Burgin Chapter 9

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S.R. ... You were already talking about the historical references to the modernism of Greenberg and the difference between minimal art and conceptualism. I want to turn a little bit more to conceptualism and the question if there is something like a field of conceptual practices, or a field of conceptualisms. ... Then, we can define or we have to define something like paradigms if we want to have something like a definition; this is the reason why I ask: Do you think that the conceptual paradigms are still in function? Or, to put the focus at the question a little bit differently: Can new conceptual approaches be realized in contemporary art and society?

V.B. The origins of what we call conceptualism, historically, are in the late 60s, developments into the early 70s, quite a relatively short historical period. Those I would see now with the benefit of hindsight, but, by the mid-70s I was totally convinced that this was history, but earlier than that the origins of what we call conceptualism were very much modernist –  so to put a bit crudely, one could say that minimal sculpture moved away from what they considered »illusionism« in painting. So Greenberg was hoist by his own petard, to use that odd expression which, I think, is a naval expression, originally – he had a totally different approach to the object, but it was in the interest of a kind of Greenbergian kind of desire for movement and for innovation – and for purity, »essence«, a kind of essentialism. And that started us down the path. To speak anecdotally, when I was at Yale in the mid-60s, Donald Judd was visiting ... and Robert Morris came up from New York to teach there; Robert Morris said in one of his articles that he wanted his work to be no more or less important than any of the other terms in the room. To translate that, I would say that his great cube in the middle of the gallery was to be of no more interest than the molding along the wall or in the ceiling or the door frame or any of those other objects. I actually asked him: Then why have your object? Why not just direct your attention towards the room; he actually denied having written that, because he wasn't able to answer the question. When I made this early work, »Room«, that was exhibited at the Camden Art Center in 1970, in a sense it was an answer to that question; there was no object in these minimal sentences pasted to the wall, but all of which directed your attention to your own active perception; the only object became a kind of mental construct. Donald Judd, when he came out to Yale, I remember him once saying – and the 'light went on', you know – : 'A form that was neither geometrical nor organic would be a great discovery; it occurred to me that the only form that was neither ... nor ... was an immaterial form, so: a mental form. That for me - and I'm speaking anecdotally – wasn't the same for everyone else; but it was those kinds of phenomenological concerns for me were the origin of my own version of so-called conceptualism, allied to, welded with a kind of late 60s radical rejection of the market society, the society of the spectacle, the commodity society. That was the beginning for me, absolutely. ... Today it's a completely debased currency; anything, which isn't a painting, is a piece of conceptual art, and most paintings are claimed as being by conceptual artists. It's become totally redundant as a term, it's completely useless; ... it's a kind of a flag of convenience, or a badge of allegiance, or a brand name ... but it's meaningless, it's completely meaningless. I think there the response would be, in the words of T.S. Eliot: »O do not ask what is it, let us go and make our visit« – you know, the devil is in the details; don't say »Is it conceptualism or not?«; let's see what they are actually doing ... Wittgenstein: »Don't ask for the meaning of a word, look for the use!« What are these different artists – regardless of what they claim - what are they actually doing? What's their relation to the market, what's their relation to history? Then you can have the means of specifying particular practices and then grouping - in a kind of taxonomy – various practices together which is probably more valuable than simply saying »This is conceptual«, »This is not conceptual« ... – to get back to the idea of art as a way of thinking for me that's what I value in it but also that it's a site of the affect; in a sense it's where thinking and emotion come together in a way that's institutionally acceptable and framed –  I'm really treading on debatable gorund here, because I think probably philosophers would say that if you read a philosophical text and be moved, there would be something wrong with the text, because it's supposed to be within the realm of pure reason –  but I think that the affect enters into all of our relations to philosophy.


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