– »How was it?«
– »It was fine. Although, many times while standing in front of an artwork, I couldn’t help thinking: I could have done it too.«
When can we consider a specific artwork to be undemanding? In order to answer this question, we must distinguish two factors through which the artist creates a work of art. The first involves the conceptual parameters that give guidelines and norms governing the work and its technical realization. The second factor is the technical realization itself. The conceptual variable plays a more fundamental role in some artworks than in others. The same holds true for technical realization. Every work of art features both these factors in some way.
…the observer believes that she knows the causes of inspiration, reflection and conceptual creation of the artistic work.
When someone says, ‚I could have done it too‘, it is a reflection of the realizability of the technical aspect of the work. (This should not be confounded with Walter Benjamin’s notion of reproducibility, although both notions are related.) Here, the observer considers the work of art in its physical, final form, and believes that she knows its technical causes. The work appears not to demand extensive conventional artistic skills and abilities, and is assumed to be technically undemanding.
In other situations, the observer might criticise the conceptual parameters of the considered work by assuming that it did not demand special theoretical skills. She may say, ‘That idea could have come to my mind too.’ In such cases, we say that the work of art is judged as conceptually undemanding; the observer believes, among other things, that she knows the causes of inspiration, reflection and conceptual creation of the artistic work.
As an example of apparently undemanding works, consider Song Dong’s installation Doing Nothing Garden in which, layers of rubbish, collected objects and waste are covered by growing grass and flowers, together with neon signs that say ‘doing nothing.’ Such a work might appear undemanding in terms of certain artistic and technical abilities. Other works like Malevich’s well-known Black Square and some works of appropriation art may elicit similar hasty reactions.
One important feature of technically undemanding works of art is that the period (or, more precisely, the number of attempts and experiments) needed to learn the technique with which the work was produced is below a certain limit. Such a limit may be indeterminate or relative to each individual. Thus, an observer might judge the work in front of her as being undemanding if the time that she would have needed to produce it is below a certain limit, given her specific abilities (or some other set of abilities that she considers). Of course, a different observer looking at the same work of art might not classify it as undemanding.
In contrast to technically undemanding works, judgements about conceptually undemanding works depend on the knowledge needed to come up with the idea of creating that work. This knowledge about the causes of inspiration is also relative to each individual. Thus, two observers may disagree regarding whether a given work is conceptually undemanding if their knowledge about its inspirational causes differs.
The correspondence between technical realizability and conceptual realizability permits the understanding of inductive and deductive processes in art creation. When the observer says that she too could have created the work, she assumes that the inductive process needed to master the relevant technique did not constitute a large number of steps.
Similarly, judgements of conceptual realizability could be based on the supposition that the number of deductive steps needed was not large. Such a deductive process leads to the understanding that the final work is an instance of some general claim. However, it could also be that the general claim involved in the deductive inference was near trivial or part of common knowledge. This takes the issue back to the inductive inferences regarding a work’s technical realization. It would be a mistake to think that technical realizability is based solely on considerations of inductive processes. It would also be a mistake to assume that considerations regarding the conceptual parameters attend to deduction alone.
Now, how different are considerations about the properties of technical realizability and conceptual realizability ascribed to a work of art? They are not fully independent of each other, of course. On the one hand, an artist’s plans and ideas about a future project may be largely influenced by her present technical abilities and material limitations. If the work that she creates is considered conceptually undemanding, this judgement might depend on its technical realizability. On the other hand, and more interestingly for purposes related to the question about the observer’s judgements, considerations about the technical realizability of a work are usually influenced by thoughts regarding its conceptual parameters. Still, it is possible for someone to judge a work of art as being technically undemanding while ignoring its formal and conceptual causes. This—namely, the almost exclusive consideration of the technical and material causes—is likely to result in an erroneous conception of the work.
When observers misrepresent works of art by describing the works as undemanding, they are usually committing at least two mistakes of simplification with regard to the causal processes involved in art creation.
The first mistake is the assumption that such causal processes are simple instead of complex structures. A work of art is the product of a great number of factors, involving technical as well as conceptual, social and personal elements that interact simultaneously with each other and give rise to emergent properties that could not have existed in the absence of such interactions or by the mere conjunction of its parts. This kind of mistake is represented by the erroneous thought that works of art are single entities produced by individuals.
This is connected to the second mistake, which is to assume that a work of art is the product of a single structure of direct causation, instead of considering the relevance of causal transitivity and indirect causation in the context of art creation. Almost never is a single ability or idea the direct cause of a certain work. It is more often the case that, for instance, some technique or idea collaborated in the artistic creation by helping improve another technique or by developing a chain of ideas that ended up being a partial cause of the work.
– »That reminds me of something I thought months ago at another gallery.«
– »Tell me.«
– »On seeing a sculpture made of unusual materials, I thought that this was so because of the artist’s painful life experiences.«
– »And was this the case?«
– »I read then that it was just because she could not access a wide variety of other materials at the time.«