Seth Seigelaub/Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity

I had been reading a book all summer that I recently finished called Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity by Alexander Alberro. It tells the history of curator/organizer/gallery owner/promoter Seth Siegelaub and the conceptual artists as they gained prominence through self promotion and advertising just as the art world was expanding into a global market and the Information Age was about to take hold. Seth Siegelaub and the Conceptual artists seemingly anticipated a global theoretical shift from the object as commodity to a new age of capitalism where information (i.e., documentation, publication, advertising, ideas) becomes the new commodity. Seth Siegelaub also co-authored the The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement which guarantees a profit from the future sales of an artists work and other rights. Just as the conceptual artists (Kosuth, Huebler, Weiner, Kaprow, Berry, etc.) had reached their peek, Seth Siegelaub retired his position, never cashing in on the “movements” accomplishments.


A TELEPHONE INTERVIEW WITH SETH SIEGELAUB (AMSTERDAM) BY RAIMUNDAS MALASAUSKAS (VILNIUS) ON FEBRUARY 23, 2004. This interview appeared originally in the bi-montly newspaper produced by galerie Jan Mot.

Raimundas Malasauskas: I would like to trace the route of the “Art is to change what you expect from it” sentence that was used as a slogan of Paul Maenz Gallery. Paul said it originally came from you. Could you please tell me about the possible implications, use and the impact of this idea?

Seth Siegelaub: Art has to do with change; I said that, right? At least Paul Maenz says that I said that. Behind this is the idea of not having a preconceived idea or putting something into question. I think it may have had to do with a type of strategy for making art, but also for looking at art, I suppose. It also could be related, for example, to the “shock” value of a work of art; i.e. provoking one to think about things that one would normally not think about as art, or as “legitimate” art, or as “acceptable” art. It was maybe clearer then than it is now, because art at that time, before us, was a relatively narrowly-defined domain of activity. You were a painter or sculptor or something like that whose craft or activity was clearly defined, whether you were good or bad, or rich or poor. Our generation was really involved in changing the expectations about the borders of these very limited ideas. Our activity was very different than any art movement “ism” that came before us. Earlier, what was changed was the content within the accepted genre of painting or sculpture; a new image, new materials, larger scale or size, the process, or things like this. In the period of the 1960s people were thinking of changing the whole sphere of art; the limits, boundaries and the nature of the genre itself. This quotation probably had another feel or flavor to it in 1965 or 1968, whenever I said this, when this was just emerging than today, when one would take this type of project for granted; today it could perhaps be formalized into being some kind of “art strategy”. Today, one has become accostumed to having expectations for this type of “surprise”; one takes for granted that this idea is an important element in a strategy for making art today, but at that time you really couldn’t say that.

RM: Well, I guess it was pretty avant-garde thing to say in those times despite the fact that I think in a way we are on the same historic course.

SS: Perhaps, but what was more important than just to say that was the fact that many artists were approaching their creative activity thinking in these terms. It just became the modus operandi for making art. Maybe today, it probably has become kind of banal, no?

RM: I guess it’s just as important as before. Perhaps this is a bit of an another aspect, but for example if you think of a an individual artist and the way he or she builds a career, and the fact that after institutions and market accept, one has to follow the same trademark style in order to keep going.

SS: Indeed; the nature of art making practice has changed dramatically; both in terms of the more limited size of the territory an artist is forced to work within, and how much time he or she has to work their aesthetic backyard territory. Before our generation an artist could develop their painting or sculpture slowly and gradually over a working lifetime of 40 or 50 years. Today, it is very difficult to be able to have this type of evolution; one really has to be able to make a clearly identifiable image, become known for it, and continue to do it, while hopefully spending one’s life, money and time wisely. Once successful, the pressure is very strong to keep doing what people expect and want you to do. But this is the business side of contemporary art making, and I am not sure this was in the back of my mind then when I said what I said. Art practices have changed dramatically because the world of art itself had changed dramatically by taking on many of the characteristic values of the world of business; of ruling capitalist life. This has to do with what is now called “branding” in the corporate world; developing an image or look and try to sell or clone it as widely as possible; t-shirts, underwear, graphics, whatwever. This did not exist in the 1960s. In many respects we were like babes in the woods. There were certain people, perhaps like Joseph Kosuth, and others, who were more conscious (or unconscious) about branding and developed a very clear, easy-to-identify image. The idea of art being a “verb” instead of a “noun” sounds not uninteresting, but I am not sure what it really means today. If it wasn’t for Paul using it and incorporating it into his gallery work, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But nevertheless I do like the implications behind it; maybe does express at least my understanding at that time about opening up the possibilities of art making, which were emerging then, not just for a small group of “avante garde” artists living in the so-called “developed” world, but for everybody.

RM: Would you say that this idea is still important for you now?

SS: As I am not involved any longer in any daily-life, real way in the art world I lack a sense of the present art context; I don’t really know the concrete details of it like I did 35 years ago, so I really can’t make comparisons in that way. Even the use of the word “career” to described the life of an artist, for example, did not exist 35 years ago. Artists did not have “careers”; this was something attributed to “professional” people; lawyers, actors, bankers, etc. Many of the new attributes that the art world has developed in these past 35 years are becoming similar to the business-oriented attributes of the rock music, or the fashion world, who quickly leant how to integrate themselves into the heart of the capitalist world. Some artists managed to fit into it or adapt to it; Warhol is a genius in that regard, he was like a capitalist dream come true who could kiss anyone’s ass to be able to be part of it and also use it. It is interesting to compare someone like Warhol to Duchamp who was finishing his life when the other one was starting. How naïve Duchamp appears when one compares him to these type of business activities parading as art. While I am not a great fan of either of them, one can see a difference very clearly in their approach to art making, the art world, and the world in general.

RM: They both managed to create a field of freedom for themselves and to be able to change their ways of operation in it.

SS: Maybe they did, but the possible freedom of two artists does not tell one very much except the anecdotal; what interests me is how the art world has changed over the years, socially, politically, economically, and maybe even, emotionally, so people like Warhol can insert themselves and work within its values. I see these changes in a much more distant sense, in a much more sociological sense. It’s true that Warhol opened a certain field of the work for himself, and quickly learnt to adapt his life and his aesthetics to the business world, to the fashion world, etc., producing a type of art which, if nothing else, is all things to all people. The image of an electric chair, for example, doesn’t mean anything really; it can be a critical statement about society, the vulgarity of contemporary life, but you can also think, along with George Bush, that it is a great way to legally kill people. Warhol opened up a certain freedom for his life, but only by integrating himself completely into the values of capitalist society. And I think this is one important aspect of what happened during the last 35 years. Whatever statement I may have made about art changing expectations, should be read as part of this development. Today, one is definitely reading it in an entirely different way.

RM: I guess thirty years ago it was more of a phenomenological statement while now I think it has to do more with institutional and market aspect. But when we compare art to fashion I think that art is still very much behind in terms of business. It’s much more conservative. In fashion a designer could have several lines of production that does not have to be very much in common. And in art world you most often have a single figure and a single line of production.

SS: Well, maybe there are some artists who produce big, important high art for museums and smaller “lesser” things for galleries and collectors. I would have to look more carefully to what you have just said to see if there’s anyone working in this way. For example, maybe Keith Haring could be one of those who worked in both areas in a way. Although he is coming from a grafitti and comic book culture which also opened onto the sphere of “high” art, his work is not really a separate production, but close to it; in a similar spirit as “pop art”, while still doing T-shirts. In a certain way Lawrence Weiner tries to maneuver between these two areas also.

RM: Were there any philosophical implications to this sentence that “art is to change what you expect from it?” Gilles Deleuze was a big proponent of the same idea.

SS: I think it’s a very 1960s idea, it may have had a radical edge or epistemological edge then, but today, I think it could also be easily misread as just another wise ass remark. I can’t really see how it could be read today, as I do not recognize the world of art the way I knew it 35 years ago. Furthermore, I don’t think the world itself has evolved for the better. But, nevertheless, I am sure there are a number of artists still doing interesting things; many different actors of all colors, shapes and sizes from places that are not necessarily New York or Europe. So what this sentence could possibly mean today, you are probably in a much better position to know.

RM: Well, funnily enough my first association when I read the sentence was Miles Davis.

SS: Could be. I wouldn’t have come up with Miles Davis, but I think I understand what you mean. Yet I am sure that you could find many interesting artists working around this idea. I don’t really think that I had any specific person in mind, however, the phrase was more about an attitude, strategy or tactic in which artists would be no longer be taking anything for granted. Everything was being questioned; anything was possible. Maybe that was a bit of what was behind the idea at the time, but, frankly, who remembers?

Leave a comment

Filed under Other Artists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s