Sol LeWitt and the Soul of Creative and Intellectual Work

I won’t get there until the summer, but I’m already looking forward to experiencing the Sol LeWitt retrospective at the always entertaining and often thought-provoking Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MASS MoCA. (For previous thoughts provoked by MASS MoCA, see my post “The Artistic and the Digital.”)

For those who can’t make it to the retrospective—and really, you have no excuse, since its limited engagement runs through 2033—the museum has just put online a terrific website for the retrospective (one that exhibits many of the principles of good design, including the use of small multiples):

The site also has mesmerizing timelapse films showing how some of the giant works of wall art were created. This being LeWitt, the works were of course created not by him but by a team of (sixty-five) artists, including many students. LeWitt died last year, but his wall drawings were always made in this way. He “merely” created the plan for a wall drawing; others carried it out, and most of the works at MASS MoCA have been produced multiple times, on walls of different sizes and in different contexts.

Among LeWitt’s many innovations was this utter disdain toward a particular instance of a creative or intellectual work. The “artwork” was not what was on the wall (or the many walls a specific design had been placed on); it was in the ideas and feelings the artist had and the communication of these ideas and feelings to the viewer. The notion of a nicely framed work of art, a work of art that gained its value from its trappings or price or uniqueness, seemed hopelessly traditional, sentimental, and superficial. It missed the point of art.

My thoughts naturally turned to Sol LeWitt and the lessons we might learn from him as I mulled over the future of books and music this weekend. On an interesting listserv I’m subscribed to a debate raged about ebooks and the joys (the heft, the feel, the smell, the cover) of physical books; at the same time, the New York Times lionized Gabriel Roth, who is recreating classic soul and funk by eschewing digital technology and who speaks of the joys (the heft, the feel, the smell, the cover) of vinyl records.

My musical tastes happen to run toward classic soul and funk, but even I can’t help but feel that in Roth’s yearning for “real” vinyl and that rare 45 and book lovers’ similar idealization of hardcovers and that rare edition there isn’t something odd going on that LeWitt would have instantly recognized and scorned: the fetishization of the object rather than its underlying ideas, a nostalgia that improperly finds authenticity in packaging.

When Gabriel Roth tells Cliff Driver, a 75-year-old keyboardist, to replace his electronic Roland with an upright piano, Driver calls him “an old, traditional type” and the Times reporter notes that “Driver and his peers would just as well leave [such analog sound] in the past with their Afros and bell-bottoms.”

The soul of soul isn’t in the vinyl; it’s in the talent and creativity of its makers. The soul of books isn’t in their format; it’s in the ideas of their authors. Sol LeWitt understood that.


Holly Moir says:

Well put! I agree with your points about the MASS MoCA site, and I also can’t wait for the Sol LeWitt retrospective. I read that the exhibit will be spread across a dozen reclaimed industrial buildings, which were abandoned and converted to art spaces. I love this idea of reclaiming abandoned spaces, both at MoCA and closer to home at the Lorton Workhouse, which has been converted to an arts center from a prison that was closed in the 1990s. I like this idea both for the aesthetics of the exhibition space and also because it allows us to re-use buildings in a manner that is more responsible regarding conservation and waste issues.

Speaking of unnecessary waste, it is unfortunate that all year Americans and residents of other developed countries generate massive amounts of waste, yet especially at this time of year with the holidays upon us, I find myself questioning both our national identity and personal identities. What is it about Americans that so many of us feel so entitled to so many material goods and possessions? Why do otherwise sane individuals associate the holidays with an orgy of spending and expect an inordinate number of gifts, rather than, for example, helping the less fortunate? It seems products are increasingly associated both with individual and group identity, and this worries me in large part because my dissertation will concern Consumerism, but also because we have a crisis of misplaced values in which goods, rather than symbolizing a quality, have increasingly come to replace those qualities. Thus good parenting is replaced by buying children piles of “educational” toys, and feelings of community are fostered, not by helping our neighbors with yardwork and other chores, but by competing over which house can display the most holiday lights and the most impressive holiday display, complete with life-size neon Santa and reindeer. So forgive me if I sound like a grinch; it’s not that I have a problem with goods per se, just the scale on which goods are valued, and what they have come to replace in the larger culture and popular consciousness. In this holiday season, I feel that calls for greater humanity and less greed should not go unheeded.

Anyway, this brings me back to my larger point about your blog. You are exactly correct to write about the “fetishization of the object rather than its underlying ideas, a nostalgia that improperly finds authenticity in packaging,” and this relates to LeWitt, vintage vinyl, physical books, and Consumerism generally. Thank you for being a voice of reason and remarking so articulately that “The soul of soul isn’t in the vinyl; it’s in the talent and creativity of its makers. The soul of books isn’t in their format; it’s in the ideas of their authors.” This is true for any cultural product: the concepts and ideals expressed are what we should value, not the material goods themselves. Thank you for sounding a note of restraint in this holiday season, and also for helping me realize that if I continue to contest the current levels of Consumerism, I should try to get used to e-books and the like, as they have the potential to move the culture away from this unhealthy obsession with objects, and toward a more meaningful relationship with the ideas behind the goods.


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