It has been said that photographers came along just in time to take over from painters who no longer “wanted” to represent nature. Even if that is not exactly true, we can still say with certainty that photography hastened the move on the part of painters toward a non-naturalistic art.
The same process is at work today with regard to the role of choice in art. We see a growing number of artists who are rejecting, in their work, the idea of an arbitrary choice available to them at each and every passing moment, just as we see the appearance of machines, increasingly perfected electronic brains, that might replace artists for a large part of the creative process.
How is it that we have come to want to limit the freedom of choice that was taken to be the great strength of modern art? But also, where did we get the idea that the artist freely chooses the placement and color of each and every brushstroke in order to create a work that is definitive and to which nothing can be added nor subtracted?
To answer these questions, we might pick out, arbitrarily enough, three categories of choice:
Conscious and reflective choice
Decisions are made after a period of reflection during which one imagines all of the possible outcomes of the actions caused by a given decision. This is choice according to the classic concept of rational intelligence.
Unconscious and intuitive choice
Decisions are made outside of any conscious action on the part of the subject. Unconscious decisions of this sort are not understood to be the result of chance; rather, they are seen as a response to the deep inclinations of the subject. Following the traditional view, derived from Romanticism, this ability to make choices that are outside of conscious control has been taken as the main characteristic of great artists, and even of great scientists.
Machines make choices using their memory and their ability to foresee various possibilities. All that is needed for such choices is that machines be set up and supplied in a theoretically objective fashion.
We can broadly see these three categories in the evolution of the visual arts from the end of the eighteenth century to today.
Naturalist artists, aiming to obtain an objective vision of reality and an always more perfect fiction, were obliged to enact conscious and reflective choices in their work. They tried out various procedures, rejecting the least efficient of them.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the best artists abandoned their role as social chroniclers and reporters, relinquishing that role to the photographers. In doing so, they cast off the technical constraints involved in the reproduction of nature and set themselves on a path to complete freedom. Little by little, each brushstroke came to have only one limitation: the artist’s choice.
But can this choice be equally made at every brushstroke?
Some artists believed so. This sort of painting, which we are told began in its pure state with Kandinsky’s first abstract watercolor, has been called at times “automatic writing,” “action painting,” etc. Each gesture, each addition of a new color was determined by intuition, and the unconscious underpinned the entire enterprise. Today, this way of painting seems to have exhausted itself.
Other artists tried to replace the old constraints with pseudo-constraints that were seen as more modern; depending on the period, they sought to reproduce the look of the “African mask,” graffiti, children’s drawings, advertising posters, not to mention fake landscapes and unrecognizable still lifes. These artists managed thus to find a balance in their work.
On the one hand, the image of the free artist, the all-powerful artisanal creator, was rescued, and, on the other hand, specialization in a particular category of imagery rescued the artist from the vertigo of real freedom in the fabrication of their artworks.
This category of art will continue to exist for a long time since it has no precise boundary with imagery and constantly renews itself by providing poetic images of fashionable subjects.
Today, we can sense that certain artists are repulsed by the idea of choosing one moment over another in the development of their work. They no longer adhere to the religious doctrine of the infallibility of arbitrary choice.
The meaning of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades is a striking example of the reaction against this concept of the artist as artisan-creator-despot. With his bottle rack and urinal, he reduced the artisanal manufacture to zero and the various choices in creation to one (the choice of the object). The small-scale distribution of Duchamp’s work, rare and precocious as it was, explains in part the existence and the fortunes of Pop art.
There is today, however, another reaction against the traditional idea of the artist and, in particular, against works in which each detail is determined by a choice that recognizes no other justification than intuition.
These artists refuse to repeat Duchamp’s negation, but they do not yet have in their possession “machines” that would allow them to eliminate a large portion of arbitrary choice. They are well aware that they are working in a primitive way because they are today at the beginning of a period during which an entirely new concept of art is emerging.
The four main points of this tendency seem to me to be:
In the creation of the work of art, arbitrary decisions are reduced as much as possible. In order to achieve this, machines are increasingly used. Firstly, machines that are nowadays used in industrial production allow for the creation of identical components, the very basis of the work. For the distribution of these components, just as for the choice of them itself, electronic brains could, in the future, replace the artist’s decision-making; it would still remain, of course, up to the artists to supply these machines with instructions and to decide upon the goal to be attained.
Real movement eliminates from the work of art its definitive and unchangeable quality. Artists no longer impose on the work a privileged moment that they have arbitrarily chosen. They put forward a series of situations that develop outside of themselves.
With programmed series we have the same attitude but without real movement. Each experiment shows one of the possibilities of a system that runs by itself. If a choice had to be made, it is the viewer who would make it.
The active participation of the viewer in the creation or transmission of the work of art provides us, no doubt, with an idea of “the artist” that is the furthest we could get from the Romantic concept of an all-powerful creator. Despotic geniuses, about whom the nineteenth century has given us so many legends, give way to the viewer.
A profound gulf, then, exists between “inspired artists,” who create works in which each detail is determined by a choice that accepts no justification other than intuition, and “experimenter artists,” who put forward situations that are modified in time and space, both for the viewer and by the viewer.
Translated by Nicholas Huckle. © Dia Art Foundation. English translation originally published in Béatrice Gross with Stephen Hoban, eds., François Morellet (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2019), p. 193-195. Originally published as “Le choix dans l’art actuel,” in Sigma (Bordeaux, France: Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1965), p. 101.