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Jan Verwoert 3: How to Drill a Hole Into a Hole: 6.12.2008

On hermeticism and the heroic in the conceptualization of art practice

If we now understand conceptual art as foregrounding, not just ideas, but the making of decissions - as art, as that which art is about, as the definition of the artistic act - the question is: How do we conceptualize the act of making decissions in art?
The conventional answer to this question is that intentions determine decissions: Conceptual artists should know clearly what to do - and do it in such a way that it becomes transparent what their intentions were when they make their move. An ideal of transparency is therefore the basis for the definition of conceptual works as singular strategical moves. The demand, however, to know exactly why you do what you do (before you ever even do it) has increased the pressure on artists to occupy the genius-like position of a strategist who would clearly know the only right thing to do. The effects of this are positively stifling. So there must other ways of conceptualising the artistic act than as a clear declaration of intentions.
The previous talk was an attempt to replace the notion of intention with that of inspiration and the ideal of transparency with the notion of keeping and sharing secrets to conceptualize what may be at stake in the artistic act. This talk will continue the discussion of the concept as secret, based on the observation of a crucial shift in the understanding of conceptualism: While many protagonists of first generation conceptualism, in a modernist tradition, insisted that conceptual art could be a transparent, straightforward and hence universially understandable language, we today encounter conceptualism as a hermetic idiom, an art of secrets. In fact, much neo-conceptual art of the 1990s rediscovered conceptual art as secret art and consciously proposed hermeticism as a mode of engagement with the work. What happened? How can we conceptualize this shift?
Undeniably, the concept of the artistic act as a clear declaration of intentions tacitly also propagates an ideal of the heroic. The act of taking a clear position, decidedly, critically, antagonistically evokes a scenario of dramatic struggle. Assuming that the question of authorship – how to be someone who creates something that makes a critical difference – continues to be a source for drama, the question remains: What roles and techniques could be invented for playing this drama differently, unheroically, in ways that are less stifling and paranoid, but no less (pleasurably and seriously) dramatic?

Jan Verwoert

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