Nicknaming Contemporary Art

Bear with me while I set up a paradox.

Part one: Naming things makes things begin.

Part two: Beginnings are things that get rid of what came before.*

When you come up with a name for something (part one), paradoxically, it erases something else (part two). That’s not hard to explain.  To prove this isn’t some Logic 101 experiment, I’ll throw in an art world example, that noxious term “conceptual.” Whenever you name something, the naming gets rid of the original thing. That’s what’s happened with the original art thing called “conceptual,” a term that’s become a catch-all for any type of art that’s heavy on ideas.

Conceptual art began, roughly, in 1961 with the publication of George Macunias’ An Anthology. Henry Flynt coined the term “concept art,” which he wrote about in  An Anthology as “an art of which the material ‘concepts,’ as the material of, for example, music, is sound.” This version of conceptual art is – duh – different from how conceptual is thrown around today. In the story of conceptual art from the 1960s up to the present day, part one is Flynt’s naming of a thing as “concept art,” marking its beginning as a solid, concrete thing. Part two is what we’re dealing with now, at a time when it seems like conceptual has become so all-encompassing term that it suffocates any artwork it describes – as well as evading “concept art’s” original intention. This sucks when conceptual had such a great beginning; Flynt’s description of an art that’s based around the concepts of materials is brilliant.

The art world acts like magpies about categories. We talk about artists who are young, global, conceptual, contemporary, performative, whatever. Regardless of how much we agree with the tight frames we willingly put around art, we do it anyway.

If naming is too restrictive, then I suggest we just give things nicknames. Nicknames quickly wear out. We’re given tens and tens throughout our lifetime. As a kid, I was a Cori, Corky, and CJ, but those were shed when I became a teenager; they didn’t fit anymore. Nicknames belong to a specific moment in any person or thing’s life. There’s not an emphasis on permanence. I can use Flynt’s term sometimes and the banal, idea-based term, other-times.

* I don’t want to sound poncy, so I loosely translated F.W.J. Schelling’s statement, “The beginning is the negation of that which begins with it,” into something less stuffy.


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