Conceptual Art vs Greenberg: clash in means, not the ends

Lawrence Weiner, As Long As It Lasts, 1992. Visual statement.

Lawrence Weiner, As Long As It Lasts, 1992. Visual statement.

“Ideas alone can be works of art,”[1] proclaimed American Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt in his 1968 Sentences on Conceptual Art, summoning up a new stream of thought that emerged in 1960s America[2] as a reaction to Clement Greenberg’s insistence on formalism and opticality, a stance that art should be experienced solely through ‘visual stimuli’ and in a disinterested manner.[3] In an anarchic Dada style,[4] Conceptual Art (as this new stream came to be known) proposed “perceptual withdrawal”[5] – instead of producing ‘sacred’ and valuable art objects, they offered only brief linguistic description of their ideas or simple visual statements such as Lawrence Weiner’s As Long As It Lasts (Figure 1). If a physical object of some sort was present it was either perplexingly bare or badly executed and aesthetically unappealing. What is more, these artworks mixed a variety of media (including everyday objects and all sorts of rubbish), thus attacking Greenberg’s “quest for medium-specific purity.”[6] Purposefully provocative, conceptual artworks encouraged a renewed enquiry into what art is or should be.

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A House is the People You Walk With

Nicole Foreshew and Jacob Nash, Hereby Make Protest, 2014.

Nicole Foreshew and Jacob Nash, Hereby Make Protest, 2014.

“Some experience of voyaging and exile is […] necessary for being’s complete fulfillment,”[2] wrote Martinican literary critic Édouard Glissant in his 1990 book Poetics of Relation. Similarly, art historian and curator Miwon Kwon suggests that it is through traveling and being out of a familiar place that one finds him/herself.[3] For Glissant, this newly found self is no longer connected to a single, unitary root. Once determined by geography of our origin and a single culture, our identity is now unmoored, diffused, and characterised by the “errant thought.”[5] We find ourselves in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – “an assemblage of connected multiplicities, without center or origin, […] always in process of becoming;”[6] detached, capricious, and able to swiftly shift course. [7] But this fluidity and flexibility in thoughts and actions is both exhilarating and  daunting. Unmoored and unbound, we also crave stability and belonging. Errantry is, thus, paired with melancholia and nostalgia; rhizome experienced as vertigo and tension.[8]

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Relational Art: an arty way to twitter, with nothing to say?

“Art no longer wants to respond to the excess of commodities and signs  but to a lack of connections.”  (Jacques Ranciere)

“Art no longer wants to respond to the excess of commodities and signs but to a lack of connections.” (Jacques Ranciere)

Relational art has been fiercely criticised in the last couple of decades for facilitating fleeting moments of sociability and resulting in a numbing spectacle it allegedly endeavours to evade[2]. Under the pretense of re-establishing genuine social bonds and shared human values[3] it cultivates an artificial community and suffocates individual rational thought. Conceived as a creative journey and concerned with “process rather than end result”[4], it emphasizes use over contemplation[5] and fails to emancipate its audience – relational art “becomes practical but it is an art that enthrals”[6], writes German critic Peter Burger. Focusing on democratisation and flexible formats and “blurring the imprint of individual authorial status”[7], relational art attempts to create an environment for dialogue and active, meaningful engagement. But critics argue that the so-called “authorial renunciation”[8] only masks this art’s innate hollowness and visionary void.

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Mike Parr and the Efficacy of Shock

Mike Parr

In the early 1910s, the Italian Futurists sought to ‘shock’ viewers out of slumber and into the revolution of consciousness. They saw shock as the only viable tool against the public’s apathy, and violence as the only accurate portrayal of the war-ripe, cataclysmic society. Their desire to “exalt the […] feverish insomnia”[1] became a motto for many subsequent performance artists, including the Australian Mike Parr whose works are infamous for their squeamish, unsettling effect. Does Parr’s overtly violent and distressing performance run the risk of pushing the ideological crises too far, too soon, causing aversion or traumatic numbness? Is shock, when used excessively, counter-productive to performance’s efficacy? Can profound visceral reaction lead to ideological, psychological, and ethical reflection (that could, in turn, facilitate a wider socio-political action)?

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