The Power of Speech vs the Originality of Language: David Joselit in conversation with MFA Art Practice

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During our Summer 2013 residency period, scholar and critic David Joselit delivered a lecture about themes in his recently published book, After Art. Afterward, he stayed for a discussion with Chair David A. Ross, faculty members Robin Winters and Mark Tribe, and current Art Practice participants. Here’s the transcript from that discussion: 

AP Participant: I had a question about the notion of singularity. Is it necessarily a great work of art that has singularity? Or, are some artworks more singular than others?

David Joselit: By this definition it kind of makes it possible to do an end run, run around, the value judgment, “great.” To instead say, what it is is the capacity to continue living: it’s about the work continuing to generate some kind of response to the world. But it could be in storage. Or it could be in somebody’s closet. It could be out another day.

I don’t mean that for a work to have a life that it necessarily has to be on you permanently in a public way. But rather that it continues to have the real capacity to generate encounters….

AP Participant: So by that definition, it necessarily depends on the viewer or audience’s response to that artwork going forward?

David Joselit: Yes, but, what a great work of art—I even really believe in great works of art, but I think that that way of looking at works of art can be, as we all know, very limiting, and also, it’s super hierarchical and problematic in a number of ways. So I think that what this particular definition, and I’m not absolutely sure that that definition completely holds, but what I’m trying to say is that the value of the work is in what it generates as opposed to the qualities that it may have within its material substrate. So yes, it is the kind of responsibility, lets say, of keeping the work alive that is displaced both from the work and from the artist who made it. Although, I do think that a lot of artists have always, but especially during the modern era, thought a lot about the future circulation of their work. So it’s quite possible that an artist would think about future circulations as part of what he or she is doing when making.

AP Participant: You spoke about Ilya Kabakov. His works that were sold—8 of “The 10 Characters” series. Isn’t the artist powerless in that situation? Because it’s one collector selling the body of work to another collector. How can the artist take responsibility for what becomes of their work once it’s been sold?

David Joselit: One way that he seemed to– he did this before his works were sold—he issued this much less expensive reproduction. There’s always a way, when the artist is still alive, that the artist can try to manage the dissemination of reproduction.

David A. Ross: But aren’t you saying that it’s one thing that an artist has to consider, in relation to their practice, how they would manage the future life of that work, on any number of levels—once it gets sold, if it gets sold to a certain kind of place. You can put certain ideas about its use into a document about that work if you’ve thought about its potential use or potential value. You could prohibit certain kinds of display; you could refuse to acknowledge, as, for instance Dan Flavin would refuse to acknowledge a work if someone used the wrong tube as a replacement. He would say, “It’s no longer my art.” Or Richard Serra when the “Tilted Arc” was moved from its site in lower Manhattan. He said, “It no longer is what it was. Now it’s just steel. And it’s in a junkyard. I have the power to remove its artness by the fact that I was the maker of it.”

Even after the fact, an artist could say that. You know in Canada, there was a law for a while where an artist could reject having a work, legally, put in a group show that they didn’t want it to be in, even thought they didn’t own it.

David Joselit: I think that people have tried to make that happen here too. 

David A. Ross: Yes, well Hans Haacke famously would not allow his work to be in a show that was supported by Phillip Morris.

Robin Winters: Cady Noland just won a lawsuit about that, because things that were being sold at auction had been damaged.

David A. Ross: Right. That’s another issue. The question is: are we now putting a new set of moral burdens on every artist by saying, “You have to live up to your work of art.”? As Barbara Kruger said, I don’t have to be as good as my work talks about being. I can be whoever I want to be. My art is a character like a novelist creates characters. I don’t have to be that character that my art it.

But she could be, if she wants to. I think that what David is saying is that artists don’t have to live up to this new standard. It’s just another range of things that you now have the possibility of under your control if you recognize the potential to alter its meaning in the long term. Am I right?

David Joselit: Yes—I mean, you know, Duchamp is probably not a good model. He’s the perfect model, but probably a hard model to emulate. He’s someone that as part of his practice frustrated and orchestrated the dissemination of his work. On the one hand, he was not working for many years. On the other, he was making his last work in secret, “Étant donnés.” He made sure that this work went to the Philadelphia Museum, and then it was only known after his death. But also, earlier in the way that he disseminated and re-issued the readymades. I think a lot of artists working now who are very conscious in ways that maybe aren’t as world-historical. I think that Duchamp was one of the first to really think about the career as a plastic thing.

David A. Ross: But to think about historicizing that kind of conscious practice, does that get in the way of making a pure work of art just for its own sake, and not caring about any of its reception-quality potentials?

David Joselit: I think it’s fine to not care. But I think it’s also probably wiser to realize that that’ll lead to certain results that you may or may not be happy with. I mean, I really don’t know how one can be fully responsible, but I do think that there are a lot of artistic practices that are purposefully acknowledging that. For instance, I’ll just give you a more contemporary example than Duchamp, someone like Seth Price who’s constantly revising his work, and also allowing for it to be distributed—certain kinds of work are free online, but other things sell for a lot—more than I can afford for sure, and so there’s a kind of mixed way. Then someone like Cheyney Thompson, who’s a painter in New York, did this show of truly horrible paintings that were intentionally terrible as objects, and they were a kind of unit, in terms of each one being scaled to a certain kind of system, but then they were sold—then they go out in the world, and does their theoretical meaning collapse into a kind of bad painting—I don’t know. Was that really his intention? I also don’t know that. But it seems to me that there are ways of doing this. I’m really not into being prescriptive. What I can say is I admire certain practices, and I do admire practices that take that into account. And, as a critic, I can say that. But I don’t think that I can say, “Art should be or you should be doing that.” I don’t think that’s a good thing to be doing.

Robin Winters: I was at Michael Asher’s memorial, and Benjamin Buchloh gave a talk about Michael. There were a lot of artists in the room, and he laid out the claim that Michael Asher and Marcel Broodthaers were the two most uncompromised artists of the twentieth century. This was his prescriptive statement.

David Joselit: It may seem from what I said that to not compromise is the goal, but I don’t actually. I think that that is an impossible ambition.

Mark Tribe: I think that there’s a couple of different ways to think about the responsibility of the artist: On the one hand, you can think of it as an obligation. “I am responsible. I am obliged to respond.” You can also take it more literally as “I am able to respond. I have this ability to respond.” And, there are lots of different ways to respond. Ilya Kabakov probably can’t tell Abromovich how to display or not to display his work, but there are artists who do make that responsibility part of their practice. For instance, someone who comes to mind is Tino Sehgal, who’s a performance artist who refuses to allow his work to be documented, no photographs for example, things like that.

David Joselit: Yes—even when he sells a piece, there’s no program, so it all has to be an oral transmission.

Mark Tribe: Which is interesting too, because he’s resisting the reduction of his work into a profile. If you think of the profile as this flattening of accumulation of singularities– to go back to your idea of multitude– as an accumulation of singularities that doesn’t have reduce them to a kind of spectacular commodity.

David Joselit: I mean, I don’t think an artist has to, but I really do think that it’s wise, if one wants to be an artist under these particular, current conditions, to at least think of how you want to…

David A. Ross: On the other hand, Agnes Martin once made the statement that the happiest moment of her life was the day any painting left her studio, because it would be like a child going out into the world and being on their own, and it’s up to it to have a life. And, she did the best she could while the picture was in her studio, now it belongs to the world, and she’s no longer responsible for it. 

David Joselit: But that can be your decision. See, that’s a very decisive point of view that she developed for herself, which was probably very helpful in assisting her in maintaining her sanity as an artist. Not everybody is going to have the same response, but I do think that it’s a reality that impinges, probably on almost every artist. 

AP Participant: I’m thinking more about the idea of profiling. When you were talking about it, it’s sort of Heidegger concept of time—running ahead and looking back constantly is sort of something that everyone does. I’m hung up on this concept of profiling, and the artist looking at themselves and the concept of self. And, there’s ways of controlling that through anonymity or other sorts of collective practices, but I’m wondering if you have any other examples of artists who don’t agree with others profiling their practice.

David Joselit: Well, I think someone like Hito Steyerl, for instance, is really interesting in this regard, because a lot of her work really focuses on taking a documentary point of view, and then somehow stepping back and making it clear how the representation is actually a game. So, you are seeing a profile in construction and deconstruction… That’s not really the right use of deconstruction—it’s more like unraveling. Something is coming into being and then unraveling. I think that a lot of the sort of montage related practices, in objects and in pictures, flat and spatial, are really about this kind of threshold in coming together and coming apart. I really think that threshold between a kind of field that isn’t legible and something that somehow crystallizes that is something a lot of people are working out, and they may not have profiling on heir minds. Again, it’s a critical—I think there are some artists who really do have profiling on their minds. I mean, it’s clear that someone like Seth Price really is thinking about profiles. But, one thing a critic does is try to analyze something that’s happening that may not be what is consciously stated as the intention of the people doing it. And that goes into the world, and people either say, no, that’s bullshit; that’s a projection, or people think that there’s some usefulness in it. It’s the same thing—either they want it or they don’t. I don’t know if I really answered your question.

AP Participant: I think that when you were talking about profiling, I was thinking about it in a very contemporary sense as something that’s happening more, but I guess I was also thinking that this doesn’t seem very related to the time. It seems like something that is part of documenting history.

David A. Ross: Is criticism itself subject to the notion of profiling?

David Joselit: I mean, I’m sure. Since I’ve been an editor of October, I hear constantly that there is an October…. “whatever.”

Robin Winters: Well—profile

David Joselit: Yeah—and now that I’m implicated in this profile, I’m more sensitive to it. The thing is that power, one of the things that generates power is legibility, and I think that if you can make legible a certain something, then you can affect it, you can use it, you can assault it, you can make a profit on it, in ways that you can’t if it hasn’t crystallized. So, you know, this is probably as old as time, but I’m not interested in value through innovation. I’m trying to train myself to not think in terms of innovation as being what matters, because—I know I’m veering a little—which is largely because I want to try to think about how to deal with globalization, in terms of art, as well as other ways, because I think you have to deal with the question that some practices are going to look derivative because, they were invented somewhere. Maybe here in this very city. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used somewhere else. That’s like saying you can only drive a Mercedes in Germany…. I think that we have to start getting off that mark, critically. And, you know, the October profile is not a profile actually.

David A. Ross: So you’re speaking against the notion of originality in that kind of crude sense? 

David Joselit: Yeah, which is nothing new either. We all know that critiques of authorship are now, what, sixty years old. But I think that it’s a very difficult habit to get rid of, somehow. Even someone like Sherrie Levine is innovating through her gesture of that. I’ve been trying to think of a thing I’m writing at the moment, about international styles in a serious way, and I went back to read Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s book about international style which I’m sure, most of you know, is about architecture and published in 1932. And already they say is something interesting, which is that the style is not a mold, it’s a tool for growth. And so I think that if we say that some kind of post-conceptual vocabulary or medium is an international style now, then maybe it doesn’t matter that it was invented in Europe and the United States. Maybe that doesn’t give European and American art a priority. I don’t know– for me, it’s been a liberating kind of way to shift things a few inches one way or another.

David A. Ross: Another kind of crude question—how does this notion of singularity, and this notion of profiling, relate to the Benjaminian notions of aura?

David Joselit: I think that it is probably structurally similar, but it’s not geographically unique. In other words, for Benjamin, it had to be the original to have the aura. He also talked about how reproductions can create social effects, so I’m really saying—I think it’s that, in that moment that the experience continues to generate. That in fact you don’t really need the thing itself at a certain point. I think that so much of art that I see, everywhere, is making that point. It doesn’t matter. The wherever. The kind of gold standard things, the generating capacity is in many different places.

So I’d say that it is a kind of pluralization, geographically, of aura, that anything can generate, or anything that does generate, you can call that an aura. That’s what an aura is— a generative effect.

David A. Ross: But it also has an economic effect. Value. Original—more value. Copy—less value. Multiple—less value, or dispersed value. How do you relate this concept to notions of the economy of globalized art?

David Joselit: It has to do always with the value of the enunciation of the performance of it, and that’s why I think the Tino Sehgal example is a good one—what matters is not the invention of the language, but what you say with the language. So, someone like Ai Weiwei has not invented any new format for art, but he’s said some very compelling things within the existing practice of the readymade, the document, the score, performance, etc. So, I think it would be about the power of speech as opposed to the originality of language.

Mark Tribe: Ai Weiwei is an interesting example to think about vis-a-vis the notion of singularity, because a lot of his work is so contingent. I’m not sure that it can keep on giving.

David Joselit: You know, a work can keep on giving in discourse too. I think it’s important to maintain that possibility. That’s one of the things that conceptual art really demonstrate clearly, that a work– I hate to go back—you’ll think I’m obsessed, but you know, the readymade which arguable has had the biggest effect, or one of the biggest effects on art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, you know, the first one to be publicly exhibited was instantly lost. That object doesn’t exist. So… it can be contingent.

Mark Tribe: No. I guess what I mean is—of course it can disappear and be talked about, but a lot of what he does is really political, in the sense that you were invoking the tension of the political around artwork earlier. It doesn’t really work around artworks. It’s contingent. It’s only really relevant for a little while. It probably won’t be talked about a lot. I mean, I think his whole figure might be resonant. And some of his work. But a lot of his work, was very—responding to the earthquake.

David A. Ross: Yes, but Kabakov—going back to Kabakov, the works he made when he fled Moscow, was living in Paris, and was beginning to be known in the late seventies and were commenting on the depressed life of the contemporary Soviet, has a different kind of resonance today. That’s what you’re saying, right? It has a resonance that now we are a free, democratic, people and this work reminds us of the time when Kabakov—who, by the way, did not have the word “Soviet” on his passport; his passort had the word “Jew,” and he couldn’t travel out of the Soviet Union because he didn’t actually have a passport that said, “Soviet,” and the first time that he was asked to show in Venice, he refused, because it was sill pre-the fall of the Soviet Union, and he said, How can I show for the Soviet pavilion; I’m not Soviet. So he kind of turned that back on them. He eventually showed, after the fall, but, so he has taken, at a certain point in time, responsibility vis-à-vis the state. The fact that he hasn’t taken responsibility, or maybe he has—I don’t know—with Roman Abramovich…

David Joselit: And the fact is, he didn’t sell to Roman Abramovich. Another collector did. I don’t know if maybe he could have stopped it from happening. But I don’t want to blame him. I don’t think that that’s productive. That’s really really not my point at all. It’s more, as you say, that the ground shifts, and if we’re really thinking about the work of art as in the world, its meanings persist, but they also transform.

David A. Ross: But doesn’t this mean that the artist can also shift into the role of critic of their own work, and the placement of their work at a certain point in time? Write out their work in a new context and convey a certain new set of meanings from their perspective, without rejecting the work or getting, necessarily legally engaged, but just saying, “Here’s how this work now functions for me, as the person who made this work, and I have a critical response to it.”

David Joselit: Yeah, there are tons of great examples of that—Dan Graham, Robert Morris, you know—it’s not unintelligent—Martha Rosler—it’s not a bad idea to send out the meme before the critics get in, if you really want to control how people are going to see it.

David A. Ross: Martha Rosler, bringing back those montages that she made during the Vietnam war, recently, during the Iraq war, and kind of re-circulating that body of images, under a new framework, I think is the perfect example of an artist who also takes the role of critic, even critic of her own work in a new context. And, you know, what constitutes an artist’s practice today—what range of tools do you need to feel that you have access to, and range of responsibilities that you have to make decisions about. I think that’s what you’re saying. 

David Joselit: I mean, it’s really hard to be an artist.