Concept as Art

While Googling <<artist: Sherrie Levine>>, whose company I enjoyed in a graduate school seminar, c. 1973, I came upon a Sotheby’s page for an auction item of a Levine work. In a piece of “high art” hilarity I see the piece is protected under copyright. $60-80K estimated gavel price. Is this on purpose? Another bit of Duchampian blague? I mean, didn’t Levine gain her notoriety by re-purposing other famous copyrighted work as her own? Maybe…but to be able to “get it”—to smile at the joke—you have to know several things.

1) What is blague?

2) Was there an end of Modernism?

3) Why did Sherrie Levine become famous for exhibiting other’s artwork as her own?

4) Why should you care?

5) Why did Levine’s auction rep copyright the image of her work?


6) Who laughs at an explicated joke?

The answer to # 6: No one.

Levine southeby's

Screen capture of a recent Sotheby’s offering.


“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke…outside in the distance, the Wildcat did growl.” All Along the Watchtower — Bob Dylan

If you think you want to know what it was like to swim through the complicated world of Art in the 63-74 period, read on. This section is for the everyman, but not for everyone. As Hermann Goering (or maybe it was Goebles) famously said: “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning.” This section is wholly unnecessary and probably only of interest to 1/4 of 1% of the Culturati: People who stake a claim to know something about art. Apologies in advance, but I had to say it…

To take Walter Benjamin at his word and give mechanical reproduction a substance beyond just reproduction but the economic substrate for many artists, I sought to re-integrate art back into the culture by opening a print studio/gallery with my son Noah…


A trope of the 1950’s “Monster” movie was to show the shadow of the monster moving across the frame before you actually saw the creature. A creepy set piece to keep you on the edge of your seat. For me, the shadow of the Viet Nam War was sliding back and forth across the proscenium of my actual life. My real life monster. In 1970 I was draft bait with a very unlucky #12 lottery draw. I would lose my student deferment on May 10, 1970. Just days after the Kent State Massacre. Without divine intervention, I was going to ‘Nam. I’d tried getting a medical deferment, failed in my application for Contentious Objector status (you needed support from local clergy and my Rabbi said just following the six-day war “Jews are finally flexing their might” no way); people I knew were successfully starving themselves to drop below the minimum weight, feigning madness, homosexuality, a letter from a shrink would sometimes do the trick—it was a long journey of watching for the signs of “withdrawal” from Indo-china. Those who just wanted to get it over with joined the National Guard where you were pretty much guaranteed not to see combat duty. Six months of active duty and then “sort of” free. For me, it felt grossly uncool to go that route, as a place-keeper for the war machine. Teachers were exempt as were married men with children—but that ended in ’68. This was the background static hum of my everyday. I had friends who emigrated to Canada, one went to Spain. I was to report for my induction physical May 10, 1970. 30 days later I’d be basic training bound. My childhood next door neighbor came home in a box, I knew others who’d done a combat tour coming back like the walking dead, and maybe addicted, riding the white horse or just terminally freaked. Another childhood friend made enough black market $’s selling tires to the Viet Kong—enough money to buy a house. I’d visited a sympathetic Doc at the DC VA hospital a couple of times to write me up as disqualified. I had walked the wards with him seeing first-hand the smash and ruin—eyes following us full of hot lava and tornadoes. I had great sympathy for them but I was a baby and had nothing for them. Dr. Thomas said, “Whatever you do, don’t let me find you here.” The whole thing was an out and out lie—hard evidence coming with the release of the Pentagon Papers.

In DC, the peace movement had become radicalized. Chicago had been through the Days of Rage in October ’69, which had come to DC November. Coombya—yea sure, with nightstick thugs ever ready to crack heads and SDS planting bombs; over 1800 in ’69 alone—white suburban kids planting bombs! 3 blew themselves to pieces in a Greenwich Village townhouse. Body counts from halfway ’round the world were part of the network news scrolling… NVA 122, VC 1104 GI 17. Deepest bull shit. Riots in every US big city. I was a white pioneer, not a little self-righteous, into a black neighborhood. One evening I returned home to find my door kicked in. The woman in the apartment below was raped. We finally left after we’d had the baby. You steered clear of a vehicle with a flag decal. It was all parsed into Rednecks full of rage, hippies full of passive aggressive rage (HERE!! TAKE THIS FLOWER, MAN!!) and black power Mau-Maus full of fully entitled rage. After the 1969 siege at Dupont circle, we were all sure the revolution was just around the corner and my radical stance, wanting a life in the arts, was: “I will live as if the revolution were already won.” If I was to be a revolutionary I wanted to find it in the post-revolutionary life. All the brand-name movements were full to the brim with store-bought piety. Panthers demanding to know why I thought I was relevant, hippies taunting a bourgeois elitist artist, rednecks ready to kill a commie for Christ—I’d seen plenty of revolutionary zeal; hot heads smashing windows and setting cars on fire…kids with bullhorns…How could you make art with all this mess? How could you not.

The Art World had moved on, way beyond cubism and abstraction, from Minimalism as the prime directive to the wonderfully strange saga of Conceptual Art—in the wings and waiting to line up to come onstage at what some called “Art Degree Zero.” The unified field theory that would be the final equation describing 40,000 years of art history. Fat chance, Lucille. But conceptualism was fascinating if you were in on the joke. How can a urinal lying on its back, signed “R.Mutt” and titled Fountain (1917) be a work of art? For that matter, Sherri Levine made a bronze cast version of Fountain retitled Fountain (Buddha), 1991—estimated auction price $150,000-$200,000. “Outside in the distance, the wildcats did growl.” How can this be art.? Precisely.

We’d seen it before in the birth of DADA after the absurd carnage of trench warfare in WWI, DADA born in the exile’s safe harbor of Switzerland at Zürich’s Café Voltaire. Self-referential irony became the palette and fiddle-bow. Self-reference was the new art about art. Language was art and nothing was new. Sampling other’s work to mock any pretense at originality was a good stance to keep feeling at bay…who wanted to feel any more than the crushing reality of the endless lines of the dead in SE Asia—by 1969 the body count was 6,000 a week. A  week!. The burnt-out city cores were monuments to apartheid Amerika. One of these broken-off burnt-tooth neighborhoods was 4 blocks from my house in DC. Black lives mattering less and less as the scourge of cheap drugs were offloaded to the vulnerable followed by mass incarceration. I saw it first-hand working as a tutor in DC’s Central detention facility. Jail. And later, on the other side, in the courts, where I worked as a bailiff for a few months…“All rise, all persons having business with the honorable Judge Alexander draw neigh and give your attention…” that was me plunked into that drama. Like 1916 Zürich, the absurd was the only possible response to absurdity. And in the meantime, the fuse on the population bomb was hissing and sparking as the lethality of our technology unable to cope with so many bodies, cut through the fairy forests of the delicate substrate of living tissue.

Back in high school days—1965 American Lit—Mr. Jameson, himself ducking out of the gale of the Viet Nam draft with a teaching deferment, fresh from Harvard class of ’64, presented his English IV seniors with Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. Just published. All the sacred cows of art—craft, originality und Schönheit ist verboten (that’d be, beauty is forbidden) were at the gate of the abattoir ready for the cultural butcher shop. MMMM sizzling Warholian beouf-en-croute. We’d seen Andy on the Merv Griffen show with his Brillo Boxes and it was like suddenly everything was set in quotes. Andy on a talk show refused to talk but spoke only through his super-star Edie Sedgwick. Har de har. It was funny and confusing but no more confusing than a wild slather of gooey paint. We were at the birth of the banal as an art form as we all became camp-ers in Mr. Jameson’s American Lit.  class. We all “got it” with his help. So pop—and Uncle DADA in the same family looking over the shoulder with a wry smirk. This was MAD Magazine stuff only the jokes were harder to get—three or four footnotes required and it was too sexy for the kids. “Good afternoon, Smash-Mouth & Punk, how may I direct your call?”

Art was my safe harbor as I navigated my pathetic life of the particular misery as grist for the war machine’s mill. But good ole’ Kynasten McShine, the curator who had marked the territory of Minimalism with the


Primary Structures exhibit in 1966, gave us the preamble to Conceptual Art with the MOMA exhibit Information in 1969. Art dealer Seth Siegelaub waded in promoting the early adopters of the movement trying to counter the distortions of the marketplace. Could you sell a mere idea? Turns out Segalaub could. As the onslaught of capitalism washed the world free of meaning, the profoundly prescient Siegelaub began to support an array of “first responders” to the crisis. Art that couldn’t be sold. Carl Andre, Joseph Kosuth, Art was an idea after all, and the foremost subject for art was Art itself. It was pretty cool to be clued into this new movement in my senior seminar in college. The seminar class was called New Media but it really wasn’t about anything new save that art had wandered into the Duchampian territory with that Information show. No longer was art about skill, or talent or any idea about traditional beauty. Art had peeled away all the signifiers of what qualified a thing as art. All you needed was an idea that demonstrated you understood something about the nature of Art itself. Art was a question not an answer after all.

The instructor for New Media, Ed McGowin had gained significant notoriety with his own project challenging the idea of one’s name/identity. He had legally changed his name once a month for a year. Judge John Sirica, (the same judge who would hold Nixon’s feet to the fire during Watergate) agreed to be the official of record. Steve Kaltenbach (who would be the instructor in my graduate seminar 3 years down the road at the U of Wisconsin) had carefully documented the minting of a half-dollar in platinum, worth over $200 in 1970 pricing, and bought a 50¢ cheese sandwich at a Walgreens lunch counter. Sherrie Levine who was in that very seminar gained her own notoriety 10 years later exhibiting a famous photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs taken during the depression by Walker Evans. Levine exhibited the photograph as her own titled “After Walker Evans 4”. So this was art that spoke of large issues, issues about value, identity, originality. The instructions for New Media were to bring a typed statement describing your idea,—no skill required, no expense limit, “just don’t re-create cubism”. It should say something about Zeit Geist. What’s zeit geist? The research sent me to Jack Burnham, an editor for ARTFORUM. pretty much the publication of record for what’s-happening-now. Burnham had written an essay called Art Degree Zero. An end game was posited as the new reality. I ate it up.

Some of my noteable “projects” for New Media testing the limits of what art could be:

• I will make a detailed list of all my input: Music, poetry, films, advertising, dinner—the artist as subject. I am the canvas.

• I will use space program telemetry systems to monitor body functions for input onto the newly developed LCD screen. A lie detector becomes a truth detector—being a self-portrait. Put on a helmet loaded with sensors to make colors appear on the screen.

• I will move to Cape Cod and learn to paint “Sunday Painter” watercolors. Hang them on a clothesline strung in a “blue chip” NYC gallery. Testing the idea of high art vs. Kitsch.

• I will learn to build my own shelter, grow my own food.

• I will not go to Viet Nam (handed in this last one a week before my army physical)

As many of these ideas about art were jokey. Toss offs, seldom sinking below the surface. Like a stand-up routine. But if these were stand-up routines, where was the Checkov in this theatre of the absurd? Art that was about art, self-referential skipping over the surface. Where was the verticality, the depth? Art school was full of this har-de-har stuff all the while the market-place for far-out art was a red-hot crucible. It was like being told an esoteric joke. The overarching problem I felt was that this “thing”, this art making, the world I had chosen, was tipped over a cliff for the general public. The idea that art was the emperor’s new clothes was hard to deny. Yet to me in the story of that vain Emperor, it was the tailors who fascinated me. Not the kid who points out the ridiculous Emperor. The tailors were the conceptual artists revealing the deep truth that the most powerful force around was the imagination. With their invisible thread, they were revealing a deep truth as they plied their con. The problem to parse was the problem of art for everybody. Not Kitsch, but the human animal has a predilection for beauty. How was the post-modern joke going to arrive at any depth of feeling, like “OK, I am a mortal human being. How do I understand death and suffering? How do I connect to a truth larger than a little idea about success and failure?

For the required contemporary art history class, when I was in grad school, we were to choose a text to review and write the final essay. I chose Jack Burnham’s The Structure of Art where I was introduced to the central core of linguistics. How language shapes our being. How the structure of language was the structure of art. Language was central to all human activity—religion, politics, commerce, agriculture, science—Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jean Piaget were the prophets in this cannon. Art as a central node of human activity was getting short shrift; last to be funded, first to be cut. It was obvious to artists, art students, museum people, lovers of art, that art remained a central node. But to the general population art was a gussied-up con, a confusion and in an age of alienation from basic structures, as the counterculture took hold, art was one more poke in the eye to the squares. At the same time in 1970, the modernist experiment of peeling meaning down to a core, something was changing. Modernists suddenly were the squares. It all became monkey business of abstraction, minimalism, pop banality, conceptualism; challenges to formal reality, testing, testing. Of course, it was hardly Monkey Business, it came from the depth of what it means to be human. It had been going along for at least 40,000 years. But to the general public looking into the self-created cage, looking through the well-defended iron bars of the curatorial world, it looked like a bunch of apes tossing sticks around, playing ring toss with used tires.

I loved it all, but felt on the outs and wanted deeper in. The gatekeepers of the art world were pretty well defended against interlopers. The bars of the cage worked 2 ways. Keeping in < > keeping out. Burnham had written an essay in The Structure of Art called “Art degree Zero”. He used Stonehenge as an example of a time when art was integrated into the rest of social structures as a work of science, architecture, agriculture, art, politics, education. Stonehenge functioned as a calendar marking planting times via seasonal celebrations, organizing a society. From a cultural Anthropology course I found the still functioning culture of Bali, Indonesia to hold the strongest connective tissue between all the modes of human societal structure, and I wrote in my final paper the proposal for a scheme to reintegrate the arts. I proposed that the missing piece for many artists was the generation of a stable economic structure. A business providing artists with an economic possibility.

Prints, of first-rate quality, could be marketed in traditional ways. But as a scheme, it proved to be too unwieldily. The cost of printmaking was capital-loaded at the front end. To produce a suite of 10 prints was costly. All prints of an edition needed to be printed all at once. It could cost upward of $100K with no guarantee of ROI. Any print studio wanted a “blue chip” artist, one that would guarantee sales. An unknown was unmarketable in a world where one had to look through a picture into its meaning. You had to be inculturated. I wanted to join the club off artists who were making a living at it. But who wanted to make a living making art for the philistines? Motel art, art for the hospitality industry, even as Mark Rothko found out, having famously withdrawn his work from the Four Seasons in Manhattan. His 1957 $35,000 commission in 2017 dollars would be edging close to $300,000. An artist wanted to make a deep statement about time. something mythic something lasting, embedded in it’s time and transcending time at the same time.

As the French philosophers agreed, it came to be a joke “a joke meant to make people who, like us, laugh, and make everyone else livid,”  and it would continue to be a joke, though the joke, like a cartoon fireman looking down his hose for the water, getting blasted in the face when the rush of authoritarian populism sweeps through Europe and Trumpian America.

As we passed the marker of 1970, which many thought of as the exhaustion of the angle of repose, a mountainous pile of sand suddenly slumping into formlessness. We can look back at the sixties as a time of resistance to the lethality of our technologies. The “back to the land” movement, the Whole Earth Catalogue, the organic food movement. Art no longer functioned as a mediator between reality and the imagination; the translator between myth and metaphor. Art was not a thing pursued by bohemian malcontents or arid intellectuals floating above life as it’s lived. In Burnham’s Art Degree Zero he ends on a high note: Can we integrate our technologies to produce a world even more alive. Can art reflect this living world? As poet Michael McClure says “Art is a muscular principle alive as a marmoset or a tunicate.”

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