What If?

John Haber
in New York City

Charles Ray and Yoko Ono

Marcel Duchamp and Hypothetical Art

Imagine a work of art. No, not the Mona Lisa, not even with a moustache, and oh, please, not those cherubs from the Sistine Madonna. I mean a work a work of art that no one has ever seen. All set? Now then, what does it look like, and what is it about?

Are you sure? Really?

It sounds like a foolish question. After all, who else would know if not you? Any purely hypothetical work of art can get sticky, however, and fast. It can lead to hard questions about the definition of art and the nature of conceptual art. It can lead to fresh insights into recent shows of conceptual art by Charles Ray and Yoko Ono, as well as old stand-bys like Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. Charles Ray's Puzzle Bottle (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995)It also suggests where the big questions go astray in the first place.

I shall argue that one must start to see conceptual arts, in the plural, because every work of art and every critical judgment imagine what if? So suppose I start off with questions. Um, hypothetically, that is.

I object!

Picture this exchange:

   — Imagine the smell of a cup of coffee.
   — But I don't drink coffee.

Pretty dumb rejoinder, no? A hypothetical question runs counter to the facts, like this one from Ludwig Wittgenstein (although the hypothetical answer is mine). One has to take it on its own, unreal terms, and that is that. Philosophers after Wittgenstein called such questions counterfactuals, and Einstein used thought experiments to develop relativity. I insinuated a further hypothesis just by picturing the conversation.

Counterfactuals should not therefore lose their strangeness. It depends. Try this one:

   — I mean, suppose you plant bombs at an abortion clinic. Someone is going to get killed.
   — But I am not planting a bomb.

Tempers have already flared. Or a nation wonders about the grounds for impeaching a president: suppose Bill Clinton told Monica Lewinsky to lie? The White House answers by angrily denying the premises. In his grand-jury testimony Clinton specifically objected to hypothetical questions about Lewinsky's dress. Still, in each instance, counterfactuals make it possible to explore real consequences.

Is it any different for an imagined work of art? Is the hypothesis any less valid? Plenty of people think so. They sense that works of art pack enough surprises to make unrealized works a very iffy proposition. The work could be "conceptual," seeming to dispense with an object, or an Old Master. The surprises keep coming.

But why? I shall argue that it has nothing to do with formal or spiritual perfection—the work's place beyond ideas and words. It involves, I believe, the same shared understandings and human conflicts that make counterfactuals so hot in politics. What matters is that realizing each work depends on mind games. All art is hypothetical, for it takes a leap of the imagination.

In fact, an overly familiar phrase like conceptual art can cover many leaps, from Dada to Ray's West Coast games and Ono's debt to Fluxus. Paradoxically, hypothetical works sound so strange because they are everywhere.

The hypothetical museum

The art market traffics in nonexistent works all the time, and one can see them with one's own eyes. Writers insert fragmentary novels into fictions. Broadway audiences for Art view a white canvas through the entire play. It destroys a friendship while pushing the boundaries of art, or so one believes as long as the play goes on.

Other hypothetical museums remain invisible, but the works still matter. Historians piece together careers by contemplating works that have vanished or changed irrevocably. Any visitor to Milan, in fact, can join the game. Imagine The Last Supper as it once stood for Leonardo da Vinci.

The hypothetical museum has some arcane entries, too, even for someone as familiar as Leonardo. The French shot to bits his colossal equestrian statue, just for target practice—before, I guess, they cornered the market on taste. Yet the work already had time to shape free-standing sculpture and the idea of a Renaissance man, an artist capable of any medium. Leonardo's Battle of Anghieri changed art, too, over a century after he gave up on the painting, when it influenced Peter Paul Rubens. Yet no one has seen it now for centuries.

In other hypothetical museums, real works go up on the walls. What if Michelangelo had planned government buildings for Florence? When Vasari asks, too late for the man he so admired to take on the task, he himself ends up designing the Uffizi. What if Caravaggio's Judith had taken the point of view of a heterosexual woman? Artemisia Gentileschi returned to that question in five explosive paintings. These artists relied on "what if" questions for bursts of creativity. By re-imagining the preceding generation, artists learn their craft, extend a legacy, and forge a career.

Philosophers play the same game, but in order to define art. Arthur C. Danto begins The Transfiguration of the Commonplace with half a dozen red squares. (He likes the example so much that it recurs in his weekly criticism for The Nation.) The paintings, identical in every visible respect, span about five hundred years. They range from Biblical scenes to abstract art. Has the Red Sea drowned the Pharaoh's army, or has Henri Matisse now set color free? It all depends on the work's origin and title.

Danto concludes that meaning matters. No formal distinction, he argues, can distinguish art from "ordinary things." Others may boast of a work's visual richness. They may speak of the oil medium or of esthetic realms beyond words. Nothing doing, he thinks. One cannot even pin form down, apart from the meaning it carries. Sometimes, viewers just see red.


Danto had been puzzling over indiscernible objects since he first saw Warhol's Brillo boxes. To a young philosopher of mind, back when esthetics seemed beneath serious discussion, the gallery opening was an eye-opener. I could make a case that Danto gets Andy Warhol wrong. I can also question his valuation of identical works and his hope to define art. Here, however, I want to set Danto's conclusion aside. I want to focus instead on his strategy, the hypothetical work of art.

I have already hinted at the charges against it. How can one state in advance what art will resemble? The very attempt, some have argued, destroys a work and its meaning.

Take my examples. The fragments of prose only hint at novels forever unread. The stage prop looks white, but surely it stands for a more provocative painting that one can only imagine. After all, galleries run along just fine, thank you, after decades of white squares.

Hypotheses are one thing, but they do not pay an auction house's rent. That takes art, in all its specificity. Any understanding of Leonardo's career should alter overnight if a lost painting turns up. Vasari's design for the Uffizi shows Mannerism at its greatest, but it cannot stand for Michelangelo's style. If Caravaggio could have seen through a woman's eyes, he would have been Gentileschi.

And exactly who guarantees six identical red squares—or even a single, fragile work's identity from day to day, as in installations by Richard Tuttle? Will even Christo guarantee 7,500 precisely identical saffron gates, after two weeks of wind and sun? Surely no one confuses the plain white squares from Kazimir Malevich and Robert Rauschenberg. Besides, abstract artists still stake their lives on the differences. They know that real Brillo can destroy their hopes by rubbing the surfaces down.

Fair enough, but hold on a moment. If only art were that simple. Together, Danto and his critics pursue modern art's ideal. Modernism looks through the plain sense of things, exposing hidden assumptions, ordinary experience, or even what Alberto Giacometti once called an invisible object. But is there more to art, even modern art, than that ideal? If only enough of it made sense in words or to the eyes. If only more critics, docents, and museum-goers respected both ideas and what they see.

Keeping art guessing

Danto and his critics have a lot in common. They know all too well what those red squares look like. Their assurance abuses the word hypothetical, and it requires circular arguments. To make his case, Danto assumes indiscernible objects. However, that assumes visible differences cannot explain art. To counterattack, one must insist on the differences. However, that assumes differences exist and matter.

Even if one side or other has credible assumptions, hypotheses just do not work that way. Danto allows simple statements, such as a title or year of origin, to distinguish works and to govern their meaning. That stipulates a rule for interpreting art: read the title. However, one then needs a rule to interpret the rule, as Wittgenstein noted, and what a chain of rules it would have to be! Digital art may claim to incorporate the rules, but it, too, in turn spins out metaphors of virtual realities.

A title can precede a work, before the act of creation takes its own course. It can follow the work, as a catalog enumeration or a lame excuse. It can carry irony, misunderstanding, or a charge. No wonder critics talk about the intentional fallacy—the mistake of looking past art for some conscious, momentary intentions.

Even apart from such puzzles, watch what real gallery-goers do. Titles do not matter half so much. As I ducked in and out of open studios and alternative spaces the other weekend, few of us stopped to read one—although on other days I rely no end on press releases and press kits. Did I miss the important stuff? Frankly, I doubt it.

If Danto's hypotheses sound suspicious, the counterattack only makes matters worse. It distrusts hypotheses too much. In reality, art's guessing games will not go away. One continues to recall artists' lives and reconstruct their intentions, and one cannot explain intent as shorthand for the finer visual evidence. When I compare Gentileschi to Caravaggio, I have made a useful interpretation. I cannot convert it to a finite set of statements about her paintings' physical traits.

One side grounds the interpretation of a work of art in a given, the artist's stated concept. The other grounds interpretation in the sensual nature of the art object, again placed temporally and logically prior to questioning. Both sides, then, use and deride hypothetical works of art, because they cannot pierce what Wilfrid Sellars, a philosopher, has called "the myth of the given": they ask for a place to enter the world—a place that may not exist. There has to be a way outside those traps. Do not just ask what hypothetical works of art mean. Look.

Conceptual arts

Philosophers get caught in habits, much like anyone else. One might say that they make a habit of counterfactuals. More seriously, they generalize from old habits within the art world, too. On one side lies abstraction as the end of art history: what you see is what you get. On the other lies chocolate-covered artists, politics, and sex. Danto and his critics naturally join the battle, because the habits illuminate specific works of art.

I cannot simply dismiss these habits as fallacies, but they only open art's guessing games. On the one hand, I want to drop all the hypotheses when they get in the way. On the other hand, I want to hypothesize more. I want to set artists and viewers free to imagine the possibilities. Hypothetical art, or art governed solely by words, sounds like a formula for conceptual art. I want to describe conceptual arts—in the plural and in the physical world.

Everyone agrees that art demands both looking and understanding. Everyone agrees that artists posit fictions and create works. Everyone therefore wants to find the connection between the two needs and the two urges, so that they can disentangle it. I want instead to ask about the connections, again in the plural, and how these change.

Sol LeWitt creates a kind of conceptual art when he provides only directions for finishing a drawing. He focuses one's attention on the apparent rule for generating the work and the rule's inability to cover the material affects or to structure one's experience. It is a pile of cubes, like a child's toy, but it always looks so chaotic. It is a set of chalk lines, but the square floats in front of the wall like an experience of pure color.

Duchamp created another kind—or more accurately, two kinds. Starting with the urge to create anti-art, he watched over the years as his objects entered museums. Dada had become appropriation, without his lifting a finger. A gesture of refusal had become a handshake, a term of mutual acceptance. A smart fellow, he seemed quite happy about it all, too.

Yoko Ono creates still another kind when she uses directions to make people see outside a work's frame. Other artists today are embedding words within the art object, like an illustrated book. Before I give Duchamp and Ono the space they deserve, though, consider the slippery case of Charles Ray. If art and ideas give trouble, Ray's conceptual art makes things worse. Try, for instance, to put a label on his retrospective at the Whitney Museum.

Reading the labels

I could call Charles Ray's work Minimalism for its spare form. At its best, it becomes one more part of the gallery. Yet Minimalism opens one's perception to changes in the environment, and Ray creates imperceptible changes. A motorized table spins infinitesimally slowly. A rotating white disk is cut into a white wall.

I could call Ray's work anti-art, like Dada, but its provocations need the public space and coldness of a museum. Mannequins of parents and child stand in a row, hand in hand, as an ideal of the American family. But all are naked, and all are the same height. This child has grown far too fast for comfort.

I could call it Fluxus, but it despises elegance and optimism. Like Luca Buvoli or Jonathan Schipper, Ray prefers casual clothing and an auto wreck. One row of sixteen photographs, a self-portrait, offers his "entire wardrobe." Come to think of it, how many shirts do I have?

I could simply stick with the label "conceptual art," but Ray is a man of few words and provocatively real things. Containers hold potently smelling ink. A chair, bisected by a pane of glass, seems to float above the floor. The greater the pressure he places on himself and his art to vanish into words, the eerier an object's physical presence. If an object becomes art by an artist's statement, it becomes a stand-in for something as crudely real as a person. No wonder Duchamp needed a urinal.

Conceptual art turns easily into cheap one-liners, and Ray's self-absorption hardly helps. Too often—way too often—he comes off as no more than smirking, when I prefer art with an open grin. Trying to imagine the otherness of a homosexual, he creates a sculpture of himself, multiplied madly in body casts, screwing. He loves the coolness of it all. He revels in self-exposure and sexual provocation without a trace of pleasurable emotion. In practice, one walks past it quickly, along with most other rooms at his Whitney retrospective.

Ray's art breaks down distinctions, however, and it shows why the distinctions are so long overdue to break down. Often one's very real perceptions of the work hinge on a title. Through a title one learns about the ink, in what looks like a solid black cube. Another apparent cube has distorted one's perceptions of the entire room. At least its title says so—32 x 33 x 35 by 34 x 33 x 35, its dimensions—and I believe it. Art traffics in the imagination, but in a sense Ray and art will never lie to me.

Conceptual art in the Renaissance

Charles Ray's retrospective illustrates the shifting idea of conceptual art. Even when his art relies on the object's uniqueness, its physical nature becomes a shorthand for multiple hypotheses, changing movements, and distinct leaps of the imagination. Even a denial of the art object depends on a leap at a moment in history. I mentioned that Duchamp's art has changed over time. Look again at the world's best-known urinal, Fountain.

A friend of mine hates insults to modern art, especially when they take the form of compliments. She despises anyone who respects Fountain for its esthetic qualities. Ah, those gleaming porcelain surfaces! Duchamp, she notes, explicitly attacked esthetic qualities. I agree, but I have a caveat.

Duchamp hardly picked a urinal for its beauty. We hardly value it because we desire it esthetically. He did, however, pick an object knowing what it would suggest. That includes not just the connotations of a toilet, but also one's associations with its physical being. He needed all of that, so that he could create a work of art by his very say-so, a work without esthetic value.

What an If. Neither half of the bargain came easily. On the one hand, Duchamp's just calling an object art would not necessarily have made it art. As I say, that would turn the work's title into a rule. On the other hand, even Duchamp has a surprisingly hard time avoiding beauty. Shock vanishes much too quickly. Let me take each half in turn.

Suppose Leonardo had called his chamber pot art. Would a contemporary have agreed? Would later generations? If that example sounds hypothetical, think of the pride people take all the time in their achievements. "It's a work of art," I say. Yet few of my interoffice memos have made it into the Modern. While modern art broke down distinctions between high art and design, any change in perspective can go only so far.

The chamber pot would have failed, whatever art means. For those who think it depends on a standard of beauty, Renaissance standards would have got in the way. For those who think art means certification from "the art world" and its social and historical institutions, the Renaissance art world would have objected. Someone like me, however, who accept no such rules, can still demand a pretty good reason to take something for art—or refuse to accept it as art—when the rest of the world disagrees. A Renaissance viewer would have found no good reasons to welcome the chamber pot. When I make a claim for something as art, I ask others to see it as art, including but also altering whatever they think of art, but not every person or every age will agree to make the leap.

Filling a niche

Perhaps I have loaded the scales with Leonardo. Besides welcoming design as art, Modernism has a high tolerance for sheer garbage. But it too represents a historical moment. Suppose that, instead of a toilet, Duchamp had produced a pile of dirt or a photograph of vomit. Would either have become art, a Walter de Maria or Cindy Sherman before its time? His choice was limited.

If creating art is hard, avoiding beauty is even harder. Capitalism is a harsh master, and it can absorb almost anything. Interior designers find beauty in things Leonardo would have thought horrible. Parents notoriously object to kids' fashions. Just saying that something has no esthetic value is no guarantee.

So it took a urinal to stand in relation to art as anti-art. It took a leap to refuse art and yet to enter the museum. That suggests, however, only the magnitude of Duchamp's achievement. I still have to argue how a urinal turned sideways did the job. One cannot just reverse standards and get away with it. One has to toy with those standards deliberately.

Did Parisians in search of "esthetic experience" expect art to be sacred, like the Christian mother in her niche? How about what looks oddly like a niche but is vacant? How about a niche for the absence of the holy? Were Duchamp to fill a urinal with something, it would hardly be a maternal gesture. It would start with his penis, no doubt the ultimate modernist device.

Does art fill the gaps in ordinary lives, like a fountain in a quiet garden? This fountain consumes liquid, and guess which kind. Did lovers of art expect a fine, polished surface? Well, here it is, and see what good it does them.

Of course, the physical qualities of Fountain do not tell the whole story. By Duchamp's time, words had an incredible impact, all by themselves, and so did the shock when they ran head-on into things. A gesture could remake and parody the artist's creative spark. I mean only to describe the particularity of Duchamp's creative leap. His initial audiences hardly found Fountain lovely. Rather, they found it hateful in no small part because of what it is.

Art as hypothesis

Art and ideas have one thing in common: they are hard to pin down. Art has a concreteness and precision that defies interpretation. Yet one has no recourse but words to tease out its meanings. Ideas, too, take on a life of their own, but clarity of thought takes art.

Look back at those distinctions, such as Minimalism and conceptual art. In different ways, they claim to have an answer to the same question: if there were a hypothetical work of art, what would it be like, and who would get to frame the hypothesis? They face different answers.

Many a painter cannot imagine hypothetical art. The moment words are unleashed, they know, art assumes a life of its own. For some rather annoying conceptual artists, too, a word or an intention can never be taken back. Shut up and listen.

Both are wrong. Hypothetical art is everywhere, only nothing like its hypotheses. Every work of art is a hypothesis, a fiction, embodied in ways that no one can ever expect. All art calls attention to fictions by which people pretend to live. All art is hypothetical.

Yoko Ono this year allowed one to join that leap of the imagination. Dada reveled in esthetic responses, like my amusement or disgust at a toilet, to refuse art. In a long career too easily dismissed, Ono has refused esthetic distinctions in order to create beauty. Her exhibition required a hypothetical leap simply to enter the room. In fact, I failed on my first attempt. I fell for a revolving door with no opening on the far side.

I felt trapped by my mistakes, and I do not mean metaphorically. At last I walked to the left, around the door, as if I literally had set the door aside. Alternatively, I could have used an opening to the right, the sort people put in their homes to let their dogs roam. (I recall, perhaps irrelevantly, that Ono made John Lennon act like a dog before reconciling with her.) It reminds me that J. L. Austin, the philosopher, spoke of performatives, of communication as action rather than text, and yet no one can predict the outcome of performance art. Accepting fictions includes getting hypotheses wrong.

The flying leap

When the Beatles were coming apart, fans projected the torment onto Ono. As a little kid I heard mostly about her primal screams. I have had trouble ever since understanding Lennon's meeting her—some years before Lennon and Ono collaborated on video. He described a show of hers as quietly liberating, a site of openness and exploration, and a pair of ladders like the one he climbed in an 2007 installation had much the same charm. If I had trouble fitting Lennon's silent experience into bad therapy as music, I had more trouble after Ono's previous New York show. There she displayed small, surprisingly elegant sculpture, and I liked it.

Her latest exhibition helps me get it together a little better. It also helps me reconstruct the sensibility of Fluxus. For all the rhetoric and all the elegance, it encourages one to put one's preconceptions aside and take flight. The gallery wall warns that one may never be the same. If that preciousness, thankfully, never appears again, the theme becomes more and more haunting.

Traditional frames for paintings are all over, but as still other doors. One is to be walked on, another to be looked through, another frames—or perhaps denies—the closure of a corner. The same room has inscriptions asking one to think past words like floor and ceiling. One can examine dozens of other frames, holding biomorphic drawings, through a telescope. I thought of recent work by Hanne Darboven or Matt Mullican, who also create catalogs of experience. How cynical they look compared to a sensibility formed thirty-five years ago.

Ono's sensibility has only grown softer over time, like the sculpture I had admired just a little too much. Perhaps for that reason, my favorite works on display date from the 1960s. One shows a mad kitchen, with appliances flying up into chaos. On the far side of a partition, a giant "magnet" pretends to explain it all. It offers a hint of causality and order, whatever they are, as well as a good joke.

Ono calls my other favorite Fly. A short stepladder stands in front of a small, white panel bearing the word "fly." The handwriting looks casual, probably in pencil. I could have stepped on the ladder to take off in flight, but the real flight comes from the casual landing of a speck on a painting. Fly.

Robert Rauschenberg said that he works in the gap between art and life. All art exists in the gap between physical object and human experience. That gap has a lot of room in it to play, and the result is changing games, styles, and interpretations. Art's leap of the imagination outraces even the promise of human flight. With Fountain or a stepladder, it can became hypothetical.

BACK to John's arts home page


Charles Ray's retrospective ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through August 30, 1998. Yoko Ono's show at Andre Emmerich ran through May 30, 1998. A closely related review—on a summer 2008 group show and a blogger's interview with Edward Winkleman—argues for the continued relevance of conceptual art. Other reviews tackle some consummate conceptual artists, including Lawrence Weiner, Barbara Bloom, and Dada. Related reviews take up Yoko Ono in the 1960s and in 2015, with "The Riverbed."


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