Wallowing in Gaudy Baubles

Sol Lewitt wrote:

New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary art. Some artists confuse new materials with new ideas. There is nothing worse than seeing art that wallows in gaudy baubles. By and large most artists who are attracted to these materials are the ones who lack the stringency of mind that would enable them to use the materials well. It takes a good artist to use new materials and make them into a work of art. The danger is, I think, in making the physicality of the materials so important that it becomes the idea of the work (another kind of expressionism).

I find this quotation very entertaining. What exactly is this “danger” that he refers to?

32 thoughts on “Wallowing in Gaudy Baubles

  1. That is an amusing turn of phrase. I do wonder what artists he's thinking about.

    The danger is that you would not then be a Platonist?

    Conceptual art is basically Platonism, right?

  2. Sol Lewitt's worry, as I understand it, is that the impetus behind a “new” work will simply be the novelty of the material or the strangeness of the form rather than a striving for aesthetic, artistic, or existential accomplishment and, esp. for the Minimalists, cultivation of that form/material.

  3. I was trying to point out here how GENDERED his statement was. To me, it borders on misogynistic. Gaudy baubles! Expressionism! “Physicality of the materials”! Horrors! The danger is that one might actually behave like ( or worse, BE) one of those horrifying drippy chaotic creatures, a WOMAN.

  4. I guess I find the notion of equating “gaudy baubles” and “expressionism” (or any other essentialism) with women to very dangerous. If there was more there maybe I could accept some inherent sexism but, at least here, the argument seems a bit dubious.

  5. Mein Gott!
    I must be transgendered, or at least gay. What an abomination!
    And the worst part – text isn't even new enough to make falling for such sensual properties the least bit excusable!

    Nada – As you can guess I agree with you – there is a fear of such Otherness implicit within the first sentence. “Affliction” seems to be always be a signal of such.

  6. There's enough for me – expression(ism) (of emotion), ornamentality – you could argue a parellel between the opening “affliction” and fear of the menses (the “female aflection”) if we're going to get all Freudian on it's ass…

  7. In the quoted paragraph, I don't think there's enough evidence to say that Lewitt believes that affection for “gaudy baubles”, “lack of stringency of mind” and “physicality” are feminine as opposed to masculine traits.

    Any claims re. gender traits and (in this case aesthetic) value raise two big questions:

    (a) is the trait concerned really of low value


    (b) is the trait really gendered in the way it's being presented as.

    For example, if I'm Kingsley Amis and I say something like “love poetry is crap: it's an expressionistic, feminine practice,” that raises two quite separate questions:

    does expressionistic really = crap?

    does feminine really = expressionistic?

    I suspect the danger Lucas is referring to – and forgive me if I'm misinterpreting you – is that to assume Lewitt's statement is gendered runs the risk of overlooking the second question, and buying in to the belief that these traits are essentially feminine.

    Speaking of gaudy, I wish I could show you guys my new pen. It looks like a starfish that rolled around in glue then jumped up and down in a box of sequins.

  8. I am always worried about negative criticism that emanates from an assumption of essentialism. If I, for example, scrutinize a particular mode of discourse because I find it overly feminine: does that mean I am attacking women? Well, only if we consider the feminine tantamount to women within my discourse. The feminine is certainly not tantamount to women and, in fact, after a great amount of textual and gender studies… to assume I am making this distinction and creating a difference is, at least for me, to miss the point.

  9. Cy –
    I see your point, but I think what Nada means is that the statement seems to imply that these traits are negative, and that this is (within the statement) implicitly linked to how they are coded gender-wise.
    Of course both premises should be deconstructed – I disagree with both, if gender is coded biologically (I don't see a problem otherwise – if my practice is “feminine” then so be it. I'm perfectly happy to work in the Cixous/Kristeva paradigm).

    VW: scully. It's feminine! no mulder here!

  10. There whole essay is here.

    That paragraph is certainly done in the language of fashion critique, and is a criticism of a style that would be associated with women / dandies … or … Vikings, right? He assumes that ornamentation / extravagance are to be inherently understood as of trifling appeal and meretricious.

    This is a response to… what…? the use of Angora goats in the fine arts? — Rauschenberg. Or maybe Joeseph Cornell?

  11. Well, I will say, that in the early Nihilistic period of German Expressionism, say within Kirchner and Benn's theatre work, there is a great deal of what might be considered misogyny, so there's a further qualification within the culture or history of the term expressionism. You can read about that stuff in depth in a book called

    The Aesthetics of Disturbance: Anti-Art in Avante-Garde Drama

    by David Graver.

    But later on, Expressionism was very “loose” and non-hihilist
    and had very lavish affairs combining interior design and fashion and art etc.. more girly I guess.. definitely some atavism in Expressionism, but the look is what I've always felt was important

    a simplicity that rides the labrys
    or do the ockham dance or whatever

    simplicity of affect (emotion vs technique)
    versus what? raging insanity?

    Kirchner wrote some lovely poems,
    and so did Benn I think.

    Maybe things are different on the East Coast and middle america
    but Women control the arts on the West Coast, Women and homosexuals,
    and black people, and mexicans, and also cross-genders.

    Those are the people that actually control the art world in California and Oregon and Washington.

    And they all live in one big house
    with a swimmingpool and a dog called




  12. Not to dampen the gender critique, but LeW was writing against the Greenbergian reification of materiality that was his most immediate aesthetic antecedent. So perhaps, as guy as this all might be, there is a genuine aesthetic concern that over-materialization would turn minimalism/conceptualism into another modernist cul-de-sac. And, aussi, as he notes, turn the idea of the piece secondary to its materiality–which is precisely what happened in post-conceptualism, yes?

  13. I think that you are taking it personally because you must have some insecurity about your own gaudy baubles. 🙂

    I don't think it is the meaning of the statement though. I think what he means to say is that a person runs the risk of using beautiful or sensational materials which substitute for content and indicate that the artist is somehow empty headed or doing things as a consequence rather than through intent.

    I don't think the word danger here is used very well and it is entirely idiomatic.

    And as if….art involves danger unless of course you are painting on the side of a skyscraper without a net and underpants. Or maybe, writing/creating something that goes against standard practice and social norms.

    Or….writing something like the Trapeze Artist (Kafka).


  14. Not insecure, Meg: fiercely proud.

    My point from the beginning of this blog has been that baubles ARE content.

    Lucas, this from Christine Wertheim seems relevant to the notion of essentialism:

    “However much signifiers lack essence, however much most meanings may be said to be unhinged from a referent, some meanings are not so unhinged. For instance, however much the traits of a gender may be viewed as cultural constructs, not essential qualities of biology, the fact that some bodies don’t bleed unless they’re in pain, while others shed blood for the sake of the species, means (!) that the subjects of these bodies live the signifiers of gender differently. The cultural attribution of instability to a body that smells and swells and leaks and gushes out blood, and which may host other smaller bodies, dead or alive, is lived by its “subject,” however “structurally neutral,” quite differently from the subject of a body that does not do these things.”

  15. So: male bodies don't leak, bleed, gesticulate, and so forth? I am simply unimpressed with this road to essentialism, even if it is more nuanced than Steven Pinker. Anatomy is not destiny, we create the destiny of biology.

  16. Lucas, it's true that the excerpt from Christine above might not apply as a response to your comment thirteen comments up the stream from this one. I do think it addresses the sort of kneejerk battle cry of “essentialism! beware!” in a fairly common sense way, however. You can study textuality and gender all you want, but you can't convince me that to some extent at least, for better or for worse, biology is destiny. It certainly feels like destiny to me when once every 28 days or so, pulled this way and that by the force of the moon, one swells up, aches, bleeds, etc. Strictly speaking, I suppose I could “control” it by taking otherwise ravaging courses of hormones or getting a monthly D & C or deciding to stop eating, or get a hysterectomy, but basically, to shed uterine lining is my lot in life, and just about all women's, for that matter. And as Christine put it, we are taking a hit for the species every time we suffer in doing so.

    It is pretty much impossible to explain to men what it's like to feel this CYCLE OF DOOM. An analogy I can imagine is how a white person can not even begin to imagine what it might feel like to be a black person inside a museum of non-contemporary (and even then) western art. I mean, you can have objective knowledge of the facts, but unless you have been menstruating for 35 years, as I have, you may want to hesitate before decreeing with certainty that biology is not destiny.

    Now, this is a separate issue from the one you raised in the comment way up the stream, and you do have a point there, but I think it is important to remember my perspective. I think that if I were a black man making a similar comment in a museum of mostly white art you might be less inclined to get on my case about the weakness of my argument (“weakness”: hmmmm), because sexism is much more acceptable than racism, on the whole. I'm aware that you conversely might see my way of reading as a kind of sexism as well, but I'm not sure how much I can deconstruct that, given my experience of the world so far.

  17. I appreciate, very much, everything you have said.

    My only addendum would be that: The bigger questions go beyond ethnicity because ethnicity does not define one's existence. These are questions of the existential and of the universal. So, I may be a half-Mexican/half-Arab Jew but this does not define me. There are contributing factors from this description but I don't see the world through my ethnicity. I am, if I am worth my salt, beyond the categorial.

  18. I have to support Nada's rejection of what I think of as a fashionable tendency to reject the association of gender and (biological) sex. This tendency seems basic to your position, LM, as when you write “I, for example, scrutinize a particular mode of discourse because I find it overly feminine: does that mean I am attacking women? Well, only if we consider the feminine tantamount to women within my discourse.” Reading this, I cringe and feel you have either read too much Judith Butler, been around too many people who have read too much Judith Butler, or in some even vaguer sense just breathed too much of that post-Butler air.

    The position that gender and biology are more or less separable, both in life and for discursive purposes, as articulated by Butler (in Gender Trouble especially), is not a feminist position and was never articulated by any of the major feminist theorists. This is because it is not a good position. It is a seductive position, because it makes people feel happy and liberated from biology. The index of its badness as a position is the way it has led to this blossoming of “straight queer” identity, in which people believe they have so transcended their heteronormativity that they can be queer even without being gay. The position produces such absurdities by suggesting that sex, for example, is more a matter of gender (social construction/liberating fantasy) than of biology.

    But sex without biology is boring, supposed queerness that is actually hetero is boring, and claims that one can critique the feminine without critiquing women are implausible, in that they assume that women have a choice to not associate themselves with gender ideology should they choose not to. But ideology is not just fantasy and social construction; it operates through and as an aspect of the body and in fact biological traits are ideological. What Butler's done (and you) is to associate gender ideas with choice, that great liberal bugbear of choice which is supposedly all-available. Butler's way of merging feminism with queer theories is to liberalize the discourse, to reduce it all to matters of choice–but incorporating the founding illusion of liberal discourse makes her position, from my point of view, very poor.

    For feminism you need to go back to “This Sex Is Not One” or something like that, work which is based 100% on the equation of female identity to the female body and the legitimation of the difference of the feminine in all its aspects. I've heard this early work called “biologically deterministic” and it is, because, as bold as it might seem to reject biology, the bolder thing is to accept it to the extent that it is a determining factor and move democratically from that understanding. I.e. it's easy to build coalitions by saying difference is just a fantasy–if you want fantasy coalitions. Wanting real coalitions, feminists had to be real about difference.

  19. I'm going to have to say something here.


    Both of the Genders
    and all of Biology
    only exist

    on this rock.

    And that fact
    renders their mutual difference
    from eternity
    a guiding principle
    something like

    infinite asymmetry
    or as the cavalier grandees
    of space fungus know it

    beautiful stupidity
    like a supersonic bullet train
    hitting a titianium sierpinskian sieve somehow

    just appeared in the landscape

    for no apparent reason
    not just like this conversation
    but any conversation
    that does not fundamentally observe
    the skew and parallax of this simple environmental detail.

  20. @Stan Apps

    Excuse me, but where does Butler completely disavow any biological aspect to gender and sexuality? I don't mean this to sound hostile; it's been a while since I've read Gender Trouble & Bodies that Matter and I can't remember if she flat out denies any link between biology & gender. My understanding of her work has never been that she completely denies biology's (and particularly hormones') role in the development of gender and sexual identities. Rather, I have seen her work as affirming that a) gender and sexuality are far more complex than the binaried categories we've been given allow for and b) that the ways we *understand* and *perform* our gender are informed by shifting cultural and social contexts. As a queer person with friends across the gender binary, this is something that makes a lot of me. For example–consider two spirited people in certain indigenous cultures. In a lot of ways being two-spirited is somewhat analogous to being genderqueer. However these gender identities are also very different because they are informed by different cultural contexts. Acknowledging this is not tantamount to denying biology's possible role in the creation of these gender identities.

    Furthermore, I think you'll find that many queer theorists believe gender and sexuality to be created by a combination of social and biological factors (see: Julia Serano's fairly accesible The Whipping Girl). Anyone who has honestly engaged with transpeople, for example, will tell you this.

  21. Hi Jane,

    In Gender Trouble, Butler states repeatedly that sexual difference, in a biological sense, does not exist; in fact, she repeats this point hundreds of times. For example, at the end of chapter one, “No longer believable as an interior 'truth' of dispositions and identity, sex will be shown to be a performatively enacted signification (and hence not 'to be').” This comes after an extended critique of Irigaray as “phallogocentric.” In other words, she accuses Irigaray of “gender essentialism,” much as Lucas saw “gender essentialism” in the Christine Wertheim quote above (and indeed the Wertheim quote is very much indebted to Irigaray's position).

    I recommend Irigaray's The Sex That Is Not One for considering the profound significance of biological difference for feminist consciousness.

    I think the appeal of Butler's writing is that she allows her readers to imagine the possibility that sex is only discourse, only a matter of the discursive manifestation of patriarchal power. However, the position is not tenable, because it dissolves the biology in the bathwater.

  22. Stan –
    This is where it becomes difficult, with transgendered identity, and the various marginalised positions which fall outside of the majoritarian narative of the Binary. Example – friends I have who are trans, but biologically heterosexual – ie boys who identify as lesbians.
    Of course (socially constructed/performative) gender and biology are intrinsically semantically linked, adn the points that Nada has made are very true (and one would be foolish to ignore them); but heteronormative/phalocentritic power structures are by no means exclusivly biologically male, nor to they exclusivly victimise the female (or homosexual for that matter). Example – efeminate kid (as I was) at high school who is no good at (or just not interested in) sports, getting the shit kicked out of them by the rugby team (in USA read football), with all the ensuing epithets like “fag” and soforth – it doesn't matter whether or not I like girls, the narrative doesn't give two shits about 'the real'. It's like Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism – omnivourous, it creates the Real in its own image.
    This, I think, may be the origin of qeer-straight identities

  23. Good point Ross. Butler's ideas are so appealing because of social realities like the ones you describe; her thinking is popular because it's liberatory for many people. However, and perhaps this is a controversial point, I believe viewpoints can be valuable for groups of people without necessarily being right, and I do not think Butler's ideas are correct. This does not erase the value of her ideas, but at least I would ask people not to repeat these charges of “biological essentialism” which Butler tends to make towards feminists who accept that biology is a basis of difference. Because that view, that gender difference is primarily (i.e. in the first instance) constituted by biology, is in fact true, and Butler's construction of a discursive universe where it is not true, while it allows for fascinating speculations and liberatory considerations, should not be mistaken for a logically-supportable discourse.

    I am willing to agree that gender is secondarily (i.e. in the second instance) shaped by social constructions, and that such secondary constructions can be so in excess of the first instance that certain individuals can be female in spite of biology. But the idea that social construction is the primary constitutor of gender is not possible unless we deny the validity of basic genetics.

  24. @Stan

    So those people who are born with ambiguous genitalia are negated by your line of thought because they are so marginal? (At least within this monolithic discourse you've created?)

    Butler's point, which should be emphasized is that biology is embedded within language because most of the significations (the physical phenotypes and their relation to the genitalia) are not seen. One assess my sex and my orientation by what they see when I am fully clothed and when they have no real access to my biological features. This is an event wholly enframed within social construction.

    1 nm smaller than the universe itself.


    You have finally brought up a good point, or rather a good SUBJECT.

    That subject is Teratology.

    In my world however, all subjects fall under this general heading ie

    and thought.

    our thought is primitive
    because it illicits usually not much more than contention, and as it was supposed to raise us up out of animality it has conversely created a multitude of mewling floppy cults.

    Here's a trick question
    which relates to


    is the world

    a formation, or a deformation?

    Is the human mind a product
    of natural generativity
    an abomination of nature

    is nature natural?

    if nature is unnatural
    then do words have any meaning
    other than as a kind of piano scroll for simian robots
    to enact with their skull-jukebox machines?

    The simple answer is that the world
    is a chemical accident, a kind of freak show, and the poor people that have to live in it are too soft and fragile in their minds to accept the reality of that, and so they do what they think they need to do.

    The best policy in this regard



    we're all fucked
    and these weird human creatures
    are going to do whatever it is they do
    and I am stuck here too on this fucking rock

    god help me


  26. No LM, in fact a biological account of sex includes various intersexes–I believe there are nine documented varities of hermaphroditism. One can discuss these things, without resorting to an anti-scientific stance, in a perfectly enlightened way.

    The idea that by wearing clothes all biological aspects of gender are obscured seems a little absurd, I mean, there's clothes and then there's clothes, and here in Florida people aren't exactly going around swaddled in Russian greatcoats.

    Butler's idea seems to be that we all have basically the same generic body, and that this generic body is only differentiated from other bodies by a variety of performative acts. Like much theory, this could be the basis of great science-fiction, and clearly can be used for coalition-building and fashionable displays. But it's counter-factuality shows on any warm summer's day.

    @Lanny, you may be a misanthrope, but damn you is a well-educated misanthrope.

  27. I am enjoying this contention, but I feel we have got a little bit off the original track.

    My initial highlight of the LeWitt remark was not intended to address the genderedness of bodies but the genderedness of a text.

    I don't know if nature gave them to me or culture/language gave them to me, but when I read I wear special “feminine” goggles that detect (almost like a metal detector or… X-ray vision!) KEYWORDS and KEY CONCEPTS that seem to speak pejoratively of what is culturally coded (just culturally?) as “the feminine.”

    In “the feminine” I do include such notions as DECORATION, EXCESS, PHYSICALITY, and EXPRESSIVENESS. Obviously these are not modes available only to biological women. Plenty of biological women have contempt for, or no interest in, such concepts.

    Even so, the code is strong, so strong, and so widespread (I'm not a cultural anthropologist, so I can't vouch for actual “universality,” but I dare anyone to prove otherwise, and not by mentioning “exceptions”)that it does not take a great leap of imagination to move from attitudes towards these abstractions to attitudes toward actual bio-women. That is why I used the word “misogyny.” I'm talking about a deep and pervasive misogyny, not any sort of personal misogyny that LeWitt or anyone else might be guilty of. OF COURSE I don't believe that all bio-woman are “naturally” decorative, expressive, and so forth. That indeed would be a vulgar kind of essentialism. That is NOT what I mean.

    I think it's important to look at his snippet of text OUTSIDE of art history and biography. Let's just look at the vocabulary. What does it say about ATTITUDES to QUALITIES that are CULTURALLY GENDERED FEMALE? and what is that CONTEMPT?

  28. Sorry…haven't been able lately.

    Insecurity….the lack of safety from harm. Not the presence of incompetence.

    there is a difference and the predictive power of that word..I should have known better than to use it.

    All the same….there's this sense of doing it this way and defending it that way or not doing it at all and defending it and then there's the doing it and not defending it.

    Who really cares?

    It is a puffy statement and at the same time, it does have a point to make. It is the kind of thing however that a person says:

    if the shoe fits wear it and if it doesn't…

    throw it at a dictator.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s