When art becomes replicable — Yoko Ono, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and “modern art”
I have always found a peacefulness in the silence of galleries and museums, imposing structures sheltering little pockets of stillness — of time, of movement, of the mind, a pause button for the outside world, akin to church. Some of my most overwhelming memories are set among art that many claim is not art at all — not good enough, not difficult enough, not meaningful enough to be art. I have always, always loved modern art. My oldest explanation for this, I remember, is that a piece of conceptual, abstract art means something different to everyone. It is a beautiful thing that what is sometimes just a singular object can lead to an internal interrogation of how we perceive things, a struggle to untangle the complexities of perspective and understanding, an shattering realization of the limitations that govern our articulation of our world.
What often distinguishes modern art from what came before it, I find, is that it represents a shift of value from the object and into the process, away from the artist and towards the idea. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit shows us that art can be replicated, recreated, dismantled, reestablished, personalized. It says that everything is art. It says that I can breathe and make that art if I pay attention, or perhaps even if I don’t. She takes it a step further even from the ‘ennobling’ of objects and materials that has come to be recognized as the process behind art. She separates it entirely from the physical and places it inside our heads. The way we think, the way we question, understand, perceive, starts to constitute art. I can do it anywhere and it is art, and that necessarily takes away from this ancient idea that art lives in singular objects that are valuable for their uniqueness, for the physical effort and skill it took to make them. We value old masters and renaissance arts and classical sculpture and Mughal architecture, in part, because they represent something we cannot replicate, a lost skill from the past that we no longer have access to. The disdain that people have for modern art is that it can be done over and over again.
Conceptual art is often an inquiry into the institution of art itself, what constitutes it, what enables it, who enables it, “what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to” [Andrea Fraser] — art has the capability to bring into question everything. All bets are off and it can genuinely, truly, seriously, change the world. When Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven conceptualized and created Fountain (misattributed to Marcel Duchamp), she questioned the establishment. She offered an inquiry into why something is art and why it isn’t. After the piece’s success, Duchamp commissioned replicas. Since the sculpture had been anonymous, its authorship was attributed to him.
Were these replicas different from the original? In what way? Were they emulations? What is changed when a thing is no longer simply an object being art (being ennobled) and then instead becomes a replicated mechanism for Freytag-Loringhoven’s test? This adds an additional layer to our perception of the replicas individually. Not only are they not the work of the original artist, they are also not credited to her, and are in fact a separated mechanism for the acquisition of appreciation rather than for the test envisaged by Freytag-Loringhoven. Perhaps the replicas are essentially plagiarism, given the misattribution, but do they retain the value of the original, the conversation it created, or is that an entity distinct from the object? Does this dimension exist in the original as well? Does the distinction matter? By the time the replicas were sanctioned and created, the piece was already well known and widely accepted, debated, criticized, ridiculed — Freytag-Loringhoven’s test was already in motion. Perhaps the replica is a recreation of its original physicality divorced from its original context. Was it still art when Duchamp hadn’t created what he was commissioning?
The replicable nature of modern art brings a fundamental question into how we value art. It asks whether the importance lies in the person or the reception, the location or the idea, the material or the process. There is something to be said for value being ascribed to originality and personhood, surely, but there is also something to be said for deconstructing the entirety of the definition of art and creativity protected by the ‘establishment’ and declaring that nothing is intrinsically important, nothing in art is unquestionable or unchangeable or definite, not even what does and does not count as the ‘establishment’, not even what does and doesn’t count as art. While art slowly moves away from its authorship and into a space and conversation if its own, it’s still true that the person creating it matters. Aside from the obvious immorality and injustice of plagiarism, I wonder if I am indeed creating art when I follow Yoko Ono’s instructions. I wonder if my breathing and my heart beating and my existence counts as art as she said it does, whether my replication of her art has the same value as her instructions themselves. But the beauty of this lies in the fact that the art of it isn’t the replication or the instruction or the book or the reception, it’s all of that put together but it also something that exists outside of all of it, and it is a declaration that this is art, with a chaotic coming together of language and thought and emotion — of the human experience — where ‘this’ is.