Art as Idea as Idea
An interview with Joseph Kosuth
Stuart Morgan: Your work is based on a critique, first of art, then of other disciplines: philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis...
Joseph Kosuth: What is the nature of making art? If it is not simply about fashioning forms and colours, then it has to do with the production of meaning. My practice is based on that assumption. If you begin there you realize that potentially everything is material for art, because at some point it has to have an aspect of concretion and must be framed in relation to people's lives. It does not need to illustrate or work with that, but it does need to have a connection to the community which produced it.
So art is about the making of meaning.
Yes, and that involves not only the assertion of meaning but also its cancellation, since one kind of meaning needs to be produced through cancellation or denial or erasure of a group of meanings.
Isn't that putting something forward to say nothing?
If you assume that you send a silver bullet of signification, yes. But within the context of lived lives, silence can also be meaningful. It is not necessarily a nihilistic act, like speaking in the wrong place; social and cultural context is important. Work like mine is concerned with an understanding of language which is pragmatized out of language. Certain artists who use words do not do so from that point of view.
You mean the words are used abstractly.
They're reified; they're used as objects. Such work begs a larger context, but the work is not reflexive of the larger context, so it deals with neither one nor the other. The words simply hang there as the signature style of a particular artist. A long time ago when I was reading about the philosophy of science, I found the theory of models in the sciences interesting because, according to that, there were models which were tests and models which were illustrations. For me, an artwork must involve a test. Art that doesn't work in this context consists of illustrations of what art might be. That work is best as a kind of product identification.
You're talking about work that denies conceptual art.
Yes: first, second, third generation, whatever. Not neo-conceptualism; those are younger artists with another agenda and that work has its own authenticity. It's the 'adults' who are to blame; they should know better.
This insistence on holding viewers responsible for making meaning has political ramifications, of course.
Certainly, but it is often depoliticized in the act of looking. Part of the problem with so much of our culture is that it prescribes passivity on the part of the viewer. Culture organized by official managers of culture is always about passive receiving, consumption. Add to that the tradition of painting and sculpture. The problem is that its forms become forms of authority. If I make a painting, it's not just that I go to an art space or buy the paint and canvas or a brush - which is a machine to make one kind of art - but that even doing that is so loaded with prior meaning that whatever I as an artist would say, as a form of authority it speaks so loudly that my voice could not possibly be heard. That's what I realized when I was 20, in the 60s in New York. I love painting; I was a painter and began studying painting when I was very young. So when I gave that up it was very painful. But I believed in art and had to give painting up. The reason Peter Schjeldahl, in 1968, called me 'The Savanorola of Conceptual Art' was that if I had a passion some then called dogmatic, it was a strong belief in the direction art could go if it was ever going to be more than decoration or neckties. 25 years later, we are even nearer to that critical point: whether art is going to be a serious and enriching part of our cultural life. And I still look and see which artists, first, but not just artists, share this sense of responsibility.
A responsibility for meaning. Is that why you write about your work?
What I learned from Ad Reinhardt was that he painted black paintings but he also taught, wrote texts about his works, drew cartoons, took part in panel discussions... His practice included an enormous production of meaning about what art was. You can't separate the paintings from the rest. It's the same with Judd and his writings. What we have now is a struggle over the meaning of art, between what I have called primary and secondary texts in relation to production.
Obviously you feel close to Ad Reinhardt, with his talk of endings. How does this place you historically?
He said he was making the last paintings he could make. So he really saw himself as the end of a certain art, but as he himself said, 'The end in art is always the beginning.' I've found myself in panel discussions about whether I am at the end of modernism or at the beginning of postmodernism but of course it doesn't matter because at any turn of a corner they are one and the same. When I first showed at Castelli I called my work 'post-Modern' in a yer for the exhibition because I felt I was at the beginning of a generation brought up in the shadow of Cubism but having as little relation to Picasso as it did to Velázquez.
One way in which you are postmodern is that you take on great modernists one after another by referring to them in your work.
One of the things my generation felt was that modernist art preserved the idea that with one work you could describe the world, with the limit on the element of play that that implies. All my works are focused on some aspect of my problematic but they deal with it in different ways. The example I always like to give is that if you have a superhighway or autobahn and you're on one side buying cigarettes and a friend is on the other but is unable to hear you because of the noise of the traffic, you send the same message in different ways - by miming, by shouting, by hand-signals... And there are overlaps as the message comes through. And across the process of a life as an artist, one can see connections between the gaps and say, yes, that whole activity means certain things but that's not the same as the attempt to make in one work that big picture of the world. It's simply that the integrity of the activity involves relations to a larger process which is dynamic, not static, because we can't depict the world like that. Nor can any grand system of philosophy. This attempt to totalise is all part of that world. That way our art continues to be an authentic activity which is not speculative, in the way that philosophy is speculative, and remains flexible and interacts with the world on that larger horizon where the consciousness of all of us is formed. And in this way art indirectly manifests philosophical 'pretensions'. That isn't to say one is trying to illustrate philosophy. On the contrary; precisely because it does not try to do so, it has the hope of being enriching as a cultural activity and, as well, inheriting the responsibility of being that which attempts to see questions rather than 'supply' solutions. Its product is to reveal the questioning process of the lives of specific individuals living at a particular moment.
You seem to be asking if art can be of any use. I wonder if you ask the same question of philosophy. Is there a postmodern philosopher?
Philosophy died such a particular death that philosophy begins again now as the history of philosophy. It's operating in the realm of the pragmatist, and finally you end up in a job in industry! Does that colour its meaning? It's obvious artists have to resist the market, but not ignore it. For, not unlike Eisenhower's 'military-industrial complex', there is an art-historical market complex in which there's a validating process. There is a way in which forms of authority, the traditional forms of art, continue to appear to have a new life over and over again because of the conservative mechanisms of the market. The developments in art which question that are tolerated only up to a certain point. If, using the model of Chinese politics, you see the history of the early part of the century as a two-line struggle between Picasso and Duchamp you understand how the world regarded Duchamp as opposed to the painting tradition which Picasso represents. Check auction prices for the past 50 years and compare the 'value' put on their work.
What effect has the market had on you?
I can't ignore it. In the 60s I began by trying to work outside of it. It is that social zone of projected meaning. I take some pleasure in the fact that artists like myself are skipped in the Saatchi Collection, for example. From Minimalism it hops to Neo-Conceptualism. And even though Judd said 'Everything sculpture has, my work doesn't,' in the end it became sculpture.
His did but yours didn't?
Well, I continue to fight for the meaning of my work, I haven't let the market define it. Individuals may support my work, but they're not buying sculpture. Besides the Saatchi Collection, look at the recent survey of American 20th century art at the Royal Academy. One entire strand is missing. Minimalism and Post-Minimalism are there, Conceptual art isn't. Perhaps finally they realised that Conceptual art had some subversive aspect and it got edited out so they could skip to Neo-Conceptual art. In the long term, that ratifies Conceptual art, I suppose, but in the short term it's difficult, because in this politico-economic system cultural engagement is expressed in economic terms. People who buy art are also sitting as trustees on the boards of museums. And museums decide what young artists see. There's a teaching dimension to our museums and galleries; they tell the young what kind of art to make or not make.
What does the term 'Neo-Conceptualist' mean to you? You were a Conceptualist and you are still working. Does that make you a Post-Conceptualist?
If it's authentic it remains authentic as long as the work continues to be relevant. If I was 22 again, would my work be different? Certainly, but my work is framed by my own history. I can't avoid that and that's part of my material; that's the context I'm obliged to account for every time I make art.
Let me ask the same question in a different way. You teach, your students make art, yet the context for their work is entirely different. They have a much easier time. They don't have to fight the battles you've already fought.
I disagree. Students have said to me 'You were so lucky. You could do all those things then, but see how difficult it is now.' I was in my early 20s in the mid-60s. And we had had Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism in rapid succession in a period of six or seven years. Not that one happened after the other, but when they had all arisen it really seemed that everything was used up. There was a lot of hand-wringing. It seemed like the most difficult time to be an artist. But look at all we did after that. You just apply yourself to the task at hand. These days I have advantages; my work has a context and there is the economic possibility to make it. Having money forms work just as not having money does. Much of my early work came out of the fact that I had absolutely no money. That wasn't the only reason it was ephemeral or used common objects or things that were not expensive, but what I believed in matched that situation. Now I have another job to do. At 48, I have other kinds of responsibilities, the 'play' of my work is less limited internally as well as externally, first, but I face my own location. Also, I can use what I've learned to try to make the situation more open for those who are forming their own questions, and are 'out of the loop'. But, yes, the economics are a factor.
Times are hard.
In the 70s in America a survey said that only 2% of artists could live from the sales of their work. I don't know how much worse it could be than that. As in the rest of society, a few get too much money and are hurt by it. If you are an artist - no, even if you are not an artist - and you know what to do with your life, having much more money than you need is almost the same as not having enough. Because you must cope with having that kind of economic power. Dealing with stocks and bonds and real estate takes away from what you want to be spending your time doing. It's equivalent to hustling around for money, trying to pay your studio rent. There's a very interesting relation between those two, time-wasting aspects of economic life.
Yet through your work you talk about the freedom of the artist. Your recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum was a major statement about the liberty of the artist, which is being challenged or eroded. Do you see this as one-off agitprop work, or some permanent strand?
My work is fragmentary. I want to be able to continue to play. Not enough artists do that any more. The artists of my generation, for the most part, are producing 'signature styles'; there is no longer the spirit of investigation or intervention in their work. They seem to be stuck in a 60s moment. Whatever they meant as a radical intervention in the 60s, these signature styles no longer mean the same now. They are really there for purposes of product identification. I have tried to free my work from that. The causal nexus of all the ways in which my work functions on the surface is evidence of how tightly connected it is at its centre.
You talk about models taken from other disciplines - the anthropological model, and so on... What is your current model?
More and more, I realize that my work exists in the gaps between models. This autumn I made a work at Margo Leavin in Los Angeles. And because it was in Los Angeles, I reduced the elements and used a different presentational format, so what it came down to was cartoons and quotes from philosophy: Thomas Hobbes, Blondie and Dagwood, Schopenhauer, whatever. People were surprised. They said 'You're stealing this cartoon and you could be sued.' They didn't worry about stealing the texts of Hegel and the others. Just the cartoons. So I said 'I'm not selling the cartoons. I'm not selling the text. My work is between the cartoons and the text. And that's what you're buying if you buy the work.' Of course, that hasn't been tested in court. I don't know if a businessman or a judge would see it from that point of view, but I think that's how it has to be regarded. Quite early in my career I realized that my work may be Conceptual but it wasn't Post-Minimalism nor, on the other hand, could it be explained by the idea of dematerialization. There were very intelligent examinations of my work by Lucy Lippard, the most sympathetic critic of the time. But she was very much part of the generation of Sol LeWitt and others, so understandably she saw the work from that point of view. We were doing something else. It wasn't simply to do with 'the dematerialization of the art object.' Whether it consisted of a grain of sand or a block of granite was irrelevant. It wasn't about materiality at all. It was about meaning.
You talk about the 'betweenness' of your meaning. There are other types of betweenness, territorial and scholarly, and I'd like to ask you about those. You travel constantly between the United States and Europe, for example, and live in both places.
Yes, I'm caught halfway between Europe and America, something of an outsider in both and yet very much at home. They are the two sides of a dialectic; they need each other. America has the 'place' in time. Europe is the source, the discourse; it gives meaning to our experience of the century. You can't have one without the other. The problem is to get past that, to look at the world's culture, that's the real problem, because integration ends by being the domination of the stronger. Do you want that? If you don't, all the other problems have to be faced: that always leads to misunderstanding the other culture.
Wasn't there a danger of that when you showed in the Hungarian Pavilion in Venice at the last Biennale?
I'm American, of course, but through my family I'm Hungarian in a nominal way, yet I was amazed to be offered that pavilion. When I asked them why, they said that my writing had been distributed underground and that my work had been known and used in the 70s and 80s as an alternative to Socialist Realism, so given the change of government it was important that I should be in their pavilion. The generation that was underground now begins to run things. The fact that I have a Hungarian family with a particular political history meant that the nationalists did not object to my selection - as uncomfortable as my anti-nationalistic statements made them - and the nature of that particular Biennale made it feasible. So it was a combination which worked...
In general, you are very critical of curating, especially by the museums. But now you are curating yourself. You are here in Britain to show your work alongside that of Ad Reinhardt and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who studied your work. Does that imply that you were Reinhardt's student?
Not exactly. He came to the Cleveland Art Institute as a visiting artist while I was a first year student. Most of the audience left his lecture about half-way through. I stayed, asked the only question, and we continued to talk afterwards. Reinhardt gave me his address and said, 'if you ever come to New York, look me up.' So, of course, I eventually did and found myself in his studio on Broadway. He used to buy me lunch occasionally and one day took me to lunch with Rothko. I immediately recognized in Reinhardt a kindred spirit. I can't imagine how he got invited to that school, by the way - after I left there the director attacked me at a faculty meeting and said I was the most destructive freshman in the history of the school. I took it as a compliment at the time. But the idea of Reinhardt, Felix and myself is not about the passing of a baton; it's about a conceptual practice.
Arguments for the conceptual aspects of Reinhardt's work puts you in an antagonistic position to art historians, not for the rst time. In his catalogue essay for the Reinhardt retrospective in 1991, Yve-Alain Bois proposed a formalist approach.
Reinhardt was always misunderstood, which means not understood yet. His relationship with The Museum of Modern Art is, of course, legendary, as it was with Clement Greenberg. It is both unfortunate and appropriate that MoMA would be the place Bois' rather creative piece of revisionist history would nd a publisher. I think it is rather scary for many artists to see the form ambition takes, now, for some of the younger art historians. Historical fiction has its place, but it should be correctly labelled. My essay for 'Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility' was a necessary response to Bois.
Are you talking about art historians or critics?
Art history is still the basis of the practice, but it is formed by criticism, and vice versa. Criticism tends to be less objectionable because it is just opinion added to the conversation, take it or leave it. Its subjectivity is defined. Opinion parading as 'objective' art historical writing is much more pernicious, and we can thank October for increasing quantities of that. But there is a need for writing which discusses the work's implications, so that both the work, and the writing on it, stands on its own.
The opposite would be some museum dictate.
Of course. As artists we object to the implication that museum choices are somehow an objective idea of 'the best'. In contemporary art that's impossible to assert. One can only introduce ideas into the conversation. I much prefer it when artists make exhibitions, take responsibility for the surplus meaning that the collectivity of individual works produces and don't try to validate with a list of 'importance'. That way the integrity of individual works remains intact and art is presented on its own terms.
First published in Issue 16