Monday, October 19, 2009

Round and Round and Round in the Plato Game

Artists do it. Literary critics and academics do it. Museum curators and investors do it. They play the Plato game.


The Plato game has been really hot for about thirty years. In fact, there are no signs of its demise.The stakes are very high: Careers are made and broken over it; millions can be made and lost because of it.

The Plato game is the ongoing argument between theory and practice and is based on Plato's Theory of Forms. In roughly twenty- or thirty-year cycles, one comes to the forefront, while the other recedes.

Academics in English departments frame the game as one between literary theory and literature. Literary theory has been winning since the eighties, but signs of a turnaround are subtly surfacing.

For artists and museum curators and investors, the game is played between artistic technique and artistic concept.

Denis Dutton, in his article " Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?" in The New York Times (October 15/09), writes about the supremacy of conceptual art in today's museums and markets:
Sophisticated gallery owners or curators normally respond with withering condescension to worries about the lack of craftsmanship in contemporary art... What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.
Dutton believes the supremacy of the concept is temporary and argues that across time and across cultures we do, we have, and we will admire artistic technique, "the pleasure we take in admiring skilled performances;" whereas concepts become dated and stale:
The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist.
Aesthetics last, concepts fade. Investors in conceptual art may be left holding the bag when the context for a particular concept is forgotten,and there is no longer anything about the work that speaks to anyone.

So which will it be? Theory or practice; concept or object? The ongoing Plato game is our attempt to answer.

Denis Dutton is professor of philosophy in Christchurch, New Zealand, at Canterbury University. He is the author of The Art Instinct (2009).





I would like to invite Denis Dutton to my soiree.









(with thanks to Joni Mitchell for song The Circle Game)

6 comments:

Rohfun All in One Page Office Site said...

great post

www.rohfun.com/blog

Ralph Ivy said...

I primarily play with images and words - sketch journals being my mode of expression, but I enjoy the "idea" of conceptual art.

I think of a stack of loading pallets on a river dock. That's all it is. A stack. But if I took that same stack, moved it into the well-lighted clear space (hard floors and white walls) of a gallery, would it suddenly become "sculpture?" I like the concept.

ChrisJ said...

Thanks for commenting.

I also like conceptual art, but Dutton has made me think about it differently.

Maybe people, in 20 years, would look at the pallets in the gallery and wonder why the heck they were there - would be interesting to be able to test this.

nothingprofound said...

Soirette-very similar to the remark I made in the forum. Of course I don't take sides, I think both stances are legitimate. The concepts don't die so much as they return in another form. That's why Plato is still interesting today and philosophers and artists still feel challenged by him.

Hels said...

"Dutton believes the supremacy of the concept is temporary and argues that across time and across cultures we.. admire artistic technique,.. whereas concepts become dated and stale.
The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist."

Two problems are immediately clear. Firstly if an art historian wants a job lecturing in a half way decent campus or in a respectable gallery, then a love of contemporary conceptual art is essential. Even at a general art history conference, there will be 9/10 of the papers given on concepts and perhaps 1/10 on art history and connoisseurship.

Secondly nothing stands still. I was thinking about Vienna's Kunsthistorische Museum today. Soon after the collection was installed and admired passionately in 1891, the New Age had arrived. Social change was (or should have been) accompanied by art that reflected the New Age.

I am on Dutton's side, but he will be long retired before we see the changes occur.

Great blog Soirette
Hels
Art and Architecture, mainly

ChrisJ said...

Thanks Hels.

The same is true in English departments - these days, theory is all.

I was educated in the "theory mode," but think we lose something when we throw out the literature baby and keep only the theory bathwater.