16 September 2018
Dr Great Art Podcast Episode 41: Lawrence Weiner, Conceptual Art, and Metaphor
Dr Great Art Podcast. Episode 41: Lawrence Weiner, Conceptual Art, and Metaphor
Conceptual Artist Lawrence Weiner is quite fond of formulating statements in which he claims to have dismissed metaphor from his artwork. He is completely wrong. No matter what is claimed, Lawrence Weiner's art, and most Conceptual Art and Neo-Conceptual Art, whether good or bad, is deeply grounded in interlocking base metaphors; metaphors commonly ignored because they are so transparent.
#arthistory #metaphor #conceptualart
Dr Great Art Podcast 41
Lawrence Weiner and Metaphor
Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 41st "Dr Great Art" brief podcast.
My podcast this time is a week later than my general biweekly schedule.
I just returned to Switzerland, where I chiefly reside, from a two week visit to the US. I visited my family (Hi Mom and Marcia!), did some artworld meetings including a visit with Amanda Solley, the exciting director of Mobile, Alabama's Kunsthalle, the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, several others, and most of all visited with two wonderful artists who have been close friends for 40 years. Raoul Deal who does amazing Community Art including murals with young Latinx and African-American artists, and his own socially critical art, and Dan Brinkmeier who is an artist and farmer and does a unique form of painting mixing Magic Realism and Regionalism. And I finally visiting the incredible project named Wormfarm Institute in rural Wisconsin, which has existed for more than a decade and is quite renowned and prize-winning. It is run by long-time friends Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas. They unite fine art, responsible farming, extensive visiting artist residency programs, and some superb art events in their rural region, such as Fermentation Fest. I will talk with and about these artists in future Dr Great Art podcasts.
But this podcast episode is a more restricted and critical one.
My artecdote this time concerns the false claim that Conceptual Art has eliminated metaphor. I will show this by discussing one Conceptual artist, Lawrence Weiner.
As my regular listeners and readers know, I find all art, language and most expression at all to be based in tropes, 'metaphor' as it is called in common parlance.
Theorists involved in the Lakoffian, embodied Cognitive Theory approach, including me, advance the hypothesis that metaphor is the foundation of all thought, that linguistic elements are conceptually processed and that language is chiefly determined by bodily and environmental experiences. Metaphor as a thought process, with language being only one result of that. Art being another.
Conceptual Artist Lawrence Weiner is quite fond of formulating statements in which he claims to have dismissed metaphor from his artwork. This is a very short podcast to point out that he is completely wrong. In fact, his use of vinyl lettering, called 'text' in the artworld, is an obvious combination of tropes, masking itself as non-tropaic, which is in itself another metaphor.
Art critic Barry Schwabsky writes of the influential New York painter Jonathan Lasker in ArtForum magazine:
"Jonathan Lasker once told me he thought the Minimalists had been trying to make an art without metaphor, and in fact had succeeded; but the point having been proved, he continued, there's no longer any urgent motivation to produce more metaphor-free work."
It can now be seen that the Late Modernist attempt to undermine metaphor, whether in Minimalism, as described by Schwabsky and Lasker above, or in Conceptualism, as mentioned above with Wiener, although necessary at that time, did not actually function as expected, but was rather a negational, metaleptic trope in itself. One of Minimalism's chief metaphors was that of theatre as/for presence, others included industrial furnishing and factory production as anti-decorative, and objecthood as anti-painting --- thus anti-(art) history. One might assert that minimalism was in truth an assemblage of similes. Likewise, Conceptualism can be shown to be based on a tapestry of metaphors and metonymies.
However, at this point let me simply discuss one small example in one Conceptualist's work, Lawrence Weiner.
Weiner's early Conceptualist works were both pseudo-pragmatic and the art object themselves. He presented instructions or descriptions such as "A Square Removal from a Rug in Use." (The work of that title is indeed that phrase, as an instruction, much like notation for a musical performance. A SQUARE REMOVAL FROM A RUG IN USE, Nr. 054, 1969.)
Since then his work has developed into purely abstract language, such as fragmentary lists of prepositions. It has become an often tedious variation on concrete poetry, losing the strength it had earlier as vague potentiality.
Yet this vagueness, presented in vinyl letters on walls appearing for nearly almost 50 years, on the walls of galleries and museums and Kunsthallen around the world, Weiner sees as free of metaphor. There are in reality two chief metaphors in use. The Conceptualist elephants in the gallery, so to speak, as they are easily perceived yet never acknowledged.
First, the use of text itself. Text is a metonymy of intellectuality. Intellectuals, especially scholars, tend to write papers, write books, and the like. They (we) often generate reams of pages of text. It is an important part of their activity (thus indeed a synecdoche of intellectuality). Creating them is an important activity of such people and one of the foremost things others picture when they consider scholars, philosophers and other intellectuals. Therefore, it makes an ideal stand-in for them, as it is contextually related to their thoughts. Thus, text is a metonymy of intellectuality and intellectuals.
(As a reminder: Metonymy is a trope in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated; describing something indirectly by referring to things around it or from the context. "The White House spoke of 77 injured soldiers." Simile is
a stated comparison --- usually formed with "like" or "as" --- between two fundamentally dissimilar things that have certain qualities in common. Like a metaphor that points out its own activity. "My love is like a red, red rose.")
Second, such vagueness as Weiner uses nowadays in his texts can be seen as poetic (an interpretation he resists), yet even more so as either an inadvertent parody or a travesty of the texts that intellectuals create. Scholarly writing is all too often extremely difficult to read, densely packed, seemingly on the edge of comprehensibility. Purposeful vagueness is thus overly artsy (a metonymy of the avant-garde) or dreadfully opaque (a distorted synecdoche of intellectuality). In short, it simply screams "ain't I smart!"
I could continue with the metaphors underlying the physical materiality of Weiner's presentations. Such as --- work done by (usually unpaid or underpaid) assistants: metaphors of corporate production; machine-cut letters: metaphors of brain over body (anti-handicraft); vinyl: metaphors of "contemporary materials"; and so on. All of these playing hidden metaphors against suppositions of the metaphors of earlier Modernists, thus also making them metalepses!
However, my purposes have been served. It is clear that no matter what is claimed, Lawrence Weiner's art, and I assert, most Conceptual Art and Neo-Conceptual Art, whether good or bad, is deeply grounded in interlocking base metaphors; metaphors commonly ignored because they are so transparent.
Thanks for listening. Podcast number 41.
Lawrence Weiner and Metaphor
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