Contemporary conceptualism severs the ties of the art object with its own materiality. Somatic experience of art is no longer the key to grasping the meaning and role of a particular work, and its often socially and politically loaded content; senses are briefly employed, but coherent engagement with contemporary art will always be an elevated form of looking, hearing, participating, which essentially proves looking, hearing, and participating insufficient by themselves. Surely, this sounds like the way forward, involving awareness and presenting an alternative to empty, blind consumption that threatens to dull the reason through a saturation of senses. But what are the implications of this mode of relating to objects and art pieces to the larger engagement we have with reality?
With conceptual art and the rise of the readymade as an escape from a telluric experience of art, the ideas of authenticity, process, and the very category of “artwork” have become dependent on legal means and definitions. One example is the infamous case of the Bombay Mix, a mural by Damien Hirst painted directly on the wallpaper in a house in London. When the property was sold, the painting went with it, until 2007, when the owners decided to take down the work, mount it on an aluminium board, and sell it. The artist, however, refused to issue a certificate of authenticity for the relocated piece, which rendered the work worthless. The very history of the artwork is in an instant denied, and this denial holds, despite its absurdity. The afferent elements that carry the meaning towards the core of the artwork are in this case superior in value to the artwork itself: legal forms and language about the art piece become the true objects of value.
For many, the import of an “original” art work resides in its trace of humanity, greatness and genius, in the brush stroke, the presence of the artist at some point, facing his work and extending his own being into it. The idea of certifying or denying this humanity with a legal form exterior to the work itself is a perfect example of the many protocols of reality we circulate, which essentially appoint separate, parallel meanings to the real. Concern and anxiety over the form and content of reality are pervasive to contemporary life, to the way people engage with visual culture, and the role perceptual experience plays in the structure of knowledge. It's probably a matter of time before the concern and anxiety become the dematerialised objects of an artist's work.
The language of art is a language of doing, of touching, of tracing processes and objects of art in time and space, and recognising their materiality as interruption of the mundanity in which they appear: artwork, art-making, process, practice, body of work. The semantics of art is still anchored in a zone that implies craftmanship, creation by rearranging the molecules of life in a way that produces new truths, new events for the real. Does this linguistic disposition correspond to the “artmaking” of artists such as the notorious Jeff Koons, constantly involved in copyright issues, again a mark of a looming crisis around the concept of authenticity? As writer and critic Siri Hustvedt puts it, “the famous name ´Jeff Koons´ is not a signifier of greatness, but rather of art celebrity and money itself. … He himself is a commodity traded on the art market.” Like Koons, many conceptual artists delegate the actual production of art objects to other people, thus removing the notion of craft as a necessary category to art making.
Appropriation works are ubiquitous and arguably essential to an age where art functions partly as social criticism; the intervention of the artist resides in the extent of transformative action they take on the appropriated piece. This is hardly the case with Richard Prince´s New Portraits series. Prince does not make anything here, but he does conceive of a new way of thinking of, looking at, and engaging with existing visual material, the tension between subject and object in visual culture. The series is not without merit or relevance, as it considers and disturbs the idea of production, consumption, distribution and ownership of visual production in our digitally-deployed life. Of course, the fact that these re-contextualised Instagram portraits ended up sold for $100 thousand is telling of the current art market and the rollercoaster that is the process of valuing “works” of art.
So, what is the relationship between craft and concept today, and is this a relevant question? As early as 1953, Robert Rauschenberg explores the limits of art with Erased de Kooning Drawing; erasure, complete removal of the traces of genius and humanity accumulated on the canvas is probably the definitive work of transformation; context, however, plays a central part: the frame, the inscription, the language about the work are what define it, what helps the viewer elevate the sense into a higher form of engagement. There is no craft necessary to erasing, and yet this piece carries the traces of the intention the artist manifested. Rauschenberg didn't make anything, but it wasn't nothing. Art making is here art unmaking; not a denial of something, but an affirmation of something else. Is it perhaps necessary to rethink the language of art making today, in order to correctly engage with the distance between nothing and something else in contemporary art?
Words: Elena Stanciu