Mia/Second comparative essay

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2nd essay (Rosalind Krauss, Marcel Duchamp) – working title:

Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art. That’s because the word art is general and the word painting is specific. (Joseph Kosuth, Krauss, p. 10)

In the essay ‘Photography encapsulates art itself’ I analysed how photography gained its position in art and why it is valuable in its context. Martin Jay and Susan Sontag both consider photography an important medium with even a subversive position towards art. However, pursuing their discussions, I find it necessary to delineate some conceptual and contextual background, namely, what the notion of art is and how it changed through time. I address the first with Marcel Duchamp’s argument in The Creative Act as one of the foundational texts for the discourse, which suggests an analysis of mechanisms that produce art in raw state. On the other hand, Rosalind Krauss’s book ‘The Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of Post-Modern Condition’ follows the transitions in understanding of medium and its relation to art throughout the 20th century. To better describe how photography is anchored in the realm of artistic mediums, I do not aim at the exact definition of art, but rather at a few possible understandings of it.

Duchamp’s attempt to grasp what we actually mean by the term art leads him to a comparison with emotions. He states that ‘bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion’ showing that his analysis encompasses any art, regardless the quality, to reveal the ‘mechanism which produces art in the raw state’. Duchamp’s approach to an understanding of art is based on so called creative act: from intention to realisation, the artist undergoes the chain of subjective reactions that ‘cannot and must not be fully self-conscious’. He describes vividly this conversion as ‘a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals and decisions’ that produce an outcome, but different from the intention. He says that chain of steps in the creative act has a missing link, a gap that represents artist’s inability to fully express his intention. Duchamp names this difference between what artist intended to realise and actually did realise a ‘personal art coefficient’ which is embedded in the work. However, this process does not result in a finished artwork, but, according to Duchamp, produces art à l’état brut – art in its raw state – which is then purified and filtered by the spectator. The latter acts as a connection between the artist, his artwork and external world. Spectator is the one who decodes the work and its possible meanings and thus contributes to the creative act.

When it comes to judgment, it seems that the audience is the one in power. But the question arises, which are the circumstances that make its encounter with artworks possible. One of the bodies that facilitate that is art institution, be it a museum, gallery, cinema or other. But in the 60’s, conceptual art brought a strong critique on the art’s institutionalisation which reveals as problematic. I will address the issue later in the essay, but it does build on Duchamp’s questioning what art and the mechanisms behind it are.

But first, let us make a short detour to have a close look at the artistic medium and the changes in its understanding. In her pursuit of what the notion of art means, Rosalind Krauss begins her analysis by dissecting the modernist understanding of medium. One of the most influential theorists of the time, Clement Greenberg, called upon freeing painting from any sculptural and narrative additions, narrowing it only to what was announced as the medium’s essence – flatness. But painting’s very reduction to flatness actually turned into a paradox. The evolvement for instance from Barnett Newman to Frank Stella confirms Krauss’ observation: ‘painting had now become an object just like any other three-dimensional thing’ (p.10). She indicates that the idea of medium-specificity was just as contradictory. Taking Donald Judd’s ‘Specific Objects’ as an example, she shows that the outcome did not prove medium’s specificity, but its generality. She states ‘if modernism was probing painting for its essence – for what made it specific as a medium – that logic taken to its extreme had turned painting inside out and had emptied in into the generic category of Art: art-at-large, or art-in-general’ (p.10). Thus she objects the modernist perspective on the purity of medium and claims for it to have an inherently hybrid status.

Krauss observes that the attempt to grasp what art is was just as strong among conceptual artists. Joseph Kosuth argued that instead of being materialised as a physical object, art can now take a form of a statement and exist as pure language. Krauss notices that ‘conceptual art saw itself securing a higher purity for art, so that in flowing through the channels of commodity distribution it would not only adopt any form it needed but would /…/ escape the effects of the market itself (p. 11).’ Conceptualist institutional critique was leaning on the avant-garde tradition, namely Duchamp’s questioning what art is in the first place.

As stated above, Duchamp claims that spectator is the one to evaluate whether something is or is not art but he also introduces Art History as a body in charge of such judgment. The space where spectator’s encounter with artworks is made possible, Art History and art market together form a party, attacked by conceptualists. Krauss takes Marcel Broodthaers’ Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department (1968-71) as an example of such criticism. Broodthaers established this fictitious museum, where ready-mades, reproductions of artworks, film elements, wall inscriptions and other conceptual pieces were on display. Be it a film, photograph, sculpture or a text, he labelled each object with the tag ‘Fig. (No.)’. Furthermore, he even affixed ‘figure’ labels to mundane objects such as pipes, mirrors and clocks.

Krauss suggests this is a twofold statement. On the one hand, every material support we can imagine - from pictures to statues to film to words – is now made equal. As opposed to modernist understanding, conceptualism thus indicates levelling of artistic mediums and ‘intermedia loss of specificity’ (Krauss, p. 15). But on the other hand, Broodthaers also indicates the transformation of any artwork into a commodity with certain market value. ‘Every material support, including the site itself – whether art magazine, dealer’s fair booth, or museum gallery – will now be levelled, reduced to /…/ the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape…’ (Krauss, p.15). Broodthaers’ therefore disputed traditional museum practices and criticised the institutionalisation of art from within such an institution.

In his museum he displayed more than 300 eagles (as ready-mades, sculptures or pictures). Krauss shows that his eagle carries multi-layered symbolism but above all ‘Broodthaers’s eagle functioned more often than not as an emblem for Conceptual art’ (p. 12). The equalising of objects in the museum once again echoes avant-garde call for bridging art and life, best embodied in Duchamp’s ready-mades. Duchamp’s works and writings such as Apropos of ‘Readymades’ question originality and therefore value as art objects, but also blur the border between art objects and general commodities.

However, in Broodthaers’s fictitious museum Krauss identifies another paradox. Broodthaers’ attempt to avoid the art market and claim the end of medium specificity resulted in his own museum - a conglomerate mixed-media installation. Eagle principle shattered the difference between the aesthetic and the commodified, however, it allowed the eagle – conceptualism – to rise and occupy the position of ‘high art’. Thus it actually restored hegemony it was first trying to undermine. Moreover, she stresses that ‘twenty-five years later, all over the world, in every biennial and at every art fair, the eagle principle functions as the new Academy. Whether it calls itself installation art or institutional critique, the international spread of the mixed-media installation has become ubiquitous. ’ (p. 20) Thus leading to so called post-medium age Rosalind Krauss says that Marcel Broodthaers played the key role for further transition towards contemporary art’s post-medium condition.

But besides Broodthaers’s work, Kraus observes that another development shattered the idea of medium-specificity – video camera. Art practice was soon overflowing with video pieces, partly due to its affordability but also due to the new narrative it required. Krauss makes a comparison between structuralist (modernist) film and video practice to reveal the aggregate condition of any medium.

The first, referring to films such as of Michael Snow, understood film medium as an ‘apparatus’. Krauss describes that the support for film was ‘neither the celluloid strip of images, nor the camera that filmed them, nor the projector that brings them to life in motion, nor the beam of light that relays to the screen, nor the screen itself, but all of these taken together, including the audience’s position caught between the source of the light behind it and the image projected before its eyes.’ (Krauss, p.25) In this sense, we can draw the parallel to Duchamp’s statement that the creative act is not carried out by artist alone, but the work is complete only when it reaches the spectator. Krauss similarly finds that a single, sustained experience in audience is the one producing unity for such a diversified support as film reveals to be.

On the other side, there are TV and video as broadcast mediums, which disintegrate ‘spatial continuity into remote sites of transmission and reception’ (Krauss, p. 30). Krauss observes that they exist ‘in endlessly diverse forms, spaces, and temporalities for which no single instance seems to provide a formal unity for the whole’ (p. 31). Thus she takes video practice as a model to show the heterogeneous condition which applies to any other medium. She supports the post-medium position of constitute heterogeneity with Jacques Derrida’s dialectic of interior and exterior: he claimed that the two are never strictly divided. In other words, nothing could be constituted as pure interiority or self-identity, because it is already invaded by an outside. The inside of an artwork is always contingent on its context. Modernist autonomy of aesthetic experience and purity of the medium were shattered once again. Krauss concludes: ‘The self-identical was revealed as, and thus dissolved into, the self-different.’ (Krauss, p. 32)

Just as the medium of film is understood as an ‘apparatus’, a conglomerate condition of photography is no different. Its essence cannot be reduced to merely unworked physical support - its layered, complex structure is constitutive for internal plurality of photography and any given medium. Walter Benjamin takes photography to attack the idea of specificity for all the arts. Krauss summarises his though: ‘This is because photography’s status as a multiple, a function of mechanical reproduction, restructures the condition of the other arts.’ (Krauss, p. 46) He observes that besides the fact that works of art are being reproduced, they become designed for reproducibility. Sontag arrives at a similar conclusion: ‘It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs’ (Sontag, p. 117) Separate works of art become commodities and just as separate mediums fall prey to general equivalency. The uniqueness of the work, its aura, is lost as well as the specificity of its medium. Returning to the essay Photography encapsulates art itself, Martin Jay’s statement that photography has a fundamentally hybrid status supports Krauss’s understanding of artistic medium. This very condition of photography is the one that centres it into the context of art. Furthermore, Duchamp’s argument that only with the spectator is the creative act is executed, proves that a complete autonomy of an artwork is a delusion, since it is inevitably characterised with spectator’s experience. To conclude Rosalind Krauss thought – in the post-medium age, what we call Art does not have a medium to be defined with but it has a context-generating institution. Yet, the criticism towards institutionalisation of art is only possible from within its very inside.


1. Duchamp, M (1961) The Creative Act, Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

2. Krauss, R (1992) The Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, New York Thames and Hudson Inc.