Roughly a year ago, CBC radio parodists Pat Kelly and Pete Oldring held no bars in their essential gut-punch to the art world. Reporting a fictitious news story (a key facet that many overlooked), the two discussed an alleged New York artist "Laura Newstrom" whose "Turner-award winning art" had collectors supposedly "paying millions." The catch? Her work hung up in the gallery was invisible.
Hearing this story—while missing its satirical tone—you might have been pretty confused, even upset. Many hold fast to the idea that art is Art so long as there is a visible component that stirs some emotions or garners at least some appreciation of its beauty. Yet, as we continue to embrace minimalism and further avant-garde developments that push back against the deference toward aesthetics, this orthodox understanding of Art as art has largely lost its grip, paving the way for the appreciation of "invisible art," such as we might categorize the alleged Newstrom work.
Admittedly, "invisible" or "non-existent art" isn't exactly a new concept. A subcategory of the much larger Conceptual art movement that was popularized in the 1960s and 70s, invisible art is essentially the upper bound of how far Conceptualism can push the envelope. Like Conceptualism, Invisible Art predominantly has its roots in Dadaism and readymades, ideas that challenged our assumptions of Art and proved that the standard conventions for measuring what was Art at the time were not all-encompassing. In fact, they turned these measures of their heads.
In a similar vein, Conceptualists, especially the ones we might call Invisiblists, take this sort of rebellion against the Old World even further. Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, in his 1967 manifesto "Paragraphs for Conceptualism," writes that, "in conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."
Essentially, Conceptualists—and more obviously, Invisiblists—give the finger to those that hold fast to the Old Art World and consider Art solely as works able to be understood through aesthetic and expressivist measures and means. Whereas such constraints place the focus on the physical appearance and the beauty of the craftsmanship and work well with realist or expressionist-aligned paintings, these measures largely fall short in capturing the "beauty" of Invisiblist artworks.
A performance by William Marx of John Cage's "4'33." Filmed at McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, CA.
Perhaps the best way to wrap your head around the artistic worth of an invisible artwork would probably be to consider John Cage's universally lauded minimalist composition, "4'33"" (above), or Marina Abramović's contemporary piece, The Artist Is Present. With the former, a concert hall was filled with spectators where a conductor and full orchestra onstage maintain their anticipatory, ready-to-play stance for a full four minutes and thirty-three seconds; with the latter, a participant sits at a table across from Abramović and the two stare silently at each for minutes.
As you can see, the older, more orthodox notion would not allow these sorts of works to be considered "art." In both pieces, there aren't any perceptually beautiful or pleasing physical fruits of the artists' labors in and of themselves as, say, a Van Gogh or Rothko painting. This is also the case in more non-performance pieces such as Robert Rauschenberg's 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing (above) where, as the titled says, there is merely the erased canvas that once exhibited a drawing done and highly valued by Willem de Kooning. Yet there is a cognitive beauty in the idea—the ingenuity of Cage's imagining, and essentially capturing, of that moment just before breaking the silence when beginning a piece; Rauschenberg's bold and blatant demonstration of the decline of Expressionism.
It's undeniable that there are controversial features that accompany our acceptance of "invisible art" as Art. Just the word "invisible" itself is somewhat misleading because for almost every work of invisible art, there is still a perceptual aspect accompanying the idea. In Martin Creed's Turned Prize-winning Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, there is the gallery room where the lights turn on and off, while in Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Koonig Drawing, there is the canvas. Still, these artworks manifest invisible abstractions, providing us alternative relationships, contexts, and connections to their concepts. And because this is where the "beauty" lies—in a cognitive, cerebral domain—the Art behind the piece is invisible.
Furthermore, there are plenty of works that will raise hairs on what is and isn't Art (just look at the CBC Radio piece). Tom Marioni's The Act of Drinking Beer with One's Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970) could pass as either a way for him to idolize his own imbibing amongst friends and co-workers, or to celebrate the concept of community and friendship. Tilda Swinton's The Maybe (1995/2013), on the other hand, definitely had a critics in arms. But, as with most art, beauty is in the eye—or in this case, the mind—of the beholder.
"Nor do I think all conceptual art merits the viewer’s attention," LeWitt concludes at the end of his manifesto. "Conceptual art is good only when the idea is good."