Dossier | The Disappearance of the Artwork

  • Giuseppe Penone, Alpi Marittime. L'albero ricorderà il contatto, 1968. Photo: © Archivio Penone, courtesy of the artist & Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris

The Disappearance of the Artwork
By Fabienne Brugère

These days the disappearance of the work increasingly haunts art. This unique thing to be venerated, to reflect upon, or to contemplate belongs less and less to our artistic practices. However, is this necessarily the same as saying that there is no art left? In a certain way art is done with art, in terms of what we have come to call art. We keep the name—art—yet, fundamentally, its content has changed. We can therefore no longer think through discourses on art, either aesthetic or historical, that unite notions of art and artwork to the extent of making us believe in the necessity of the latter as an absolute creation and of asserting the complete independence of the art field. Art practices themselves have abandoned the notion of artwork and the idea of art that accompanied it. Twentieth-century art has thus unceasingly been haunted by minority- becomings, those of “artists without artworks,” to borrow a phrase coined by Jean-Yves Jouannais, (1) who have radically chosen non-creation and have assumed the status of artist, the living for one’s self, outside of all artistic production (Dadaism is a fitting example). Moreover, in this century other artistic practices have come into being that make the word “work” difficult to use with respect to them, and the term “artwork” even more so: performances, actions, happenings, ephemeral art, certain installations and videos, and so forth. Finally, we know very well that we must not examine art as a series of incontestable objects to be preserved. Art does not deploy itself only as a succession of productions offered to the veneration of the public in museums or in galleries, but equally as an artistic path or trajectory.

I will therefore begin with a critique of the philosophy of art insofar as it assigns it a place based on a reflection that focuses exclusively on the work. What must we understand by the term work? In French, œuvre, which is derived from the Latin word opera, work and care, has increasingly taken on the meaning of the term opus: work, but also the result of work, something fabricated. It is in this latter sense that it has become a commonplace term in philosophical thinking on art. The work is understood as a material thing that exists objectively, that is received through the intermediary of the senses. Aesthetics has thus found in the study of works a factor of objectivity; Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics considers such a relation to works to ensure the objectivity of artistic beauty. It has also permitted a reflection on the truth or the being of the work. Nevertheless, such thinking proves to be polysemic since it also enriches itself, albeit in a more marginal way, by taking into account the work as the result of a productive activity, which presupposes that we must deal with the following problem: what does it mean to create or to produce? From that moment on the work is the result of an activity that is both material and immaterial. The painter operates with his hands and produces an object, yet in the artwork he is at the same time guided by a thought process. La pittura è cosa mentale, the picture is a mental thing, said Leonardo da Vinci. What role does the artist’s intention—that which does not appear directly in the thing produced—then play? Is the spectator the interlocutor of the work, capable of recognizing and appreciating its double, material and immaterial, dimension?

Philosophical discourse on art has incessantly proposed different categories that generally establish an artistic truth in the work. However, should not the “new regime of art” be taken seriously, a regime through which the erasure of the notion of artwork generally associated with the sacred, the idea of uniqueness, and the beautiful unfolds itself? Alongside the theoretical framework that has linked aesthetics to the artwork, we can therefore make use of another that leads to the idea that in art the experience is of greater value than the work, the artistic proposition is worth more than the art object, and the journey is more meaningful than the result.

It then becomes a matter of abandoning aesthetic discourse as a discipline that follows the artwork and takes an interest in its reception, in the notion of taste, and that analyzes the internal elements that objectively constitute the artwork. Even very recently, with a philosopher such as Nelson Goodman, we still consider the finished or accomplished work through a philosophy of interpretation that studies how to “make works function.” (2)

What is forgotten in all these perspectives is that art, before being an artwork, before it can be understood as a “masterpiece,” also constructs itself by means of the overflow that brings it into being, by experiences that result from a non-linear activity on the part of the artist. The artwork is not necessarily abandoned but reconsidered in the overflow itself. Ensuring that the trajectory is the equivalent of the work, that the work is nothing other than an artistic experience (including the experience of not making), may be the paradoxical signature of the contemporary artist.

Art thus rests on a questioning situation that makes artists’ trajectory always uncertain or precarious. The artwork does not exist without a disturbance within it that bears witness to the artist’s existential quest. Art can therefore exist in the form of an intervention, such as Giuseppe Penone’s intervention on nature. In his case, the ordeal of art’s overflow through nature reduces the artist’s supposed creative role to establishing proofs: the marks left on trees confirm that the artist has touched them. Nonetheless, the trees and not the artist provide the evidence. In taking shape, this proof deforms the tree through the intermediary of the artist’s gesture, an inaugural act that only the phases of nature brings to fruition. Art no longer sides with forms fabricated by the artist, neatly and definitively delivered to the museum space or the art gallery; it sides with the instability of making something from an uncertain gesture. There is form only in the meeting, in the dynamic relation that an artistic proposition maintains, in the journey undertaken by an artist, and in the relation with other formations, artistic or not. Although decried by many, the analyses of Nicolas Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics offer a convincing account of the fascination of art today with artistic facts rather than things, and thus with forms that always go through deformation or relationships. (3) In some measure the enduring and self-conscious artwork, that claims art’s autonomy by means of a specifically artistic formalism, is headed towards disappearance.

In addition, this erasure drives a new art regime, based on an experience that is always relational. The reference to experience is valuable as a deconstruction of the sacred character of the work and a return to ordinary life. In the image of Penone, the artist is not so much an exceptional and inspired being but an experimenter who intervenes in nature, society, and politics.

From this perspective, art can play with utensility, use real objects condemned to the banality of everyday life, make them rise up in conformity with their function, or reduce them to the state of discarded, incongruous, recovered, or damaged objects. This is how installations can be understood as laboratories wherein daily life is questioned— Edward Kienholz’s slightly displaced interiors comes to mind, with their flashy television sets that do not work, dirty sinks, and faded mirrors. Furthermore, their utensility can become a value that transforms even the notion of beauty, which then loses all reference to the disinterestedness associated with artistic expression and formal beauty. Art then alleges that beauty is synonymous with utility according to an artist who wants to inflect reality and the way in which human beings inhabit it: with the Bauhaus, architecture and design therefore became essential for artists who wanted to participate in humanity’s social and political progress. The homage currently paid to Ron Arad in the exhibition No Discipline at the Centre Pompidou in Paris effectively illustrates the prestige of designers and architects in current art’s majority-becomings. This artist’s sinusoidal or elliptical forms no longer surprise us but are nonetheless worthwhile because of the territories they carve anew, the places they transform, and the interiors they modernize—in series and across the world. With Arad, international art is linked to a redesigned utensility that moves from the unique piece to industrial production by way of the limited series.

What’s more, from now on art can express fake, the vacant aspect of a social world that privileges idols. As such, in exposing a series of Marilyns in black and white, gilded, or in colour, didn’t Andy Warhol assert the fact that nothing exists for the artist other than commercial or industrial culture, which reduces our perception of the world to a perception of its glamorous and marketable surface? In a similar way, don’t the laminated Brillo boxes or the exhibition of Campbell soup cans seal art’s destiny by elaborating through their presence in the art world the rise or advent of the false as art’s vocation, according to the notion that the superficial is profound or that the profane is sacred?

Contemporary art has laid down new artistic forms that dissociate from the notion of artwork in its double, material and immaterial, dimension. For example, “performances” symbolize artistic pieces that the public can only see at a given moment or in a different way though films that retrace them and amount in some measure to documents. In other words, performances escape the museum logic of conservation. Modernity therefore leans toward the idea of the artwork’s disappearance. Whereas major philosophical notions of the artwork defined art through the idea of authenticity, uniqueness, and the exceptional character of a production that can be exposed or preserved, art is much more characterized from now on by the artist’s experience and possible journey in life.

However, how can we come to an understanding of art from the perspective of experience? If the artist’s experience actually exists, it always resides in a sort of formalization of experience itself. Art is no longer defined expressly through the creation of a work often associated with the figure of the inspired artist or of one who possesses genius; it is sustained through formalization, by means of a kind of language or art form, an individual experience rooted in the sensible world and in the singular impressions that are retained by the artist. In support of the idea that the work disappears in favour of the setting in place of artistic experiences, I would like to mention an artist such as Allan Kaprow who developed the concept of the happening in 1959 in New York. As a performer, Kaprow thought he could abolish the frontiers between art and life through a formalization of the experience that takes the shape of experimentation in happenings. Art had to return to events and daily objects in order to restore the proximity between artists and their public and between works and actions. Since the 1960s, the production of environments that introduce objects of daily use around which the public moves amounts to manifestations of a definition of art as an experience of the world that surrounds us. This definition of art brings it closer to life. However, it never reaches the point of confusing the two. The artist’s experimentation always amounts to a formalization of lived experience insofar as it stops short of making this experience sacred, which means that art sides with transience. The fact remains that such formalization in experimentation establishes the power of actions and events in art. The disappearance of the artwork resides in the erasure of its autonomy and of the myth of art’s exceptional character. Art becomes experience, experimentation, and intervention. Not only does it reflect on ordinary life but also, in the same movement, it affirms its precariousness against all logic of power. Precarious, art no longer recognizes itself in the enshrined edifice of the artwork, but tries tirelessly to reclaim the tangled web of experience with what constitutes its own work, formalization, but a formalization that has become uncertain and relational. In having become fragile or tenuous, the work on forms must always begin anew insofar as it has the tendency to melt into lived experience or into the complexity of the world.

It is specifically the artist’s experience, with his or her doubts and everyday uncertainties, that is formalized in such a way as to turn experience into an expression, and expression into an experience. Art distances itself from a thinking that would bring it back to the enshrined site of the work, better to correspond to a world of diversity, series, networks, and links; thus, the artist can experiment and produce an artwork that from now on stands as a fragile trace of this experimentation. Not only human beings are vulnerable, but also art itself as it bears the burden of vulnerability, far from the all-powerful artwork.

Nevertheless, has the work disappeared? No, it lives through its extinction. It still shines in the evanescence that dissipates it, similar to an ephemeral mark in a delimited space and time. In this dissipation of the artwork that postpones it without cancelling it out, the experience of the work’s absence maps out the conditions of a negative artwork. In contemporary art, the subject is not the folly of the artwork’s absence but a certain regime of experimentation of the covert work: the artwork’s disappearance as an illicit work!

[Translated from the French by Vivian Ralickas]

NOTES
1. Jean-Yves Jouannais, Artistes sans œuvres (Paris : Hazan, 1997).
2. See Of Mind and Other Matters (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).
3. See Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland (Dijon, France: Les Presses du Réel, 2002).

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