Lately I’ve been remembering random artworks from art history lectures, some that I didn’t know at the time would stick with me. Figured I may as well share some of these wanders down art history lane. SO, here is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed – a performance piece from January 15-29 of 1971 in which a wooden ramp runs into the gallery floor. Underneath, the artist would masturbate excessively (something like 8 hours a day), and vocalize fantasies about the visitors walking above.
Textbooks like to marvel at the work’s private-yet-simultaneously-public nature of the work, etc., etc…but on a base level it’s fascinating that this is encompassed in art at all. I know this is old news and the art world is so passed all that, but I think it’s important to really understand what was going on that allowed the distinctions to be broadened so much. Being occasionally overwhelmed or frustrated (puzzled, maybe?), with ambiguous works like this one seems essential to understanding where art is now. Try going to a contemporary gallery today and not be confused by something being there. (Do I need to offer an example here? okay, a wooden board with a potato on top.) I almost feel discouraged from raising little questions like this one to pour over from time to I’m expected to just accept a work’s legitimacy by it’s presence in the art world alone.
There’s an impressionist exhibit at the Kimbell and a fantastic Richard Serra exhibit at the Menil, some beautiful ceramic pieces at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and all the while there are works like Acconci’s looming in the background. How can I both seriously ponder an artist whacking it beneath a gallery floor and fully contemplate a beautiful contemporary sculpture before me? Sometimes the ambiguity of art just really gets me. I’m not exactly worried that the distinctions of art are disappearing, but that we forget to let ourselves be confused enough to strengthen our convictions about art.

One Response to “seedbed”

  1. I definitely share your confusion with “art”. But for me, after only a few years of peripheral studies, I would have to say the confusion didn’t strengthen my convictions about art; it eliminated them. On good days, it replaces them with meta-level concerns. It made me think that Art was almost entirely irrelevant. “Art” as a word, art as an idea or ideology, almost became useless due to the chaotic collection of objects under its domain, and due to a somewhat narrow narrative told by art history.

    Now, and this is the trick for me, I raise more specific concerns. In what period was/is this work made? What are the political and economic facts (situation of artist, commission, in which galleries, purchased by whom for whose art investments)? With these questions you get around having to call something “art”.

    Art, understood broadly, will always be important for a species that relies on creativity and empathic and emotional understanding for survival and flourishing. Making art will always be integral to these things. And I think that the further we get away from these intrinsically human uses and practices of art, the more alienating it gets.

    But notice, the further we get away from the things I mentioned above, the questions can be replaced by the other ones. What is this artist trying to tell the artistic community? Why did the community embrace this? Why are certain works bought? And any time questions like this take priority over the more anthropological concerns, I put on my mortar board and gown (maybe my skinny tie and chic spectacles) and just get ready for those aloof, academic conversations, most of which won’t interest me. I try to remember that aloof academics need hobbies too, and that these conversations are generally (though not always) more productive than average American hobbies. But at the end of the day, what matters to me is what’s in my MP3 player and what I’ve got on the desktop of my computer or scribbled in my margins. The other stuff comes in and out of focus as I lose and gain focus on different things.

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