What is an Art Genius?


 A Mindblowing Piece of Conceptual Art by John Baldessari

I thought it might be helpful to really try to dig into the deep thinking of one of the greatest conceptual artists of the 20th and now 21st centuries. Naturally, he hails from Los Angeles, California where the most deep-thinking artists in the country have resided. I heard Baldessari speak to my art class in the mid-70s and he struck me as being severely mentally impaired and talking complete drivel. But then, I hadn’t been through the four-year program that would clue me in to just why I was an idiot and Baldessari was a genius.

Unfortunately I remained an idiot through my entire undergraduate years. I never really got conceptual art at all… I tried everything… I pissed into a trash can and poured it down the stairs of the art building. (I unfortunately was ahead of my time in discovering piss as a viable art material) I stuffed raw hamburger meat behind my canvas and cut through the canvas with a knife. (It was a comment on the tyranny of McDonald’s hamburgers.) I ejaculated into a bowl of jello while screaming “Death to the Establishment!” (This one got me arrested and I was left unable to explain my meaning to the art faculty). So through the mysterious workings of cruel fate somehow my work was outside the bounds of acceptable conceptual taste at the time.

And so I gave up on it, never to reach the heights attained by John Baldessari and many others of his caliber. Every conceptual artist deals profound philosophical issues and doggedly pursues them with the rigorous thinking of a Descartes filtered through the advances made to his contribution by thinkers like  Jacques Lacan and Michel Houllebecq. But unlike the latter, whose thinking erupts in fireworks of illumination, John Baldessari focusses his thinking more deeply and narrowly. As he explains in the video below his works deal with the eternal question that has bewildered philosophers through the centuries: “What is the difference between a part and a whole?”

While he hasn’t solved the riddle you can see in the video below that just the pursuit of it has produced art of remarkable poetic power (if you happen to revere the poetry of Rod McKuen and William Shatner, that is).

So listen carefully. I’ll print the entirety of his statement underneath the video as the blinding insights he’s imparting will no doubt have you reeling to the point you’re unable to take them in.

“One of the underlying themes of my work over the years I think is trying to figure out in my mind the difference between a part and a whole.” 

The “underlying themes” are of central importance to works of contemporary art as there’s nothing much to look at on the surface that’s of any interest. Part of what makes Conceptual Art so profoundly compelling is that the surface is so mind-numbingly boring that one is forced to confront the “underlying themes”. If one were to pass a work like those on display in the Baldessari retrospective at your local shopping mall one would no doubt pass it by with no more than a glance. I have no doubt that unenlightened and ignorant art shoppers would be more transfixed by the display of Lego Art or Santa and his Helpers ChristmasWorld. Thus they would be missing the work of one of the Greatest Artists of our time entirely! What fools these shoppers be!

But thankfully for them, our major Museums are able to separate out these works of conceptual genius from the vulgar and mundane displays at a shopping mall. This allows the brain-dead shoppers to see actual culture. To see what they’re missing as they rush through life with their shopping bags! To stop and think for a minute! To become truly cultured by studying the works of a Contemporary Master: John Baldessari. In the Museum (after paying their 18 bucks) they can can concentrate on the deep underlying themes of Baldessari’s work and genius, which clearly has nothing whatsoever in common with the things one sees in shopping malls….except on the surface.

The primary thing that separates Baldessari’s art from a display of Lego Art in the shopping mall is that his art is far less interesting to look at. The other thing is that the Lego Art has no deep underlying themes. Naturally viewers of Baldessari’s art are too stupid to get these underlying themes on their own. So art critics and even Baldessari himself have endeavored to wake them up from their stupors by explaining the meaning of the art to them.

So Baldessari reveals to us:

“And I never quite get it right because a part can become a whole and a whole can become a part and back and forth.”

He’s spent a lifetime thinking about this and pursuing it in his work and this is what he comes up with. Yes. It seems pretty fucking stupid on the surface. But think some more.  Cutouts with colored incisions and raised eyebrows? (Get it?  It’s a pun!!  A raised eyebrow! And a furrowed brow!). Puns and paradoxes. The cosmic joke. And it’s about “thinking” isn’t it? Think about it!

“The art is about trimming the fat off of stuff to get to the heart of the matter.  That was a mixed metaphor but anyway…”

A mixed metaphor? “Trimming the fat off of stuff”? What stuff? Now I’m lost….. The heart of what matter? The matter of the stuff? The art stuff?

“I always call it being so reductive to the point where you almost kill the patient. You want to kill…each patient alive.”

I could barely hear that last part… I was reeling. It couldn’t have been that his speech was garbled! That doesn’t happen to geniuses and so I have forgiven for not being worthy to really hear it clearly.

Baldessari “trimming the fat off stuff”. This, perhaps is what is meant by “almost killing the patient.” As if you trim off too much fat then what is the patient to live on? So you trim it way, way down… Almost enough to kill the patient (the art?) but not quite.”

This is what Greenberg had painters doing… Trim off that fat! Get rid of the figures and the deep space and any kind of representation… Dripping paint from sticks! That’s good, Jackson! Good boy! But not quite enough really… Helen! Pour out some nice colors on a canvas… Better… Why not a single color! How about white? You take that and run with it, Ryman!

But why bother with painting? Too much fat still needing to be trimmed. Just evaporate the patient entirely? But how to sell an evaporated patient? A bunch words on a wall?

Nah, thinks Baldessari,… let’s make some more paintings but call them conceptual art… Brilliant! Genius!

Of course there can’t be anything worth looking at or then they wouldn’t be conceptual artworks. So here’s the secret:

“But strip it down till… you know.. there’s still life there but one more stroke it’s dead. (chuckle)”

The chuckle’s quite important at the end so you understand it’s a witty remark.

So. Put another incised mark arbitrarily placed and arbitrarily colored and it’ll be dead. But leave it out and the work is pulsing with gripping reductive life.  Then delve beneath the surface and you’re on your way to a deep philosophical investigation that Baldessari has engaged in for years over the question: how can a part become a whole and a whole become a part.

I’m still pondering the question that Baldessari has raised in his work. What is the relationship between a part and a whole? What is the relationship between an ass and an asshole?

Is conceptual art about starting out as an ass and becoming an asshole? Is what comes out of Baldessari’s asshole art just like the great Duchampian Piero Manzoni‘s art?

Deep thoughts, folks… Deep thoughts…

Manzoni’s art, as explained by who else but him and his promoter Germano Celant, was a protest against consumerism of all things! He canned his own shit as a protest against consumerism in order to bring mankind back to universal and authentic values. Like canned shit. There’s art world thinking for you. Baldessari comes right out of Duchamp and Manzoni, yet with the wonderful twist that his anti-consumerist work sells for big bucks. Anybody got any idea what a single one of Baldessari’s trite POP knockoffs sells for?

lego11_1514871i(above) Not art… Legos


(above) Another  Baldessari masterpiece. Unbelievably, he’s made thousands of works of art all at this caliber of genius.  Duchamp himself only managed a handful of idea pieces in his lifetime. But keep in mind that American Artists are invariably superior to their European counterparts, reducing the boring excess of Duchamp (even) in all the pieces that followed the genius of his early works like the hatrack and the urinal.

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
This entry was posted in Duchamp Charlatan, End of Art, Germano Celant, John baldessari, Piero Manzoni, Post-Contemporary Art. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What is an Art Genius?

  1. Zombie Logic says:

    He’s eating a cookie or something I’d have to listen to what he’s saying to find out so I just guessed he’s eating a cookie. I don’t know much about the Outsider Art http://www.zombielogicreview.blogspot.com/

  2. trueoutsider says:

    I’m just wondering when Lego Art is going to finally get the respect it deserves instead of all these impostors who are either eating cookies or have lost their cookies.

  3. wewordsmiths says:

    I’m pondering the likelihood that this is actually art compared to Conceptualist stuff:


  4. wewordsmiths says:

    I ponder the following – I’m sorry to say that compared to Conceptualist stuff, this may be art:

  5. trueoutsider says:

    Hi William, Sorry that there was a delay posting your comments. I’ve formed the habit of being off the computer for a few days in a row lately.

    Thanks for your observation. It’s a striking one to me. My son is going into animation and hopes to attend Sheridan College in Toronto next year. So for years, given his interests, I’ve been seeing his work along with following his interests. It’s certainly one of the reasons I find the total shite called fine art nowadays to be so grotesquely moronic and pretentious in comparison. And it’s disheartening that other artists won’t face up to this or admit to the obvious. Thus the entire circus just keeps slouching along into the cesspit. The level of pretense in the art world is astronomical.

    It’s also a clear indication of the total fraud high culture has turned into when I get more enjoyment out of seeing animated cartoons and features that are far more interesting artistically speaking than the overhyped junk made without an iota of artistic skill, emotion, or thought behind it that one sees in high-end galleries and the endless feeder galleries that copy that work.

    But this is hardly a new feeling for me. I can trace it all the way back to the “High and Low” show at MoMA put together by Kirk Varnedoe, Robert Storr and Adam Gopnik in 1991. It was impossible not to observe that the sources lifted by Pop Artists and so on invariably looked better than the so-called “art” itself. This even went for the case with highly-esteemed artists like Guston in comparison to the Crumbs. The Crumb pen and ink drawings were far more incisively drawn and imagined than were the Gustons. This is obvious to a visual artist, at least one who prefers to look at the art itself totally detached to the critical and art historical hogwash that’s been used to propagandize the objects. The Gustons looked lazy, sloppy and yes, pretentious, next to them … “art”-ified… artificial. It was a decisive moment for me.

    That was the lesson afforded me by the Varnedoe show. It also showed, as Hilton Kramer points out in the review below, just how the financial world had taken over the very definition of art. Kramer wrote that the show told us a lot about “the decadence and the politics that have overtaken cultural life in the last decade of the 20th century.” While MoMA in the early 1990s was busy sanctifying the artists heavily invested in by Wall Street (Jeff Koons, etc) I was observing that the pop material next to this bullshit was far more invigorating visually and even intellectually, given the thorough inanity and stupidity of artists like Koons. But the New York art world and other artists, as we can see, were thrilled and so here we are today. Everyone sitting around glassy eyed, while vacuous burbling on like idiots about whatever load of crap the art elite selects to be the latest thrill.

    Note that the show was in 1991 and how Koons has stayed ensconced in the same position now for 24 years. Think about that for a minute. That shows just how totally and fatally corrupt the art world has been since Varnedoe’s tenure. And from where I sit, this is the only blog in creation that is bothering to look at the reality of it. Everyone else is just marching along to whatever tune the financial elite wants to play. They can virtually put anything whatsoever on the walls and throw millions of dollars at it and people will gawk in wonder at some shabby piece of faux-naive art school crud as if it’s shining gold.

    Noam Chomsky wrote in Manufacturing Consent about the discipline of the liberal free press to totally censor themselves and conform to the corporate dictates/points of view of their employers. This is depressing enough. But to watch other artists keep their traps shut and either march along like worshipful sheep to whatever the financial elite displays at MoMA or clap in excitement for Jeffrey Deitch Celebrity Art is even more depressing.

    You might read Hilton Kramer’s review of the show to get a historical sense of what happened in 1991.


    I should say that I don’t agree with Kramer that Varnedoe launched MoMA into decline. I think that happened in the 1950s in the conclusion between Greenberg, CIA/State Department/Rockefeller owned MoMA when European art and figurative/narrative art was trashed and Abstract Expressionism declared the greatest art of all time. Varnedoe was just putting an exclamation on point on what a thorough disgrace MoMA had become by the late 1960s. Admittedly, this was inadvertent on Varnedoe and Company’s part. But, for me I considered it a favor to see it with my own eyes (since that’s what I use to evaluate art, not the theories and art critic bullshit that seemingly everyone else in the art world uses).

    I also note that Varnedoe was one of the historians that helped with the historical research that proved Duchamp was a charlatan. So perhaps his deconstructing Modernist art got him started on that project as well

    But Varnedoe must be taken to task for selling off great works from the permanent collection so that MoMA could purchase their new dismal contemporary junk, but this is no different than what Krens was doing at the Guggenheim…. Sell off the Chagalls and to buy Carl Andre and Richard Serra…. All of this butchery, of course, not ever remarked upon by the hyena pack of art critics other than “conservatives” like Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer.

    Thus I find myself in no man’s land. I see both camps as equally preposterous and delusional. The conservatives making lifeless academic kitsch with family values messages. The avant-garde making avant-garde kitsch with politically correct messages that are absolutely hollow in terms of any serious political critique on the one hand, or nihilistic and decadent soft-porn to please the degenerate collector base of monied swine. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson burbling on to Charlie Rose. The Charlie Rose Show avant-garde.

    The Guardian has just reported on the heroin epidemic. We can give thanks to those great avant-garde culture heroes like Lou for romanticizing junkies that heroin chic will always be in style.


    Of course, nowadays nobody knows that Varnedoe managed to shatter Alfred Barr’s MoMA Modernist hagiography.

    And now we’re at the point where whatever bunch of yahoos want to indicate just how thoroughly stupid they are about painting the Guardian will be certain to give them a spotlight position in the art section.


    Apparently, I’m writing the only art blog in the known art universe that has any objection whatsoever to anything that’s going on. Artists aren’t supposed to be negative. We have be positive about heroin chic and the Sanctification of Banality. Artists old and young just go along with whatever shit is happening with their lips firmly sealed as they traipse along the galleries exclaiming about how wonderful this or that masterpiece is. Positivity is all-important in a market-driven enterprise.

    I was viewing a show of masterpieces (including Renoir) of flower paintings at the Denver Art Museum recently. And a person noted to a guard that the two Cezannes had been hung so indifferently (not to mention idiotically) that there was a cast shadow covering up at least an inch of the top of the paintings. The guard said he’d say something. I was back to the show a few weeks later and, of course, nothing had been done. I’ve pointed similar things out to guards or whoever is around. I’ve never found anyone who could give a shit. They aren’t there to see the paintings. The paintings are there for them to express their totally misguided notions about what they’re looking at. A Poussin was hung there a while ago with the lighting so bad that you couldn’t view the painting from any angle without glare over half of the surface.

    As the early Modernist, T.S. Eliot put it : “In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.” Talk and more talk. The jaded and bored aristocrat class enlivened by Andy and his decadent factory heroin and meth antics. High and low… and lower .. and lowest. Get your artificial culture.

    So Varnedoe and Company exploded the entire Modernist mythos in 1991. And yet, here we sit in 2015 reading the brain dead slobber of Gaurdian and New York Times critics about this or that latest repetition of this brain dead work. And artists themselves say nothing at all? They think they’re above it? They think they’re outside it? Who knows? From where I sit it doesn’t seem that they think at all.

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