Painting in Post-Medium-Condition
(After Jan Verwoert “Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea”, 2005)
For the purpose of my thesis and for adequately representing my practice in the contemporary art conditions I am turning to relevant sources that might help me to cope with this task:
Which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? With this question Jan Verwoert probes the current status of painting as a medium. Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? There are two answers, says Verwoert. One is: “No it does not”. Second is: “Yes, it does”. On the one hand, any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium is understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. This allows every medium to be viewed as one possibility among many. Then the only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project.
On the other hand it is necessary to discuss painting qua painting; this is the only way to investigate its true significance. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content and not in form of its medium-specific form, warns Verwoert, becomes the kind of “issue-related art that critics and curators love… because it comes with ready-made categories to file it under like “identity politics”, “institutional critique”… etc. One can easily adopt one or the other perspective from one case to the next, without having to choose. But it will not be a convincing solution to the fundamental problem of conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice.
By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, “Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium”, explains Verwoert. This was necessary to refute the “High Modernist” theory that “true art” must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. The refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks what Verwoert calls a “historical caesura” with normative effect and consequences that have to be faced.
According to some theorists like Rosalind Krauss, Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Thus, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition”.
The author quotes Benjamin Buchloh’s essay “Conceptual Art 1962-1969” (1999) next – offering a slightly different view on this argument. While Buchloh agrees that Conceptual Art abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on medium, he also warns that the “freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom”. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues … only strengthens the power of the art institutions. If an object, or a practice producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognizable material properties, then it is only the museums or the market that determines whether it is art or not.
In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoisseurship have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition of the aesthetics becomes on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function of both legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power rather than taste).
Here Verwoert highlights how Buchloh demonstrates that conceptual art through its “fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy” (emphasis mine).
Verwoert derives two “substantive conclusions” here and also introduces the term of ‘conceptual gesture’. If one follows Krauss, she demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless; she also establishes the conceptual gesture as the “ultimate possible artistic act which can still create a meaning”. There is also a problem with the definition of this ‘conceptual gesture’ as unfolds: “A successful gesture re-writes history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique”. This definition has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production; in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a “new understanding of art”. Verwoert asks how often this mark can be actually achieved. The pressure to succeed in these conditions can bring about “the tragic figure of a melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come…”. He later states that the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more but “a well-told wisecrack”. Verwoert however shows that this idea does not “seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism”. Reducing the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone will make it indistinguishable from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. How else can we understand the gesture if not strategically? – he asks. He offers Brian O’Doherty’s description of the conceptual gesture in terms of an aesthetics of its own: its formal content as O’Doherty sees it can lie in its “aptness, economy and grace”. This gesture “wises you up”. It depends for its effect on the context of ideas it changes and joins. Even if it is not art, it is about and around art. If it is successful, says O’Doherty, it becomes history and tends to “eliminate itself”. He emphasises that for staging this conceptual gesture a material practice means are used, with a “formal language of its own”. In Verwoert’s opinion this understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions “the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history”. He comments of the meaning of the gesture thus being “not transparent but latent”.
In this light Verwoert explores the role of painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted. In practice, he muses, it is probably easier to produce “surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events”. Another way he offers for “remodelling painting” according to the logic of situative strategic choices is to “disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references”.
Later he quotes Yve-Alain Bois’ idea of ‘strategic model’ in painting as the “well-considered location of a work within a network of references: … a work has significance … first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…”. Bois distinguishes this situative significance from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art. He explains that this strategic reading is “strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art-criticism”. Bois in Verwoert’s opinion goes a “decisive step further” in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Bois claims that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality “is produced not only by way of positioning a work with a particular set of external references” – for Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. The strategic instalment of painting among a network of external references constitutes its status of a “meta-critical gesture”. The critical force in this situation is derived from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific practice. Through this positioning it is taken to another level. This conceptuality however, Bois warns, is only a potential. Verwoert comments on this that by pleading this” possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential”, Bois mediates between a conceptual and medium-specific perspective.
2. Bois, Yve-Alain. Painting as a Model. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990. Print.
3. Buchloh, Benjamin. “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of administration to the critique of institutions”, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Cambridge:MIT Press, 1999. Print.
4. Krauss, Rosalind. A Voyage in the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. London: Thames Hudson, 1999. Print.