The Toronto Argonauts are a Canadian football team competing in the East Division of the Canadian Football League. Occasionally in the coming years the team may simply not play. Sitting out the clock without engaging the ball is an unexpected game strategy. The wind might nudge the ball here and there and thus the Argonauts, taking a page from John Cage, will reveal the ambient environment in football. By sitting it out, the Argonauts will “frame” the football experience, bringing the thrill of contemporary art to Canadian sports fans.
Carlos Bungas’ Occupy, 2020, cardboard boxes, tape and paint, is a work you can occupy in a New York minute. We should not underestimate the philosophy behind work that no one would know was art unless they were told; with this kind of installation we proceed to a semiotic reading. Thinking outside the box, my FB friend Eileen Burns said “Cool, they made an exhibit for cats!!!!”
Well, not exactly. This work is not art. It would be art if Bungas spent at least a year or two working continually with cardboard boxes, then he’d achieve the art of cardboard box installation, the way a speaker achieves the art of conversation, or a chef arrives at the art of cuisine, or the way Anish Kapoor produces works of genius using only red wax in all sizes from tabletop to monumental. We need the sensitivity to distinguish the difference between achieving enlightenment as Kapoor does, versus a practice of following academic rituals and insider codes.
Of course Carlos Bungas’ cardboard boxes are not about the work but the idea behind it. That idea celebrates the artist’s and curator’s exhibition strategy – both signal their postmodern practice. When art is anything you can get away with, the worst you can get away with is always the best strategy. The point used to be to shock but today we also signal intellectual virtue. By posting unskilled work lacking originality, artist and curator speak an insider code, saying that counter-aesthetic trends are no longer about appearance; this makes them intellectual, of course. Bungas and the curator are flashing their credentials by disrupting tradition with lacklustre work, so obviously post-art it’s postmodern. We’re looking at the difference between Kapoor’s work based in a material practice, and Bungas’ work based on an idea.
Years ago Geoffrey Farmer did an installation at Catriona Jeffries gallery, a one story building in Vancouver, B.C. Farmer went out to gather rubbish off the street and placed it in the center of the gallery floor. When the work reached the ceiling, he had workers blast open the roof , so he could keep on stacking garbage towards the sky through the resulting hole. The semiotic statement of that work is that if you keep gathering trash and calling it art, you will destroy the physical and also the conceptual infrastructure of the art world.
That’s either reprimand or compliment, depending. One theory starts with a reappraisal of found object; Duchamp said they were not art, had no reference to art, and could never be mistaken for art. Historians followed that with “and that’s how found objects became art”. Then of course Carlos Bungas owes a debt to Sol Lewitt’s Open Modular Cubes, but it was Lewitt’s originality at intersecting math and art that gave his cubes their power.
Sarah Size’s piece and work by others in this show all reach postmodernity in their own salubrious way. Sarah’s work is the most engaging, but aesthetically cramped and hard to approach. Which leads us to ask why, after 30 long years, some are still thrilled at the negation of art. This is a metacognitive insensitivity… to the non-verbal languages that support intellectual thought… and are sometimes wiser.
It’s edgy when work is so counter-aesthetic it barely exists, but it’s not art if excellence is lacking. Sol Lewitt wrote that ideas alone can be a work of art then disproved it in his own work; he came up against empiricism, which says that knowledge is derived from sense-experience. Like 16th century Calvinists and with similar goals, our counter-aesthetic movement denies the senses, eschews excitement and rejects beauty. Science answers that’s bad, it’s a bad idea.
Paul Dirac said when he sees beauty in his equations he knows he’s on the right path to progress while if beauty’s lacking, the math is probably wrong. It’s sensible to ask if this science behind beauty also applies to visual art.
Lettuce look at a curatorial practice that rejects skill and beauty. We hear of the possibility of future art forms, even beyond what Duchamp thought of. But what did Duchamp think of? In a BBC interview with Joan Bakewell a few months before he died, Duchamp spoke earnestly of how he had tried to discredit art, to get rid of art the way some people got rid of religion. (1) This new art that goes beyond getting rid of art…
Our historical misunderstanding (and cognitive dissonance) coincides with a transition in the 1960s, when the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the Seminar Room. The dominant thought in art shifted from non-verbal media, from non-verbal languages that took skills to master and required constant upkeep (use it or lose it), to an intellectual practice that can reformat anything, even a lack of skill. Most artists teach, with little time for studio practice, compared to traditionalists working 24-7 at their technique, their syntax, their pragmatic vocabulary. In short, the counter-aesthetic requires a lot less time, skill and experience; it’s the non-art Duchamp was Dada about. “The word ‘readymade’ thrusts itself on me then. It seemed perfect for these things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no term of art applies.”(2)
In any case, the readymades were not even Duchamp’s! Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven had exhibited found objects as art 4 years before him. Mentioned in a letter by Duchamp to his sister, she was the female friend R. Mutt who sent in the urinal called Fountain, which Duchamp appropriated after Elsa died in a mental asylum. Armut is German for poverty .
Duchamp sought the furthest frontier, but beyond art it’s a vacuum, and nature abhors a vacuum. Art serves an evolutionary function outside of which lie no Promised Lands but devolution. The counter-aesthetic is a hollow shell of what was; that which isn’t anymore is dead, and when art dies it’s taken over by politics and becomes social science. It was Walter Benjamin who wrote the only genuine and valid art is that made by a committee of the working class to fight the Bourgeoisie. Today an artist run center said their programming aims to fight white racism. Is that art? What is art?
An etymology of art is found in a vernacular such as the art of cuisine, the art of conversation, or the art of medicine. Art defines a higher value than a purely professional product. Art is the highest form of any pursuit; art is excellence in achievement. So when Duchamp sought non-art, he unknowingly sought the converse of excellence, the opposite of highest achievements, he sought the worst… and academia followed like lemmings.
Dada had taught people to break the rules and it’s no coincidence that in the 1960s art became anything you can get away with; the art world legitimized “alternative facts”. Did postmodernism lead to the post-truth era? Are Dada’s answers to 1910 problems still the ideal ones for today?
Picabia said “art is a pharmaceutical product for idiots“. That’s Dada. It’s not what I want; is that what you want? Much like a physicist’s equations which represent concepts, art maps our future. When curators pointedly seek non-art, expect our future to look bleak.
Miklos Legrady, www.legrady.com with input and edits by Gabor Podor.
1-Joan Bakewell in conversation with Marcel Duchamp Late Night Line-Up, 1968 BBC ARTS. http://www.BBC.co.uk/programmes/p04826th Start at 17m:20
2-Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p48, A window into something else, Da Capo Press.
also in my current work, “Duchamp was wrong; reflections on a failure of logic in the academic-curatorial complex.” http://www.mikloslegrady.com/book/
Volume 35 no 2 November / December 2020