17 December 2021

Bibliographilia—Lasch's LeWitt

Here is the Sol LeWitt article referred to by Lasch in Chapter IV of The Minimal Self.

Some choice cuts:
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. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry. There is no reason to suppose, however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.
It seems to me that there is much in this exposition which Lasch chooses to overlook. This is less a matter of misrepresenting LeWitt's overall statement as of disregarding all that which he (Lasch) would locate beyond the pale.

Though I want to defend and reclaim certain of these aspects, there are a few things that I too would dispense with. I'm not sure, for one thing, just how purposeless an art can be if one objective of the artist is to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator. This is hardly the highest of purposes, but if it is not still a purpose of some kind or other, I would like to know why.

I am perhaps more willing than Lasch to accept, provisionally, the notion of an art that is free from dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman, if only as one possibility among many. I find it self-evident that much of what LeWitt and cohort hope to get at this way is indeed worthy, and that there is no other way to get at it than this. I would maintain even so that the craft ethic, as lionized by Lasch, Mumford, Sennett, and others, also has much to recommend it, on which point I have probably said enough for the time being. I will add here only that the emergence of a whole art-industrial complex of sorts wherein the craft ethic is absent, conspicuously, intentionally, and explicitly absent at that, this has borne out, I think, exactly what more culturally conservative observers were inclined to predict about it from the start.

I do not wish to deny that the craft-oriented and the high-culture-oriented milieux also had their unseemly social ramifications, only to insist that the "conceptual" and "experimental" turns have not betokened any particular progress on this front; indeed, the explicitly anti-progressive Lasch of The True and Only Heaven seems to me far more relevant in this connection than does the Freudian Lasch of The Minimal Self. Where the progress lies, if there has indeed been any, is in an expansion of both aesthetic and conceptual possibilities to better serve the bounded yet irreducible diversity of human needs and desires. Beyond that very general notion, people will continue to behave well and to behave badly; we still need to be able to tell the difference, and there is nothing unique to art or artists that is either necessary or sufficient to help us do that.

Toward the end of the above passage is where one especially starts to wonder if Lasch was coming at this from such a different place (or with such an agenda in mind) as to truly be unable to understand the larger point. To say that he evinces the expectation an emotional kick is an understatement. In fact he anchors his entire account in just such a view of art, the emotions in question having quite specific sources, targets, and qualities. I am not here to fault him for that alone. What is unbecoming of his prodigious intellect, I think, is the attempt to normalize this expectation, which, here and elsewhere, means conflating the metaphorical and the technical. When he scolds Robert Smithson for speaking of the "expressive fallacy," no effort is made to address the reason (a good one!) why the colloquial understanding of "expression" in art could legitimately be called a "fallacy" rather than merely a conceit or a theory or an objective. Classicists and craftspersons alike should care as deeply about this issue as anyone, because it goes to the heart of their respective projects.
Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs. illogic). Some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually. The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.
Lasch would be neither the first nor the last to find in this something like a "restriction of perspective." I have certainly had that reaction to conceptual works which proceed from ludicrously simple ideas. But ultimately this too is a matter of expectation; the very notion of restriction is a relative one. This technique has its uses. Generally these are not uses toward which I find myself inclined, but I do not deny them altogether.

True believers would be correct to detect in these statements a certain ambivalence toward the conceptualist project generally even while I am concerned here to defend it against a very specific charge. The point is, the restriction is imposed by the artist on themselves, not necessarily on the audience; LeWitt is explicit about that. It is up to the audience whether they would like their own perspectives expanded or narrowed by a conceptual (or frankly, any other) piece. This is, in capsule, one of life's great balancing acts, between the known and the unknown, comfort and growth, expansion and consolidation. It is precisely by virtue of my commitment to the craft ethic, and not in spite of it, that I find conceptual art tends to expand rather than restrict my perspective.
Since the function of conception and perception are contradictory (one pre-, the other postfact) the artist would mitigate his idea by applying subjective judgment to it.
A central Talebian insight, sort of, adapted for artists. I can only concur.

In the era of artistic plurality, it is not unusual to find the most incisive commentary emanating from outside one's own affinity group rather than circulating within it. Such is the case here, I think, with this observation of LeWitt's that the artist would mitigate his idea by applying subjective judgment to it. This captures the aestheticist project in a nutshell, and it is no less accurate or important for being phrased in an unflattering way.

In place of the artist's idea or "concept," then, is a subjectivity, the subjectivity of the aestheticist artist, which itself is a mediation between what is inside the artist and what is outside of them, for lack of a better way of putting it. This mediation is neither the content nor the meaning of the work. It is merely a process whereby, as Jorn said in a somewhat different context, a primary act of creation is followed up with a secondary act of critique. Because this critique is in some sense a self-critique, it is not so simple, I don't think, to level the charge of self-indulgence; similarly, because the artist's subjective judgment is formed by external as well as internal factors, it is not so easy to say that such artists "write only for themselves" or "only for other artists."

An aestheticist work has quite far to go beyond this in order to prove itself worthy of attention. My interest here is not in lowering or circumventing anyone's standards on that front. I merely wish to address the aforementioned accusations, which have become so obligatory that no one seems to really understand what they mean.
To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. It also obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn. The plan would design the work. Some plans would require millions of variations, and some a limited number, but both are finite. Other plans imply infinity. In each case, however, the artist would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible. This is the reason for using this method.

When an artist uses a multiple modular method he usually chooses a simple and readily available form. The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means.
About this idea that the basic unit should be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work, is this not a Classical concept too? It is quite contrary to, say, the Baroque, the Romantic, and indeed to the Modernist most of all. But I do find that the best conceptual pieces (the "best," that is, in the sense of Lewitt's ideal that the idea becomes a machine that makes the art) have a certain Classical elegance and clarity to them. I tend to be more amenable to this kind of conceptual work; the work of my former CalArts classmate Todd Lerew always struck me as exemplary in just this regard. Much of what travels under the cover of "conceptual art" falls well short of this ideal, however, because it proceeds from too many competing ideas and/or leaves too many opportunities for the subjectivity of the artist to show itself.

The lengths to which one must go to avoid these twin pitfalls might suggest that the enterprise itself is contrived rather than fundamental. But in the best work I do not get the sense that it is the least bit contrived, just as, I hasten to add, what looks from the outside like a lifetime of torturous, arbitrary technique-mongering by the classical or jazz virtuouso suddenly makes all the sense in the world when listening to the best examples. Why not limit oneself to the best examples and forget the rest? Sociological pretensions won't allow this of course, but for any old listener unburdened, presumably, by such pretensions, pleasure is the law.
It doesn't really matter if the viewer understands the concepts of the artist by seeing the art. Once it is out of his hand the artist has no control over the way a viewer will perceive the work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different way.

Recently there has been much written about minimal art, but I have not discovered anyone who admits to doing this kind of thing. There are other art forms around called primary structures, reductive, rejective, cool, and mini-art. No artist I know will own up to any of these either. Therefore I conclude that it is part of a secret language that art critics use when communicating with each other through the medium of art magazines.
Architecture and three-dimensional art are of completely opposite natures. The former is concerned with making an area with a specific function. Architecture, whether it is a work of art or not, must be utilitarian or else fail completely. Art is not utilitarian. When three-dimensional art starts to take on some of the characteristics, such as forming utilitarian areas, it weakens its function as art. When the viewer is dwarfed by the larger size of a piece this domination emphasizes the physical and emotive power of the form at the expense of losing the idea of the piece.
Spot on, I think. Lasch, in these terms, treats art merely as a utilitarian use of society's architecture for psychosocial development.

Bonus coverage:
a few of LeWitt's Sentences on Conceptual Art
1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.

2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.

3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
Well, okay. New isn't always better. And is this even new anymore?
25. The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.

26. An artist may perceive the art of others better than his own.
Indeed, per Freud and followers, others may know us better than we know ourselves. Why should this be different in art? If art is so "social," then this inherent aspect of human social life must be operative there as well.

At the same time, what is it exactly that we seek to "understand" through or about art? And why? The answers to these questions can only be different for the artist than they are for any and all "others," and so not just the "perceptions" themselves will be different but also their meaning and, I especially want to insist, their relevance.

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