Three ways to appropriate Joseph Kosuth

Koen Theys’ video „The Many Things Show“ (2007) is based on „Art after Philosophy“ by Joseph Kosuth.[1] Rooted in the thinking of Marcel Duchamp, this text from 1969 sums up the principles of conceptual art, such as the priority of the idea over materiality and form, the importance of innovative contributions to the art discourse, the exploration of the perception and of the relation between image and text. Koen Theys engaged a professional to read „Art after Philosophy“ in a superficial, American tone that accompanies a flow of internet images. All of them show persons carrying an object. With this combination Theys tests the actuality of Kosuth’s text and comes to the conclusion that any object can nowadays be introduced to the art context and that the criteria to judge art works have become more blurry than ever.

> How would you describe your relation with Joseph Kosuth?

KT (Koen Theys) : It is the relation amongst a contemporary artist and one that is already part of modernism’s pantheon. His œuvre is a point of reference within art history, but I refuse his reduction of art into linguistic research.

> What are Joseph Kosuth’s biggest merits?

KT: They belong first of all to the theoretical sphere. Just like Wittgenstein did in philosophy, Kosuth tried in a very smart way to mark the confinements within which art can operate. Unfortunatly his artistic work remained too often only an illustration of his theories. If we take for example his statement „art is the definition of art“ : I consider it as an all too litteral illustration of his theories that he later used dictionary definitions in his art work.

Besides his importance for conceptual art, he has also promoted the introduction of design into the art of the 80s. He was the first to exhibit paintings on the floor, leaning against a wall. Thus he invented a new category of works that were neither sculpture nor painting. This is his most important artistic discovery, if you ask me.

> What is your relation to the piece that you have appropriated?

KT: For my video „The Many Things Show“, I use the text „Art after Philosophy“ by Kosuth as voice over. I consider this text as a masterpiece of 20th century art theory. In there Kosuth takes the idea of the ready-made as a starting point to describe that an art work’s quality is mainly due to the artist’s position towards art. According to him a work only becomes art, if it was developed in an artistic context or in a context that somehow relates to art.

Taking into account the recent emergence of art works without any link to art, I considered it necessary to actualize Kosuth’s text. All these sociological or political works (most of which are documentaries that or weren’t done by an artist, or weren’t concieved for an artistic context, or don’t take any position in the art, or are a combination of all) could be considered as ready-mades of curators. Now the crucial question is: Can an object become a piece of art if it is placed in the art context by a curator instead of an artist ?

With „The Many Things Show“ I created a showcase for this ‘anything goes, as long as it happens in the art context’, but I’ve done so in a precisely defined framework. I tried to illustrate Kosuth’s text as litterally as possible with images that I found online. Those pictures of people posing with an object in front of a camera, weren’t created with the intention to become a work of art. But once they’re placed in the context of Kosuth`s text, they can receive a certain artistic value. I put on the role of a collector or a curator of ready-made images by placing them in the artistic context of Kosuth’s text.

> How would you describe the link between philosophical idea and materiality in the work of Kosuth?

KT: Kosuth’s œuvre and those of conceptual artist in general were just another effort towards the utopian wish to deconnect art from the commercial object. It’s all about the endless story of soul and body: Is there a soul without a body? Where can we find bodies without souls? In the art marked Kosuth’s art became expensive just as any other object of value. His work’s soul resides mostly in his writings, if you ask me. 

Annette Schemmel – catalogue ‘Décollecting’
FRAC Nord Pas de Calais – De Garage, Mechelen 13.12.2008

[1] Kosuth, Joseph: Art after Philosophy. In: Studio International (London), 178, 915, October  1969