Art often means nothing more than things displayed in galleries, yet there are artists whose work can also be something happening in the street, the desert, a village, on the Internet, anywhere. (These days streets, deserts, villages may be just part of the Internet.) Likewise, though it may be less obvious, art is not always things made by people who call themselves artists. Besides, artistic skills—among them lateral thinking and a tolerance of precariousness—have become part of more and more people’s job description. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for a world without artists. And as long as we’re stuck with a market economy, an art market is necessary not only to help artists earn their keep but also to sustain art’s capillary flow into the broader culture. My point is simply that once you’ve gotten the knack of art, it shouldn’t be difficult to recognize it in things not made by a professional artist. In a Molière play there’s a character who’s delighted to learn that he had been speaking in prose all his life without knowing it. Maybe you too have been doing art all along, innocently unaware.
Questioning the boundaries between art and everything else is a reflex inculcated by conceptual art. Definitions can be hazardous, but conceptual art is generally understood to have put the accent on language, and thereby shifted attention from the object to its context. Conceptual artworks have materialized not only in galleries, whether as paintings, photographs or printed texts, but also as “interventions” in everyday contexts in the form of banners, classified ads, wall posters, illustrated magazine articles and signage. For philosopher and art theorist Peter Osborne, such works repurpose “existing cultural forms of publicity (‘media’) in order to transfigure, and thereby help to transform, the structures of everyday life.” The British artist Victor Burgin called this strand of conceptualism “guerrilla semiotics.” Consider the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles, who in 1970, during a time of military dictatorship, initiated what he called “insertions into ideological circuits.” Meireles selected simple agitprop messages, such as yankees go home!, and had them stamped onto banknotes and inscribed onto refillable Coke bottles, relying on an existing system of circulation to disseminate them widely. His emphasis was not so much on the message but its serial repetition by a system that if not for its tangential placement would have censored it.
The relation between the two dimensions of conceptualism—text and context—may seem obscure, but look at it this way: while the rules of a language and its vocabulary are supposed to be universally valid, every utterance is a specific event in the here and now of its occurrence. As soon as we start to think about the relation between the specific and the universal in language, we are liable to find our heads spinning. Is there a relation? This sense of confusion can be artistically fertile. Working when contemporary philosophy was concerned primarily with philosophy of language, conceptual artists sometimes seemed to confuse their work with philosophy (some conceptual artists became philosophers, notably Adrian Piper). But a rule of thumb helps to distinguish the two: whereas philosophy attempts to clarify concepts, conceptual art tends to show that concepts assumed to be clear remain puzzling; the intent is not necessarily to eliminate the confusion so much as to transform it into a medium of self-reflection. In 1967 Robert Smithson observed that “the power of a word lies in the very inadequacy of the context [in which] it is placed, in the unresolved or partially resolved tension of disparates. A word fixed or a statement isolated without any decorative or ‘cubist’ visual format, becomes a perception of similarity in dissimilars—in short a paradox.” This will to sustain rather than resolve paradox allies the artist more with the sophist than the philosopher.