"Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s," Apr. 28-Aug. 29, 1999, at the Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, N.Y. 11368.
This sweeping exhibition strongly suggests that there are two distinct kinds of conceptualists, one motivated by social and political concerns, the other purely artistic in purpose. Both types of conceptualism protest existing conditions, whether in society at large or in the art world in particular, and in fact arise when there is social and artistic insecurity and uncertainty. Both are anti-authoritarian, even anti-establishment. They deny the legitimacy of prevailing institutions, gnawing at their rotten foundations like sneaky mice, or sniping at them from some hypothetical moral position. They seem opposed to hierarchies of social and artistic value.
They are not artists in the conventional sense -- they are not concerned to create enduring, privileged objects -- but rather activists, challenging dogmatic systems by interventionist gestures. They usually perform in public space rather than art space, for it is only in public space that they can make a difference. They refuse to set their work apart in an art gallery, where it seems superior to the everyday world, but want it to be part of the lifeworld.
Their art does not rise above social reality, but is a certain kind of activity that deepens our understanding of it and may even change it. Thus, they are provocateurs with a worldly mission. (If this is so, then Conceptual Art is falsified by being exhibited in a museum. It should have disappeared with the events that provoked it, rather than be laid out as though in a morgue. But if it was not preserved in the museum, we would not understand its peculiar poignancy and pathos.)
The sociopolitical conceptualists depend on circumstance to make their critical point. A number of works belong in this category -- those conceived in Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian revolt against Soviet occupation, in Paris during the student protests of May 1968, in Prague during the summer of 1968, when Communism temporarily had a human face that the Soviets quickly smashed, in Seoul during the student strikes of June 1987, in China during the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, and in South Africa during the chaos surrounding the first open elections in 1994. The artists join with others in rebellious criticism of tyranny, sometimes at great personal risk.
There is a certain futility to this highly contingent, technically flimsy -- seemingly unskilled -- protest art, for it quickly becomes obsolete once the social crisis that generated it has been resolved. Indeed, it is "occasional" art in the true sense: it is a response to a very particular, local occasion. However socially complex and disruptive, the event is invariably transient.
The art is also transient: it tends to be made in a hurry -- often on the spur of the moment -- and interest in it fades once the event it signals has become history. ("Much art of this period came out of a suitcase, or could be made on the spot by people in transit," the catalogue tells us.) Even while the art exists it tends to become lost in the rush of events -- necessarily, it seems, for without that turbulent flow to carry it along the art has little or no power. Indeed, it may have impact only because it registers the impact of the event.
The work may be rescued by the artist for his own narcissistic reasons, but it survives only as a kind of documentary debris -- a souvenir or relic or trace of a more exciting time, suggesting what it was like to live through it. In fact, many of the objects in the exhibition document actions, which can survive only as memories.
The money that the Hungarian Miklós Erdély collected for political martyrs has long since been spent, but we can remember his noble effort. It no longer matters that when South Africa held its first open elections Kendell Geers joined every political party at once, but we can remember his ironical behavior as a comment on the political confusion of the time.
Such artists, who were participant observers in events over which they had no control -- and who may only have been artists (so-called) for the duration of the event -- want to make art that influences people, often in the manner of an editorial, rather than art that can find its way to a sinecure in a museum. Their works have a great deal to do with everyday material culture, and little to do with precious high culture, however much they have been become precious for the social involvement they symbolize.
The artistic conceptualists are much more aware of what is officially called high art, however ironical and perverse their awareness. Indeed, they are ironically destructive to the point of nihilism. However, they never tire of shooting at their target, suggesting that they are not certain that they have hit it. They keep mocking high art, and mocking it again, suggesting that its ghost continues to haunt them.
I include in this category exhibitions at so-called alternative spaces, such as the "Salon de Mai" in Paris, 1968, and the "Art in China/Avant-Garde" in Beijing, 1989 (the Queens Museum reconstructs them), as well as the activity of the numerous collectives whose "outsider art" is on display. Apparently illegitimate from the point of view of a professional institution, such events in fact legitimate and institutionalize the old-fashioned idea of the salon of independents, showing that it has become a tedious convention.
I include such artists as Stanley Brouwn, who asked street directions from strangers; Yves Klein, who opened an empty gallery space; Akasegawa Genpei, who staged an impromptu exhibition in a court room (he was indicted for forging 1,000-yen notes; the Japanese government didn't think the money was funny); Nomura Hitoshi, who recorded random events he saw from a phone booth; Alberto Greco, who drew chalk circles around people and called them works of art; Goran Trbuljak, who "stuck [his] finger through a hole in the door of the Modern Art Gallery without the management's knowledge"; Xiao Lu and Tang Song, who fired two gunshots at a Beijing exhibition (thus André Breton's surrealist gunshot was finally heard around the world), and so on and on.
I also include such mock abstract artists as Roman Opalka, who paints numbers, one after the other; Daniel Buren, who puts stripes whereever he can; and Marcel Broodthaers, who reduced Mallarmé's famous shaped poem to abstract art by blacking out its lines, thus canceling its meaning.
All these artists are preoccupied with the concept of art, however much they mock it. What results is not so much art -- unless we want to regard everyone as an artist who calls himself or herself one (which suggests the absurdity of the idea of art, or the hard times it has fallen on, all the more so because art is an unregulated profession; any arrogant fool, with no particular talent, can call himself or herself an artist in our society, "artist" having become an honorific label increasingly empty of import and specificity) -- as unwitting wit about art. The American school of conceptualism, with its philosophical pretensions, is perhaps the leader in this witless wit.
The artists in the Queens Museum exhibition are not so much making art -- however much we want to call what they make (or do) art -- as testing the audience's gullibility. Will we believe they are "really" artists or regard them as clever characters getting away with a joke they call art, because they don't know what else to call it?
It is the Don Quixote problem, as I call it. The knight errant, eager to find a helmet to make him invulnerable before he set out on his adventures, thought he had found one in a barber's metal bowl. The less imaginative people around him tried to dissuade him, but, in his psychotic mind, a metal bowl was an impregnable helmet. Similarly, any kind of object or behavior can be regarded as art, from the right psychotic perspective. In Quixote's case, the consequences were serious. In art's case they don't matter (?), for art is just a name, however much one can earn a living at it. (Art can, after all, be practical.)
What does it mean to be an artist? What is art? These are the important questions the exhibition raises, no doubt inadvertently, for the museum assumes that everything it shows is necessarily and officially art, simply because it is an art institution. I am suggesting that the wondrous effect of this complicated exhibition is to raise doubt -- basic, abysmal, dizzying doubt -- about what we are talking about when we talk about "art."
The exhibition forces us to put the word in quotation marks, which is at once to make "art" an intellectual problem and dismiss it. It has become indefinite to the point of being meaningless, at least outside of philosophical speculation, which may only make it more meaningless in the end, if there is one. (Up for philosophical grabs, "art" never comes down to earth.)
I suggest that we view this exhibition not in art terms -- whatever they are these days, when art has no boundaries, which means that it is a species of life -- but rather in social, psychological, and even anthropological terms. The majority of the works in this exhibition are a kind of critical feedback on a situation, showing that it is more flexible and open -- more full of possibilities -- than it initially seemed to be. This suggests that what we want to call art is one among the many reflective things human beings do to prove that they are, after all, human beings -- animals who can conceptualize their situation and their own behavior, modifying and even substantially changing them, rather than mindlessly submitting to both.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.