The irony is that adjunct-professor who thought Benjamin believed in the aura and mystery of art did so because Benjamin’s writing itself is beautiful, mysterious, aurora drawn. Benjamin was a brilliant writer, a poet, a genius, but entangled in politics that stifled his thinking and led to his death. We should read his Arcades, appreciate his talent, and forgive his ideology.
Is Art Mainly the Idea?
“Ideas alone can be works of art,” Sol Lewitt proposed in his epic “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” a primer on the ins and outs of postmodern 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 if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.”
The contradiction is obvious; if art is a conductor then any idea that remains in one’s mind and never reaches the viewer cannot by that proposition be art. From practice we know that art is not a conductor; the medium is the conductor, art is a product.
Sol Lewitt said that an idea was art but that’s wrong; an idea is science. Wikipedia tells us that “science is systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” These are ideas. Wiki then says that art is “a diverse range of human activities in creating”. That is production and effort in the real world. Art requires a reality check and a higher standard than a professional product. Art then is a product… of conscious and unconscious production, will and intuition. It’s evident “the art” of anything means more than just thinking about it. An idea needs to be realized to be art, it’s in the phrase origin. This means an idea that believes itself to be art is mistaken and cannot be science either; it’s simply a mistake. It’s a wonder no one has thought this through… our respect for tradition is the enemy of inquiry.
Sol LeWitt laid out the terms for conceptual art in his seminal “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” published in the June 1967 issue of Artforum. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work,” LeWitt wrote. “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”
When the execution of anything is a perfunctory affair the results are always bad… Another objection to the perfunctory execution of art is that the word “art” has an etymology; it is in production that creative changes occur, that a pragmatic creativity transforms both the idea and the material into something greater than the sum of their parts. The “art of woodcarving” implies an individual of exceptional achievement, as Oscar Wilde was renowned for the art of conversation.
There’s also an argument for struggle and effort in making anything of value. Tennessee Williams wrote in the introduction to The Glass Menagerie that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door. Once this thing called success happens to you, security dulls conflict and dissolves your inspiration. Humans were made to wrestle with life but when work is an idea there’s no need for effort… which is production, not idea. Without struggle and effort we have bad art.
In “Sentences on Conceptual Art” Lewitt again contradicts himself; “The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.” But this is illogical, conflicting with a previous statement of his that an idea can be a work of art. Obviously if an artist cannot imagine his art then one cannot have an idea that is art (whose performance is then perfunctory), since ideas are imagined in language and words at the moment they are thought of.
Lewitt retorts that “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” When Lewitt writes of being a mystic who overleaps logic, he means that he sincerely says things that he wishes were true.
Until now a work of art meant an exceptional and meaningful accomplishment. Duchamp made it senseless by stripping away the senses and making art intellectual. Lewitt makes art senseless by saying it is nonsense, illogical, impossible. Sol Lewitt is an amazing visual artist, a genius… although Walter Benjamin insists that geniuses do not exist. Benjamin is a great writer but a terrible political scientist, Lewitt is a great artist but fails at theory. Their words do not make sense and are debunked by simple reasoning. And yet no one dares judge and contradict these art gods. The most influential art theories of our time are flawed. That’s like when the garage mechanic says your brakes are shot, but people still go for a drive.
To know what Art Is
In a reading of history we look back to forecast. Most of us lack a global perspective so it’s with relief that art history reveals the exact nature of our time. Since the late 1960s we’ve been living in an era that will be known as the corruption of art, and our time will likely hold a cautionary tale for future generations. As aesthetics were a driving force in human evolution and a necessity for mental health, it’s evident the counter-aesthetic, anti-aesthetic paradigm of the past decades would be toxic. Psychiatrists will affirm that to study and imitate the behavior of insane people can seriously harm one’s sanity, since practice makes perfect… or imperfect, in this case. Our problem is that the toxic change was gradual; we acclimatized and failed to notice the problems of our time.
Dario Gamboni’s The Destruction of Art talks about a Swiss sculpture Biennial where the normally staid townspeople vandalized some works of art made from garbage. Gamboni admitted the work was actually made of garbage taken from the trash, but it had been declared art by experts. He could not understand how the townspeople still thought it was garbage and did not value it as art.
Recently a top-tier curator wrote that nobody knows what art is anymore and I was, like, facepalm! If you don’t know what art is, why don’t you ask? In no other profession do the gatekeepers admit they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s your job! If you don’t know what art is, who does? If no one knows then step up to the plate and take a shot… at defining something so obvious; the etymology of art means exceptional achievements, not a brilliant mistake or a clever idea.
Art means excellence. But typically someone creates a banality to which we all bow in praise, following a counter-aesthetic saying the mundane is great art. Having standards means rejecting such stupid assertions. What made the arts the mess we face today were toxic ideas posing as the latest hot trend. As a quick fix, here’s an idea to decimate contemporary art; no more garbage, artists stop using garbage to make art. If I see another piece of trash posing as Art in a white box I will scream. Emily Carr described the creative experience of one genuinely inspired, an account to teach us all a lesson;
Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. Dumb notes have struck chords of wonderful tone. Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer. It is surging through my whole being, the wonder of it all, like a great river rushing on, dark and turbulent, and rushing and unresisting, carrying me away on it’s wild swirl like a helpless bundle of wreckage.