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Kosuth: Art as Idea as Idea
interview was broadcast on WBAI on April 7, 1970. Kosuth, then twenty-five
years old, had already caused quite a stir as the conceptual artist.
One of the four participants in Seth Siegelaub's January 5-31, held
in a rented space in New York in 1969 and acknowledged as the first
exhibition of this art, he had for several years before this interview
discovered and brought together conceptual artists from various countries
and had been instrumental in organizing exhibitions and publications
concerning conceptual art. In the month of this broadcast he was in
a show at The New York Cultural Center--the first institutional exhibition
of Conceptual art in America--and following that, one at The Museum
of Modern Art called Information. Joseph Kosuth is represented in
New York by the Leo CasteIli Gallery. His first exhibition there had
taken place in the year before this interview.
Siegel: "Art as Idea as Idea" is a subtitle that you have been
giving your work since you first started photostating definitions
From the dictionary. Joseph, what do you mean by "art as idea as idea"?
Kosuth: Well, obviously, first one would question the necessity
for the repetition, why not just 'art as idea'? The 'device' of the
phrase is a reference to Ad Reinhardt, an early hero of mine. But
the point is very much mine. Like every one else I inherited the idea
of art as a set of forrmal problems. So when I began to re-think my
ideas of art, I had to re-think that thinking process, and it begins
with the making process. So what happened was a shift within what
I understood was the context of the work. 'Art as idea' was obvious;
ideas or concepts as the work itself. But this is a reification--it's
using the idea as an object, to function within the prevailing formalist
ideology of art. The addition of the second part 'Art as Idea as lea'
intended to suggest that the real creative process, and the radical
shift, was in changing the idea of art itself. In other words, my
idea of doing that was the real creative context. And the value and
meaning of individual works was contingent on that larger meaning,
because without that larger meaning art was reduced to decorative,
interesting to see, on the level of practice, how work works. The
works of mine that are more well known, to use as an example, are
the definitions from the First Investigations. The early photostats
were of definitions of materials I had been working with earlier,
such as water, because of their indeterminate formal properties. I
was trying to escape formalism, but I was trying to do it within its
own terms, unfortunately. Earlier I had used definitions in a different
kind of work using objects. It was a bit of a tangent effected by
philosophy I had been reading, but very useful in opening up my idea
of art. I realized then I could use the definitions alone in solving
my dilemma about formless forms--in other words, by just presenting
the idea of water 'art as idea.' But meaning doesn't function in a
linear direction, it's more multi-directional. Using a text as art
raised questions, using a photograph as art raised questions, the
artifact of a dictionary definition raised questions. This was about
the time I started reading a lot of language philosophy as well and
this paved the way for me to start thinking about art in relation
to language. It became clearer to me that the material of the work
was these series of contexts or levels. It seems to me that when work
works that's how it works.
Siegel: If "Art as Idea as Idea" is the subtitle, then what's
Kosuth: On the photostats I titled them all the same. It was titled
already within the work, so I just titled the title.
Siegel: Which depends on it being an abstraction?
Kosuth: That's what it was about. It was my way of dealing with
abstraction. Art is always abstract. When you think about it, who
is more abstract: Duchamp, Magritte, or Pollock? As I was saying a
minute ago, besides all the art of this century which is evidence
to the contrary, we inherited a philosophy of art that has a strong
decorative, formalist bias. So as art students we are handed a set
of presumptions: palettes, brushes, canvases, and a philosophy to
go with them. Of course often our limitations present themselves as
choices such as the one between geometric and organic forms. I remember
feeling very much that they had both been used up, but then where
was I? If such forms--which together include all forms-had become
invisible through overuse it had to mean that they are loaded with
too much meaning--traditional meaning. But even if you can't invent
new forms you can invent new meanings. I think that's really what
an artist does. So I felt that all art was abstract in relation to
cultural meaning, in the way that the noises we utter called words
are meaningful only in relation to a linguistic system, not in relation
to the world. That seemed to me a more interesting idea, more open
and challenging, than the Cubist idea of abstraction we inherited,
which is a formalist one of abstracting from . . . from 'nature.'
Like in art school where you abstract a leaf to its 'essence' until
you can't see that it's a leaf anymore.
Siegel: What was the progression toward your form of abstraction?
Kosuth: After I stopped doing paintings in the traditional sense,
the first piece I did was one using glass because it was clear and
there were obviously no compositional problems as far as choice or
location or color. (I agree with Judd when he says that composition
is old world philosophy. I think it presumes as it constructs an interior,
magical space, which ultimately refers back to painting's earlier
religious use.) Also, I found that according to color psychology there
was more of a transcultural response to achromatic color--black, white,
and gray--than to the chromatic scale, which had a much more marked
difference among specific individuals as well as between cultures.
So my last paintings were achromatic. lt's interesting how the serious
early work of most artists tends to be achromatic--early Warhol and
Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Flavin, Stella, Cubism. Broadway Boogie-Woogie
could only be late Mondrian . . . when you're trying to make a statement
there is no place for color.
So I liked glass because it had no color to speak of, except for the
color it reflected from its environment. There was always the problem
of form, though. So I tried presenting it in different conditions
smashed, ground, stacked, and this led me in another direction. The
first use of language began with this work. With the first glass piece
it was the label which took on a great importance. That piece was
just a five foot sheet of glass which leaned against the wall, and
next to it was a label with the title: "Any Five Foot Sheet of Glass
To Lean Against Any Wall." (A former friend of mine is making a whole
career out of this piece, I guess that's flattery.) I succeeded in
avoiding composition, and I had succeeded in making a work of art
which was neither a sculpture (on the floor) nor a painting (on the
wall). I wasn't certain how 'abstract' it was, but it was certainly
ambiguous. From the work with glass I began working with water, for
most of the same reasons. Water had the advantage of being 'formless'
as well as 'colorless.' Even now this seems too much like the simplistic
meanderings of an art student, which I was, but it seemed like very
heavy stuff at the time.
Siegel: Then you made the transition to working with words?
Kosuth: Yes, both the use of words in my work and my interest
in language in general began at that time--1965. In the glass piece
I just mentioned and in other glass works, the use of words became
increasingly important. One solution to the problem of form at the
time was to make a division between 'abstract' and 'concrete' within
the work itself, such as the work with three glass boxes I referred
to a minute ago--one was filled with smashed glass, one with ground
glass, and the other had stacked glass. And on each of these boxes
the word 'Glass' was lettered. This way, by reducing the concrete
formal properties to the one abstraction 'glass,' the work arrived
at a kind of formless, colorless state as a physical 'device' (not
unlike language) within that art system which was that work. So you
had the abstraction 'glass.' Language began to be seen by me as a
legitimate material to use. Part of its attraction too was that by
being so contrary to the art one was seeing at that time it seemed
very personal to me. I felt I had arrived at it as a personal solution
to personal art problems. So then I used photostats of dictionary
definitions in a whole series of pieces. I used common, functional
objects--such as a chair-and to the left of the object would be a
full-scale photograph of it and to the right of the object would be
a photostat of a definition of the object from the dictionary. Everything
you saw when you looked at the object had to be the same that you
saw in the photograph, so each time the work was exhibited the new
installation necessitated a new photograph. I liked that the work
itself was something other than simply what you saw. By changing the
location, the object, the photograph and still having it remain the
same work was very interesting. It meant you could have an art work
which was that idea of an art work, and its formal components weren't
important. I felt I had found a way to make art without formal components
being confused for an expressionist composition. The expression was
in the idea, not the form--the forms were only a device in the service
of the idea.
Siegel: So, you were working mainly with language?
Kosuth: Increasingly, yes. It was the system of language itself
which I felt held great implications when considered in relation to
art which interested me. I've been very wary of using words as objects--concrete
poetry and that sort of thing. Its been thinking about language as
a cultural system parallel to art which makes it useful, both in theory
and in practice. So the works I talk about now, which interest me
the most now, are the ones which I learned something from, and have
led me to do the work I'm doing now. I've been working on games, and
other meaning-generating systems. Even the most abstract work has
a kind of concrete level, which is the fact that the functional part
of it must be contextually contingent. So instead of working with
the relations between objects, or forms, like most art, I 'm trying
to do work with the relations between relations. The work with common
objects was a simple start, but those works are static. I want this
work to be more dynamic--less of an illustration and more of a test.
Siegel: How have you presented the games?
Kosuth: The earlier work was photographically 'blown-up,' which
was just reproducing habits from painting, I suppose, but there was
enough going on in the work to sever it from tradition anyway, and
if you cut all the connections then no connection is made. But one
thing did bother me eventually, which was this group experience to
works of art, which is necessary for the sort of heroics and monumentality
that traditional art feeds on. So the work since the Second investigation,,.
has insisted on a kind of individual contemplative state. Usually
they're small. Sometimes in notebooks. Or, for example, like the work
in the Whitney Biennial, where although I have a whole wall, the parts
of the work are typed on normal-sized labels where only one person
at a time can read them.
Siegel: Is it meant to be preserved as a permanent piece?
Kosuth: I have no interest in that. Those labels are thrown away
or whatever. It's just the information. And the art really doesn't
exist in terms of its representation~.
Siegel: There it is up on the wall. What do you expect the viewer
to do with it?
Kosuth: They are supposed to read it, that's all. I think culture
is a kind of intersubjective space. So art connects in a way which
is more than simple, visual pleasure. If I pander to the viewer in
a kind of show-biz way I compromise those uncomfortable ruptures of
the supposed 'normal' way things are expected to go. I don't want
to risk doing that. That de-politicizes art, cancels it out. The so-called
'avant-garde' is a political history if it is anything. I couldn't
imagine a more banal activity than simply providing visual kicks to
the public. Of course that's how a lot of artists see their role.
But let's face it: there's a lot more dumb people out there than there
are smart ones, so if your goal in life is to be popular, and/or rich,
the choice isn't a difficult one.
Siegel: Is the viewer supposed to solve the riddle itself?
Kosuth: That's part of the riddle, my riddle.
Siegel: I gather you see little connection of your art to poetry?
Kosuth: Absolutely no relationship at all. It's simply one of
things superficially resembling one another. A poet wants to say the
unsayable. That's the reason the concrete poets have begun doing 'street
work' projects because of the fact that they don't feel in many ways
that language is adequate to make the kind of statements they want
to make. And so they've been doing a lot of performance pieces as
well. But the typical concrete poem makes the worst sort of superficial
connections to work like mine because it's a kind of formalism of
typography--it's cute with words, but dumb about language. It's becoming
a simplistic and pseudoavant-garde gimmick, like a new kind of paint.
Siegel: What do you see as the relationship between your use of
words and Wittgenstein's linguistic theories?
Kosuth: That's a long discussion, and a difficult one. On one
level there is an obvious, too obvious relationship, which shouldn't
be said; and there is another, more complex, less apparently conscious
one, which can't be said--at least outside of the work itself. In
any case I see no advantage in connecting my work to philosophy any
more than it already is. The thing to remember is that such a discussion
would be a discussion about art, not philosophy; the point being is
that artists use things. Art is itself philosophy made concrete. So
the academic exercise of what is called Philosophy isn't particularly
relevant, and too easily misunderstood.
There was really only one point in my work when it had a particular
relevance, which is that earlier period (1965) we've been discussing.
Actually, for quite a while I never really connected the philosophy
I was reading with the art I was making. Mostly, I suppose, because
like everyone else I'm a product of this system that tends to keep
things disconnected (and in their neat categories) rather than connected,
with a larger more holistic view. It is very easy to make some kind
of superficial relationship with someone like Wittgenstein. But even
then, if that were clear, there is early Wittgenstein and late Wittgenstein,
with the latter repudiating the former, and even then in a particular
way. I would guess that whatever connections there are between his
work and my work is also true for all art, it's just that my art makes
that connection more visible.
There are aspects to work which preceded mine--people like Andre or
Flavin--which have a bearing on the kinds of discussion about art
which I've tried to help generate. If you can make your point with
work which is somewhat more acceptable as art than your own, then
your heuristic task is a couple of notches closer, one hopes. Anyway,
issues of function having to do with meaning being contingent on use
are particularly relevant to someone like Flavin. The value of his
work is the power of his art as an idea. I don't think one can seriously
argue that it is due to craft, composition, or the aura of the traces
of his hand. Anyone can have a 'Flavin' by going into a hardware store,
but you needed Flavin's initial 'proposal' for it to be art.That's
a similarity between philosophy and art.
Siegel: I suspect that at this moment in time, your work would
be subject to misunderstandings. Many people might look at it and
say, "Well, this is philosophy, not art."
Kosuth: I call it art and it came out of art. I have had a traditional,
even classical, art education--it's perhaps because of that I've been
able to work through certain ideas of tradition that others find necessary
to appeal to. As for philosophy, serious thought about any endeavor
takes on a philosophical character; as for Philosophy (capital P),
it's an academic subject with no real social life and little cultural
effect. It seems we are in a kind of post-philosophical period; as
the power of philosophy atrophied beginning with this century, the
philosophical thrust of art increased and I don't think that is a
coincidence. As science replaced religion, philosophy also lost its
social base and became a subject for universities only. Because we
are in this long-term transition, art's actual role is ambiguous--in
many ways it is a manifested form of the very cultural mechanism itself---but
the role it is forming for itself is not unrelated to the gaps forming
by these shifts.
Siegel: There seem to be certain premises that you have accepted
as absolute bases for your work. One of them is the Duchampian-based
idea that "if someone calls it art it's art."
Kosuth: What else could be the case? If one says otherwise it
means you are suggesting that the work itself must tell you. This,
of course, suggests the most reactionary kind of theory of art, one
based on morphological characteristics as the sole definition of art.
The culture--greatly thanks to Duchamp--has already been forced to
accept a larger concept of art.
Siegel: That appears to be another premise--the fact that your
definition of what art is, is what separates you from all the .other
art before. Can you state what your idea of art is?
Kosuth: That's no single simple statement. What my idea of art
is comes out in both my propositions--that is to say, the specific
work I show--and my activities in the production of any meaning in
relation to art: such as articles I write, lectures at universities,
my teaching at the School of Visual Arts, or conversations such as
this one. (In fact, you could say this interview is the answer to
your question.) An example I always use for my students is Ad Reinhardt--what
makes him an artist isn't just that he painted black paintings. What
those paintings mean is a product of his total signifying activity:
lectures, panel discussions, "The Rules For A New Academy," cartoons,
and so forth. Our experience, and the meaning of that experience,
is framed by language, by information. Seeing is not as simple as
just take one idea, for instance, the idea that an artist is now one
who questions the nature of art. I think to be an artist now means
to question the nature of art--that's what being 'creative' means
to me because that includes the whole responsibility of the artist
as a person: the social and political as well as the cultural implications
of his or her activity. To say that the artist only makes high-brow
craft for a cottage industry's specialized market might satisfy the
needs of this society from the point of view of some people, but it's
an insult to the valued remains of an 'avant-garde' tradition, and
a denial to artists of their historical role. And unless artists re-conceptualize
their activity to include responsibility for re-thinking art itself,
then all that is of value in art will be subsumed by the market, because
then we will have lost the moral tool to keep art from just becoming
another high-class business. In any case, what is more 'creative'
than creating a new idea of what art is? And hasn't the best art of
this century been concerned with just this task? The best art when
it was new seldom 'looked like art' and was never beautiful--to most
of the public it was ugly and boring.
In contrast, a lot of the stuff that at the time becomes fashionable
and people are interested in because it's exciting often fades away
because it is really glamour, a high-brow version of show business.
There is still so much of that.
Siegel: If you feel that the artist is now stating the intentions,
what do you feel will be the roll of the critic, if any?
Kosuth: I don't know. It's hard for me to imagine. There are people
who write and it seems like a lot of science, but it's really a kind
of journalism. I guess it can be more obviously journalism. Instead
of magazines like ArtForum or ART news it will all probably be written
about in Newsweek and Tirne and New York magazine, God forbid the
thought! But critics today really seldom get into the nitty-gritty
of what the works of art are.
Siegel: Perhaps this is just what separates the good from the
Kosuth: Yes, the better ones, I suppose, are closer to artists,
in a sense. But argument is with artists who feel that they can fashion
an object in some sense and put it out in the world and not say a
word about it and let all the thinking about it be done by others.
The artist has just become a sort of a prop man, a dummy, and the
critics do all the thinking and order the way in which you see it,
and any sort of thinking around the work is presented by them and
not by the artist. So that they really become makers of the Readymade,
for the critic. That's what I object to.
Siegel: How do you see your relationship to the other conceptual
artists at this moment?
Kosuth: Pretty hostile at this point. There are only a few that
I'm interested in. Some of the hostility is parricidal, frankly; in
other cases I have to take some of the responsibility because they
don't like things I've said about them (or didn't say about them)
in articles or interviews or their treatment in exhibitions that I
have input into. . things like that. I don't think my influence in
this area is inappropriate, of course. My work, as well as my activity
in promulgating this point of view precedes others by at least a couple
of years. I feel many of them 'arrived' after most of the hard work
was done and it was a fashionable 'art movement.' I suppose they know
I feel this way and understandably resent it. Many of my American
friends also don't understand my support of Art & Language in England.
They are important to me because I can talk to them about art from
a perspective, theoretically, that my American friends can't or won't.
Whether it is simplistic to attribute it to England's rich linguistic/literary
tradition I don't know, but philosophically my exchange with them
is good. As far as their actual art practice is concerned it is much
less strong, they seem to be embarrassed by their own subjectivity,
maybe that's an English tradition, too. With American artists it is
the reverse. Their ideas of art are much more traditional, much of
it is really a kind of Minimal art using words--but they at least
have the strength of conviction to actually make it. So straddled
as I am between the two, I seem to be in a good position to make the
points I need to.
Siegel: What do you consider to be the influence of Duchamp?
Kosuth: I don't find it pervasive in the way it's usually thought
of; if that were the case work like mine would have occurred much
sooner. He may very well turn out to be the most important artist
in the first half of this century (thanks, of course, to what we are
planning in this half!) . . . an outrageous thought to the rabid protectors
of institutionalized modernism. Poor Picasso, poor Matisse. The uncomfortable
truth is that an artist like Picasso provides the dirt in which an
artist like Duchamp grows. And Matisse? That's the fertilizer.
though, Duchamp maintained the radical alternative all the while modernism
was gaining respectability; it is almost as though art had to reach
a point of maturation before Duchamp could really be usable. This
is, of course, all terribly unhistorical, but it's not simply sentimental.
implications of Duchamp's work are vastly more profound than any artist
I can think of. Certain aspects of his work have been slowly internalized,
certainly, but I can't imagine how one could proceed with a radical
re-thinking of the art of this century without Marcel Duchamp providing
a source for the tools which could make that possible. Duchamp has
been there for others as a source, in various ways and for some time.
Certainly Johns and later Morris and others kept his ideas alive,
but that was because they used and got certain things from that work,
while perhaps I'm getting other things from it.
Siegel: Like what, for example?
Kosuth: Well, for one thing, in the idea of the unassisted Readymades,
there is a shift in our conception of art from one of "What does it
look like?" to a question of function, or "How does an object work
as art?" which brings into question the whole framing device of context
Siegel: I'm sorry but l'm afraid I'm going to have to interrupt
you in the middle of Marcel Duchamp because we're running out of time.
Kosuth:I'm sure he wouldn't have minded anyway.
interview with Joseph Kosuth was broadcast on WBAI on April 7, 1970.]
Notes1. Among his American friends Kosuth is referring to Robert Barry,
Lawrence Weiner. and Douglas Huebier. The leading Art & Language people
were Charles Harrison, Terry Atkinson, and Michael Baldwin.