[Morning rant. I’m writing this in one go, not editing, and I’m not putting pics in it. Update: I went back and edited it. So, now it just started as a rant.]
I wrote a while ago about Duchamp Versus Picasso, and I am probably just repeating myself, but with just a bit more context and sprinkles on top. It’s such a curious and bankrupt notion than it is either Picasso OR Duchamp, as opposed to seeing them as two separate kinds of art-making. What is most disturbing in the general notion that Duchamp is the victor, is that mute objects in the gallery are believed to have replaced the visual imagination, the personal, the transcendent, and the beautiful. It’s like replacing your breakfast with a shoe and declaring it the superior meal. Not the home cooked omelet from your loving mother, but the inedible shoe.
Imagine now that conceptual music had taken off and was considered in the early 1800’s to have replaced songs, and that songs were considered obsolete. It was widely accepted that deliberately arranging notes, working in melody, harmony, polyphony, rhythm and all were categorically rendered passe by “sound sculpture”, and the greatest musical piece of the last century was the sound of a flushing toilet. Ridiculous. It’s like a parable or nursery story. Nevertheless, that is reality when you switch out “music” for “painting”.
Another convenient way to think of this is that visual art happens through the window of the canvas, and into the artist’s visual imagination, and conceptual art operates outside of the visual imagination and deals with objects and ideas in quotidian reality, outside the canvas.
There has been a movement not just from painting to sculpture, which is already less in the terrain of the purely visual (as sculpture is already an object in quotidian reality, whereas a painting includes a background and is a complete immersion in another reality), but to physical objects in the gallery that are not even sculpted. Or, if they are sculpted, they are sculpted by hired assistants and the master artist doesn’t even touch them, or need to.
We accept this as a development in art in which one approach renders another obsolete. Pause for a minute and thank Bejebus, or celestial entity of choice that this artistic genocide was only practiced on painting and not on music. Imagine if through the 50’s -70’s that, while artists were increasingly switching over to conceptual mind games and the complete elimination of anything visual imaginatively created by an artist’s mind or hand, the same thing were happening in music. Instead of Zeppelin, the Beatles, Cream, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Yes, Genesis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, King Crimson, CAN, Gentle Giant, Deep Purple, and rock of choice [I’m a rock fan cuz rock is great] those artists were doing the equivalent of visual artists, and making “music” in which they didn’t use instruments and didn’t write songs. There was, of course, “music” such as John Cage’s composition in which a pianist sits down at the piano and just sits there without hitting any keys ,but, nobody, and I mean nobody listens to that shit. Conceptual music never really took off because, well, nobody can stand listening to it
I’ve said this before but a whole generation or even two of visual artists were metaphorically slaughtered en-mass. Why is there no visual equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan… Almost all the serious students of art were steered into conceptualism. If you were a visual artist and part of the popular revolution of the 60’s than you made posters or covers for bands. But you weren’t known for your own art. How odd it is that musicians found a way to express their “youth” and psychedelic generation so powerfully and visual artists weren’t even making paintings. You could say there was no popular form of visual art anything like rock music.
There’s a ridiculous snobbery in this, the snobbery that says Jackson Pollock is on a higher level than The Beatles. It’s just an assumption people take for granted that there is high and low art (and conceptual art is the highest art). I don’t think one could write an article about why Pollock (who I like) is superior to The Beatles without coming off as a supreme ass-hat. This same snobbery prevented a generation of artists from making paintings that would have been on par with rock music, which had a far wider appeal than conceptual art, and the only real limitation of which was the imagination.
One big problem today is that people confuse conceptual art and visual art, forgetting that Duchamp was “anti-art” and “anti-artist”. He wanted to kill art, as religion has been, in his opinion, made obsolete. What a dick. C’mon, folks, are you really going to side with extinguishing Van Gogh.
Let’s pause a moment and speak to the ghost of Vincent Van Gogh and tell him why not only did Duchamp kill Picasso, Duchamp murdered Van Gogh.
“Yo, Vinny. ‘Sup.”
“Just being suspended in the timeless void of infinite potential.”
“I have to tell you, your art was repudiated. Critics say a Frenchman – well, he expatriated to the United States, and that’s part of why we love him, because America is #1, but I digress… Um, this Frenchman, Marcel Duchamp ended art as you knew it.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yeah, I do. I hate to tell you but your art no longer really matters because he hauled a urinal into an art gallery and ushered in a new way of thinking about art. Critics say he ‘checkmated’ all conventional ideas about art and art-making. That’s because later he mostly stopped making art in order to play Chess. So, it’s Checkmate, you loose, Vinny. All was for nought.”
There’s no more striving to share something deeply personal in a visually imaginative and original way. Sure, sure, there’s a use of imagination, but no more than one might use to do a product display in a grocery store. It’s gotten so ridiculous that Warhol declared making money the highest form of art. It requires imagination to make money, yes. But guess what it doesn’t require. It doesn’t require visual imagination.
Try on this statement:
“Making money is the highest form of music”
Now that’s fucking retarded. Nobody would say that. There isn’t any music in making money. What are we going to all go listen to someone read one of Martin Shkreli’s spreadsheets? There’s nothing the fuck to listen to. Making money can’t be any form of music.
Guess what, making money also gives us nothing the fuck to look at, unless it’s Martin Shkreli’s smug mug itself. What an ignoramus. He put a price on life and used your money or you life blackmail to extort outrageous sums from dying people so that they might stay alive. And he calls it “art”. By the way, Shkreli is now celebrated as some sort of hero in conservative and alt-right circles. Are we that cynical?
Notice that while we would reject any notion that making money is music, we accept that it is art (by we I don’t mean you or I, necessarily, and definitely not me). Further, we probably wouldn’t accept it if someone said directly that making money is the highest form of painting. We’d see that, well, obviously there’s nothing to be seen. And this is the funny thing where conceptual art, which has little to do with visual art, is seen as replacing it, or at least encompassing it. Thus, because it is intellectually possible to see making money as a form of conceptual art, we can conclude, because conceptual art encompasses visual art, that making money is a higher form of art making than is making painting.
See the sleight of hand? Conceptual art kills painting, but not music, theater, literature, or any other art form. It doesn’t even really kill sculpture, because conceptual art needs to have a THING of some sort to place in a gallery space and sell. Note that Duchamp, while he thought the Impressionists (who he hated the most and understood the least) were not deep enough, and were not investing their art with significant thought, he was all for selling multiple editions of his infamous urinal – making money through clever thought, but thought which lacked any real philosophical weight, and was in reality a repudiation of philosophy as well as art. He started the multiple editions of originals, thus maximizing profits. The end result of this is Damien Hirst making over 1,400 dot paintings and them selling for tens of thousands to over a million dollars each. The visual stupidity of it all is staggering. The musical equivalent would be whole CDs of beeps going platinum.
Damien Hirst’s dot paintings have no more visual intelligence or imagination than gift wrapping, and if you look at any one of them and imagine it as gift wrapping, you can easily see it that way. They are mute objects.
Calm down, calm down. I’m not saying conceptual art is shit, or not art, though I will say that Donald Trump amassing a fortune is not art. Conceptual art represents another creative option for people to express themselves through (yeah I know they might not be expressing themselves at all and that is the point, sadly, but you get the idea). That’s all fine and good and I’d much rather live in a world with conceptual art than without it.
But why the fuck does conceptual art presume to kill painting? Let me just make a table to illustrate the problem with this, say, comparing Duchamp and Picasso (though neither are complete stand-ins for conceptual or visual art).
The thing is, folks, that in general conceptual art is no more visual art than it is music. I’m not being anti-conceptual art here, I’m just defending visual art from artistic genocide. One really needs to properly understand Duchamp and his stated arguments about his own intentions and his own work. He tried to choose objects which were completely aesthetically and visually UNINTERESTING. They were neither ugly nor beautiful, but rather innocuous. Duchamp put the visually innocuous on a pedestal, sold it in multiple copies, and we declared this the greatest achievement of visual art.
How dumb do we have to be to assert that a urinal is the greatest visual achievement of artists of the last century? It’s like saying fasting is the best meal I’ve ever eaten. The stupidity is not finding making a statement about art, or inventing a new way of making art, important or interesting. I’m fine with that. I’m all for finding new ways to creatively express ourselves. I’ve done conceptual art myself. My favorite conceptual art tends to be the kind that makes something using unconventional means. The problem is declaring something that is deliberately not visually interesting at all the best thing that the human species can create using our visual imagination.
Compare these three notions, and remove the one that doesn’t belong:
- Marcel Duchamp’s “The Fountain” is the greatest piece of conceptual art of the last century.
- Marcel Duchamp’s “The Fountain” is the greatest piece of music of the last century.
- Marcel Duchamp’s “The Fountain” is the greatest piece of visual art of the last century.
#1 doesn’t belong because the other two are ridiculous. Now, we’ve been so brainwashed by the rhetoric defending the practice of replacing visual worlds with objects in a gallery that some people will object that the urinal, or ready-made of choice by Duchamp gives us nothing to look at.
This is a misunderstanding that I can cure with a simple appeal to beginning English lessons I taught in Asia. There’s a difference between looking, seeing, and watching that beginning English students confuse. Students might say things like, “I looked at a movie”. Just because something can be seen – is not invisible – does not make it visual art, especially when it is deliberately visually inert.
That’s really the word here. Inert! Ah, shit, I left “feeling” out of my chart, above. There’s no feeling or emotion in the urinal. Notice how much conceptual art, say the “sculptures” of Koons or Damien Hirst make the human touch absolutely invisible. There’s an attempt to kill any evidence of the personal, and any feeling.
Let me give you another analogy, which is my favorite, and I’ve used it before. Let’s say that I submit a phone book as the great American novel. It’s a book! It can be read! But there’s nothing personal (or at least that reflects my person), no feeling, nothing transcendent, no skill at writing, no story, no characters… And then imagine that my phone book was declared the greatest novel of the 20th century, and checkmated all conventional notions of literature. Imagine that it became widely accepted that my phone book repudiated James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
The point, folks, is that conceptual art is not synonymous with visual art, often offers something to see, but nothing to really look at, and belongs in a completely different category.
Some people may object that I am making divisions where they don’t belong and splicing up the universe into convenient categories. Well, no, I’m not. I’m removing the false categorization that separates conceptual art from music, theater, film, architecture, interior design, agitprop, and all other mediums which it quite often has far more in common with than it does with painting. Ever hear of “sound sculpture”? That’s considered visual art, not music. How about “video”? That’s not contemporary film, it’s in league with painting. Performance art? Nope, not a form of theater. It’s in the same category as painting. How about text art. Nope, not a kind of literature. It’s a kind of painting. There are hybrid styles, of course, but let’s not get any more complicated than necessary, as where we’re at, people are still accepting that anti-art is the greatest form of art, which is like saying that atheism is the greatest worship of God.
You can’t compare Duchamp and Picasso in terms of conceptual or visual art. One artist is a conceptual artist and the other is a visual artist. You can compare them in terms of art with a capital A that also includes music, dance, literature and so on, which is like comparing the Beatles to Ernest Hemingway.
The idea that Duchamp beats Picasso is bankrupt, on par with saying that men replace women or women replace men. Do people really want visual art to be exterminated? When you say that Duchamp defeats Picasso, that’s what you are saying. You are saying that the mute object renders the visual imagination irrelevant. This is actually just privileging one aspect of our sensory awareness and intelligence above another, and to the point where we dissect our brain and remove the quadrant that can imagine and understand visual language art. It’s a fucking self lobotomy.
There’s no real competition between Picasso and Duchamp. You can argue, if you like, that Henry “Hank” Aaron is a greater athlete than Muhammad Ali, but you can’t argue that he’s a better fighter. Baseball does not replace boxing, and conceptual art does not replace music or painting.
One medium does not replace another.
[On reflection in my comparison of Duchamp and Picasso of years ago, I’m pretty sure I took Picasso’s side. I think that was before I realized that it wasn’t Duchamp’s work that annoyed me, but rather his rhetoric. There’s a knee-jerk reaction to try to kill that which is trying to kill you. Later I came to see the problem as the either/or ultimatum between visual art and conceptual art, an ultimatum dished out by conceptualists. I realized that if we simple recognize conceptual and visual art as distinct approaches, the majority of enmity magically disappears.]