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Joseph Kosuth: Art as Idea as Idea

This 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.

Jeanne 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"?

Joseph 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, formalist stuff.

It's 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.

Jeanne Siegel: If "Art as Idea as Idea" is the subtitle, then what's the title?

Joseph Kosuth: On the photostats I titled them all the same. It was titled already within the work, so I just titled the title.

Jeanne Siegel: Which depends on it being an abstraction?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: What was the progression toward your form of abstraction?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: Then you made the transition to working with words?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: So, you were working mainly with language?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: How have you presented the games?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: Is it meant to be preserved as a permanent piece?

Joseph 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~.

Jeanne Siegel: There it is up on the wall. What do you expect the viewer to do with it?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: Is the viewer supposed to solve the riddle itself?

Joseph Kosuth: That's part of the riddle, my riddle.

Jeanne Siegel: I gather you see little connection of your art to poetry?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: What do you see as the relationship between your use of words and Wittgenstein's linguistic theories?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne 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."

Joseph 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.

Jeanne 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."

Joseph 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.

Jeanne 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?

Joseph 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 looking.

Let's 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.

Jeanne 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?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: Perhaps this is just what separates the good from the bad critics.

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: How do you see your relationship to the other conceptual artists at this moment?

Joseph 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.

Jeanne Siegel: What do you consider to be the influence of Duchamp?

Joseph 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.

Seriously, 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.

The 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.

Jeanne Siegel: Like what, for example?

Joseph 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 ....

Jeanne 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.

Joseph Kosuth:I'm sure he wouldn't have minded anyway.

[This 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.

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