back to

e-flux conversations

Conceptualism as a Form of Financial Metaphysics


Conceptualist art is a form of financial metaphysics: to begin with, it is metaphysics in the literal sense, from the Greek '‘metafysika’ meaning “after the material” ”after the physical”.

”Conceptual” speaks a form of liturgy: a protestant pastor’s attempt to see a spirit in the market where there is none. Like the neoliberal economist who insists that cultural memory (in societies or institutions) is a hindrance to growth of the economy and must be lopped-off, the concept-artist by the very category of ”conceptual art” denies the presence of philosophies, poetics or ideas having motivated painters, drawings, visual artists in the past. Already contained within the self-defining category there is a juxtaposition: there is the crude, the soulless versus the conceptual. The conceptual art-installation constitutes a denial that material art or physical art uses paint or ink in order to find an expression of a reality or an experience beyond both language and material experiments.

Conceptual writing and conceptual texts (such as those by Kenneth Goldsmith, Pablo Katchadjian, and others) apply the gimmick of Marcel Duchamp once more to literature, claiming that the most rehearsed shenanigan of the 20th century is actually the art of the future and of the 21st century, a virtuality displacing both literary modernism and the pre-modernist realism of the literary mainstream (the latter form is endorsed by the 350 Creative Writing Masters university programs in the United States today, ensuring both the outstanding rarity of academic opponents like the conceptualists, and the invisibility of non-academic literature). Conceptual literature denies the philosophical and psychological depth of the novel. It seeks to inject textual gimmicks into pre-existing works of literature (by Walter Benjamin, in the case of Goldsmith, or by Borges in the Argentinian Katchadjian’s playful adaptation El Aleph Engordado, The Fattened Aleph) Theirs is an administrative game of redressing, playing with surfaces, when all pre-existing literature has lost its significance as readers can no longer be concerned with life and death matters. What follows, is that the only way to make texts from a less technocratic era once again readable is by inserting puzzles and game-features for the bored. Audiences and “co-creators” are thrust into a vast, imploding doll’s house.
As in the conceptual art installation, the conceptual literary piece is an artform of the high blasé modern: imagining that all aesthetic revolutions have taken place, conceptualism replaces the artist with a role of administrator of existing work. The curator, a form of intellectual taxidermist giving injections of collagen to fill out vacuities, replaces the artist.
In literature and in art, Concept is inevitably aided by an era where a large young population of the middle classes–once the potential audiences for literature and physical art–in flight from the financial crisis have sought an unending refuge within the academic professions. It has been said that the 20th century and the middle ages were the periods when philosophy became exclusively the province of academics, with few exceptions (in the middle ages, academia was the church. Exceptions among 20th century philosophers were Simone Weil, while the public intellectual Albert Camus insisted he was an artist and not a philosopher.) Today literature is strictly a monastic province of academics allowing few exceptions. (the field of economics is more likely than literature to have many non-academic outsiders )
The work of an artist creates new knowledge, but the academic librarian is concerned with the organization and administration of existing knowledge–a role often compatible with censorship. The work of the editor is appraised above that of the writer: the editor is paid, depicted as self-sacrificing and as the author in his maturity, in the highest and most responsible function. The curator is trained, paid, a financial administrator who assigns both conceptual meaning as well as financial value to an art-work: the curator is ”orator”, and his (more frequently, her) oration ”ensouls” breathes a soul, as well as a financial worth into the object of art. The highest place of authority is given to no literary text, certainly not Cervantes or Dos Passos, Weil or Pound: aura is in the works by Foucault and the texts of direct academic debtors and disciples of Foucault (at this instant Butler, tomorrow another to be ordained) This is because Foucault’s mission was to analyze and organize the ”systems of knowledge” and the grids along which knowledge is transferred–an administrators task, in a time of panic created by the chaos of overproduction.
Despite its pretension to mysticism, conceptual art is the exact opposite of mystical: it is the highpoint of extroversion. The art object, or the poem, their ”sensuous texture” (to borrow from Sontag and her articles from “Against Interpretation”, against hermeneutics, which can be read today as ”against the professional hermeneuticists/the curators) is not allowed to linger or to lead to an experience transcending the material, transcending the dead weight of words and of language itself. There is no erotics of art–and in all real mysticism, erotics are the ladder to mysticism. Conceptualism offers sanitized, clean rooms, sometimes with a crack in them, call it an ”intervention”. Instead of mysticism, the Conceptual is a matter of getting to the chase, it is directly presentable and purchasable, an empty room, a vacuity with chatter from Foucault injected into it.
The infinite resurrection of the salesman Duchamp’s ghost proposed itself as a subversion, a new plateau of phantasmal freedom, when the painters and sculptors are made too unfree by the market and are inevitably censored by the noise of overproduction. Whether it is sold as art or as curation, Concept Inc shows itself to be even more adapted and pliable to the market forces: immaterial art installations are a direct form of financial speculations. Currently, the financial interests of the owners and sellers of conceptual pieces during the past 30 thirty years are the only force keeping the dead art-form in place: as soon as the intellectual bankruptcy is revealed, prices and value might plummet, creating a speculations bubble pop in Conceptual that has to be avoided by the tens of thousands of “hermeneutics-professionals” (curators) being churned out by mostly European academies, imitated in the peripheric societies in Latin American and Asian art scenes and universities.
The conceptual falsely ascribes a financial, redeeming value of emptiness during an era of the panic about overproduction in a consumption-based and empirical, technical society that prohibits any discussions on seeking to define art or art criticism. When there is too much or all is too full, absence gains economic value in the market eye: the act of emptying, performed by performance artists, conceptualists and curators, is rewarded and enthusiastically lauded, at once pretending to fulfill the function of material art. The props of spectacular purgation, a puritanical art-form is advertised as anti-conservative . The compromise of conceptual art–art consisting of nothingness and of the abolition of art in order to save space, while claiming to fulfill the societal and spiritual role of art, is advertised as a “win-win” for artists and audiences in the era of over-production, but the problem of meaninglessness caused by that over-saturation (which in turn, owes much of its existence to market logic) is only perpetuated by the conceptualist acrobats and their orations.
A similar problem of anti-memory and anti-history is to be found in the field ”outsider art”, first carved out as yet another alternative to the art that is too market-determined. Yet the very term ”outsider art” implies another form of forgetting or amnesia: were Van Gogh or Caravaggio or Goya insiders despite their marginal social condition of leprosy? An ”outsider” according to the cultural logic of the term is an artist with little or no previous knowledge of art (meaning, not an auto-didact) who suffers from a cognitive disfunction or a brain disorder and yet is unaware of being engaged in artistic production. The autodidact artist, then, is excluded from both”outsider” and ”insider” art. “Outsider art” as a category enhances a bizarre and potentially oppressive division, where the only artists who are not ”insiders” (formed by Masters of Fine Arts programs, artists of networking) are the inmates of mental clinics who are not aware of their accidental art-works.
To return to the conceptual artist’s belief, contained within the category ‘‘conceptual art’’ that material arts are poor of concept: examples abound pointing to the contrary. The brawny makers of physical, material art were often obsessed with philosophies–at times at the expense of their art. Van Gogh was a "Spinozist,’’ obsessed with the natural religion and pantheism in the work of Spinoza, then seen as a dangerous thinker who misled the youth. Van Gogh’s early attempts at a career as heretical pastor rallying miners to rebel involved his belief in mixing Christianity with Spinoza’s Pantheism (the heretic by definition mixes, and the mixtures are grotesque.) Peter Mondriaan was steeped in an esoteric fixation with Neo-Platonism, trying to get at mapping the ‘‘forms’’ that supposedly upheld the universe. Italian Caravaggists and Renaissance painters read up on fashionable esotericisms of the times as well as ancient thought. Among literary artists, Herman Melville had a life-long engagement with the philosophy of his contemporary pessimist Arthur Schopenauer. Indian artist and poet Rabindranath Tagore was a philosopher. And the list goes on) In the long and glorious traditions of Islamic art, full of aesthetic revolts from the Abassids to the Fatimids, there is no such illusion about visual, abstract Islamic art being somehow separate from ‘‘concepts.’’
(from a long essay in progress, by Arturo Desimone, May 2016 Buenos Aires)


It will be helpful to have some bibliography or some form of citation. Although it is understood that this is a work in progress, and more of an overview than the essay proper.


very interesting explanation…
realy full of polemic points that we usually pass on! surprise was the Simone Weil mention!
go a head… tks