Unreal Nature

February 25, 2013

With What Is Possible

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

…  the role of the art instructor is to enable the student to connect his particular way of seeing with what is possible. … He can help the student to keep from closing doors and making assumptions …

This is from Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990 by Joseph Kosuth (1991). This is from the title piece, ‘A Short Note: Art, Education and Linguistic Change’ first published in 1970:

… Up until the very recent past it has been assumed that if one wanted to speak as an artist he had to speak in the ‘correct’ language. That’s how we knew he was an artist and what he made was art or meant to be art. Whatever was done, it had to be done within that language. One reason for this was the notion that art was defined by its morphological characteristics. This means that the arena of artistic activity was arbitrarily arrived at by the demands of primarily non-art functions. That is, to put it simply, by the decorative needs of architecture. A further confusion in this regard was the prevalent notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and decoration and taste.

In art before the ‘modern’ period the language form was the carrier of “the depiction of religious themes, portraiture of aristocrats, detailing of architecture” and so on. The modern period brought an end to art’s invisibility and first painters and then sculptors began to focus on art’s language — not as a means, but as an end. While art was still being conveyed by the use of the same language form (painting and sculpture) it was vastly different from earlier ‘art’ because the ‘art condition’ became singularly identified with the language form itself. Up until ten years ago the modern period was about really only this one thing: the myriad uses of art’s language as art. Focusing on art’s language was the one immediate way to make art and only art without the confusion of subject matter or a new language form which might be interesting in their own right.

In the past few years artists have realized that their traditional language is exhausted and unreal. Whether it is because its roots go too far back to a world so completely different from our own that the old language, as art, isn’t believable or real anymore, or whether it is because all of the ‘limits’ have been reached, is difficult to know. We do now realize that anything can be art. That is, any material or element in any sense can be made to function within an art context. And that in our time quality is associated with the artist’s thinking, not as a ghost within the object.

Ideally, in the new art each artist creates his own language.* This was necessary for art to become a kind of ‘pure science’ of creativity — the new artist must not only construct new propositions, but attempt to create a whole new idea of art. And only if he manages to do this has he really made any individual contribution.

What effect will this change in art have on the educational needs of the artist? The change is of course a radical one. Previously, when all artists used the same language, it was possible to predict what tools he would be using in the fashioning of that language. Since everyone seemed to know, if not what art was, at least the forms it would take, it was possible to set up a fairly rigid learning situation that all of the students would be subjected to equally. And it was assumed that the best students were the ones who acquired the necessary information the fastest. In retrospect, we can now see that the best students didn’t turn out that way in the modern period. Even within the confines of the old language, the work of the modern masters upon early exposure was usually ‘ugly,’ usually ‘didn’t look like art,’ and was also usually subjected to a great deal of ridicule — with intimations that it was either a fraud or a joke.

Nonetheless, most present day art schools are still based on the assumptions inherited from the 19th century, and most art educators are either uneasy about or openly hostile to students disinterested in the grammar lessons of the old language. Even in those schools that allow experimentation in the advanced years, the tone set for learning about the traditional modes of art in the earlier years is a moralistic one — implying that for one to be a true artist technical knowledge of painting and sculpture is mandatory. In reality, however, painting and sculpture courses are like laboratory art history studies. Actually studying painting and sculpture is not unlike learning Latin. Latin is useful for information (particularly to historians) but separate from the reality the young art student lives and thinks in.

But if the ‘real world’ is one of complete freedom, one where the artist not only plays the game alone, but makes up his own rules as well, is it even feasible to attempt to maintain an institution of learning for the artist? I believe it is. But only if the art educator can separate the ‘art’ from the ‘art history’ in every possible sense.  The most important role, if not the only role, now of the art school is to consider (metaphorically) the courses as ‘books,’ and run the school as a ‘library.’ The students are old enough to explore the ‘books’ and ‘read’ at their own pace. Technicians should be available for those students that need that sort of specific information, but the role of the art instructor is to enable the student to connect his particular way of seeing with what is possible. He can’t tell a student what art is because that will be up to the student to decide. He can help the student to keep from closing doors and making assumptions, and help him eliminate wasted time by informing him of known facts about his particular arena of activity.

[*Kosuth footnotes that with: “Or, in the case of lesser artists, accept as his own one recently formed.”]

My previous post from Kosuth’s book is here.



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