– Spring 2008

On American Ingenuity (And the Problem of the Readymade)

Walead Beshty

The [senior White House] aide said that guys like me [i.e. reporters and commentators] were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principals and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Ronald Suskind1

In 1979, Rosalind Krauss recognised a crisis in the institution of critique. Aimed at the anachronistic medium-based distinctions still prevalent at the time, her text 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field' provided a cogent warning to would-be historicists. Krauss accurately surmised that, in the adaptation of conventional categories in order to account for contemporary art's ruptures with certain object-based traditions, the critic was in danger of losing the validity of the very terms he or she sought to protect. As she argued, in the discussion of post-War American art, 'categories like sculpture and painting have been kneaded and stretched and twisted in an extraordinary demonstration of elasticity, a display of the way a cultural term can be extended to include just about anything'.2 Using the state of contemporary sculpture to force the issue, the text's implications are realised indirectly in the institutionalised linguistic parameters

  1. Ronald Suskind, 'Without a Doubt', New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004.

  2. Rosalind Krauss, 'Scuplture in the Expanded Field', October, vol.8, Spring 1979, p.30.

  3. Ibid., p.42.

  4. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (trans. Gregory lliot), New York and London: Verso, 2006, p.466.

  5. R. Krauss, 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field', op. cit., p.36.

  6. Stéphane Mallarmé, 'Exposition de Londres [1872]', Oeuvres completes, Paris: Gallimard, 1945, p.684 Cited in Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2001, p.122.

  7. It seems no coincidence then that Duchamp would appropriate the term Société Anonyme or Anonymous Society, a phrase that, in French, refers to a privately-held corporation.

  8. Gilles Deleuze, 'Postscript on Societies of Control', October, vol.52, Winter 1992, p.4.

  9. Patrick Beaver, The Crystal Palace, 1851-1936: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise, London: Hugh Evelyn, 1970, p.34.

  10. See Rosalind Krauss, 'Photography's Discursive Spaces', The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1985, pp.131-50.

  11. Walter Benjamin, 'Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century: Expose of 1939', The Arcades Project (ed. Roy Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin), Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1999, p.9.

  12. Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Readymade (trans. Dana Polan and Th. de Duve), Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p.115.

  13. Siegfried Kracauer, 'The Hotel Lobby', The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (ed. and trans. Thomas Y. Levin), Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1995, p.173.

  14. Buchloh doesn't mention Owens's work despite various similarities in reference and argumentation, and the assumed awareness the two authors had of each other's work.

  15. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 'Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art', Artforum, September 1982, p.56.

  16. 'Pictures' is the title of an exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp that opened at Artists Space, New York in September 1977, including works by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith. An essay of the same title was published by Crimp in October, vol.8, Spring 1979, pp.75-88. Editor's note.

  17. Craig Owens, 'The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism (Part 2)', October, vol.13, Summer 1980, p.71.

  18. Ibid., p.79.

  19. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, The Neo-Avant-Garde and the Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, New York and Cambridge: October Books, 2001, p.xxi. It should be noted that a similar implication of 'critical failure' (Owens's term) is at play in the work of these critics, i.e. that in their deconstruction of the institutionalised rhetoric of validation they rely on the authority granted to them through processes of accreditation, peer review, etc., in order to present their critique of those very procedures by which legitimacy is naturalised.

  20. Kristine Stiles and Paul McCarthy, 'Paul McCarthy and Kristine Stiles in Phone Conversation, February 1996,' in pressPLAY: The Complete Phaidon Interviews with Contemporary Artists, 1995-2005, London: Phaidon Press, 2006, p.459.

  21. Ibid., p.458.

  22. Ibid.

  23. This calls to mind a scene in the film version of Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975), where the protagonist's mother, lounging in her all-white luxuriously tacky retro-futurist bedroom, throws a bottle of champagne at the television - itself a mass-produced cube - that in response spews forth a procession of fluids, first champagne, then baked beans, and, later, in a progression that is more and more abject, what is presumably chocolate, each of which she ecstatically writhes about in.

  24. K. Stiles and P. McCarthy, op. cit., p.453.

  25. Benjamin Weissman, 'Paul McCarthy,' BOMB Magazine, Summer 2003, pp.34-36.

  26. Ibid., p.34.

  27. Ibid., p.36.

  28. B.H.D. Buchloh, 'Allegorical Procedures', op. cit., p.46.

  29. K. Stiles and P. McCarthy, op. cit, p.456.

  30. C. Owens, 'The Allegorical Impulse,' op. cit.., p.65.

  31. 'Rhoade Work' is a reference to a piece by Jason Rhoades titled Rhoades Construction, produced on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles in 1993, where he was a graduate student. See Eva Meyer-Hermann(ed.), Volume: A Rhoades Referenz, Nuremberg, Eindhoven and Cologne: Kunsthalle Nürnburg, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum and Oktagon, 1998, p.135. 'Peace of Shit' is based on Jason Rhoades's comments on his installation Perfect World at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg in 1999. 'There's a whole lineage to it. It's about this "oneness" of shit / It really has to be at one with itself. It does not have any real connections. It is a piece of shit but it had peace... I was going to call the whole thing "A Piece of Shit". It would have been nice to talk about this big piece of shit.' Eva Meyer-Hermann and Jason Rhoades, 'A Place Where Nobody Could Step Over My Electrical Cords, Or: The Next Level. At the End of the Rainbow. Perfect World', in Felix Zdenek (ed.), Jason Rhoades: Perfect World, Cologne: Oktagon, 2001, p.36.

  32. Jason Rhoades and Michele Robecchi, 'Interview,' contemporary, no.81. Also available at http://www.contemporary-magazine.com/interview81.htm (last accessed on 6 November 2007).

  33. 'Constructed Reality: Linda Norden, Richard Jackson, Paul McCarthy and Daniel Birnbaum on Jason Rhoades', Artforum, October 2006, p.108.

  34. Daniel Buren, 'Why Write Texts or The Place Where I Act', 5 Texts, London and New York: John Weber Gallery and Jack Wendler Gallery, 1973, p.8.

  35. Conversation with the artist, 11 November 2007.

  36. According to most accounts, the conflict between Büchel and Mass MoCA begun as a budget disput about Büchel's planned exhibition at the museum, and continued with the museum's modification of Büchel's work without his approval and consequently with Büchel abandoning the project. In response, the museum asked Büchel to reimburse them for his expenditures; Büchel refused, and also rejected the museum's request to show the work in its unfinished state. A Massachusetts court judge ruled in favour of Mass MoCA, allowing the partially finished work to be exhibited. For more information on the events, see Henry Lydiate, 'Moral Rights: Christoph Büchel vs. Mass MoCA', Art Monthly, November 2007, p.45. See also 'Christoph Büchel's Response to Plantiff's Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Material Facts', Civil Action no.3:07-30089-MAP, United States District Court: District of Massachusetts, filed on 13 September 2007. Editor's note.

  37. As can be read in the documents presented by both parts for the Civil Action.

  38. See the comments by Joe Thompson, director of Mass MoCA, in Randy Kennedy, 'The Show Will Go On, But The Art Will Be Shielded', The New York Times, 22 May 2007; Geof Edgers, 'Behind doors, a world unseen: Dispute cloaks massive installation at Mass MoCA', The Boston Globe, 28 March 2007, in addition to the text of their civil action, 'Complaint for Declaratory Relief', 21 March 2007, and the subsequent 'Mass MoCA's Statement of Material Facts', all under 'Civil Action no.3:07-30089-MAP', filed before the United States District Court: District of Massachusetts.

  39. See Ibid.

  40. Alison Gingeras, 'Preview', Artforum, January 2007, p.146.

  41. D. Buren, 'Why Write Texts', op. cit., p.8.