The most important event in art to have occurred in my lifetime has been what I have somewhat dramatically described as “The end of art”. Obviously I did not mean that the making of art had in any sense stopped—probably more art, of more different sorts, has been created in the “post-historical” period than ever before.
What “The end of art” means is that, through a number of conceptual revolutions that became manifest chiefly in the 1960s—in Pop, Fluxus, Minimalism, Conceptualism, etc—there are no longer any constraints on what a work of art has to look like. Works of art can look any way at all. They can, for example, look like perfectly ordinary objects, the interesting question always being what makes them works of art if they happen to look like mere boxes, say, or scraps of wood or felt, or patches of weeds, or piles of refuse of whatever sort.
This entails that the definition of art has become far more operative in identifying something as art than it ever was before, which, in turn, has meant that in our times the philosophy of art has become internally related to art, rather than an external representation of an activity that can go on perfectly well without it.
Philosophers used to argue that art was indefinable, but that it did not matter, since we could get along perfectly well without a definition.
This view was particularly appealing to artists, especially painters, who felt no need of a definition because they just “knew” what art was when they saw it.
Philosophers and painters alike were unprepared for the upheavals of the 60s and 70s. It is the end of a form of life when it can no longer continue without being mirrored in philosophical self-consciousness.
If there is no fixed way that works of art must look, nothing can be part of the essence of art which is connected with the looks of things. So aesthetics drops out of the definition by default.
That does not mean that beauty loses its relevance. It simply loses the necessary connection to art that it was traditionally thought to enjoy. Because beauty is of great human significance, it is always open to artists to pursue it. But it is equally open to them to pursue disgust or, to use the critically fashionable term “abjection”, if the art they are after requires it.
“The end of art” entails a perfect state of pluralism, in which artists are liberated to convey their thought by any means whatever. To be an artist today is to philosophise by visual means. There are no constraints any longer on the media that may be required: old newspapers, meat, used clothing, found snapshots, discarded tyres, soiled playthings, vials of inert gases, elephant dung. The imperatives of purity that defined the final phase of modernism have no particular relevance to artistic practice or critical sensibility today.
Art criticism in particular can take nothing for granted. Whatever the critic encounters has to be dealt with on its own terms.
That task of the critic is to infer the best explanation of what is there, using whatever helps in arriving at an intelligible interpretation. This can be a fairly time-consuming inquiry, but it is the paradigm of how art is to be experienced today: everyone is required to be a critic, and must learn to put together the thought embodied in the work. The professional critic enacts this for the sake of his or her readers, giving them what they need to understand the art.
Even the artist needs the critic, in this sense, better to understand what she or he has done.
Criticism is a collaborative undertaking, much in the way in which art itself is. Once it is appreciated that the work of art is given visual embodiment in whatever materials seem appropriate, criticism consists in bringing thought and embodiment to consciousness.
In his unfinished Theory of aesthetics, Theodor Adorno wrote: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident any more, not its inner life, not even its right to exist.” In his voice, this was a cry of cultural despair. It is greatly to Adorno’s credit that he intuited the transformations that were only later recognised as “The end of art”.
Adorno’s despair was based on a model of art and society that was out of phase with the reality that was emerging, much as Ruskin’s model was in the 19th century.
Cultural criticism, like art criticism, can take nothing for granted. For better or worse, the art that has emerged almost perfectly embodies the culture in which we must live. A good way to get some grip on the culture is to begin with the art, so different from that of every previous culture, and infer to the best of our ability an explanation of where we now are. “The end of art” was a signal that a new cultural reality had begun.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A commentary on the end of art'