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Benjamin Buchloh interviews Lawrence Weiner: "Art Is Not About Skill"

If you can see past the advertisements for multiples and fancy real estate, Artspace has published a lengthy and interesting conversation between Benjamin Buchloh and Lawrence Weiner. Buchloh presses Weiner on the links connecting his work in a dizzying array of genres—from painting to writing to music and sculpture—while Weiner explain how the philosophy of language was instrumental to his artistic formation. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

BB: There seems to be a peculiar contradiction: on the one hand, you insist that sculpture is the primary field within which your work should be read, yet at the same time you have also substituted language as a model for sculpture. Thus you have dismantled the traditional preoccupation with sculpture as an artisanal practice and a material production, as a process of modeling, carving, cutting, and producing objects in the world.

LW: If you can just walk away from Aristotelian thinking, my introduction of language as another sculptural material does not in fact require the negational displacement of other practices within the use of sculpture.

BB: But why would it even have to be discussed in terms of sculpture, rather than in terms of a qualitatively different project altogether?

LW: What would I call it? I call them “works,” I call them “pieces,” I called them whatever anybody else was coming up with that sounded like it was not sculpture. Then I realized that I was working with the materials that people called “sculptors” work with. I was working with mass, I was working with all of the processes of taking out and putting in. This is all a problem of designation. I also realized that I was dealing with very generalized structures in an extremely formalized one. These structures seemed to be of interest not only to me but to other artists at the time. I do not think that they were taken with the idea that it was language, but we were all talking about the ideas generated by placing a sculpture in the world. Therefore I did not think I was doing anything different from somebody putting fourteen tons of steel out. I said it was possible that I would build it if they wanted, I said it was possible to have somebody else build it, and then I finally realized that it was possible just to leave it in language. There was not a skill; art is not about skill.

Image of Lawrence Weiner via FAD Magazine.

Correcting the art gods using logic. One of the saddest aspects of contemporary art is that an accomplished artist will be wrong and speak nonsense yet no one dares correct them. This behavior is toxic and must change; we need to apply our judgment and speak truth to power, otherwise truth loses all meaning and enables the way for the age of Trump.

Putting aside the presumption of anyone who disagrees with an art God, Lawrence Weiner has a reductivist grasp of skill. In search of historical precedents, let’s not forget that Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made means that an artist no longer has to work at making art nor at acquiring the skills to do so. Instead, any found object can be declared a work of art. The thesis here is that skill is no longer needed, skill is not art. Duchamp himself lost any interest in making art, it was like a broken leg he said. If you say there is no need to make art, and you say it often enough, you will eventually believe it and lose all desire to make art.

The ready-made is a found object, likely detritus that was once a factory-made object, used till broken or worn out. Ready-made installation art often uses garbage, which unconsciously whispers that art is garbage; it assigns a negative value to sculpture or installation art. If one is an artist therefore, one would have to conclude that Duchamp was wrong and the ready-made is not art but it’s negation, it’s evil twin, it stands on the other side of the limit of what art can be.

The ready-made exists at the point of enantiodromia; when things reach their extreme they turn into their opposite. Duchamp as a Dadaist had stated that he wanted to destroy art, and he succeeded. We destroy art by neglecting effort and skill, what is destroyed is no longer what it was therefore by negation, the ready made shows the value and necessity of skill in art. LW may have overlooked the fact that the skill which was used to transform an object into sculpture was transposed into the transformation of thought into thought-sculpture, the transposition of the formalist element to a different media.

At this point I will skip current studies that suggests ideas by themselves cannot be art, that ideas need a reality check, a transformation through working with physical material. Instead a short argument on the importance of skill in making art looks at the etymology of the word; the art of cuisine, the art of conversation. The art of anything requires experience (hence skill). The reason lies in our blind spot, in the unconscious brain that is complex enough to regulate our heartbeat and chemical balance.

Conscious thinking has often been compared to the top layer of an onion with various levels of thinking and thought functions of which we are not aware (unconscious) but which produce the thoughts that eventually reach consciousness. Our physical and intellectual evolution occurred through an interaction with matter in which we acquired skill. Skill comes from the failure of our idea to understand the nature of the material we are working with and so having to adapt the material to the idea, the idea to the material, and so learning more about the nature of both. The word art actually means skill; art requires skill, skill at its best is art.


Can we begin to shed the word abou as such, then we won’t even need to dispute with Bracha Ettinger’s ghastly assertios about compassion?

While I like the rigor of your argumentation, the assertion of art not being about skill still makes sense. I’ve been waiting for this to settle and meanwhile came across a passage in a text which reminded me of this thread here. It’s touching on the relations of art, craft and craftsmanship. This is looked at there from different perspectives and with a bit too much complexity than I want to/ can expand on here. So just a quotation:

“In craftsmanship skill prevails over subjectivity. Reversely an art, that wants to free itself, has to (‘exhaustingly sufficiently often’) question [the prevalence] skill.” (own translation)

(original “Im Kunsthandwerk obsiegt das Koennen über die Subjektivitaet. Umgekehrt muss eine Kunst, die sich befreien will, das Koennen (muehselig genug oft) in Frage stellen.” Markus Metz, Georg Seesslen: Geld frisst Kunst Kunst frisst Geld, Berlin 2014.)

It’s not worth mentioning that there are different perspectives on what art is or what it is conceived as (at different times). Aren’t there are other aspects that make art art? Or would you say there is a skilled way of doing skillful things?

The following is not a neatly fitting analogy, ‘skill’ and ‘perfection’ are not the same, but nevertheless: “Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.” (from Darren Aronofsky,Black Swan, 2010).


Thanks for the comments. I do have problems with “an art that wants to free itself has to question skill”. First, “to free itself” is a dubious question. To go beyond skill first you have to be skillful. To let go means letting go of your learning after you have done the learning. To see what people do without skill, set a 1 year old free among sharp butcher knives. The idea that we do not need skill is like accessing your “inner healer”; someone I know accessed her inner healer when her boyfriend had a heart attack, and tried to cure him with herbal teas; he died on her couch. We live in a world where experience gives us skill and without experience we do things that reflect our lack of knowledge. Now words, words are different. I can say that I can fly in the air, and I can say that I can turn lead into gold. Words by themselves can do anything… So the argument comes down to would you like an electrician who had skills or one who doesn’t? Skills are the ability to do things.

I quess I ripped the quote out of its context quite a bit to convey what I wanted to ask. Also at the end of next-to-last paragraph I think I meant … ‘a skilled way of doing things unskillfully’, which I think you answered (letting go after you learned something).

I’d say skill is one ability among others to do things and that skills can be used to do art. Only skill does not lead to art similarly to your assertion that ideas themselves cannot be art without getting them out of your mind (into a medium or material). Talking of the art of cuisine in your previous post gets me back to the thought that the term itself is used in different contexts and meanings (is it art, craft, craftsmanship? What are Martial Arts?) There are different takes on what constitutes art and logic is not the only way to conceive of it, from my point of view. I think the equasion of what people do without skill and an inner healer, or an electrician with an artist are quite simplistic or reductive. I’m also not sure if experience gives us skill, because the way I’d put it is that through practice we gain skill. But at the end this comes down to hair splitting words.

I agree that in art, inspiration rises over skill and can lead to a counterpoint. But that does not mean that your assistant stencils clever statements on the wall and you’ve made a stupendous contribution to culture. More like contribution to one’s vanity. There’s a difference between making art and being clever. If you follow Duchamp, Lewitt, and postmodernism, you discard aesthetics and taste, the two drivers of art, leaving you nothing to do but think up clever sentences that you stencil on a wall. Better yet, your assistant stencils on a wall. This is not art, for to know the art of doing something means a wisdom gained from decades of experience. Martial Arts, as opposed to a street brawl, is a highly studied and long learned discipline that allows for the unconscious mind to work in tandem with consciousness. Weiner’s work does not allow any such process. As an artist I know of amazing transformations, way beyond the expectations of consciousness, that occur only once you are working. When your assistant does the work, which consist of stencils on a wall, it is not even a parody of art; most likely the loom on which they weave the emperor’s cloth is broken.

When you have nothing but ideas you need to do a good job of marketing, in fact William Deresiewicz wrote in the Atlantic that since art looks the same globally and doesn’t really elicit a second glance, the true artist is the creative entrepreneur, the superb salesman. Weiner may be one he was referring to, a poster child for the finale of postmodernisms, the movement of denial. Weiner obviously no knowledge of the unconscious mind and the psychology of interbeing, how an intellectual statement is a shallow version of an art made with inspiration and genius. Instead, Weiner is a marketing expert, a charlatan who’s good as passing as talent but is really a superb salesman.

My experience with both writing and painting is that dramatic changes occur during the doing of it; inspiration and transformation emerge directly from the process, the interaction of thought with the medium, the dynamic of idea and material. These are fairly dramatic changes bound in the making, not in the thinking about it. Reason being that when thinking, the idea lacks the reality check needed to transform idea into art. As such, this statement is a critique of conceptual art. Lawrence Weiner is obviously a wiener. Anyone can do what he does, there’s no art to it. A consideration of the explosion piece reveals a lot of noise, a teenager’s delight, but why should a lot of noise be art… when it is barely a circus? The blindspotting of standards has meant that much that is entertainment of the circus variety has come to be mistaken for art. - Communication takes skill and the more the better, as all processes improve when the person doing the processing knows what they’re doing, when they have the skill set to do the job right. Benjamin Bulloch repeatedly talks of the need for artists to de-skill themselves, possibly to bring about the golden age of art. Benjamin Bulloch is delusional. Powerful, yes, influential certainly, but delusional. It may be trendy to spout ideas that make no sense but the consequences are awful.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s prophet Zaratustra dismisses the value of freedom unless allied with a clear sense of purpose; 'Free from what? Zaratustra does not care about that! But your eyes should clearly tell me; free for what"?

Benjamin Buchloh, who in 1976 in Germany mounted the first survey of Polke’s work, argues that the slapdash look of Polke’s drawings, which he admires enormously, is grounded in a self-consciously avant-garde rejection of virtuosity. Buchloh wonders, “How do you de-skill drawing and still draw?” Buloch also did the interview with Weiner emphasizing that skill is not necessary in art. Nor is locomotion in transportation? There is a school coming from Lacan and Adorno, Lyotard, Lewitt, those who’ve chosen to believe that words have no shared meaning, skill is meaningless, as is one’s personal integrity… because post colonialism. Colonialism never ended and their argument stumbles. To deconstruct your process and functional aspects such as taste, means you lose the function, then motivation, eventually the ability to make art. This was seen as a superior wisdom for Bulloch. “How do you de-skill drawing and still draw?” he asks and we retort “why deskill drawing”? What fear and horror overwhelm you when skill enters the picture? Why do you imagine a lack of skill is a worthwhile goal? When skill is a process documented since the dawn of time as an evolutionary advantage, I’d say Bulloch has a death wish.

Weiner’s ideas are to be read within the context of '60s-'70s conceptual art and the conceptions that circulated at the time. His accent on “de-skilling” rhymes with the notion of “de-materializing” the work of art. He also used to say back then that any work of his can’t be copyrighted, because it is inside your head once you understand it and he can’t remove it from there. As far as I know, that didn’t stop him from later copyrighting the documentation of his works, so that he and most of the other conceptualists did end up accepting the market that they pretended to criticize.

Just think of Hans Haacke’s institutional critique and its infrequent efficiency: for the the art market/world, artists and their works are ultimately interchangeable, the institutions wrapping everything in economic terms because it is no longer about the discourse. It is only this matter which makes it clear that a lot of so-called critical contemporary art is targeting things the wrong way. Then again, Odd Nerdrum scamming collectors is a gesture that can’t go too far, while retreat into isolation and silence isn’t a positive strategy either.

I think any discussion about “Art” and “Skill” is bound to be trapped in a reactionary posture. Boris Groys already wrote eloquently in “The Weak Universalism” about how de-skilling and de-professionalization was part and parcel of the avant-garde as a “democratic” force as opposed to the “elitist” masses. It is the idea that everyone should create with any means necessary instead of being divided into specialized artisans and passive spectators. (That, according to Bürger’s classic theory of the avant-garde, has to do with the avant-garde being a self-critique of the bourgeoisie - but one does not need to veer that far into leftist territory to guess the anarchist backbone of the avant-garde - or at least that of Dada.)

Conceptualism is the logical consequence of that attitude, even though being a conceptual artist and an art teacher in the USA and being a conceptual artist and a relatively poor outsider at best in Soviet-era Russia imply different notions of what conceptual practice may be. You may say Weiner also did marketing (but not in Richard Prince or Hirst fashion, mind you), but Conceptualists from Soviet Russia and, in general, Eastern Europe were too oppressed by authoritarianism to afford the luxury of purely formal linguistic games. Or, more precisely, no linguistic game can be free from the question of subversion in such a regime.

Coming back to what I was saying about “Art” and “Skill”… I think these matters remain the domain of actual painters and sculptors (whose “art for art’s sake” is doomed to remain not just that, but a golden value too, as the art market can’t really value anything else). Otherwise, if not for hobby, these matters are truly… boring. I feel “relational aesthetics”, “emergency aesthetics”, “participatory art”, “arte util”, social activism and such (things which some of you may no longer call art: I don’t even mind that as “art” has always been a judgment, even when some foolishly keep on believing in the Essence of Art with capital letters) are all a lot more important, interesting and vital today than insisting on notions of fine arts.

The popularity of unlearning our way to a golden age of the simple mind is just an irrational fantasy.

Actually Duchamp was the leader in dematerializing art, when he said that visual art should not be about the senses, should not play to the retina, it should be about ideas. As a result, Duchamp destroyed his ability to make art though he poked at Etans données as if trying to revive a lost relationship. He had miscalculated the triggers that promote or paralizes an art practice. Unfortunately no downsizing or crippling of ability can excel a skilled art practice; the words are synonymous, art means a skill that creates spiritual values. A person lacking spiritual values is simply another monkey with a diploma, patiently tolerated by the lectern in a seminar room. Expect no dazzling productions from incapacity due to lack of skill. Don’t look for brilliance from minds lacking skillful expression. Dematerializing art is like cutting the wings of birds. Art is not a great idea because that could easily be a brilliant mistake; art is the sensory byproduct of a judgmental reality-check intersecting that idea