"Ideas alone can be works of art," Sol LeWitt explained in his epic "Sentences on Conceptual Art," a pretty brilliant primer on the ins and outs of modern art making.
Ideas "need not be made physical," he continued. "A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s." There's the possibility that the idea may never reach the viewer, or that the idea may never leave the artist’s mind. But all ideas are art, he posits, "if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art."
I was reminded of this quote after watching a recent episode of "The Art Assignment," a weekly PBS Digital Studios production hosted by curator Sarah Green (whose husband is -- yes -- YA lit darling and sometimes "Art Assignment" co-host John Green). In the wonderful series, she visits working artists throughout the U.S. and solicits assignments that viewers can complete from home. Think of it as a "3-2-1 Contact" for artistically-inclined adults.
In a video posted last month, Green tackled the storied art phrase, "I could do that." As in, "Hey, what's with that piece of conceptual art. I don't get it. Like, I could do that." We've probably all heard it. Hell, we might have said it ourselves. But instead of dismissing the quirk as a tired reaction only amateurs would dare to utter, Green attempts to investigate exactly why this phrase is a less-than-helpful way to digest art.
Let's break it down. You're looking at a piece of art. You're entertaining the idea that you could have made said artwork, and therefore that lessens the value of the work or delegitimizes its claim to being art at all. What can be made of this stalemate? Green has a few suggestions.
Take a moment to think -- could you really do that?
"Much as we may know that it's not as easy as it looks to create a decent artwork, there are times when we come across something so simple, so unimpressive, and so devoid of technical merit that we just can't help believing we could have done as well or better ourselves," Julian Baggini wrote last year for The Independent. This is not a crime. In fact, it can be a kind of performance in itself; you, staring at an artwork, imagining yourself as the maker. But how far do you go with this hypothetical scenario?
Green uses the work of artist Piet Mondrian as an example. She prompts you to really contemplate creating the smooth, balanced, crisp lines of his De Stijl paintings. Could you map out the framework of "Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow," mix the paint colors, and painstakingly apply the oil on canvas? Could you then hand over the artwork to a gallerist, curator or buyer, and await the criticism that will inevitably come your way? Could you defend and explain your decisions to writers and curious observers, maybe even ponder the idea of questioning your own motives and engaging in real conversations about what it means to express yourself, your ideas or the ideas and perspectives of others in creative ways?
All right. You've decided you could do that. But why are you doing it?
So, you've decided that you could do all of these things and more! Now to Green's next question: why are you doing it? Or, better yet, since you're not short on hubris, let's reframe our focus and think about the artist again -- why did he or she do that before you? What are the social, political and economic circumstances, as Green puts it, that led to another person creating and displaying this particular artwork, moving from idea to execution to showcasing the results and becoming a topic of discussion for more than a few people caught in this crazy dance we call art criticism.
Let's use one of my favorite artists, Alighiero Boetti, and his work "Lampada annuale (Yearly Lamp)" from 1966. The pieces consists of a single lightbulb, placed inside a mirror-lined box, that randomly switches on for only 11 seconds at a time each year. "OK, it's a barely functioning lightbulb in a box," you might say. Let's try to think about those circumstances Green suggests though.
Why would an artist make this? Boetti was a part of the Arte Povera movement, consisting of a group of individuals largely interested in creating art from commonplace materials. Their inclusion of everyday bits of life -- like lightbulbs and clothing and rope and metal -- was a way to address the consumer culture at the time, ever-changed by the industrial revolution. Arte Povera artists were especially obsessed with how society perceived the passing of time after the industrial age, how we'd embarked upon a never-ending race toward the future, and this inevitably affected the ways we interact with the objects and people around us. How had modernization changed, say, our concept of memories, artists like Boetti wondered.
"Lampada annuale" cleverly packages all of these concerns in one little box. Materials emblematic of the industrial age -- lightbulbs and mirrors -- are frozen in time, locked away in a box that onlookers can open whenever they please, shading the object from the passing of time while physically harnessing energy into one tiny, preserved space. Most intriguingly, the chances of a viewer actually seeing the lightbulb alit are so slim (remember, 11 seconds a year), the possibility itself becomes precious and delicate. Suddenly, the way we value this lightbulb changes; the way we relate to its purpose and function changes too. Instead of directing you to this kind of contemplation via words or verbal directives, Boetti pushes you to think deeply about your surroundings, your history, by simply putting a lightbulb in a box. Which is pretty wild.
Let's think deeply about art.
Admittedly, if you didn't know anything about Boetti or Arte Povera, the lightbulb might just remain a lightbulb to you. "But if you think a work of art should tell you everything you need to know without the help of wall labels or the like," Green offers, well, you seem to fundamentally disagree with the purpose and pleasure of art.
"Every object is created within circumstances that are important and is distributed in ways that add to its meaning," she says. Art that is not technically or aesthetically exciting to you can still make you question things like dominant art trends, the concept of value, commercial systems, or, as Green notes, the separation between art and life.
As many have noted before, the goal of an artist is not always to make you wonder at the sublime beauty of precise craftsmanship. More often than not, the goal of an artist is to elicit a response. And if your response remains as shallow as "I could do that" (or, for that matter, "this isn't art") maybe you should dig a little deeper. It's as easy as asking yourself a few more questions.
To circle back to Mr. LeWitt, it's important for us to remember that "the artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others." And that's pretty comforting.
What's actually discomforting is how much art can actually cost and the systemic challenges engrained in the market. But that's a subject for another day ...
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