Forty years after the dematerialization of the art object

This article was originally posted three years ago on the old Red Wedge site. In the past three years my ideas on the following have continued to evolve, particularly on the question of narrative conceptualism and the role of the avant-garde. At the same time there are still things I agree with, and due to popular demand (okay one person asked about it who hadn't read it before) I am reposting it to the Evicted Art Blog.

2013 marks the fortieth anniversary of Lucy R. Lippard’s classic text on conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Adam Turl submits some not entirely random notes on the state of art forty years later. 


A statement by Lee Lozano, a central figure in 1960s conceptual art and the Art Workers Coalition


1. The Great Escape

Forty years ago the writer and art critic Lucy Lippard produced her definitive anthology of conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Conceptual art, more of a moment than movement, was one of art’s last great attempts to escape capitalism.

Conceptual art emphasized ideas, language and ephemeral performances. It positioned itself against—even as it grew out of—the heroic scale of minimalism, the “machismo” of abstraction and the commercialism of Pop art. It sought to decouple art from object, and in so doing, separate art from commodification.

In the decades since 1973 such “utopian” dreams have been torn asunder by daily grinds, the triumph of a worldwide art market and an ongoing suspicion of “grand narratives”—all of which are underpinned by global neoliberal capitalism.

As Lippard outlines in her essay, “Escape Attempts,” artists’ radical impulse to free art from its institutional fetters and commodity status came in tandem with other radical energies of the time: the antiwar, civil rights, Black power, and women’s liberation struggles.

The Art Workers Coalition (AWC) was formed in 1969. Minimalist and conceptual art exhibitions were held to benefit the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

The Ad Hoc Women Artists Committee—connected to the AWC—countered the Whitney Museum’s lack of female artist representation by issuing a fake press release “stating that there would be fifty present women (and fifty percent non-white)” artists represented in a 1970 sculpture exhibit. Evidently the FBI was sent to investigate the fraudulent press release.

Interestingly, while many of these artists embraced radical politics for a time, only a few consistently made overtly political works. Most poured their energies into revolutionizing art itself, escaping the confines of the art-object’s commodity status, hoping to make art a free-floating, more democratic, less material process.

Missionary zeal informed the heyday of conceptual art. Lippard recalls:

[I]n 1969, as we were imagining our heads off … I suspected that “the art world is probably going to be able to absorb conceptual art as another ‘movement’ and not pay too much attention to it. The art establishment depends so greatly on objects which can be bought and sold that I don’t ‘expect’ it to do much about an art that is opposed to the prevailing systems.” … By 1973, I was writing with some disillusion… “Hopes that ‘conceptual art’ would be able to avoid the general commercialization, the destructively ‘progressive’ approach of modernism were for the most part unfounded. It seemed in 1969… that no one, not even a public greedy for novelty, would actually pay money, or much of it, for a Xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for a work never to be completed, words spoke but not recorded… Three years later, the major conceptualists are selling work for substantial sums here and in Europe… Clearly, whatever minor revolutions in communication have been achieved by the process of dematerializing the object… art and artists in capitalist society remain luxuries.

As Lippard puts it, any escape from art’s status as a commodity was only temporary. Art was placed back in its white-walled prison cell.

Two things strike me about the heady years of conceptual art’s ascension:

1)    From a scientific and strategic standpoint conceptual art’s attempt to escape commodity fetishism was doomed from the beginning—as were similar overtures from Fluxus in the early 1960s and Dada in the 1910s and 1920s. Classical Marxism is largely correct that revolution, based on large social forces, is necessary to abolish capitalism and commodity relations.

2)    Yes, from a theoretical standpoint (in which the point of theory is the actual transformation of systems) conceptualism failed. But without its idealism conceptualism would not have the same meaning. Conceptual art was the product of its artists’ zealous utopianism. Without the dream the art would not be the same art. It would not have even been possible.


If you ever studied conceptual art in school you saw this picture: Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965)


2. “On a Mission from God”

Ben Davis, author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, is right when he argues there is a tendency among academics to give too much political weight to art. At the same time artists must believe their work has transformative power. The process of creation requires the artist to project a multitude of meanings into his or her work.

Metaphorically speaking the artist must be, like Jake and Elwood, on a mission from (or against) God. All art must aim to “change the world” in part or in total. It does not necessarily matter, from an artistic point of view, that this is likely a Quixotic endeavor.

As Marxists we cannot proscribe a political, conceptual or aesthetic path for art. As artists, however, we must chart such a path. Not because the petit-bourgeois nature of art demands we constantly brand ourselves, but because the art process itself insists we imbue the things we create with meaning.

Agnosticism is simply out of the question.

Saving orphans, punishing Nazis and going to jail.

3. Beyond Belief

This necessity of belief stands in contrast with many of the dominant theoretical ideas of the past few decades.

In the mid-1990s I saw an excellent exhibit at the old Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) of then-contemporary art from the former Soviet-Bloc nations of Eastern Europe. The title of the show, Beyond Belief, encapsulated the triumphant post-modern approach to explanatory narratives. The artwork was presented, in part, as a post-mortem on the “God that failed.”

The work, however, was shaped by contradictory relationships to actual political failures, revolutions, national oppressions and tyranny. The art dealt in deeply felt meanings—in stark contrast to the increasingly cynical approach that reigned elsewhere.

Like the work of Ilya Kabakov, many of the artists in Beyond Belief did not so much reject narratives, but sought to create new myths and stories out of the failed and contradictory signs bequeathed by the collapse of European “communism.”

The work, even if it wanted to, did not stand outside of history.

As almost everyone now agrees, post-modernism is gone, if not as a period of time, as a useful theoretical construct. The artists of the West, surrounded by economic decline, torrents of racism and sexism and ongoing imperial wars, can no longer pretend that history has ended.

Disbelief in the present is what produces the increasingly transparent “art-world” gestures of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, James Franco, Jay Z and Marina Abramović. What, exactly, is the project of these figures other than the reproduction of their own brands? That Hirst and Abramović once had something to say only underlines their emptiness.

As artists we have been ill prepared in our education to confront either art’s failures or the world’s crises. Through too many professors and art critics and theorists we have learned a faded echo post-modern disbelief. Two generations of artists have now suckled at an empty breast. As a result we are malnourished.

Art can and should serve political ends. But for art to be art at all it must actually serve an ends—not be a perpetual means unto itself. The ends may be political, spiritual, moral, or merely human—but the ends must be served.


Czech artist David Černý’s Untitled (similar to his piece installed at Chicago’s MCA in 1995)


Adam Turl is an artist, writer and socialist currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes the "Evicted Art Blog" at Red Wedge, which is dedicated to exploring visual and studio art. His most recent exhibitions were Thirteen Baristas at the Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas and Kick the Cat at Project 1612 in Peoria, Illinois.



"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.