Alan Kaprow – Art Which Can’t Be Art (1986)

It’s fairly well known that for the last thirty years my main work as an artist has been located in activities and contexts that don’t suggest art in any way. Brushing my teeth, for example, in the morning when I’m barely awake; watching in the mirror the rhythm of my elbow moving up and down . . .

The practice of such an art, which isn’t perceived as art, is not so much a contradiction as a paradox. Why this is so requires some background.

When I speak of activities and contexts that don’t suggest art, I don’t mean that an event like brushing my teeth each morning is chosen and then set into a conventional art context, as Duchamp and many others since him have done. That strategy, by which an art-identifying frame (such as a gallery or theater) confers “art value” or “art discourse” on some nonart object, idea, or event, was, in Duchamp’s initial move, sharply ironic. It forced into confrontation a whole bundle of sacred assumptions about creativity, professional skill, individuality, spirituality, modernism, and the presumed value and function of high art itself. But later it became trivialized, as more and more nonart was put on exhibit by other artists. Regardless of the merits of each case, the same truism was headlined every time we saw a stack of industrial products in a gallery, every time daily life was enacted on a stage: that anything can be estheticized, given the right art packages to put it into. But why should we want to estheticize “anything”? All the irony was lost in those presentations, the provocative questions forgotten. To go on making this kind of move in art seemed to me unproductive.

Instead, I decided to pay attention to brushing my teeth, to watch my elbow moving. I would be alone in my bathroom, without art spectators. There would be no gallery, no critic to judge, no publicity. This was the crucial shift that removed the performance of everyday life from all but the memory of art. I could, of course, have said to myself, “Now I’m making art!!” But in actual practice, I didn’t think much about it.

My awareness and thoughts were of another kind. I began to pay attention to how much this act of brushing my teeth had become routinized, nonconscious behavior, compared with my first efforts to do it as a child. I began to suspect that 99 percent of my daily life was just as routinized and unnoticed; that my mind was always somewhere else; and that the thousand signals my body was sending me each minute were ig- nored. I guessed also that most people were like me in this respect.

Brushing my teeth attentively for two weeks, I gradually became aware of the tension in my elbow and fingers (was it there before?), the pressure of the brush on my gums, their slight bleeding (should I visit the dentist?). I looked up once and saw, really saw, my face in the mirror. I rarely looked at myself when I got up, perhaps because I wanted to avoid the puffy face I’d see, at least until it could be washed and smoothed to match the public image I prefer. (And how many times had I seen others do the same and believed i was different!)

This was an eye-opener to my privacy and to my humanity. An unremarkable picture of myself was beginning to surface, and image I’d created but never examined. It colored the images I made of the world and influenced how I dealt with my images of others. I saw this little by little.

But if this wider domain of resonance, spreading from the mere process of brushing my teeth, seems too far from its starting point, I should say immediately that it never left the bathroom. The physicality of brushing, the aromatic taste of toothpaste, rinsing my mouth and the brush, the many small nuances such as right-handedness causing me to enter my mouth with the loaded rush from that side and then move to the left side — these particularities always stayed in the present. The larger implications popped up from time to time during the subsequent days. All this from toothbrushing.

How is this relevant to art? Why is this not just sociology? It is relevant because devel- opments within modernism itself let to art’s dissolution into its life sources. Art in the West has a long history of secularizing tendencies, going back at least as far as the Hellenistic period. by the late 1950s and 1960s this lifelike impulse dominated the vanguard. Art shifted away from the specialized object in the gallery to the real urban environment; to the real body and mind; to communications technology; and to remote natu- ral regions of the ocean, sky, and desert. Thus the relationship of the act of toothbrushing to recent art is clear and cannot be bypassed. This is where the paradox lies; an artist concerned with lifelike art is an artist who does and does not make art.

Anything less than paradox would be simplistic. Unless the identity (and thus the meaning) of what the artist does oscillates between ordinary, recognizable activity and the “resonance” of that activity in the larger human context, the activity itself reduces to conventional behavior. Or if it is framed as art by a gallery, it reduces to conventional art. Thus toothbrushing, as we normally do it, offers no roads back to the real wold either. But ordinary life performed as art/not art can charge the everyday with metaphoric power.

Sentences on Art

Sentences on Conceptual Art (1968) 
Sol Lewitt
1) Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2) Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.
3) Illogical judgments lead to new experience.
4) Formal art is essentially rational.
5) Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
6) If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
7) The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His willfulness may only be ego.
8) When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations.
9) The concept and idea are different. The former implies a general direction while the latter is the component. Ideas implement the concept.
10) Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.
11) Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order. They may set one off in unexpected directions but an idea must necessarily be completed in the mind before the next one is formed.
12) For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.
13) A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artists’ mind to the viewers. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artists’ mind.
14) The words of one artist to another may induce a chain of ideas, if they share the same concept.
15) Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.
16) If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature, numbers are not mathematics.
17) All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
18) One usually understands the art of the past by applying the conventions of the present thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
19) The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
20) Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.
21) Perception of ideas leads to new ideas.
22) The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
23) One artist may misperceive (understand it differently from the artist) a work of art but still be set off in his own chain of thought by that misconstruing.
24) Perception is subjective.
25) The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.
26) An artist may perceive the art of others better than his own.
27) The concept of a work of art may involve the matter of the piece or the process in which it is made.
28) Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29) The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.
30) There are many elements involved in a work of art. The most important are the most obvious.
31) If an artist uses the same form in a group of works and changes the material, one would assume the artist’s concept involved the material.
32) Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.
33) It is difficult to bungle a good idea.
34) When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.
35) These sentences comment on art, but are not art.