Once, the task of the artist was to make good art; now it is to avoid making art of any kind. Once, the public and critics had to be shown; now the latter are full of authority and the artists are full of doubts.
The history of art and of aesthetics are on all bookshelves. To this pluralism of values, add the current blurring of boundaries dividing the arts, and dividing art and life; and it is clear that the old questions of definition and standards of excellence are not only futile but naive. Even yesterday’s distinction between art, anti-art and non-art are pseudo-distinctions which simply waste our time: the side of an old building recalls Clifford Still’s canvases, the guts of a dishwashing machine doubles as Duchamp’s “Bottle Rack,” voices in a train station are Jackson Mac Low’s poems, the sounds of eating in a luncheonette are by John Cage, and all may be part of a Happening. Moreover, as the “found object” implies the found-word, -noise or -action, it also demands the found-environment. Art not only becomes life, but life refuses to be itself.
The decision to be an artist thus assumes both the existence of a unique activity and an endless series of deeds which deny it. The decision immediately establishes the context within which all of one’s acts may be judged by others as art, and also conditions one’s perception of all experience as probably (not possibly) artistic. Anything I say, do, notice, or think, is art – whether or not desired – because everyone else aware of what is occurring today will probably (not possibly) say, do, notice, and think of it, as art at some time or other.
This makes the identification of oneself as an artist an ironic one, attesting not to talent for a specialized skill, but to a philosophical stance before elusive alternatives of not-quite-art, or not-quite-life. “Artist” refers to a person willfully enmeshed in the dilemma of categories, who performs as if none of them existed. If there is no clear difference between an Assemblage with sound and a “noise” concert with sights, then there is no clear difference between an artist and a junkyard dealer.
Although it is a commonplace to do so, bringing such acts and thoughts to the gallery, museum, concert hall, stage or serious bookshop, blunts the power inherent in an arena of paradoxes. It restores that sense of aesthetic certainty which these milieux once proclaimed in a philistine society, just as much as it evokes a history of cultural expectations that run counter to the poignant and absurd nature of art today. Conflict with the past automatically ensues.
But obviously this is not the issue. The contemporary artist is not out to supplant recent modern art with a better kind; he wonders what art might be. Art and life are not simply conmingled; their identities are both uncertain. To pose these questions in the form of acts that are neither art-like nor life-like, while at the same time locating them within the framed context of the conventional showplace, is to suggest that there are really no uncertainties at all: the name on the gallery or stage door assures us that whatever is contained within is art, and everything else is life.
Speculation. Professional philosophy of the twentieth century has generally removed itself from problems of human conduct and purpose, and plays instead art’s late role as professionalistic activity; it could aptly be called philosophy for philosophy’s sake. Existentialism for this reason is assigned a place closer to social psychology than to philosophy per se, by a majority of academicians for whom ethics and metaphysics are a definitional and logical inquiry at best. Paul Valéry, acknowledging philosophy’s self-analytic tendency, and wishing to salvage from it something of value, suggests that even if Plato and Spinoza can be refuted, their thoughts remain astonishing works of art. Now, as art becomes less art, it takes on philosophy’s early role as critique of life. Even if its beauty can be refuted, it remains astonishingly thoughtful. Precisely because art can be confused with life, it forces attention upon the aim of its ambiguities to “reveal” experience.
Philosophy will become steadily more impotent in its search for verbal knowledge, so long as it fails to recognize its own findings: that only a small fraction of the words we use are precise in meaning; and only a smaller proportion of these contain meanings in which we are vitally interested. When words alone are no true index of thought, and when sense and nonsense today rapidly become allusive and layered with implication rather than description, the use of words as tools to precisely delimit sense and nonsense may be a worthless endeavor. LSD and LBJ invoke different meaning clusters, but both partake of a need for code; and code performs the same condensing function as symbol in poetry. TV “snow” and Muzak in restaurants are accompaniments to conscious activity which, if suddenly withdrawn, produce a feeling of void in the human situation. Contemporary art, which tends to “think” in multi-media, intermedia, overlays, fusions and hybridizations, is a closer parallel to modern mental life than we have realized. Its judgements, therefore, may be acute. “Art” may soon become a meaningless word. In its place, “communications programming” would be a more imaginative label, attesting to our new jargon, our technological and managerial fantasies, and to our pervasive electronic contact with one another.