Two Great Storms

Today it is impossible to think of New York in any context without bringing to mind images of the monstrous hurricane Sandy that so recently hurled its storm surge down on the Eastern seaboard with horrifying destructive effect.

Brooklyn Museum, like much of the city, may still be closed. But even if its doors are open there will surely be few visitors to its current exhibition at a time like this. However, this really is an odd and interesting kind of a show. Its focus is on a book, and that is already unusual; but, further, it’s a book with a strange title that’s as long as the average paragraph – so long that I’ll only quote the first part, which is long and strange enough. Here it is: ‘Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.’ The author is Lucy Lippard and the book was published in 1973.

Now why would a museum hold an exhibition about a book published 40 years ago? Well, it was no ordinary book. It helped to stir up a storm surge in the art world.  And this storm was meant to destroy.

Conceptual art seemed mild enough at first. It advocated big change but it was not violent. For example, Sol le Witt’s message was in effect ‘I want you to be interested in me and my ideas, but not to get emotional’. But the general mood at that time was growing darker. Many people in the USA and elsewhere were sickened by the atrocities of the war in Vietnam and became rightly emotional about what was happening there. There was a strongly felt need for dramatic change. Revolution was in the air.

You may wonder what this had to do with art. Well, destructive thoughts reverberate. Revolution is fuelled by intense anger and, once it gets going, by a state of personal exaltation induced by the vision of oneself as an agent of righteous change. When this occurs it’s like the coinciding of the hurricane’s surge with a high tide: the force becomes very great. And neither the hurricane nor the fervent revolutionary is likely to discriminate between what should be swept away and what deserves to be spared. That which lies in the way – or seems to lie in the way – has to go.

It came to seem to the young radicals of the 60’s that the entire art establishment had to go, since it was one of the bastions of a system that did not deserve to survive. The rich people who bought hugely expensive paintings were seen as part of the uncaring power structure that underpinned the evils of the war. The museums and galleries that fed this market were just as bad, and they too should cease to be.

What then was to become of art itself?  Should there just be no more of it?  Should the making of art just stop?  Well, perhaps not quite. Perhaps art could be somehow purified. How about dematerializing it? Brilliant! Then it couldn’t be hung on gallery walls or in mansion houses and the whole art market would surely perish along with much else, thus allowing a new and better world to be born.

In all of this, the political notions meshed extraordinarily well with the principles of conceptual art, where material things were held to matter much less than ideas and where it was fine for artists, if it pleased them, simply to write out instructions instead of making things. And from this merging of ideas conceptual art got a huge surge of energy. But then what became of the political revolution?

1968 was the year in which it almost happened. Some say that in that year a momentous revolutionary event did happen and that the repercussions continue still. But after much commotion and rioting, particularly in France, the revolution did fade and the would-be agents of change were largely assimilated back into the system they had aimed to destroy. The student revolutionaries graduated from college, found jobs and settled down. The galleries and museums were not swept away, not by any means. Instead they did deals with conceptual artists, who began to show objects inside gallery spaces if not always on the walls. In short, the entire art market continued to flourish, material things were bought and sold, nice profits were made.

But what about visual art, the kind that had mattered to human beings as far back as history can go? Ah, that’s another story.

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