The Rematerialization of the Idea: “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada”

In a simple piece from 1968 entitled Opinion (Art as Idea as Idea), American artist Joseph Kosuth printed the dictionary definition of the word “opinion” in white on a black background and mounted it on a board. Kosuth’s piece is not interesting because it reminds us of the dictionary meaning of a common word, but because it gestures toward the nature of a larger program he also pursues in essays like “Art After Philosophy”: namely, that the enterprise of art should no longer be focused, as late Modernist critics like Clement Greenberg would have it, on producing objects designed to create a particular kind of aesthetic experience but, rather, on an investigation of foundations–of art in particular and its place in the world and, perhaps, of everything else as well. And for Kosuth, following pivotal figures in the history of analytical philosophy like Ludwig Wittgenstein and J L Austin, this investigation should give special importance to language.

The conceptual art movement, whose exhilarating inception was so beautifully described by Lucy Lippard in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, is, in a way, the culmination of ideas set in motion by Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: namely, our experience of the world is not one of transparent, unmediated access to the truth but is shaped by concepts, and art history is the dynamic convergence of an idea or concept and a historical moment…

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