“But first allow me to destroy your gallery.” The Always Sunny in Philadelphia character, Ongo Gablogian, the art collector, is over the top, quirky, and like good satire – on point. The character pulls from Andy Warhol’s wardrobe, borrows his famous hair and closes out the scene with a keen awareness of Duchamp. Ongo Gablogian hits all the clichés of a contemporary art aficionado. He shows little attention to the artwork on the wall. He finds his love in the “air conditioner,” pivoting effortlessly after being told it’s not art; it’s, “Just the air conditioner.” Ongo Gablogian explains that it’s the only true artwork in there. “It’s everything!”
Artspeak spills out of Ongo’s mouth with the same buoyancy as the hop he did entering the gallery. Artists and the public can both appreciate the character. Everyone in the art world or that went to art school knows an Ongo Gablogian. You know the type. The one who put a piece of paper in a plastic cup filled with Fiji water placed it on a pedestal and said, “It’s about waste.” Is this true conceptual art? Or is it, in the words of the great, Ongo Gablogian “derivative”?
So, “Why is that art?”
We have one artist, in particular, to thank for this question, Marcel Duchamp. Don’t get me wrong; I love Duchamp. He’s the art world’s OG disrupter; he took the rule book and just threw it right out the window. When Duchamp first introduced “The Fountain” into the art world, it changed the landscape about what was deemed art forever. Great conceptual art is moving and groundbreaking. Take Felix Gonzalez-Torres and their artwork. It’s simple but implicates the viewer in a participatory and evocative “reveal.”
Art history is the recipe to understand conceptual art. To suss out the good from the bad, we have to allow ourselves past the “why” question. Artwork is more than why; it’s also what and who. What is the artist trying to say? And who are they trying to speak to? Taking in art is an active conversation between the artist and the viewer. The artist’s role is to open the sentence for us to engage in a dialogue. As Duchamp said, “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone… the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”