The dogma of context

What is the context of an artwork? The dogma of context—to be by all means upheld or made transparent —has always been a determinant for the international art discourses of the recent past. So para-, meta-, sub-, and hyper-, or, simply, de-contextualizing, has been and still is the order of the day, come hell or high water…

A call for liberation from the rule of context

Of course, each and every artwork originates in a/its specific context that one should know and respect. So far, so good. So what? No matter the particular make of an artwork, no matter the whos, whens, and whereabouts of its creation: as soon as the work is sold and accordingly changes hands and location, it will forever be torn from its former context by being installed or exhibited in a different place.

I regard this very circumstance as a tremendous opportunity for every work of art: to have a chance to be presented in a totally new, undreamt-of surrounding, and to hold one’s ground in this new situation, exactly due to previously perhaps unknown qualities. All of the sudden, features of the artwork may become apparent that had not been discernible before. To give an example: the Melun Diptych definitely still has plenty to tell us today—but certainly not the same as in its narration to its contemporaries.

There simply are as many interpretations of an artwork as there are interpreters, both in terms of space and time. Any attentive observer will necessarily interpret any piece of art differently from another observer. There is no «right» or «wrong» understanding of a work, as the adherents of an orthodox context originality would like to make us believe.

Progress generally only arises from new paths being struck, from thinking outside the box. Never has archaeological occupation with a status quo ante, never has the static observation of a matter given us a layout for the future—such can only be accomplished by new and dynamic interpretation. In this respect, our current situation, which by now actually has become postmodern, offers endless opportunities.

The spectator’s creative act according to Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968)

But even the artwork itself always falls behind the basic idea of its creator—that is, to its actual mental «context»—as pointed out by Marcel Duchamp in his famous lecture «The Creative Act» addressed to the American Federation of Arts Convention in April 1957 in Houston, Texas, from which I shall quote a few passages:

« … In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. … The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference, which the artist is not aware of. Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal «art coefficient» contained in the work. In other words, the personal «art coefficient» is like an arithmetical relation between «the unexpressed but intended» and the «unintentionally expressed». … All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.» 

(from Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, Grove Press, New York, 1959, pp. 77-78; Stanford Library: ND553.D774.L43FOLIO)

  1. Interpretations of an artwork,I suspect, often tells us more about the personality of the interpreter than about the artwork itself.

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