The Magazine

Weiner's World

The reductio ad absurdum of conceptual art.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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SINK OR SWIM YOUR ASS GETS WET is not an insight that gets you up in the morning. But in the rhetorical milieu of the graduate art seminar, from which curators emerge, it is an epiphany. It affirms the artist as a handmaiden to analytic philosophy, French phenomenology, and linguistic theory. But of course. A knitted brow is part of the pose, the only thing left once artwork has been scuttled for the analysis of it. The catalog locates Weiner in the company of Noam Chomsky, Jean Piaget, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Alfred North Whitehead, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Comparison with the sociologist Baudrillard and the psychoanalyst Lacan is unwittingly double-edged. The philosopher Roger Scruton, in a critical essay, has charged both with charlatanism, calling them impostors who abuse the terms of their disciplines "to deceive the reader into thinking that they are thinking when in fact they are doing no such thing." Weiner's role, like theirs, is to subvert the thinking of others.

Man is made for meaning, a communal achievement realized in concert with what used to be called natural law. Only when language is judged a product of arbitrary will rather than of cognition can it be "left to the viewer to construct meaning." The assent to intellectual anarchy, popularized in the arts, reached its apogee in Planned Parenthood v. Casey's famous defense of individualized deduction: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life."

Only the mad, quarantined by unshared, idiosyncratic conceptions of reality, suffer that kind of freedom. The privatization of meaning signals something larger than an art-world posture. Antirational, it thwarts the basis for making the distinctions on which decisions, aesthetic and moral, rest.

The resentment of rationality and of socially embraced patterns of meaning is the inadmissible subject of the Weiner retrospective.

Maureen Mullarkey writes about art for the New York Sun, the New Criterion, and other publications.