society at large.
“But what does the artist mean?” is a common enough question when looking at a piece of artwork. Like a puzzle missing pieces, or a secret message, the question is raised in order to decode the meaning. The artist’s object allows the viewer to experience their subjective relationship to the sense and aesthetic experience. Intentionality is raised to provide a narrative for the view to latch on to, whether it is a biographical, psychological, or social the artists mark is believed to have inherent meanings that must be facilitated either by the artist or their chosen interpreter, unless “you just get it.” The context of the art object becomes another axis in which to navigate aesthetic discourse.
Only rarely can an artist be criticized by a single specimen of his activity…understanding of the logic of the development of an artist is necessary to discrimination of his intent in any single work. Possession of this understanding broadens and refines background without which judgement is blind and arbitrary. 7
New reasons to understand why art means what it means requires an extracurricular analysis of the potentiality of the artists intent. Biography becomes a fundamental aspect of the artists discourse, either as told by artists themselves as Joseph Beuys did constructing fictitious life events involving felt and fat in order to account for his material inspirations or John Cage who provides details of poisoning acquaintances at dinner parties, these overlays of behavior, build additional access points into the systems for extratextual analysis and myth manifestation. Intentionality and its relative relationship to the dimensionality of artist production allows for an associative process by which meaning can be hijacked into reconstructed narratives that replace the artists conscious intents for their perceived subconscious intents. In this construction the art and its meaning lies outside of the object in the cloud of production and process that predicates the object. Subjective analysis resides in the condensation of ephemera that link object to act to time and place, prevailing philosophy and politic. Regaining control of this discourse for the artist requires a ground shift that moves the object into the theoretical space of process. Paul Virilio describes the exhilaration of this disappearance, as it relates to the language exercises of Poe’s as,
The mobility of the synoptic trajectory, in modifying the subject’s point of view is going to allow him the discovery of what, somehow, was already visible. Beyond that one is led back ineluctably to the fascination of the shiny bug, which is initiatory in the sense that, as the perspective points on an horizon of speed, it reduces the rest of the world to nothing. Passing from the course to the finish line, technique has been applied to make of this modification of perspective the supreme goal that it’s eager to reach…Like a tale about unseen things, involving the kind of space and time of metaphysical entities deprived of all reality. 8
This experience that Virilio defines speaks to an inversion of how the object exists. The art object is simply an identification mark. The process of comprehension is another locus for an artists intentionality. Unpacking the systems logic is part of the aesthetic practice, like the map in the Gold Bug, the meaning is reliant on extratextual analysis. The maker is offered the potentiality of subtextual meaning if their technique can achieve mastery in these new realms of introspective and theoretical dialogue. The muse does not simply speak through the artist’s brush but it resides in a self-realized￼metalogue that makes a priori claims to aesthetic truths. In this model the artist can operate primarily within a metaphysical framework that defines methods of production. Objectivity exists in the open systems that offer a conceptual framework for artistic practice. Subjectivity is introduced not in interpretation of intentionality but in the iterative process by which the artist employs their objective system. The space of the viewers experience is defined by the interplay between the objective truth which the artist explores through their subjective choices in the production process. Inert language, open sourced practice, and attempts at literalness mark this exercise with the artist creating a discourse that is open to practice, interpret, and reference. Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art define this discursive art practice. It’s highly analytical nature defuses the territory of interpretation by creating its own theory to seed interpretation.
If words, are used, and they process from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.
The artists may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.
These sentences comment on art, but are not art. 9
Yet even with these clearly defined rules and plain language, Sol Lewitt is still bound by his own subjectivity. Art cannot be trusted to be defined by artists, as evidenced by these rules, the contradict, they countermand, and present yet another quandary that regresses the dialogue away from the object into metaphysical spaces. Lewitt’s self-reflexivity deploys in the same way a new object for interpretation framed not as art but as philosophy, yet it is within a context where Lawrence Weiner is making a similar set of rules that he is calling art.
Tom Wolfe charts this migration in painting from representation to theory in “The Painted Word” as he ends his analysis of the rise of American contemporary Art with the statement.
Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever decreasing tighter-turning spiral until , with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up it own fundamental aperture … and came out the other side as Art Theory! … Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision invisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls. 10
The Art had become theory from Wolfe’s perspective. Artists had become writers of art theory and criticism, craft was evoked in writing, the new technique for artists, the material with the most plasticity, the most encompassing form, is text. Codes, processes, and methods for potential art that can realize the possibilities that the artist can only attempt to achieve through their own subjective means of expression of their intentionality of the truth which has been outlayed, a chain of referents chasing back and forth through a material landscape of autobiographical, theoretical, and instructive concerns.
If as Wolfe posits, the artist has become the theorist, what is the theorist left to do but to take up the easel and use it as a way of describing their own theories. In Peter Halley’s, The Crisis of Geometry, art is situated as a tactical deployment of theoretical. The theorist and artist are commingled in mutually assured construction of meaning. The artist is deploying the theory in an academically targeted discourse that succeeds as art theory to the point that any distillation of Ion and Socrates into binary counterparts is confounded by the shifting of the act of production and the exercises of analysis and synthesis. Making is both theoretical and material at the same times. as Halley says,
Further, my paintings are executed with a variety of techniques lifted from the Hard-Edge and Color-Field styles. For within the simulacrum, ‘nostalgia, the phantasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials, alone remains.” For me these styles used as a reference to an idea about abstraction and an ideology of technical advance, replace reference with the real. 11
The complexity an artist introduces by framing a return to figure, realism and objective interpretative possibilities in a theoretical space of art discourse about their own objects constructs a new paradox for the the maker. As the critic they are saying they can see an objective vision of circuit boards and referential geometries, yet could anyone determine that read and intentionality prior to Halley’s synthesis? If the communication of intent is a method by which an artist can be evaluated and received by the critic and the artist becomes the most sophisticated audience that can best determine the success of their own communication, then an objective analysis of the qualities is simply defined by predicated subjectivities or even more arbitrary exercises in language. The artist is simply laying another art expression on top of the object as the critic. The￼record is continually reinterpreted, the artist and critic alike tamper in their exercise of evalution. The relationships to an objective event generate new stratas of interpretive ephemera. This referential nature leads back to Warhol and myth-construction as he says,
It’s all there, B, nothing is missing. I am everything my scrapbook says I am. 12
- “Ion”, Plato, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/ion.html
- The Artists Reality: Philosophy of Art, Mark Rothko, 2004, Yale University Press, p.5
- Art as Experience, John Dewey, 1934, Perigee, p.317
- “The danger is that the critic guided by personal predilection or more often by partisan conventionalism, will take some one procedure as his criterion of judgement and condemn all deviations from it as departures from art itself. He then misses the point of all art, the unity of form and matter, and misses it because he lacks adequate sympathy, in his natural and acquired one-sidedness, with the immense variety of interactions between the live creature and his world.” — Art as Experience, John Dewey, 1934, Perigee, p.319
- “A Few Remarks Before I Begin”, Tony Conrad 1977
- The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol, 1975, p86
- Art as Experience, John Dewey, 1934, Perigee, p.319
- “The Aesthetics of Disappearance”, Paul Virilio, 1980, Cyber_Reader, Phaidon,, 2002 p.92
- Sentences on Conceptual Art, Sol Lewitt, 1969
- The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe, Picador, 1975, p.98
- The Crisis in Geometry, Collected Essays, Peter Halley, 1981-87
- The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol, 1975