Discussion of Sterbak's piece and Conceptual Art

between Mary Jezer and Lou Heite

If you care to see what they are talking about, Declaration -- two armchairs, wood and aluminum table, television, videotape -- by Jana Sterbak is online in an article by Paul Gessell in The Ottawa Citizen

Date: Mon, 14 Dec 1998
From: Marty Jezer

We did spend one hour Sunday morning at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and lo and behold one of the feature artists, Jana Sterbak, had an installation (don't know what else to call it) consisting of a video loop (on a small TV screen) of a stutterer reading Tom Paine's Declaration of the Rights of Man in French. (That is to say, he was a french stutterer stuttering, not an American stuttering in french). The note on the installation reads:

"Sterbak's tragic-comic view of human vanity extends to the realm of political ideology. She satirizes the zeal of dogma in Declaration (1993), a video of a man nervously stuttering.... The man's lack of control over his speech acts as a foil to the determined and confident text of the Declaration."

Before I got to this part of the exhibit I was already on a rant about Sterbak. She's one of these "artsts" who have a conceptual idea, call it art, and then art critics come, furrow their brows, and consider it a "statement." It sells for big bucks and ends up on display at "important" museums. Sterbak is one of the many modern artists who can't paint or sculpt, but have ideas about the world. From a literary political or social standpoint, her ideas are trite, but being art they don't have to pass any rational intellectual test. (I'm not opposed to modern art per se, I should add. I love abstract expressionism -- and much else). But this stuff was just dim. One of her installations consisted of an easy-chair placed inside of a painted box. Very profound! To be fair, the box was painted pretty well (though she might have cheated and stenciled it on to the floor). Anyway.....

I was not offended by the stuttering guy though I was offended by the idea that this was art and that this represented something profound.

Given the fact that many fighters for human rights have been people who stuttered, her statement was not merely trite, it was based on ignornace. But she's an artist, see! As I said, she doesn't have to be historically accurate to make her points. It's the vision that is supposed to count.

Marty Jezer

Date: Tue, 15 Dec 1998
From: lh

You hit the nail on the head, Marty. "Conceptual Art" as this stuff is called, has been around since the middle '60's. When some were putting their futures on the line protesting the Vietnam war and the sorry state of civil rights, the art world was echoing that sentiment in a pale way by trying to throw off the "shackles of preciousness" and the stratification imposed by skill and especially by talent. It is very difficult to be an egalitarian when reaching the pinnacle in one's working world depends on a god-given gift that clearly separates the yeomen from the lords, and that hard work cannot completely overcome.

The real thinkers in this movement trace their ideas to Duchamp and the Dadaists, and to existentialism. They began their quest in an honest attempt to probe the boundaries between art and existence, but the movement rapidly fell into the hands of people of no particular talent as either artists or philosophers, and with puerile senses of humor. When anyone dared to question the validity of this stuff as art, the art world shouted them down as "elitists" and "materialists." I personally had (and have) a hard time reconciling antimaterialism with the very idea of "fine arts," but there are few people who will debate the question seriously.

The result has been a lot of bad philosophy posing as art, and a lot of bad art posing as nothing in particular. Outrageousness for its own sake pretty much killed the Movement, but in art the same kind of thinking has left a lot of naked emperors (and empresses) prancing around museums commanding large amounts of attention and considerable amounts of money doing not much. Meantime, the people who understand that art consists of something more than beer-hall philosophizing have gone into what critics rather derisively call "fine craft" as potters, glassblowers, blacksmiths, weavers, and furniture makers. If you want to see where the real artists are, pick up a copy of "Fine Woodworking."

I was in art school back at the beginning of this period. In my senior year, I took a 3-credit no-brainer in conceptual art which I enjoyed very much. For what it's worth, the course was called "Senior Seminar: Contemporary Sculpture." There was not a lot of art in it, but there was a great lot of attempting at critical thinking about the nature of material expression and the illusion of permanence. Curiously, we had no reading assignments even though the core of the class was really an examination of materialism and existential philosophy. Anyone who had read even a little bit of Hegel and Sartre could sound brilliant in that environment.

Our semester project was to produce a piece of conceptual art. Some did "installations", some did "performance art", some did "sound art," and some did --umm, whatever. On the last day of class, the professor asked why I had not brought my piece in for critique yet. I smiled and said that I had it, had had it with me all along. "Why haven't you shown it to us??" He was a little cross. I answered: "My piece is a pure idea. If I even describe it I will destroy it, so I prefer not to."

I got an A.

I still have my project in storage, and no, I'm not going to share it. That is not avoidance, it is philosophy.

Lou Heite.

added April 15, 1999