Monday, June 17, 2013

Percepts - Concepts - Precepts

This is going to be sloppy. But I want to get it down while the iron is still hot. Though, to be honest, I'm not sure what the iron is in this metaphor.

Two days ago Seth Siegelaub died. Yesterday the New York Times Magazine devoted a lengthy article to the James Turrell show opening at the Guggenheim June 21. And today, the New York Times ran a piece on the Robert Irwin show opening June 27 at the Whitney. Add to that, the May 10 Magazine article on Paul McCarthy, and we have a kind of quorum. The artists who came to prominence in the late 1960s are to be eulogized, quickly, before they must be elegized. For the curator Siegelaub, it is now too late. 

But, leaving aside (if it's possible) the market's influence on such matters, what does it mean that Irwin and Turrell, in particular are, at this moment, being gathered so fervently to the breast of the art world? And what does this mean for Sigelaub's long-term legacy? Siegelaub did as much as any other individual to import conceptualism into the art world. Although I realize, almost immediately, that this formula is backwards. What Siegelaub helped to do was to bring the art world into conceptualism. This is true in two senses: 1) Rather than being a branch of inquiry focused on materials and their physical and/or perceptual status, art has been, for the past 40 years, an inquiry into concepts, as embedded and enunciated in materials. Philosophically, the art world now appears as a sub-category of conceptualism in the larger human intellectual project. 2) Pragmatically, the art world has bought so completely into conceptualism that there is hardly an important artist or art work of the past 40 years that does not rely significantly on conceptual scaffolding for justification. (Of course, to say that the art world has "bought into" conceptualism is to acknowledge the commodification of practices that, in some cases, were meant to escape the market. So, to declare conceptualism victorious is not to suggest that it has not been injured on its way to the top.) 

But what was/is conceptualism? Even Lucy Lippard's all-too-famous conception of "dematerialization," does too little to really tell us what conceptual art is. It now appears that dematerialized works took at least two distinct forms; followed two distinct strategies. One path was to reject materiality in favor of the less tangible components of bodily and perceptual experience. This would certainly include the work of Irwin and Turrell, for whom light, space, and time are constituent concerns. A second path eschewed materiality, embracing ideas as the fundamental and productive necessities of a work of art. (I would further argue that this path forks yet again to include, on one side, artists like LeWitt, Bochner, and Kosuth, and on the other side, folks like Graham, Nauman, and Piper.) 

It's not that these distinctions have never been noted before. But, for me, the differences between Path 1 and Path 2 have never before seemed so obvious, nor so important. It wasn't Siegelaub's passing that brought the contrasts into such stark relief. It was the backdrop of another upcoming show in New York, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, opening at MoMA in August.  

In the Fall of 2012, I met with the curator of Soundings, Barbara London, to talk about the show. I told her that I was losing sleep over what the show might be. Granted, this may have been a bit of rhetorical hyperbole, but I was, in fact, concerned. I still am. The so-called, "visual" art world has moved well beyond strictly formal, Kantian-Greenbergian questions; well beyond purely visual, perceptual, or phenomenological issues. The art world embraces a widely-dispersed set of engagements with philosophy; economics; gender; identity; and interpersonal relations at the level of individuals, organizations, corporations, and nation-states. Along the way, art is as likely as not to deal with technology, materiality, language, duration, performance, and cultural critique. These lists are necessarily partial, because art now gives itself permission to address any subject by any strategy that might be productive. In the 1960s, philosophy experienced the apex of what is known as the "linguistic turn," around the same time the visual arts experienced the so-called "conceptual turn," which, if we follow Path 2, licenses a visual art concerned with the complex relations of form, materiality, and image to language and thought. 

The sonic arts, however, have been less expansive. More often than not, works of sound art concern themselves with the material and perceptual properties of sound. There is much talk of "vibrations," and "resonance," and  "immersion," and "affect." I told Barbara London that I was worried that MoMA would patronize sound, allowing it to wallow in its own material output. The rough equivalent in the visual arts is op-art, an approach that does not demand (or merit) serious critical response. If MoMA doesn't consider op-art an important contemporary movement, I asked Barbara, why present sound works which explore similar acoustic territory? Surely, if the (visual) art world is now willing to embrace sound, it should do so according to the same criteria of quality and engagement that it demands of other media. And it's not as if there is no such work. Off the top of my head, I could name a dozen really good artists who make sound do difficult, real-world work: Ultrared, Johannes Kreidler, Christof Migone, Sharon Hayes, Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson, Mattin, Carey Young, Mutlu Cerkez, James Hoff, Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick, Phil Niblock, G. Douglas Barrett, Marina Rosenfeld,... To my knowledge, none of these artists is included in the MoMA show. From the conversations I've had with Barbara London, and from the promotional materials I've seen about Soundings, it seems as if we are in for the show I feared.

The reasons to fear this are many. With any sound exhibition, I hope for works that transcend their own material concerns, that don't rest on an imagined set of laurels granted to sound as the medium par excellence of the ineffable. But when MoMA decides to mount a sound show, the stakes are higher. I fear that a show like this could set the critical agenda for sound for years to come. I fear that artists already (and not yet) working in sound, will mistakenly take the parameters of this show as the parameters of the field. I fear that other exhibiting institutions, funding organization, and the critical-journalistic establishment will similarly mistake this tissue sample as symptomatic of the whole body of work being done in and with sound. 

Before I continue, an important caveat: this exhibition has not yet opened at MoMA. I could be wrong about the kind of work represented. I will return to this post after I've experienced the show and reassess the projected realization of my fears. (I warned you this would be sloppy.) 

But now, back to Turrell and Irwin. Given the attention and considerable resources being paid to their work at major museums in New York this summer, I'm now developing additional fears. Perhaps the embrace of sound as a viable medium in the art world is not simply patronizing. Perhaps the problem is not a dearth of curators well-versed in the practitioners and problematics of the field. Perhaps what's happening is that the art world is turning away from Path 2 conceptualism, the one engaged with language and politics, and turning toward Path 1, the one that discards "hard" materiality, in favor of the "soft" materiality of light, space, and time. If this is the case (and I think it is way too early to tell, but I'm vigilant), then the embrace of sound may be evidence of a turn toward the ineffability to which sound has always claimed privileged access. Perhaps, confronted with avalanching evidence of state and corporate corruption, of the theft and cooptation of private communications and online behavior, of base manipulation of societal values for the gain of a select few, perhaps the art world would prefer to escape to soothing environments of diffuse light and sound. Turrell's inchoate spaces of wombessence seem safe from such encroachments. But it's impossible to play possum. While you're in the soft space of light, the NSA and Facebook are still collecting your data. The money in your bank account is still being used to fund who-knows-what without your knowledge or consent. The government you elected is still imprisoning and targeting people with whom you have no beef. 

Is sound being used to license a move away from linguistic, philosophical, engaged, conceptualism and toward a kind of ambient conceptualism? To my mind, this would signal the "immaterialization," of the art object, rather than the "dematerialization." The former indicates a passive, immersive, amorphous experience; while the latter (Lippard's term) has always meant, for me, a critical response to commodity objects and their attendant fetishisms. I have held out hope that the positive movements of the last 40 years of art history: Path 2 Concetpualism, Institutional Critique, Feminism, Post-Colonialism, Relational Aesthetics, Social Practice, et al., would infect sound practice and bring it into phase with the important art of our times. It would pain me (but not surprise me) if, instead, sound is coaxing the art world into a state of nebulous, naive, navel gazing.

Sloppy indeed. But I wanted to get this "out" sooner than later. That's what this blogging's all about, right? More soon...

Here's Part Two.


  1. Hi Seth
    This is a useful and interesting series of ideas. I spoke to Barbara when she was in Sydney and raised similar issues around some projects I was doing at the time.
    There is at least one artist you should include in your list of artists working with sound in contemporary ways and that's Marco fusinato who is part of the MoMA show. You might have read about him in Brandon Joseph's feature in artforum. He is also part of my Soundfull exhibitions doing the rounds in Nz for which he created a 7metre by 24metre mural. See Marco's website for what he has been up to.

  2. Thanks, Caleb! My list was truly off the top of my head and not complete by a long shot. Marco and a whole host of others would surely be on the complete list.


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