Tuesday, December 5, 2023

When Art Becomes a Souvenir: Conceptual Art and the Problem of Authentication


Although conceptual art intended to de-materialize the art object, it can be argued that certain conceptual artists actually did the opposite; they reified it.

Randy Kennedy writes on the “tricky business of defining authenticity” in this morning’s NY Times. I agree, it’s tricky, but it’s tricky for one reason: what conceptual artists aimed to do vis-a-vis the art object was simultaneously undermined by their desire to sell something. That something is what causes this authentication trickiness.

In effect, when an idea, which is to be materialized in physical form, becomes commodified, museums and collectors ultimately want something physical they can point to as being their property and as a marker of them owning the idea and experience. Think of a baseball game: what better marker of you having been at a Yankee-Dodger game than a foul ball caught in your mitt? Or better yet, an autographed baseball from that game. The artwork, in this case, is, in effect, a souvenir of the game, a memento mori of the game, but not the game itself or the experience of the game (albeit a financially lucrative memento mori).

Let’s not forget that this is precisely why some artists rejected the term conceptual art or being labeled as conceptual artists. Perhaps they saw the internal failure of this project?


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