Magritte meets Duchamp meets Kosuth

Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” (La trahison des images) showcases a pipe that appears as if intended for a tobacco store advertisement, bearing the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) inscribed below it. This might seem paradoxical, yet it holds true: the painting isn’t a pipe but a portrayal of one—an image of the object. It doesn’t evoke emotional fulfillment. When questioned about this artwork, Magritte responded that, indeed, it wasn’t a pipe; one should try filling it with tobacco to comprehend.

Joseph Kosuth took this concept further in “One and Three Chairs.” This piece delves into the interplay between language, image, and referent, delving into the intricate relations between objects, visual depictions, verbal references, and the semantic fields associated with the chosen term. “One and Three Chairs” acts as a seemingly simple yet remarkably intricate model of semiotics. A viewer might ponder, “What constitutes reality here?” and deduce that “the definition is real.” Without a definition, comprehending an actual chair would remain elusive.

Kosuth’s exploration of semantic congruities and incongruities mirrors the dilemmas inherent in the interplay between concepts and presentations. By scrutinizing how signs accrue meaning and how they refer to non-linguistic phenomena, Kosuth establishes a foundation for discussing the dynamic between concepts and presentations. Kosuth strives to equate these philosophical quandaries with the realm of art theory. He shifts artistic practice from handcrafted originals to notations with interchangeable manifestations, aiming to exemplify the relevance of this transformation in the context of art theory.

In “Art after Philosophy,” Kosuth provocatively engaged with the formal criticism of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Both champions of the idea of the artwork as a unique instance created by an artist guided solely by visual criteria, Greenberg and Fried posited this concept as the heart of modernism. In 1968, Greenberg sought to discredit new tendencies as “‘novelty’ art,” asserting, “The different mediums are exploding…when everybody is a revolutionary the revolution is over.” Sam Hunter offered a more sanguine perspective in 1972, noting, “The situation of open possibilities which confronted artists in the first years of the seventies allowed a variety of means and many fertile idea systems to coexist, reconciling through the poetic imagination apparent contradictions.” Kosuth asserts that the artwork itself is the idea of art, rendering its formal components insignificant.

Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” achieved recognition in 2004 when 500 esteemed artists and historians deemed it “the most influential artwork of the 20th century.” This iconic work epitomizes Duchamp’s readymades—ordinary objects chosen and elevated to the status of art. Duchamp eschewed “retinal art,” which he perceived as solely visual, opting instead for alternative modes of expression. Readymades emerged as an antidote to retinal art, aiming to challenge conventional notions of art and the reverence accorded to it. André Breton and Paul Éluard aptly characterized readymades as “ordinary objects elevated to the realm of art through the deliberate selection of an artist.”

Originating in the United States, the term “readymade” was employed to distinguish manufactured items from handmade ones. A century later, Teo Spiller extended Lev Manovich’s concept of objects created and transmitted across distances into “ready-to-be-made” entities. In this scenario, Spiller delves into a more elusive notion than Magritte’s. The object within the photograph is nonexistent—a computer-generated puzzle illustrating the potential appearance of an ordered item. The image on the screen is unequivocally not a curtain; however, should one place an order, they would receive a curtain that paradoxically claims not to be one.

“Ready-to-be-mades” exist as intangible objects, virtual concepts within the realm of the Internet. Their purpose isn’t realization; the author intends to deter their creation, recognizing that every production and delivery contributes to climate change. A cover that claims not to be a cover serves no genuine purpose; however, our imperative is to preserve this planet for our descendants in the condition we inherited it from our forebears.