Sunday, June 19, 2005
Still pouring over Tate magazine. Specifically, a competently written but poorly argued article by Christy Lange called "Bound to Fail," which makes extravagant and goofy claims for the work of neoconceptual artists like Annika Strom, Jonathan Monk and Sean Landers. Lange begins with close readings of works by Walter De Maria, Bruce Nauman, and Bas Jan Ader, then concludes her historical exegesis as follows:

"Taken in earnest, Ader's and Nauman's insistence on trying to perform physical impossibilities and then document [sic] their shortcomings, seems to have been a test of the impact of their own human and artistic failings on the world. But they attempted their feats knowing that these minor failures bore only minor consequences on the world itself. Why not set themselves a task they could deftly and triumphantly complete? Perhaps they sensed that if their systems functioned efficiently or successfully, they would be indistinguishable from 'ordinary work,' and could no longer be called art."

There's a lot of rhetorical equivocation in this passage (seems to have been.../perhaps they...) and a gaping logical flaw. Lange's argument presupposes that the goofy, irrational, or self-defeating systems of Ader, Nauman, de Maria, et. al. are art precisely because they are neither efficient or successful; they invert the criteria by which useful work is judged (Thus de Maria's claim, 'Filing letters in a filing cabinet could be considered meaningless work only if one were not considered a secretary, and if one scattered the file on the floor periodically so that one didn't get any feeling of accomplishment'). Lange unquestioningly accepts that irrationality and self-defeat are essential ingredients of conceptual or neoconceptual art. "[T]he secret of meaningless work: even frustrated art making itself can be successful artwork if it acknowledges its own failings. Better still, if it acknowledges this fact, but also acknowledges the irony of it."

This is totally ass-backwards. Duchamp definitively proved that you can't object to art on morphological grounds alone; anything can, at least in theory, "come up for the count" as art. Language; a chopped-up shark in a tank; "oral communication"; inert gases; a urinal; an oil painting on canvas; sunlight; meaningless work. It doesn't matter. Lange's claim that, "even frustrated art making itself can be successful artwork" seems profound, but isn't, because it simply reiterates what anyone who's thought carefully about contemporary aesthetics already knows. And the recognition that some successful artworks have been made from "frustrated art making" doesn't extend a free pass to the category of "frustrated art making". Art's success or failure can't rest on morphology, because if it did, it would be possible to specify art's contents in advance, just like the ingredients in a readymixed cake. Which to my mind is what the work of artists like Landers and Jonathan Monk really is, the artworld equivalent of Betty Crocker.

Lange: "In Return to Sender (2004) Monk co-opts On Kawara's series I Got Up (1968-1979), in which Kawara sent postcards to friends and colleagues systematically reporting his whereabouts. Tearing the pages out of a catalogue that documented the work, Monk dutifully sent the pages back to the original addresses, hoping for responses, yet knowing Kawara had long left the location. 'That's something where the possibility of failure is there before you start,' says Monk. Using Kawara's own system as a point of departure, he created another, more illogical system, resuscitating a work from the past."

Lange gives Monk's effort a free pass by failing to ask just how this hypothetical resuscitation is performed. Kawara's work is not unknown to the contemporary artworld (Phaidon monograph, major collections, reproductions in October, etc.) so she can't mean that Monk's work resuscitates Kawara's reputation. Kawara's rigorous, elegant work needs no help from Monk nor any other young artist, and it would be a weird project indeed that based its own success upon the deliberate "resusciatation" of older artists' reputations.

Maybe Lange actually means that Monk has created a system more illogical than the one which his is based upon. Fair enough, but this doesn't tell us anything about his project's aesthetic success. How could it? It's just another description of Monk's project, disguised as a judgement and analysis of it.

Elaine Sturtevant's and Sherrie Levine's practices convince me that aesthetically successful artworks can be made from the appropriation, recycling, and re-presentation of preexisting images, styles, and aesthetic programs, but as a critic, I see lots of distance between, say, Sturtevant and Jonathan Monk. Formal or stylistic emulation doesn't constitute successful artmaking on its own, much as Monk or Lange might apparently wish otherwise.

<< Home

Powered by Blogger

.post-title { display: none!important; }