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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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.