JOSEPH KOSUTH: Quest for Meaning

Miriam Cosic
The Australian, 30 September 2017

Despite all indi­ca­tions to the con­trary, Joseph Kosuth doesn’t believe anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism is on the rise. By way of exam­ple, he recalls his child­hood in small-town post­war Ohio, when his sports-mad par­ents were repeat­ed­ly dragged up to the school because he showed no inter­est in maths or sci­ence. They were the path to an indus­tri­al, tech­nol­o­gy-­fu­elled future.

They told me that art was some­thing I should do on the side,” he says with just a hint of an eye-roll in his voice. Amer­i­cans have always been anti-intel­lec­tu­al, unless art or ideas can be jus­ti­fied in mar­ket terms. A painter or a sculp­tor is like a plumber.”

Young Joseph went on to become one of the founders of con­cep­tu­al art when he was still a kid, pre­co­cious­ly mix­ing with cel­e­brat­ed artists three times his age. At 18, he hung out with Ad Rein­hardt in Cleve­land; at 19 with Alber­to Gia­comet­ti, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir in Paris. In the French cap­i­tal he also hung out with anoth­er impov­er­ished young Amer­i­can who was there for the romance of the artis­tic life: aspir­ing actor Robert De Niro.

De Niro’s par­ents, who were artists, intro­duced Kosuth around when he returned from Europe, not to the back­blocks of Ohio but to edgy New York. At 20, he made the work that explod­ed on to the inter­na­tion­al art scene, found­ed a move­ment, and is still influ­en­tial: One and Three Chairs (1965). For the work, he lined up a sim­ple chair, a pho­to­graph of the same chair, and a dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion of a chair. As New York’s Muse­um of Mod­ern Art describes it: Per­haps all three are chairs, or codes for one: a visu­al code, a ver­bal code, and a code in the lan­guage of objects, that is, a chair of wood.” Four years lat­er, he pub­lished his sem­i­nal essay Art after Phi­los­o­phy, which is still a set text in art stud­ies. He was only 24.

I ran scream­ing out of Ohio. And I met peo­ple,” he said with a shrug, of his well-spent youth, when we spoke in Syd­ney sev­en years ago, the last time he was in Aus­tralia. He was pret­ty laid-back that day, though he talked about art at a crack­ing pace.

This time, at the ven­er­a­ble age of 72, he is talk­ing by phone from New York and he is testy. Our con­ver­sa­tion is blight­ed by a shock­ing con­nec­tion and, appar­ent­ly, by the stum­bling block of my Aus­tralian accent.

Next month, Kosuth will be sur­round­ed by the sound. He will give a lec­ture at the Nation­al Library of Vic­to­ria on Thurs­day to launch Mel­bourne Fes­ti­val. It’s titled A Short His­to­ry of My Thought”. He doesn’t want to give away the con­tent, he says, before admit­ting that he hasn’t writ­ten it yet. If you don’t make it to his his­to­ry les­son, a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work will be on show at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Flinders Lane through­out the festival.

The thread that has linked Kosuth’s work for 52 years is lan­guage: its uses, its cues, its mys­ti­fi­ca­tions. That first explo­ration of chair­ness” was a nod to Mar­cel Duchamp, who famous­ly signed a uri­nal and called it art, but also to the inves­ti­ga­tions of lan­guage by the Aus­tri­an-British philoso­pher Lud­wig Wittgen­stein. Both Duchamp and Wittgen­stein were intent on ­reveal­ing hid­den mean­ing. Andy Warhol was anoth­er, more local, influence.

The Language of Equilibrium/Il Linguaggio dell’Equilibrio, 2007.
The Lan­guage of Equilibrium/​Il Lin­guag­gio dell’Equilibrio, 2007.

Those obses­sions con­tin­ue, and con­tin­ue to intrigue. Neon has been his pre­ferred medi­um — words, always words, in bright sprawl­ing state­ments — and gives his art an engage­ment with pop­u­lar cul­ture. Kosuth was one of the very few dis­tin­guished artists — Georges Braque and Cy Twombly were oth­ers — invit­ed to make a work for the Lou­vre Muse­um in Paris, putting con­tem­po­rary art into dia­logue with the pre-impres­sion­ist works hung there. He chose the walls of the medieval dun­geons for a bright work, Ni apparence ni illu­sion(Nei­ther appear­ance nor illu­sion), a com­men­tary on his­to­ry, arche­ol­o­gy and the expe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing the muse­um. Last year, the Lou­vre offi­cial­ly made it a per­ma­nent work.

Right now, Kosuth has 11 projects on the go across nine coun­tries and four shows in Europe. He lives in Lon­don, though he main­tains a stu­dio in New York. He fled Rome, where he had lived for years, when Sil­vio Berlus­coni was in pow­er and threat­ened to raise mon­ey by super-tax­ing for­eign­ers. He chose Lon­don for the sake of his daugh­ters’ edu­ca­tion. Now 21 and 24, they grad­u­at­ed from pres­ti­gious col­leges — Cen­tral Saint Mar­tins and Gold­smiths — but both have returned to live in Italy.

Kosuth is clear­ly not short of a dol­lar, but his philo­soph­i­cal approach to art since mod­ernism includes a scathing cri­tique of com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion. It’s complicated.

Mon­ey has become per­ni­cious, in term of the prac­tice itself: why you’re doing it and what the expec­ta­tions are,” he says. That’s a con­cern, more so than the integri­ty of the prac­tice of art.”

By con­trast, the inter­sec­tion of high­ly intel­lec­tu­al art prac­tice and mass cul­ture doesn’t faze him. Art can’t assert things, it has to show them,” he says.

Art, which is more and more informed by mass cul­ture, can show things more clear­ly to the gen­er­al pub­lic, and it can still have a crit­i­cal rela­tion­ship to that cul­ture. Fur­ther­more, based on that, it can have a more informed philo­soph­i­cal overview of our cul­ture in general.

There has always been a role for art in terms of mak­ing the mean­ing in the world … the mean­ing of the world, real­ly. And it is an ­impor­tant role to play.’’

The most cru­cial role it has to play these days is a polit­i­cal one: as a coun­ter­point to the creep­ing dis­em­pow­er­ment of cit­i­zens. One of the things we have to keep in mind,” he says, is that our soci­ety is under con­trol of two pow­er­ful groups: politi­cians, who want to main­tain their pow­er, one way or anoth­er; and (busi­ness­peo­ple), who want to prof­it at the end of the day.

Those are short-term goals. The long threads in soci­ety are pro­vid­ed by artists, by philo­sophers, by writ­ers, by intel­lec­tu­als in genera­l. We’re a very prag­mat­ic, mon­ey-run society­, which loves the fluff of lux­u­ry and the unneed­ed. But the truth is, we’re hold­ing things togeth­er.” The we” is artists and intel­lec­tu­als — the peo­ple who find and explain mean­ing in the world.

Though a lover of Wittgen­stein and a lay philoso­pher him­self, Kosuth is scep­ti­cal of the abil­i­ty of aca­d­e­m­ic phi­los­o­phy to speak to peo­ple at large, even its abil­i­ty to pur­sue its core busi­ness, which is explor­ing and cri­tiquing the human world. For a very long time, phi­los­o­phy in the uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem has not had very much impact on soci­ety,” he says. But see all the muse­ums that are show­ing con­tem­po­rary art? Peo­ple are much more engaged with that. Art should be tak­en far more seri­ous­ly than it is, and not because some­thing sold for how­ev­er many dol­lars at an auction.”

In an essay called Intention(S), he also crit­i­cis­es art his­to­ri­ans and the crit­i­cal estab­lish­ment”. Jour­nal­ists can be expect­ed to be opin­ion­at­ed, he writes, and, work­ing on quick turn­around, show whether they have grasped a work. Artists can take or leave that.

But the shift of art his­to­ri­ans’ focus to their career ambi­tions and social rela­tions belies their stat­ed ethics. Pre­vi­ous­ly there seemed to be some kind of moral imper­a­tive for art his­to­ri­ans to be above such con­sid­er­a­tions out of a sense of pro­fes­sion­al­ism,” he writes.

Hav­ing it both ways seems, at this receiv­ing end, like an extreme­ly unjust, and even cor­rupt, development.”

A new art his­to­ry began about 20 years ago, he main­tains, com­pet­ing with tra­di­tion­al art his­to­ry. This new art his­to­ry was essen­tial­ly a his­to­ry of the art mar­ket,” he says. Art had become com­pet­i­tive. Some artists fall into in both cat­e­gories, of course, but we realised that the bil­lion­aire didn’t have time to study art. It’s eas­i­er to see who’s the most impor­tant by see­ing who’s the most expensive.”

He waves away com­par­isons with the bull mar­ket for art in the Dutch 17th cen­tu­ry, and the trea­sure spent on art as pro­pa­gan­da by church and state dur­ing the Renais­sance and Counter-Ref­or­ma­tion, say­ing that’s tak­ing the argu­ment back too far. Which is odd, giv­en his engage­ment with the Louvre’s art col­lec­tion, which by state decree con­tains art­works from pre­his­to­ry up to 1848. You’d think he’d have the con­nec­tion down pat. (The Musee d’Orsay picks up where the Lou­vre breaks off, cov­er­ing the era of impres­sion­ism, which France dom­i­nat­ed, while the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre, takes up mod­ernism from the ear­ly 20th century.)

Kosuth’s con­ver­sa­tion is always sear­ing­ly crit­i­cal of art, of pol­i­tics, of social con­ven­tion and more. Don’t get him start­ed on Don­ald Trump. Suf­fice it to say words such as orange” and big tox­ic ball” fig­ure. The Tories,” he says of the coun­try in which he’s now based, aren’t much bet­ter, though they put a polite shape to it.” He is, how­ev­er, scep­ti­cal of art that sets out to be polit­i­cal. All art, by his def­i­n­i­tion, is polit­i­cal, but it rarely works when it tries to hit you over the head with a message.

Double Reading #12, 1993.
Dou­ble Read­ing #121993.

In fact, art that calls itself polit­i­cal is often the least polit­i­cal,” he says. Art in the Sovi­et era, the Nazis, Walt Dis­ney: it was intend­ed to be polit­i­cal, but the art aspect was extreme­ly con­ser­v­a­tive. Reac­tionary, even.”

In fact, when abstract expres­sion­ism burst on to the Amer­i­can scene, grumpy con­ser­v­a­tives har­rumphed that its lack of fig­u­ra­tive con­tent made it hard­ly art at all. And yet it pushed the bound­aries of art with star­tling inven­tive­ness. It sym­bol­ised the future in the lib­er­al-demo­c­ra­t­ic West. The works of Jack­son Pol­lock and oth­er lumi­nar­ies of the move­ment were quick­ly co-opt­ed by America’s intel­li­gence ser­vices and oth­er bro­kers of US soft pow­er. This was the polit­i­cal pow­er of art, not depic­tions of rosy-faced, hard-hat­ted work­ers of the rev­o­lu­tion build­ing tanks or march­ing in ranks.

Kosuth’s laser focus is on his era. But he says one of the big dif­fer­ences between now and the ear­li­er eras he shrugs off is that artists have a respon­si­bil­i­ty not to let their work be co-opt­ed by the world: not by pol­i­tics, and espe­cial­ly not by the temp­ta­tions of the art market.

JAn Interpretation of This Title
An Inter­pre­ta­tion of This Title

The works in the Mel­bourne ret­ro­spec­tive span 1965 to 2015. Last time round, in Syd­ney, he hung a work made up of the words An Inter­pre­ta­tion of This Title’: Niet­zsche, Dar­win and the Para­dox of Con­tent. It jux­ta­posed Darwin’s squig­gly sci­en­tif­ic draw­ings with Nietzsche’s pow­er-packed words — a col­li­sion of post-Enlight­en­ment sci­ence and Ger­man roman­ti­cism — in bright light.

The works in Mel­bourne look sim­pler than that, and the light is cer­tain­ly eye-catch­ing. Yet view­ers with some knowl­edge of cul­tur­al his­to­ry will be engaged by them for longer than the initial­ Wow!

Size, colour, even font are used to locate and inten­si­fy the mean­ing of the words he employs, as is the jux­ta­po­si­tion of each work with its title.

Neon, 1965.
Neon, 1965.

One of the ear­li­est is the word Neon”, in white neon, mount­ed on the wall. Anoth­er from 2010, also in white neon, quotes Beck­ett: To be an artist is to fail, as no oth­er dare fail.” It is titled (Wait­ing for-) Texts for Noth­ing #6. Appro­pri­ate­ly for our polit­i­cal moment, yet anoth­er, from 1999, called #II49. (On Color/​Multi #3) illumina­tes the words The coloured intermed­iary between two colours” in rain­bow colours: white, red, yel­low, orange, ­vio­let, green, and blue neon.

We return to the sub­ject of anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, which these works seem to delib­er­ate­ly chal­lenge. Pushed, Kosuth does admit that there has been fur­ther dumb­ing down in Amer­i­ca” since the Repub­li­cans took over again.

Lots of art is dec­o­ra­tive and made to hang over the couch,” he says, but returns to his ­ear­li­er theme and insists that seri­ous art has a rad­i­cal pur­pose. Explain­ing mean­ing in the world real­ly is left to artists now.”

Joseph Kosuth: A Short His­to­ry of My Thought runs from Octo­ber 7 to Novem­ber 25 at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

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