'How to Drill a Hole Into a Hole' by Jan Verwoert
On hermeticism and the heroic in the conceptualization of art practice
Saturday, December 6th, 2008

If we now understand conceptual art as foregrounding, not just ideas, but the making of decisions - 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 decisions in art?

The conventional answer to this question is that intentions determine decisions: 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 conceptualizing 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 'conceptualizing': while many protagonists of first generation 'conceptualizing', in a modernist tradition, insisted that conceptual art could be a transparent, straightforward and hence universally understandable language, we today encounter 'conceptualizing' 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, un-heroically, in ways that are less stifling and paranoid, but no less (pleasurably and seriously) dramatic?

Jan Verwoert is an art critic based in Berlin. He is a contributing editor to Frieze magazine and also writes regularly about contemporary art for such art magazines as AFTERALL, Metropolis M. He teaches at the MA Fine Arts department at the Piet Zwart Institute Rotterdam.


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