Value As Decoration

Joseph Kosuth One and Three Chairs 1965

“It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s function was its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy which dealt with ‘beauty’ and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bound to discuss art as well. Out of this ‘habit’ grew the notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true. This idea never drastically conflicted with artistic considerations before recent times, not only because the morphological characteristics of art perpetuated the continuity of this error, but as well, because the apparent other ‘functions’ of art (depiction of religious themes, portraiture of aristocrats. detailing of architecture. etc.) used art to cover up art….”

“Aesthetic considerations are indeed always extraneous to an object’s function or ‘reason to be’. Unless of course, that object’s ‘reason to be’ is strictly aesthetic. An example of a purely aesthetic object is a decorative object, for decoration’s primary function is ‘to add something to, so as to make more attractive; adorn; ornament’, and this relates directly to taste. And this leads us directly to ‘Formalist’ art and criticism. Formalist art (painting and sculpture) is the vanguard of decoration, and, strictly speaking, one could reasonably assert that its art condition is so minimal that for all functional purposes it is not art at all, but pure exercises in aesthetics. Above all things Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgement, with those judgements reflecting his taste. And what does his taste reflect? The period he grew up in as a critic, the period ‘real’ for him: the fifties.” [Joseph Kosuth Art After Philosophy]

Joseph Kosuth Neon 1965

What is taste? Or decoration? Or art for that matter? When we mine the past for style what do we do to the meanings of the art we mine? Joseph Kosuth makes the case that Formalist Art can only be decoration. And this is something that he says isn’t art. I think there’s an irony at play here in that his brand of conceptualism [art] seems to me to be excessively tasteful, and dare I say, highly decorative as well. I guess we all ( NY art types dressed in black) fall into the trap – one’s own taste. So where’s the line between art and decoration? Can we have both at once? And on a more practical note – how does one keep an audience’s attention? How does one manufacture sellable philosophy? What will the institutional classes fund and what will the collector classes purchase? Difficult questions all. But this last one is fairly simple – Are there aesthetic decisions being made regarding installation, presentation, materials, processes and production in Joseph’s work? Probably.

Joseph Kosuth Rosetta Stone 2006

“Art ‘lives’ through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas. The reason why different artists from the past are ‘brought alive’ again is because some aspect of their work becomes ‘useable’ by living artists. That there is no ‘truth’ as to what art is seems quite unrealized.” [Joseph Kosuth AAP]

There are many painters making work today that naturally understand this particular distinction. If one is stripping style away from context then one accepts the history of painting and formalism wholly and without question. The “High Times Hard Times” Abstract Mannerists didn’t have this luxury, and developed a specific critique of 50s and 60s formalist painting. But this era’s painters no longer deal with the idea of critique or philosophy – instead they accept that in this Post Avant Garde Neo-Liberal era art/painting is a pure economic object. Since we live in a Post-Historical Era all art exists in the past – as decorative objects – even and including the painting/object you finished last night. This puts an artist’s attention on style and aesthetics. Contemporary artists aren’t interested in the “physical residue of an artist’s ideas”. We are interested in capturing and branding the aesthetic functions of art’s past. Our practical concerns come After Philosophy, and it’s the re-creation of past art that satisfies our era’s desire for aesthetically pleasing art objects.

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