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Conceptual art -- traditionally understood as a period style of the late '60s-early '70s -- is often regarded by critics and laymen alike as cumbersome, over-cerebral, and esoteric. Someone without a deep interest in theorizing conceptual art might fairly employ exactly those terms to describe Art After Conceptual Art, the first book of the Generali Foundation Collection Series, edited by Sabine Breitwieser, the Artistic and Managing Director of the Generali Foundation.
Intriguingly, a close look at the credits, the front and back matter of the book reveal that the MIT Press actually had no role in the creation, editing, printing or production of the book -- rather, they have been brought in solely for distribution. This entices us to understand who or what really is responsible for the book; what, exactly, is the Generali Foundation?
This Foundation is the art association of the Vienna-based Generali group of companies -- Generali Holding Vienna, Generali Versicherung, and Generali Rueckversicherung. The Foundation, then, was started by highly profitable insurance concerns; "its purpose is the support and promotion of contemporary art" (240). Now, "purpose" can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. The promotion of contemporary art is surely not the "purpose" of the Generali insurance companies; their purpose must entail making profit. Their Foundation, of course, cannot be reduced simply to a behind-the-scenes profit-making enterprise; that would be overly cynical, simplistic, and therefore, misrepresentative. However, there is obviously some missing element, some oversimplification occurring, dare we say even some sweeping-under-the-rug going on when the purpose of a Foundation created by profitable for-profit companies is so narrowly defined as the "promotion of art" pure and simple. One wonders, then, for example, why the Foundation requires the services of a certain Franz Thalmair, its Marketing Manager (240).
But why does this any of this matter? To answer this, let's turn briefly to the very first citation in the book:
...[A]n identification [of the contemporary corporation] with the Arts will do the following: a. Improve the image of your company by making your public more aware of what you are doing in the community. b. Assist in developing a more fully rounded personality for your corporation by adding a Cultural dimension. c. Provide a bold, unique and exciting element in the presentation of your products and services. d. Promote greater public acceptance of your corporation and its products and services by making yourself more attractive and visible in the marketplace. (9)
These are the words of Seth Siegelaub, a dealer in conceptual art who made a significant and lasting contribution to the genre by, among other things, securing its patronage.
What must be noticed above all is that this passage from Siegelaub could be used to implicate the very publication of the book under review, as is clear from what we have stated with respect to the Foundation that has produced it and the corporation that underwrites that Foundation. However, the passage is in fact quoted by the Series Editor in order that she may undermine it. According to Breitwieser, the Generali Foundation's collection of conceptual art works, "contrary to the opinion represented by Siegelaub...cannot simply be used for purposes of advertising by the organization that funds them" (10).
Notice the presence and function of the word "simply" in Breitwieser's sentence. Is she saying that conceptual art works simply cannot be used for purposes of advertising the corporation, or, rather, that they cannot simply be used? Well, certainly they could be used -- but perhaps not simply, not easily. And why not? Hear Breitwieser: "The reasons, of course, lie primarily in the works themselves, which resist such direct instrumentalization by virtue of their content and especially of their aesthetic structure" (10).
Breitwieser is suggesting that conceptual artworks, due to both their content and form ("aesthetic structure"), "resist instrumentalization," which is to say, they resist being used as ads for the corporations that own them (through their foundations). Thus, Siegelaub's enumeration of the benefits of a corporation, such as an insurance conglomerate, patronizing the arts through underwriting a Foundation, should not be cynically assumed as the motivations behind the Generali Foundation's activities -- advertising the Generali insurance concerns cannot be regarded as the purpose of the Generali Foundation art collection, and consequently, cannot be included among the purposes of the book under review, irrespective of how broadly we understand the word "purpose." That's Breitwieser's argument.
But she has stated that conceptual artworks "resist instrumentalization." There is surely a difference between resisting being used, and being impossible to use. This difference makes all the difference. A loose link in Breitwieser's argument. This, along with her decision not to simply use the word cannot -- when claiming that conceptual art "cannot simply" be used by corporations to advertise themselves -- reveals that her position is, at best, tenuous (and at worst, purposefully deceptive).
Now, changing focus for a moment, it is not uncommon for book reviews to reference or even critique the author's/publisher's choice of cover design and/or jacket photo. Why? The photo on a book cover has a purpose -- this purpose can be narrowly or broadly conceived. But advertising the book is certainly among the list of functions of a jacket cover photo. Another, less cynical function is that the photo provides an immediate, visual notion of the content, orientation, and/or preoccupation of the text.
The industrial, grey cover of Art After Conceptual Art reproduces a photo of Jaroslaw Kozlowski's Metafizyka. It is gloomy, dark; it is also cumbersome, cerebral, esoteric -- conceptual art at its finest, perhaps. In this respect, the cover photo well illustrates the nature of the book that its function is to introduce purchasers and readers to. But does it not also advertise the book, or, on the contrary, does it resist doing so? True, the work is far from attractive; one imagines that countless potential buyers of the book were turned off by the gloomy, esoteric cover. Perhaps the much more equally provocative but far more inviting installations of conceptual artists like Martha Rosler or Dara Birnbaum could have been employed for the cover photo. They surely would have more fully fulfilled the advertising role of a cover photo. Some conceptual art, then, can indeed by used to advertise. But, to be sure, Jaroslaw Kozlowski's Metafizyka resists it.
We have already opined on the weakness of Breitwieser's conclusion that Siegelaub cannot apply in the case of the Generali Foundation. Now we also see that her premise -- that conceptual artworks, due to their content and aesthetic structure, resist instrumentalization -- is also dubious. Or at least, we see that it is applicable only to some conceptual artworks. Others, likely due to their content rather than form (since to qualify as conceptual art in the first place, there must be something characteristic about the form of the artwork), are more amenable to instrumentalization.
Tying these threads together, we may raise some questions about why the producers of the book -- the Generali Foundation, not MIT Press -- deliberately chose a cover photo with an indisputably lesser popular advertising appeal than other available images. Perhaps because it is more true to the text within. Who said advertising had to always be seductive and misleading, anyway? Certain genres of advertising, indeed, forsake wider popular appeal in favor of targeting the more likely or pertinent consumer base.
But looking more carefully at the cover image, we would observe that there are other lines of inquiry to pursue. We see, all in grey on grey, a portion of what is apparently a small studio apartment room, chromatically illuminated through the light of a tall window. The image of the room, as a result of how compact the living space is in addition to the nature of the lighting, conveys a certain desperation, perhaps the banality of quotidian life. Moreover, the several objects -- even including the floor, ceiling, and walls -- that constitute the room are consecutively numbered from 1 to 24: the floor is numbered 1, the chair 3, the TV 15, the window 19, a picture on the wall 22, and so on.
Now, objects, divergently conceived, interpreted, and explained throughout millennia, are the subject matter of metaphysics, in Polish, Metafizyka. But drafting an enumerated, precise list of objects -- such as we have on the cover photo: (15) 20-inch television, (16) wood and steel television stand, (17) books, (18) glass flower vase -- is less the approach of recent continental metaphysics, and more, perhaps, the task of ... dare we say it? ... an insurance company!
Having uncovered certain uncomfortable kernels encrypted by/in the book cover and Series Editor's Note, it should be mentioned, in closing, and in fairness, that the content -- the dozen or so essays on various aspects of conceptual art by art historians from Europe and the Americas -- would be regarded as first rate for those who enjoy the esoteric, fineries of the discipline. The texts are indisputably well-informed, well-conceived, well-written. Indeed, the phrase that immediately springs to mind is: the best that money can buy.
© 2007 A. Singh and N. Sinha
A. Singh (University of Delhi, New Delhi) and N. Sinha (York University, UK)