Monday, December 14, 2009


When Jonathan Williams was asked to define art, he responded, "If you can kill a snake with it, it ain't art."

That definition has served me pretty well in the past. But recently, as conceptual art has become more complex, I have wondered whether Williams' definition requires additional refinement.

In each of the following three examples of conceptual art, an artist takes another artist's work and modifies it:

1. An erased drawing:

Artist Robert Rauschenberg famously took a drawing by DeKooning and erased it as his work of art.

2. A photograph of a photograph:

Artist Sherrie Levine photographed the work of another photographer, Walker Evans, and called her art, "After Walker Evans." According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website, her copies of Evans' photos were "a landmark of postmodernism" as well as "a critique of the commodification of art, and an elegy on the death of modernism. Far from a high-concept cheap shot, Levine's works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions."

3. Exposing another artist's posters to light:

Illustrator Steve Brodner recently flagged this work by feminist artist Barb Choit, whose art consists of taking posters by illustrator Patrick Nagel and exposing them to light so they fade. The New York Times reported on the opening of her show at a Manhattan gallery: "Ms. Choit buys the posters online and then partly fades them, using a tanning bed, lamps and other skin-darkening products. Then she translates them into ink-jet prints and attaches them to clear plastic panels, creating tension between the risible imagery and slick format and her own sly conceptualism."
All three works are primarily conceptual, but I like Rauschenberg's best. His concept seems the least pretentious of the three and he at least leaves us with an object, made by human hand, with some nice texture and design to it. But between the three of them, there is enough "sly postmodern conceptualism" to choke a full grown python.

So what about Williams' definition of art? Does this mean it is obsolete?

I don't know enough about the definition of art to say that these three works don't qualify, but I feel confident I know enough to say when art is crummy. Ultimately this may be the more relevant judgment.

I agree that one can play interesting conceptual games with the theories advanced above, but personally I find that artistic principles are not at their best when hovering in mid air as concepts. They need to be embodied in something both perishable and difficult in order to achieve their fullest potential.

That is why conceptual art , which does not exist on a sphere where it is forced to compromise and commit, is inherently less interesting.