Conceptualism from a Spectator’s Perspective

I was supposed to write a paper on Wittgenstein and conceptual art. In the process, I [think] have bothered a good number of people with my own ignorance and rudimentary understanding of the subject. Perhaps, the source of my own difficulty lies with my very framework in dealing with the subject. My initial approach was basic: first, define my terminologies and show some theoretical texts, revealing the art-movement’s goals, methods, and motives, determining how and why art would result in such and such a way and not this and that way; second, apply some Wittgensteinian insights with the notions of Lebensformen and sprachspiel, informing the reflection, accompanied with citations from theoretical texts.

My hypothesis was that given a Wittgensteinian framework, conceptual art can be described as a language-game about language-games, showing the nuances involved in the social character of language, diverting from an essentialist definition as mere expression with meaning. It was to be described as an anti-poetic poetics. Furthermore, rejecting the usual definition of art as the expression with form and content, it embodies the fluid character of language in its varied uses and applications within a social symbolic exchange (defined here in the sense of Clifford Geertz’s definition of the term). Though the argument is sustainable as such, the paper reads as a mess of pretentious statements and sketchy arguments and inferences. In a nutshell, it was too prententious (allow me the redundancy) and I decided to scrap it altogether, thinking that one can write about it in sa tamang panahon, when a theoretical grounding is clearly established and the movement understood.

But, I am a mere spectator; not even an artist nor a poet (not even a philosopher!), to venture our in the artistic circles demands understanding, but the art-movement demands more. This piece is not an attempt to fill a hole left by a curiosity nor is it a propadeutic to one. Rather, they are mere scribbles on a notepad as when a spectator goes into a museum to view from his comfortable position and look at art as some object, a thing in the world with the qualities of a thing. He goes out and bangs away at his Mac the words [he thinks] can define art and further shape it. In short, the spectator has the air of a curator and the prententious snobbery of an art-critic (in the mode of New Criticism!!), writing for a future art collector who would gloss at his private collection as some masturbatory object, beating his chest, saying to himself: “what a sophisticated art-collector I am.” Am I that spectator, expecting some kind reimbursement after a hard day’s work? Perhaps, the difficulty of writing starts with that temptation (so prevalent among those who espouse hermeneutics) to find meaning after the literal text (work) already gave its juice, setting the coordinates of some deeper [existential] understanding of the text, admitting to oneself “now that we’ve done our hermeneutic job, let us leave the surplus behind.” If there is a spectator much worse than he is to-day, it is the hermeneutician, with an impression of some greater cultural and existential flare after the act of interpretation and the start of living.

It is this double tap from a hermeneutic spectator and the agent-spectator that I realize kept art as the subject of mere reflection of an artist’s inner feelings or external manifestation of his political [liberal] opinion. My mistake was to remain with Wittgenstein, a philosophical framework lukewarm to politics and reverts to vulgar multi-cultralism and blind cynicism about universalizing discourses wherein it ends up to necessarily state its political voice (a mistake that Chantal Mouffe often makes apropos of political passion and hegemony). Conceptualism is not about language nor does it have a vitalist and abstract conception of life; but an attempt to unravel antagonisms within art itself, revealing the underlying political struggle within society and the ideological fixation that co-opts art. In this case, Walther Benjamin is more relevant than Wittgenstein, since Benjamin’s response to the aesthetization of politics by fascism is to politicize aesthetics. In our neoliberal economic and social landscape, art is aestheticized marketplace, selling artistic sophistication and meaning, determined by the spectator for the spectator and his gang.

Not to really abandon a Wittgensteinian insight, conceptualism (from literary to visual) can be a demand to return to a rough ground, embedded in society. However, it does not cease as such but analyzes the conflicts within members of society and implores universal struggle inasmuch as the communist party does with the broad masses of workers. This is art without the added supplement that sustain art for the spectator, the objets petit a that the spectator introduces with hermeneutics. Conceptualism does not interpret what already was shown; it shows [simply].

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Conceptualism from a Spectator’s Perspective

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