“Common to the art in question is that it searches for a definite sort of system that is part of the work. Insofar as the system is revealed it is revealed as information rather than esthetics.”
Art tells us nothing about the world that we cannot find elsewhere and more reliably.
Between the two extremes—a minimum of organization and a minimum of arbitrariness—we find all possible varieties.
—Ferdinand de Saussure
A variety of structural fixes have been imposed on art—stylistic, historical, social, economic, psychological. Whatever else art is, at a very simple level it is a way of making. So are a lot of other things. Oil painting and tool making are no different on this level and both could be subsumed under the general investigation of technological processes. But it is not possible to look at both in quite the same light since their end functions are different, the former being a relation to the environment, oneself, society, established by the work itself while a tool functions as intermediary in these relations. Perhaps partly because the end function of art is different from the intermediary function of practical products in the society a close look at the nature of art making remains to be undertaken. Authors such as Morse Peckham¹ have looked at art as behavior but from the point of view of discovering its possible social function. He and others divide the enterprise into two basic categories: the artist’s role-playing on the one hand and speculations on the general semiotic function of the art on the other. My particular focus lies partly within the first category and not at all within the latter. Psychological and social structuring of the artist’s role I will merely assume as the contextual ground upon which this investigation is built. The interest here is to focus upon the nature of art making of a certain kind as it exists within its social and historical framing. I think that previously, probably beginning with Vasari, such efforts have been thought of as a systemless collection of technical, anecdotal, or biographical facts which were fairly incidental to the real “work” which existed as a frozen, timeless deposit on the flypaper of culture.
Much attention has been focused on the analysis of the content of art making—its end images—but there has been little attention focused upon the significance of the means. George Kubler in his examination of Machu Picchu² is startlingly alone among art historians in his claim that the significant meanings of this monument are to be sought in reconstructing the particular building activity—the eccentric grinding and fitting of the stones—and not in a formal analysis of the architecture. I believe there are “forms” to be found within the activity of making as much as within the end products. These are forms of behavior aimed at testing the limits of possibilities involved in that particular interaction between one’s actions and the materials of the environment. This amounts to the submerged side of the art iceberg. The reasons for this submersion are probably varied and run from the deep-seated tendency to separate ends and means within this culture to the simple fact that those who discuss art know almost nothing about how it gets made. For this and perhaps other reasons the issue of art making, in its allowance for interaction within the environment and oneself, has not been discussed as a distinct structural mode of behavior organized and separate enough to be recognized as form in itself.
The body’s activity as it engages in manipulating various materials according to different processes has open to it different possibilities for behavior. What the hand and arm motion can do in relation to flat surfaces is different from what hand, arms, and body movement can do in relation to objects in three dimensions. Such differences of engagement (and their extensions with technological means) amount to different forms of behavior. In this light the artificiality of media-based distinctions falls away (painting, sculpture, dance, etc.). There are instead some activities that interact with surfaces, some with objects, some with objects and a temporal dimension, etc. To focus on the production end of art and to lift up the entire continuum of the process of making and find in it “forms” may result in anthropological designations rather than art categories. Yet the observation seems justified by a certain thread of significant art which for about half a century has been continually mining and unearthing its means and these have become progressively more visible in the finished work.
Ends and means have come progressively closer together in a variety of different types of work in the 20th century. This resolution re-establishes a bond between the artist and the environment. This reduction in alienation is an important achievement and accompanies the final secularization that is going on in art now.³ However, what I wish to point out here is that the entire enterprise of art making provides the ground for finding the limits and possibilities of certain kinds of behavior and that this behavior of production itself is distinct and has become so expanded and visible that it has extended the entire profile of art. This extended profile is composed of a complex of interactions involving factors of bodily possibility, the nature of materials and physical laws, the temporal dimensions of process and perception, as well as resultant static images.
Certain art since World War II has edged toward the recovery of its means by virtue of grasping a systematic method of production which was in one way or another implied in the finished product. Another way of putting it is that artists have increasingly sought to remove the arbitrary from working by finding a system according to which they could work. One of the first to do this was John Cage who systematized the arbitrary itself by devising structures according to deliberate change methods for ordering relationships. Cage’s deliberate chance methods are both prior to and not perceptible within the physical manifestation of the work. The kind of duality at work here in splitting off the structural organization from the physically perceived still has strains of European Idealism about it. However, for Cage such Idealism was forged into a dual moral principle: on the one hand he democratized the art by not supplying his ordering of relationships and on the other, by his insertion of chance at the point of decision about relationships, he turned away the engagement with “quality”—at least at the point of structural relationships where it is usually located. It is not possible to mention Cage without bringing in Duchamp who was the first to see that the problem was to base art making on something other than arrangements of forms according to taste. It is not surprising that the first efforts in such an enterprise would be to embrace what would seemingly deny certain aspects of preferred relationships—chance ordering. The entire stance of a priori systems according to which subsequent physical making followed or was made manifest are Idealist-oriented systems which run from Duchamp down through the logical systems of Johns and Stella to the totally physically paralyzed conclusion of Conceptual art. This has been one thread of how the systematic has been enlisted to remove the arbitrary from art activity.
Another thread of system-seeking art making, distinct enough to be called a form of making, has been built on a more phenomenological basis where order is not sought in a priori systems of mental logic but in the “tendencies” inherent in a materials/process interaction. Pollock was the first to make a full and deliberate confrontation with what was systematic in such an interaction. Until Pollock, art making oriented toward two-dimensional surfaces had been a fairly limited act so far as the body was concerned. At most it involved the hand, wrist and arm. Pollock’s work directly involved the use of the entire body. Coupled to this was his direct investigation of the properties of the materials in terms of how paint behaves under the conditions of gravity. In seeing such work as “human” behavior” several coordinates are involved: nature of materials, the restraints of gravity, the limited mobility of the body interacting with both. The work turned back toward the natural world through accident and gravity and moved the activity of making into a direct engagement with certain natural conditions. Of any artist working in two dimensions it could be said that he, more than any others, acknowledged the conditions of both accident and necessity open to that interaction of body and materials as they exist in a three-dimensional world. And all this and more is visible in the work.
To see a certain strain of art making as behavior which has the motivating urge to reduce the arbitrary is to do more than impute a certain psychology to artists or assert a particular historical interpretation. The very framing of the issue implies oppositions of the arbitrary and non-arbitrary. Not only have psychologists such as Morse Peckham and Anton Ehrenzweig been concerned with the oppositions that lie along an axis similar to the arbitrary/non-arbitrary division but linguists and anthropologists as well have been concerned with the structural “binarisms” embedded in language and operating behind myths. Support for the pervasiveness of a binary structuring is sought, ultimately, at the biological level: “Finally, some authors are confident that digitalism, which is the rival of the analogical, is itself in its purest form—binarism—a ‘reproduction’ of certain physiological processes, if it is true that sight and hearing, in the last analysis, function by alternating selections.”⁴ Even this statement in its contrasting the analogical and the binary as alternatives has a binary form. The linguist, de Saussure, sees language operating primarily according to oppositions and it naturally follows that his theory itself comes in the form of oppositions and polarities which he ascribes to mental activity itself. Such a Kantian outlook is seen also in Levi-Strauss’s analyses of myths. Key terms in both de Saussure and Levi-Strauss are themselves dual: diachronic/synchronic, syntagmatic/associative, arbitrary/motivated. I am especially concerned with the last pairing of terms for the present analysis—terms which held quite a bit of importance for de Saussure:
Everything that relates to language as a system must, I am convinced, be approached from this viewpoint, which has scarcely received the attention of linguists: the limiting of arbitrariness. This is the best possible basis for approaching the study of language as a system. In fact, the whole system of language is based on the irrational principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, which would lead to the worst sort of complication if applied without restriction. But the mind contrives to introduce a principle of order and regularity into certain parts of the mass of signs, and this is the role of relative motivation. If the mechanism of language were entirely rational, it could be studied independently. Since the mechanism of language is but a partial correction of a system that is by nature chaotic, however, we adopt the viewpoint imposed by the very nature of language and study it as it limits arbitrariness.⁵
I cite this passage since it frames a parallel effort made here in analyzing how a certain tendency in American art has pushed toward reducing arbitrary and non-arbitrary, or “motivated,” which is for de Saussure an historical, evolutionary, or diachronic feature of language’s development and change. Language is not plastic art but both are forms of human behavior and the structures of one can be compared to the structures of the other. That there should be some incipient general patterning modality common to both should not be surprising. Nor it is surprising to find Ehrenzweig at other levels characterizing certain psychological perception as rhythmically alternating between “differentiation and dedifferentiation” or scattering (arbitrariness) and containment (motivation). What resolves the duality as a tendency in behavior at many levels is, for de Saussure as well as Ehrenzweig and others, the alternating passage between the two poles, a tendency toward the one and then the other. Ehrenzweig reduces oppositions to the basic conflict between the life and death urges of the Eros-Thanatos duality. Discontent with Freud’s admission in the late writings of no longer being able to distinguish the two, Ehrenzweig reasserts their opposition but sees a constantly alternating swing between the two. “The act of expulsion (dedifferentiation) in the service of Thanatos is linked with containment (re-differentiation) in the service of Eros.”⁶
Peckham speaks of the related tendencies to over- or under-pattern⁷ and assigns art the role of a practice run for life by providing an area within a psychically “insulated” framework where disorientation is the rule of the game in successive innovative moves. He hints at a biological foundation different from binary tendencies in his citing of the principle of “entelechy.” According to this, neural firings have tendencies for repeating sequences. Entelechy is seen as a tendency to pattern as built in as tendencies for binary patterning in the brain—although Peckham opts for the predominance of an “analogical” thought mode to follow from entelechy tendencies. De Saussure, on the other hand, concluded from his linguistic investigations that the digital and the analogical corresponded to the two available types of mental activity.⁸ The nature of the patterning is not so central to Peckham’s thesis as is the assertion that it is predominantly there in mental activity and it is the function of art to interrupt this patterning. That is, art’s function as an adaptive mechanism is as an antidote to the habitual. Its social value lies in its presentation of a practice area where one can embrace the disorienting experience. Since innovative art provides the most incisively disorienting art experience it is the most valuable, according to Peckham. Such thinking might seem to run counter to the structure of art isolated here: the accelerating tendencies toward avoiding the arbitrary would have to be identified with increased patterning. A few distinctions have to be kept in mind. Peckham’s term “disorientation” is one descriptive of the viewer’s response, not necessarily the artist’s. The term involves how art is read, or its semiotic functions. While this is not the area to be explored here it might be touched on in order to make the focus of this investigation clearer. The semiotic function of new art in terms of the viewer’s response has a diachronic structure. New art always disorients; only a posteriori is it seen to have presented orders and patterns. Duchamp in his famous single lecture⁹ would not allow an easy separation between art and its audience, the artifact and its semiotic radiations. For Duchamp the semiotic is more a function of the viewer’s projection and without it the art remains unfinished. That is, the diachronic shift from disorientation to perceived order in the artifact is the progress toward a definition provided by its viewers. The final definition can never be known by the artist in advance, since the work’s completion is in the hands of the viewers. Whether Duchamp, the most aristocratic of artists, was being ironic in making art a gift to democracy is impossible to know. In any case it is not a very convincing argument. What has been left out is the degree to which the elitist corps of subsequent artists, rather than the public viewers, “complete” and define a predecessor’s work by the way in which they move away from it in the future: by ignoring it, by extending its implications, or by having a dialectical relation to it. Duchamp’s still cogent statement of the problem of formalism and his uses of chance are cases in point.
The features of making in innovative art need not be extended to considerations about its semiotic nature insofar as non-artists are concerned. Peckham himself has pointed out that the roles of artist and perceiver are not interchangeable. The disorienting in innovative art is the as yet unperceived new structure. All past art that is no longer disorienting gives us no evidence that patterning was ever absent and new art is not disorienting to those who are engaged in making it. Yet another distinction has to be made here, namely that the kind of patterning involved in a search for motivated art takes place on the level of behavior which is prior to visible formal results. Insofar as this behavior is visible in the end results, it participates in a semiotic function. But these intentional acts of process revealed say nothing as to whether or not the impact of the entire experience will be disorienting for the viewer. It would seem that the making of art approaches the polar situation of arbitrary/non-arbitrary on a synchronous front as opposed to the viewer’s access to these alternatives which is always diachronic—i.e., from the experience of disorder to that of order with time. It might be said that the current art which I am dealing presents the least amount of formalistic order with an ever greater order of the making behavior being implied. It is as though the artist wants to do the most discontinuous, irrational things in the most reasonable way. And there seems to be almost an inverse ratio at work in this progress toward the recovery of means: ever more disjunctive art acts carry ever more ordered information regarding the systematic means of production. This information is increasingly allowed into the work as part of the image.
Any process implies a system but not all systems imply process. What is systematic about art that reduces the arbitrary comes out as information revealing an ends-means hookup. That is, there is about the work a particular kind of systematizing that process can imply. Common to the art in question is that it searches for a definite sort of system that is made part of the work. Insofar as the system is revealed it is revealed as information rather than esthetics. Here is the issue stated so long ago by Duchamp: art making has to be based on other terms than those of arbitrary, formalistic, tasteful arrangements of static forms. This was a plea as well to break the hermeticism of “fine art” and to let in the world on other terms than image depiction.
The two modes of systematizing employed by American art over the last half century have been briefly sketched in. The materials/process approach tends to predominate now. American art, unlike American thought, has occasionally had a strong Idealist bias but the a priori has so far proved unnerving and uncomfortable tools for the American artist. To pursue a more material route was, in the late ‘40s, to be up against the formalism of Cubism. Pollock was the first to beat his way out of this. But all art degenerates into formalism, as Pollock himself found out. The crisis of the formalistic is periodic and perpetual and for art to renew itself it must go outside itself, stop playing with the given forms and methods, and find a new way of making.
Certain artists are involved in the structure I am stating here. They form no group. The nature of the shared concerns do not mold a movement nor preclude the validity of other approaches and concerns. The term “mainstream” is political. Several present-day critics can be observed wading down one, hoping to one day float on the back of the oarsmen they have in tow. In fact, the current art swamp is awash with trickling mainstreams. Art that has or is participating in the structure articulated here is, to me, either interesting or strong or both.¹⁰ Of the many concerns in art, the ones dealt with here have given powerful leverage in opening up possibilities whether as mere tendencies in past work or self-conscious methods in present work. Other kinds of art making focus other concerns—the nature of color in art making would, it seems, be totally outside these investigations.
The issues here stretch back into art history but in no particularly linear way. The concerns are partly about innovative moves that hold in common a commitment to the means of production. Duchamp, Cage, Pollock, Johns, Stella, have all been involved, in different ways, in acknowledging process. Quite a few younger artists are continuing to manifest the making process in the end image. But the tendencies to give high priority to the behavior end of making can be found in much earlier artists. Rather than modeling parts of the costumes in the Judith and Holofernes, Donatello dipped cloth in hot wax and draped it over the Judith figure. This meant that in casting the molten bronze had to burn out the cloth as well as the wax. In the process some of the cloth separated from the wax and the bronze replaced part of the cloth revealing its texture. This was a highly finished work and corrections could have been made in the chasing phase had the artist wanted to cover it up. It has also been claimed that the legs of the Holofernes figure were simply cast from a model rather than worked up in the usual way.¹¹ Evidence of process in this work is not very apparent and could only have been noticed by the initiated. But here is an early example of the systematic, structurally different process of making being employed to replace taste and labor and it shows up in the final work. Draping and life casting replace modeling. Michelangelo’s “unfinished” marbles give far more evidence of process but with the important difference that no structurally new method of making is implied.
What is particular to Donatello and shared by many 20th-century artists is that some part of the systematic making process has been automated. The employment of gravity and a kind of “controlled chance” has been shared by many since Donatello in the materials/process interaction. However it is employed, the automation serves to remove taste and the personal touch by co-opting forces, images, processes, to replace a step formerly taken in a directing or deciding way by the artist. Such moves are innovative and are located in prior means but are revealed in the a posteriori images as information. Whether this is draping wax-soaked cloth to replace modeling, identifying prior “found” flat images with the totality of a painting, employing chance in an endless number of ways to structure relationships, constructing rather than arranging, allowing gravity to shape or complete some phase of the work—all such diverse methods involve what can only be called automation and imply the process of making back from the finished work.
Automating some stage of the making gives greater coherence to the activity itself. Working picks up some internal necessity at those points where the work makes itself, so to speak. At those points where automation is substituted for a previous “all made by hand” homologous set of steps, the artist has stepped aside for more of the world to enter into the art. This is a kind of regress into a controlled lack of control. Inserting the discontinuity of automated steps would not seem, on the face of it, to reduce the arbitrary in art making. Such controlled stepping aside actually reduces the making involvement or decisions in the production. It would seem that the artist is here turned away from the making, alienated even more from the product. But art making cannot be equated with craft time. Making art is much more about going through with something. Automating processes of the kind described open the work and the artist’s interacting behavior to completing forces beyond his total personal control.
The automated process has taken a variety of forms in various artists’ work. Jasper Johns focused very clearly two possible ways for painting. One was to identify a prior flat image of target or flag with the total physical limit of the painting. Another sequentially systematic mode that implied process was the number and alphabet works. These, and Stella’s subsequent notched striped paintings, present total systems, internally coherent. Both imply a set of necessary sequential steps which, when taken, complete the work. Less painterly and far more deliberate, Stella’s work of the early ‘60s was some of the first to fold into a static, “constructed” object its own means of production. I have discussed elsewhere¹² how the work of both artists, with its deliberateness of execution according to an a priori plan implies a mode of making, or form of behavior, that can be more fully realized in the making of three-dimensional objects.
So-called Minimal art of the early and mid-sixties was based on the method of construction. The structure necessary to rectilinear forming precludes any “arranging” of parts. The “how” of making was automated by accepting the method of forming necessary to rectilinear things. What is different about making objects, as opposed to applying a surface, is that it involves the body, or technological extensions of it, moving in depth in three dimensions. Not only the production of objects, but the perception of them as well involves bodily participation in movement in three dimensions. It might be said that the construction of rectilinear objects involves a split between mental and physical activity and a simultaneous underlining of the contrast; on the one hand the obviousness of the prior plan and on the other the extreme reasonableness of the materials used to manifest the structure. A certain strain of constructed art of the ‘60s continued an emphasis on refined or colored surfaces and optical properties—essentially an art of surfaces moved into three dimensions.
Other constructed art opted for the emphasis on more traditionally sculptural values—volume, mass, density, scale, weight. The latter work tended to be placed on the floor in one’s own space. This is a condition for sculptural values in materials to register most fully since it is under this condition that we make certain kinesthetic, haptic, and reflexive identifications with things. I have discussed the nature of this perceptual bond to things in our own body space before.¹³ For the argument here it is only necessary to reiterate a few points. The body is in the world, gravity operates on it as we sense it operating on objects. The kinds of identification between the body and things initiated by certain art of the ‘60s and continued today was not so much one of images as possibilities for behavior. With the sense of weight, for example, goes the implicit sense of being able to lift. With those estimations about reasonableness of construction went, in some cases, estimations of the possibility for handling, stability or lack of it, most probable positions, etc. Objects project possibilities for action as much as they project that they themselves were acted upon. The former allows for certain subtle identifications and orientations; the latter, if emphasized, is a recovery of the time that welds together ends and means. Perception itself is highly structured and presupposes a meaningful relation to the world. The roots of such meanings are beyond consciousness and lie bound between the culture’s shaping forces and the maturation of the sense organs which occurs at a pre-verbal stage. In any event, time for us has a direction, space a near and far, our own bodies an intimate awareness of weight and balance, up and down, motion and rest and a general sense of the bodily limits of behavior in relation to these awarenesses. A certain strain of modern art has been involved in uncovering a more direct experience of these basic perceptual meanings and it has not achieved this through static images but through the experience of an interaction between the perceiving body and the world which fully admits that the terms of this interaction are temporal as well as spatial, that existence is process, that the art itself is a form of behavior that can imply a lot about what was possible and what was necessary in engaging with the world while still playing that insular game of art.
Recent three-dimensional work with its emphasis on a wide range of actual materials and locating the making with possibilities of behaving or acting on the material in relation to (rather than in control of) its existential properties brings very clearly into focus that art making is a distinct form of behavior. This is underlined even more now that the premises of making shift from forming toward stating. Around the beginning of the ‘60s the problem presented itself as to what alternatives could be found to the Abstract Expressionist mode of arranging. The Minimal presented a powerful solution: construct instead of arrange. Just as that solution can be framed in terms of an opposition (arrange/build) so can the present shift be framed dialectically: don’t build . . . but what? Drop, hang, lean, in short act. If for the static noun of “form” is substituted the dynamic verb of “act” in the priority of making, a dialectical formulation has been made. What has been underlined by recent work in the unconstructed mode is that since no two materials have the same existential properties, there is no single type of act that can easily structure one’s approach to various materials. Of course the number of possibilities for the basic kinds of interactions with materials are limited and processes do tend to become forms that can be extrapolated from one material interaction to another. But what is clear in some recent work is that materials are not so much being brought into alignment with static a priori forms as that the material is being probed for openings that allow the artist a behavioristic access. What ties a lot of work together is its sharing of the “automated” step in the making process which has been enlisted as a powerful ally in the recovery of means or time and in increasing the coherence of the making phase itself.
Not only in plastic art but in art that specifically exists in time there have been recent moves made to reduce that existential gap between the studio preparation and the formal presentation. Some theater and dance work now brings rehearsal and literal learning sessions for the performers into the public presentation. One could cite other instances in film and music where the making process is not behind the scenes but is the very substance of the work.
Peckham speaks of the necessity of preserving a “psychic” insulation within which the strain of disorienting art moves can be made.¹⁴ Studios, galleries, museums, and concert halls all function as insulated settings for such experience. Much recent art that is being discussed does not require a studio and some recent plastic art does not even fit inside museums. In contrast to the indoor urban art of the ‘60s much present work gets more and more beyond studios and even factories. As ends and means are more unified, as process becomes part of the work instead of prior to it, one is enabled to engage more directly with the world in art making because forming is moved further into the presentation. The necessary “psychic insulation” is within one’s head.
1. Morse Peckham, Man’s Rage for Chaos, Schocken, New York, 1967.
2. George Kubler, “Machu Picchu,” Perspecta 6, 1960.
3. Annette Michelson, “Robert Morris,” The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Garamond/Pridemark Press, Baltimore, Md., p. 23.
4. Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, Hill and Wang, New York, 1967, p. 54.
5. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Philosophical Library, New York, 1959, p. 133.
6. Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967, p. 220.
7. Peckham, Ibid., p. 321
8. De Saussure, Ibid., p. 123.
9. Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, Trianon Press, Paris, 1959, p. 77.
10. No art writing can avoid carrying some political load due to the structure of the art community—i.e., the general silence of artists in print, the economics and psychology of elitist art which identifies quality with scarcity, a tendency for those who support art to be able to hear about it better than see it. Such an ambience tends to elevate (reduce?) criticism to a form of power broking. I do not wish to ignore individuals relevant to the issues here but I want to underline the fact that the constructs presented are my own. For me to cite an established artist as an example of a structure that goes beyond his own personal work does not involve the presumption of speaking for him, promoting him, or collecting him as a follower. Obviously the ideas discussed in this article are grounded in my own work as well as in those I cite as examples. This preempts me as an artist from citing recent work by younger artists from citing recent work by younger artists in the interest of speaking more to issues than for individuals.
11. Bruno Bearzi, Donatello, San Ludovico, Wildenstein, New York, n.d. (1948), p. 27.
12. Robert Morris, “Beyond Objects,” Artforum, Vol. VII, No. 7, April, 1969.
13. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part II,” Artforum, Vol. V, No. 2, October 1966.
14. Peckham, Ibid., p. 82.