What’s so great about art?

Posted by @ 11:00 am on September 17th, 2014
Joseph Kosuth, "One and Three Chairs" (1965)

Joseph Kosuth, “One and Three Chairs” (1965)

[Update 4 October 2014: See the bottom of this post for a bit more.]

This is a response to Dianna Dragonetti’s recent post here, which is itself a response to Janey Smith’s “Fuck List,” originally published at this site. It’s also a response to the numerous comments on Dragonetti’s post. Because it seemed to me that, as of this writing, a lot of the debate over Smith’s post, and the book that’s apparently resulted from it (which I’ve not seen), has taken the form, “Is what Smith did art?” Mind you, I doubt this post will settle that debate, but I hope it provides

  1. some historical context I think relevant to Smith’s post;
  2. plus an argument why, at the end of the day, I don’t think that it really matters whether Smith was making art.

I guess I should also note, in passing, that my name was the first name on Smith’s “Fuck List” (thanks to the magic of alphabetization). Since I find myself (along with numerous others) the object of some obscure desire, perhaps I can offer a few thoughts on the subject.

Art is, at the end of the day, whatever people decide it is. Art isn’t some mineral or element that’s “out there,” a priori, in nature. Artists don’t run around with pickaxes, “unearthing” art. Instead, artists and the people around them (curators, publishers, institutions, critics, audiences, the public) socially determine what art is. One way of thinking of museums is that they collect whatever a society has decided is art. (The whole practice of “institutional critique” is in some sense founded on this understanding.)

The question of what counts as art, therefore, is always going to be with us, and will never be ultimately resolved. It can’t be, because no single person can point to anything and definitively say, “that’s art.” For one thing, determining “what is art” is a collective activity, not an individual one. (Individuals are free to consider anything art, but no one else is obliged to agree with them.) And as soon as we have a definition of art, dollars to donuts, someone is going to come along and present a case that troubles that distinction.

Consider here just such a person: Joseph Kosuth, whose seminal 1969 essay “Art after Philosophy,” is I think directly relevant to Janey Smith. I’d encourage you to read the full essay, but here’s the gist. Kosuth argues that Duchamp’s invention of “the unassisted Ready-made” changed the nature of art, in that it made obsolete traditional forms of art-making—painting, sculpture, drawing, etc. Duchamp shifted the kind of conversation that art was having, driving it to discover what new things it could be doing, instead of concerning itself with what it had already done. In Kosuth’s formulation:

The “value” of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art; which is another way of saying “what they added to the conception of art” or what wasn’t there before they started. Artists question the nature of art by presenting new propositions as to art’s nature. And to do this one cannot concern oneself with the handed-down “language” of traditional art, as this activity is based on the assumption that there is only one way of framing art propositions. But the very stuff of art is indeed greatly related to “creating” new propositions.

By this logic, a painting isn’t art (not real art, not anymore), because it doesn’t challenge our notion of what art is, because we already know that paintings can be art. People who continue painting and making sculptures after Duchamp are deluding themselves; Kosuth dismisses such stuff as “formalist art,” and calls it “the vanguard of decoration”: “Strictly speaking, one could reasonably assert that its art condition is so minimal that for all functional purposes it is not art at all, but pure exercises in aesthetics.” For Kosuth, the proper task for artists is to go out and find things that people don’t already think of as art, and make them art.

It seems to me that Janey Smith is an artist in the Joseph Kosuth mode. Smith wants to find things that others think not-art—usually creepy, stalker-type activities involving social media and sex—and make the case that they are art. And I get the impression that, like Kosuth, Smith thinks that this is the most valid way of making art—the proper task of the artist. Others paint landscapes, or make assemblages, or write poems, but they’re just making decorations. They aren’t adding new propositions to our understanding of what art is—they aren’t claiming new things as art. And those new things have to be, by definition, things that other people don’t already recognize as art. If other people already consider them art, then there’s no work for the artist of the Joseph Kosuth kind to do there. One always has to be finding and claiming new materials.

I, for one, am not persuaded by Kosuth, for a variety of reasons. For starters, I’m guilty of being one of those “formalists” concerned with “pure aesthetics.” I don’t concede the point that traditional forms, like painting and sculpture, are obsolete in the way Kosuth describes. Additionally, there would seem something paradoxical about Kosuth’s formulation. If art after Duchamp means rejecting traditional forms and instead finding new propositions to add to our understanding of art, then what happens when that activity itself becomes a tradition? Couldn’t it be argued that, in the fifty years since Kosuth’s essay, and the one hundred years since Duchamp’s Fountain, there’s now something very familiar about an artist who works by claiming non-art materials as art? How does a modern-day version of Duchamp or Kosuth (e.g., Janey Smith) enrich or further our understanding of what art is?

Finally (and at the risk of being a little glib), Kosuth’s argument transforms art into a hungry monster that’s slowly consuming all the non-art in the universe. At some point, it would seem, that project will necessarily come to an end, once everything has been recognized as art. And that point will come about immediately, once some clever artist declares, “Everything in existence is art!” Indeed, many clever artists have already made that declaration. “Everything is art” (or “reality is art”) was repeatedly claimed by John Cage, and by countless others since then. Of course, that argument raises problems, too. The most obvious one is that, if everything is art, then nothing is—indeed, everything that exists has to be, by nature of its existence, art. (If that were true, then art becomes unremarkable, and what would be more impressive is if something could be found that wasn’t art.) The logic of this argument is basically to collapse art into something like “matter.” You don’t go around wondering if the things you see are matter—that tree, and that tree, and that ice cream cone dropped on the sidewalk, and that little kid bawling his eyes out next to the cone, and the ants now greedily devouring the ice cream. They’re all matter. And, according to the “all is art” view, they’re all art, too.

Kosuth obviously doesn’t think that everything is already art. For him, the artist still has work to do: identifying non-art, and presenting it as art. And many (to put it mildly) agree with him, and are engaged in the activity of finding new materials (new propositions) for art. Visit any museum with a modern collection, and you won’t fail to observe that those galleries house quite a lot of stuff that isn’t traditional sculpture or painting. (It can of course be argued that any flat object is a painting, and any non-flat object is a sculpture—and many people have argued precisely that. Some problems associated with that maneuver are articulated by Michael Fried in “Art and Objecthood” [PDF]—which Kosuth’s own essay was responding to.)

Anyway. Janey Smith, whether anyone likes it or not, would appear to be operating in a certain well-established artistic tradition. (Two well-known conceptual performance art precedents that Smith could claim include Vito Acconci’s Following (3–25 October, 1969), wherein Acconci followed random passersby until they entered private spaces, and Francis Alÿs and Peter Kilchman’s Re-Enactments (4 November 2000), wherein Alÿs purchased a 9mm Beretta at a Mexico City gun shop, then carried it openly on the streets until the police arrested him.)

Where Smith differs from Kosuth, perhaps, is that Kosuth, despite his antipathy to traditional forms of art, still wanted to work within traditional artistic institutions. The adding of propositions—the transformation of non-art into art—depends on the existence of institutions that guarantee art as art: museums, galleries, magazines, criticism, retrospectives, and so on. (Kosuth wasn’t arguing that Artforum should stop being published, but that it stop paying so much attention to traditional painting and sculpture.)

Given that, the most confusing thing about Smith’s “Fuck List” is that it was a blog post at HTMLGIANT, and we might not be used to thinking about blog posts as artworks. HTMLGIANT isn’t, I don’t think, a site people visit to read art (unless one is inclined to think that all the posts are art, everything is art, etc.). Sure, there’s the Sunday Service post each week, which is a poem, and certain contributors—like Reynard Seifert—contribute posts that are more like poetry than, say, my posts are—but by and large, most people probably consider the posts here as writing about art, not art itself. (I could of course be wrong about this, but it’s how I tend to think of the site.) If so, Smith’s post maybe seemed more nonfictional than anything else, more non-art than anything else. Which is why retroactively claiming it as art might strike many as a cop-out, or an apology.

I do think Smith is working in the Kosuthian tradition. (I should note that I’m reading Smith’s list literally, not figuratively—meaning that I believe Smith when he says he wants to fuck and be fucked by the artists on that list, and that he isn’t using “fuck” as a metaphor for something else, like “I want to experience their groovy art.”) The waters may be muddier, but muddy waters will attract an artist of the Kosuth type. The more a blog post is unlike an artwork, the more tempting it will be to claim it as art. And many have argued that, in addition to finding new propositions for art, the artist should also make art in places where people don’t expect to encounter art. There are many tangential traditions here that Smith could lay claim to, such as FLUXUS and other forms of street theater, Happenings, performance art, and so on. And, like it or not, there is some precedent at HTMLGIANT for making provocative-yet-obscure posts that come across as offensive even though you’re not entirely sure how or why you’ve been offended. In any case, now that Smith’s “Fuck List” has been published as a book, the publisher is essentially making the curatorial claim that Smith’s list is art, and that it should be thought of by others as such.

Note that the Kosuth tradition will always be controversial or offensive, because it is by nature polemical. Such an artist must always find something that other people don’t think of as art, and make the case that those people are wrong, and that the thing in question is, in fact, art. You don’t have to think very long before you realize that the way to be a very successful artist of this kind is to find the most outrageous stuff that people won’t think of as art and claim it as such. (Damien Hirst is a master of this tradition.) The more people think it’s not art, the bigger the challenge, and the potential achievement. It’s no surprise Duchamp started this tradition with a factory-produced urinal and not, say, a pretty leaf he found lying on the sidewalk.

Marcel Duchamp, "Fountain" (1917)

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain” (1917)

But here’s the real crux of the matter. Who cares whether Janey Smith’s “Fuck List” is art? What’s so special about art? Being art doesn’t protect Smith in any way, or sanctify his actions. Let’s illustrate this with an extreme example. Suppose my art consists of my sneaking into your house and stealing your underpants. I’m sure most people wouldn’t consider that art. They’d consider it breaking and entering, and burglary. You could call the police on me, and I could argue to the police all day that what I was doing was art, but that wouldn’t stop the police from arresting me, or my trial from occurring.

One month later, while I sit in prison, maybe some people would find out about me, and consider what I did art, and write a book about it. They could argue how my actions challenge popular notions of private property, and the gender norms enforced by underpants. They could claim I was making a poetic allusion to the way the NSA has, since 9-11, invaded our bedrooms, and eradicated privacy. (They could link it to hacked cell phones and stolen nudes! Because aren’t nudes art?) And many people might buy that book and find it provocative, and discuss it on blogs and over coffee. But none of that would mean that the police now owe me an apology, or should release me, or that I can sue them for wrongful arrest. Because my whole claim in the first place was that a particular crime was art. Others eventually agreed. But it’s still a crime.

(Granted, also, that crimes are themselves socially constructed. But even if my stealing your underpants comes to be considered art, it will probably still be considered a crime. Meanwhile, lots of art-making involves “crimes” that aren’t considered crimes. You like making films or photographs? Where do you think the silver in the film comes from? Happy pleasant working conditions in South America? But the people slaving away in mines there have no legal ability to prosecute you for your purchasing film, and funding their oppression, since capitalist imperialism remains the law of the land. Or are you a writer who likes using paper? The vast ecosystems destroyed by the paper industry have no legal recourse for obtaining compensation for their destruction; they have no rights, and what’s more, they’ve been destroyed.)

I’m not accusing Smith of stealing underpants. And if I’m wrong in my assessment of his work, apologies. I’ve hardly looked at everything he’s done. But from my own encounters with him, here and elsewhere, it seems to me that the man’s art revolves around his being a creepy jerk. Maybe others agree with him that such behavior is art, and should be recognized as art. But be that as it may, Janey Smith remains a creepy jerk—the kind of guy who comments on a post that he needs you to email him ASAP, because he has something to tell you, then responds when you do email him that he just wanted to say that he likes your writing (one of the few odd interactions I’ve had with him—and foolish me for emailing him in the first place). You come away feeling as though he’s taken advantage of you, and slightly concerned that he now has your email address (not that mine is all that difficult to find). No doubt he considers disturbing you the point, and a victory for the ages. Because his art depends on him being a creepy jerk. Being a creepy jerk is what Janey Smith has identified with being an artist. It’s exactly the kind of person he’s trying to be.


The comments below, and some emails I’ve exchanged with Dianna and Alexandra, has made me want to clarify this post.

This post wasn’t intended as an attack on Dianna. One thing I was trying to say is that I don’t think one needs to disprove that Janey Smith’s work is art in order to demonstrate it causes harm. To put it another way, I think the argument over whether Smith’s work is/isn’t art irrelevant to whether it causes harm. And to put it another way, I don’t think something being art doesn’t excuse it or justify in any way if it causes harm. Harm cannot be justified or excused by claiming it as art. Claiming something cruel and perverse as art in no way sheds it of its cruelty and perversion. What’s more, I don’t think artists who claim harm as art want us to do that. If the harm is what made something art, then how could claiming it as art eliminate the harm? As I see it, “art” and “harmful” are in no way opposites, and they don’t preclude one another.

So I think the whole “art/not-art” debate is a total distraction from the points Dianna was trying to make, and from an important conversation—many important conversations. Part of my hope for my post was that it might help clear the way for those conversations. Although of course at the end of the day I’m just one voice among many, and while I certainly use writing to try and clarify issues for myself—and hopefully other people—it’s obviously not my business to try and control conversations, or tell people what to discuss.

The reason I went into so much art history is because I didn’t want to look at Janey Smith’s work in a vacuum. (And, no, I haven’t seen We’re Fucked. I’m not writing about that book, but rather other things that Janey Smith has made, such as “Fuck List,” and his posts here and at Big Other.) I’m genuinely interested in that part of the art world that apparently believes that the best way to make art is to cause harm—the idea that art (or at least “avant-garde” art) must somehow hurt someone: the audience, a bystander, or artists themselves—self-destructiveness is another part of this tradition. There’s a strong tradition in the visual arts since at least 1960 that has embraced “causing harm” as a working procedure, and as a sign that art is occurring. I’m thinking of artists like the Viennese Actionists, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Francis Alÿs, and Damien Hirst, among many others. And I don’t think this tradition or mentality is an exclusively white cis male thing—VALIE EXPORT, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović, and many others artists of various backgrounds have made art that’s rooted in actually harming persons.

(Pauses to relisten to “Joe the Lion“: “Tell you who you are / if you nail me to my car.”)

(Pauses also to rewatch the music video for Xiu Xiu’s “Dear God, I Hate Myself.” And Low’s “Breaker.”)

I of course might be wrong (I might always be wrong), but I suspect that Janey Smith genuinely believes himself part of that tradition. By looking backward, I meant to put both his work, and that tradition, under more scrutiny. But at the same time, I’m also not trying to condemn that larger tradition as a whole. If anything, I’m trying to find a way to think about it: where it came from, how it operates, why it might be problematic to conceive of “good art” as “that which hurts someone.” (Art is what we want it to be. What do we want art to be?)

This debate isn’t limited to Janey Smith; I think we’re all of us seeped in certain traditions and assumptions, and ways of conceptualizing art, and we should always be critically aware of that. (I know I internalized a lot of these attitudes I’m describing here. And I like and admire a lot of art made in this tradition that I’m describing.) For instance, in the wake of E.R. Kennedy’s recent accusations against Tao Lin, I’ve seen some people debating whether Richard Yates is good or bad writing. Another way of expressing my point would be to ask, “Why is the quality of Richard Yates as writing at all relevant to Kennedy’s accusations?” (That’s a genuine question, and I imagine there are many who would argue that the harm and the quality can’t be separated—as I’ve said, a great many artists obviously think harm is an essential component of making art.)

In my opinion, making art, whether it’s good or bad—and I consider Richard Yates an excellent novel—doesn’t in any way excuse or justify hurting people. And beyond that, I think it’s probably not desirable to equate being an artist with being someone who has to hurt people.

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