The difference between a concept & a constraint, part 1: What is a concept?

Posted by @ 8:01 am on February 25th, 2013

Sol LeWitt: “Wall Drawing #1111: A Circle with Broken Bands of Color” (2003, detail). Photo by Jason Stec.

[Update: Part 2 is here.]

I wrote about this to some extent here, but I wanted to expound on the issue in what I hope is a more coherent form. Because I frequently see concepts confused with constraints, and the Oulipo lumped in with conceptual writing. For instance, this entry at, “A Brief Guide to Conceptual Poetry,” states:

One direct predecessor of contemporary conceptual writing is Oulipo (l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a writers’ group interested in experimenting with different forms of literary constraint, represented by writers like Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Raymound Queneau. One example of an Oulipean constraint is the N + 7 procedure, in which each word in an original text is replaced with the word which appears seven entries below it in a dictionary. Other key influences cited include John Cage’s and Jackson Mac Low’s chance operations, as well as the Brazilian concrete poetry movement.

I would argue that the Oulipo, historically speaking, are not conceptual writers/artists—although it’s easy to see how that confusion has come about, because the Oulipians have proposed some conceptual techniques, such as N+7 (which I’d argue is not a constraint). (Also, it’s each noun that gets replaced, not each word.)

What, then, distinguishes concepts from constraints? And why does that distinction matter? In this series of posts, I’ll try answering those questions, starting with what we mean when we call art conceptual.

Today’s conceptual writing largely springs from the conceptual art of the late 1960s. When Kenneth Goldsmith says he desires a thinkership, not a readership, or that one of the books he’s written doesn’t have to be read

The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them.

—he’s drawing on notions advanced by the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007). LeWitt most clearly defined conceptual art in two seminal essays: “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) and “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969). Nothing should stop you from reading those essays right now. (They’re both very short.)

LeWitt was quite serious when he wrote in “Paragraphs,” “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” the line that’s become the mantra of conceptual art. Basically, a conceptual artist comes up with an idea (a concept), which is itself the artwork. The artist (or another person) may then execute the concept. If so, the work produced counts as a demonstration of the originating idea. But it isn’t the artwork per se; it’s more like a record or product of the execution.

Along these lines, LeWitt sold not drawings, but sets of instructions for making drawings. When a museum or gallery purchased one of his pieces, they got a sheet of paper telling them what to do. (Here’s an example of one.) They also got the right to execute those instructions, to display the results, and to eventually stop displaying those results (by destroying the drawing). Here, for instance, is a 2010 blog post about the 2010 installation of LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #1111: A Circle with Broken Bands of Color (2003) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Author Katie R. writes:

For those of you unfamiliar with LeWitt’s work, much of it doesn’t exist like most artworks do, as a tangible painting, drawing, or sculpture. Rather, it is a list of instructions on how to create the artwork. As a conceptual artist, LeWitt believed that it wasn’t the finished work that was the “art”; art instead begins and ends with an idea.

(That post includes photos documenting the wall drawing’s execution, and there’s also an accompanying video. Also, note that LeWitt called these works “drawings” even when they involved paint.)

LeWitt, who died in 2007, of course had nothing to do with the implementation of Wall Drawing #1111. Conceptual art has no problem with this, because one of its tenets is that it doesn’t matter who executes the concept. Since any result produced is not the actual artwork, anyone can therefore execute it—provided they have the right to, and provided they follow the instructions (which should be contained in the original concept).

Without getting too sidetracked here, it’s important to note that conceptual art emerged during a period in art’s history when many considered it important—essential, even—to limit the number of decisions the artist made. As the entry claims, John Cage‘s chance operations were influential. As you may know, Cage routinely used chance operations when composing, trying to remove conscious decisions from the art-making process. Why he and other artists thought this so desirable—and why some artists still consider it paramount today—is a complicated argument that I promise to return to later.

LeWitt didn’t use chance operations, but he did devise his own means for removing or limiting conscious decision making. He was adamant on the idea that, once the artist formulated the originating concept, he or she should not to anything to interfere with its execution. As he wrote in “Paragraphs”:

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. […]

[…] arbitrary or chance decisions would be kept to a minimum, while caprice, taste and others whimsies would be eliminated from the making of the art.

[…] To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity.

[…] the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible.

To be sure, executing a LeWitt wall drawing will always involve minor unique decisions—for starters, which wall? The implementation of Wall Drawing #1111 at the Art Institute involved that and other choices, as Katie R. author noted:

The general layout and colors to be used are predetermined. Also, there are certain rules within the piece that we have to follow. For example, no one block of color should ever come into contact with another block of the same color, no yellows touching yellows, etc. It seems as if the exact order of the colors in the circular bands can be open for interpretation. However, I know that Takashi, the draftsman from the LeWitt foundation, brought a schematic with him that we’ve been following.

I don’t know the source of that schematic, or how it was devised. But the important point here is how much conscious decision making has been removed from the execution of the instructions. Ideally, the conceptual artist devises a concept so pure and so clear that its execution eliminates the need for any such decisions. Furthermore, the resulting work, if faithfully executed, should clearly communicate the original idea or concept. That is to say, the work produced should not obscure the underlying concept. (Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings are traditionally displayed alongside his page of instructions, as well as some account of who executed the piece, and when.)

LeWitt expounded further on this notion that the author relinquish as much control as possible in “Sentences,” where he wrote:

5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
7. The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His wilfulness may only be ego.
28. Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29. The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.

The conceptual artist, therefore, accepts whatever results occur as a result of implementing his or her concept. This is a very important point that really can’t be overstated. No changing your mind! No interfering! And this is the essential function of the concept, as well as what was so revolutionary about it. Concepts motivate and control the execution of projects and (ideally) remove any and all need for later decision making.

Kenneth Goldsmith is probably the best known conceptual writer working today, both in the indie lit scene and beyond (he’s read his work at the White House, even). Originally trained as a visual artist, Goldsmith derived many of his ideas from LeWitt. For one thing, he agrees with the notion that the artist should accept whatever results occur when executing a concept. In a conversation with Marjorie Perloff, he described how his own art-making improved when he stopped editing his results:

The precursor to No. 111 was a gallery work called No. 109, whereby I used the same method of collecting language as I did for No. 111: any word or phrase ending in the sound of “r” or the “schwa” was permitted. In preparation for the gallery show, I edited the piece down to only contain what I considered the “good” words — the “fun” words, the “entertaining” words, the words that really “zinged.” […]

In an introspective moment after the show had ended, I went back and looked at all the words and phrases I had omitted. They seemed to be perfectly good words and leaving them out did not make the piece any more of a popular success. So I incorporated them all into a new work which grew to be No. 111. But even then, many years into the project, I found myself not able to accept just any word or phrase; instead, I took only the phrases that interested me. That’s why No. 111 is such a readable book; it tames the wide world of available language and focuses it through the fine lens of one person’s experience. In that sense, it’s a very organized and sharp collection.

But in the end, I decided that that was only one way to go about a collection […]. Instead of focusing on the text itself, I began to focus on the greater method or the concept instead and let the language fall where it may within that specified context. Hence, no words could be “wrong” or “boring” if I could justify it being there conceptually [sic]. Suddenly, more traditional linguistic concerns of readerliness, rhythm, phrasing, song, etc. were no longer of importance to me and I found that incredibly liberating.

We should find here strong echoes with Cage: Goldsmith’s realization that all words are equally good—that none of them are “wrong” or “boring”—recalls Cage’s argument that all sounds are equally fine and therefore acceptable when making music. Goldsmith is also adhering to LeWitt’s notion that once a concept is set in motion, it should be obeyed without judgment or interference.

Goldsmith’s Day (2003) provides an excellent example of a simple concept executed faithfully. Goldsmith decided to transcribe the Friday, 1 September, 2000 edition of the New York Times, “word for word, letter for letter, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page by page.” That idea then became the machine that made the art: it set Goldsmith in motion, and he mechanically executed it (literally, as he later abandoned retyping in favor of using a scanner).

Here, then, is the situation we’re dealing with. The conceptual artist stands behind the concept, and therefore behind the artwork, and takes care not to interfere with the execution of the artwork:

  • Artist > Concept > Artwork (Product)

It should be clear now why the Oulipo’s N+7 technique can be considered conceptual. In that procedure, each noun in a chosen text is replaced with a noun seven entries down in a dictionary. Obviously it doesn’t matter who performs it (although it does matter which dictionary is used). As an example, here’s the procedure applied to the second paragraph of Harry Mathews’s novel Cigarettes, using the Random House Webster’s Dictionary (2nd Edition):

[original, nouns emphasized] The gabled house loomed over us like a buzzard stuffed in mid flight. People were still arriving. Through the lilac hedge came the rustle of gravel smoothly compressed, and swinging streaks of light that flashed beyond us a pale bank of Japanese dogwood, where a man in a white dinner jacket stood inspecting Allan’s letter with a penlight.

[after N+7, new nouns emphasized] The gabled househusband loomed over us like a bygone stuffed in mid Flint. Peppermint were still arriving. Through the lilac hegemony came the Rwanda of gravy smoothly compressed, and swinging strength of light meter that flashed beyond us a pale banner of jaundice, where a Manama in a white Dionysus stood inspecting Allan’s letup with a Pennsylvania.

I performed this operation by hand, even though there exist now websites that will do it for you automatically (such as this one). And while performing it, I was tempted a couple of times to cheat, substituting “better” words for the ones the procedure generated. For instance, I thought “lightning” more interesting than “light meter,” and “manatee” preferable to “Manama.” But the procedure calls for obedience, and I could hear Kenneth Goldsmith whispering insistently in my ear that no word is wrong or boring—so I obeyed.

This essential component of conceptual art—non-interference—leads us directly to Goldsmith’s argument against most of the other work done by the Oulipo:

One of the greatest problems I have with OULIPO is the lack of interesting production that resulted from it. While I like the idea of “potential literature,” it strikes me that their output should have remained conceptual — a mapping, so to speak; judging by the works that have been realized, they might be better left as ideas. On the whole, they embraced a blandly conservative narrative fiction which seems to bury the very interesting procedures that went into creating the works.

Goldsmith’s critique will take some unpacking. What does he mean by “the lack of interesting production”? As well as “blandly conservative narrative fiction”? Because these judgments are, I want to argue, directly related to the assumptions and philosophies motivating conceptual art. I’ll start there in the follow-up to this post, where I’ll look more closely at constraints. [Update: Again, here’s Part 2, as promised.]

But for now, we have our first indication of why the Oulipo, and constraint-based writing, is not conceptual art. There’s something wrong, Goldsmith is proposing, with how the Oulipians have executed their ideas. (Hint: it has to do with the fact that they edit.)

Ta-ta for now. Until next time, may all your ideas be good ones.

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