Doctor, If I think It, Is It Real; My Psychiatric Journey Through Conceptual Art

David: Doctor, I have trouble sleeping.
Doctor: How long has this been going on?
David: Since I was three.
Doctor: That’s a long time. Was there a traumatic event involved?
David: I guess you could say so.
Doctor: Yes?
David: Well, in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning.
Doctor: So something you couldn’t possibly have been aware of, at that time,
has traumatized you for 48 years?
David: Everyone said that was when my problem began. When I studied
Art History in college and found out about this work, eureka, the light bulb went on.

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing

Doctor: Explain.
David: You see I loved de Kooning’s work. Every piece I ever saw of his made my heart sing.
Doctor: Continue.
David: Well Rauschenberg, I mean I appreciated his work when I studied it, it’s significance, etc., but, I mean, he destroyed a beautiful thing just for the idea of it.
Doctor: So do you think ideas are better or worse than objects? Can’t an idea be beautiful?
David: You know, “cogito, ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am. I certainly believe an idea can change the world, make you soar. But ideas are different than objects, as in  traditonal “art.” They both can evoke emotion and knock over your associative dominoes. But they represent different kinds of  ‘beauty.”
Doctor: I feel that what you’re saying is not exactly what you mean.
David: Well, on the one hand , you have a beautiful object, say the de Kooning drawing, which is so pleasing and evocative to look at, and on the other hand, you’ve got what was formerly this drawing, put in a frame, after it’s been erased. I get the idea, but do I want to stand there and look at it after my initial astonishment? No. And, in fact, it sort of pisses me off. That of course, is a deep reaction, which “Art” can evoke. But if I want to get pissed off, I can just read the newspaper. I have ideas all the time. Some I’d like to foist on our politicians, some on the whole world, but I don’t put them in a frame and exhibit them.

Doctor: Your ideas  about what is art are infantile and bourgeois. Did you have a particular trauma when you were toilet trained?
David: Well, yes, in fact, I did.
Doctor: Go on.
David:  Ever since I was a little kid, I liked to pee. I was a bit of a bed wetter. So whenever I saw an image of Ducamp’s urinal, I had to run to the bathroom.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

I missed most of the lectures about him because of this Pavlovian response.
Doctor: And…
David: That’s all. Nothing more. Do you think I’m afraid of it?
Doctor: What do you think?
David: I get the idea that it’s all about context. And that’s interesting for a second. But as far as weighty thought goes, it doesn’t really draw blood. Ideas like freedom, enslavement, joy, transcendence, those really rattle around in your gut and brain. They can hit you were you live. Let me give you an example. Chairs, it’s really all about chairs.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965

Vincent Van Gogh, Chair, National Gallery, London

Vincent Van Gogh, Chair, National Gallery, London

Doctor: Chairs?
David: Yeah, one in 1965, the other in 1888.
Doctor: Go on.
David; Well you can see in the illustration, One and Three Chairs, by Kosuth. It’s a chair, a photograph of the chair, and a definition of the word, “chair”, and instructions . You see, the piece is different every time it’s displayed. The installer chooses a chair, has a photograph the same size as the chair placed to it’s left. The blown up definiton is placed to the right of the chair and aligned with the top of the photograph. It’s really very clever.
Doctor: You have a problem with clever?
David: Doctor, believe me, I do really enjoy clever. It’s implications engage me for a minute, I chuckle appreciatively to myself, and then I’m ready to move on. But if I really want to know from chairs, I look at Van Gogh’s. It hits me in the gut and stays there.
Doctor: I fear this is really all about the subconscious.
Do you see that?
David: Yes, exactly. It’s a deep itch that needs to bypass the conscious mind to be scratched.
Doctor: So what you’re saying is that for you there’s a difference between engaging your mind on a certain, maybe lower, shorter acting level, and a deeper, multi- level and multi-sensual cascade of mental and emotional reactions and associations.
David: Yea, sort of like Mozart, Beethoven, Cream, The Stones, Michelangelo, etc. It’s about the uplifting, the sublime, the everyday, the awful and tragic, but at a whole other level of response. And listen, I’m not afraid to tell you that I sing along everytime I hear the Monkees’s I’m a Believer.
Doctor: So for you , it’s this quality of aspiration that defines the value, nature, experience, and maybe even, the definition of art?
David: Doctor, you took the words right out of my mouth.

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26 Comments on "Doctor, If I think It, Is It Real; My Psychiatric Journey Through Conceptual Art"

  1. metscan says:

    So this is a conversation, you would have with you doctor ( shrink )? Interesting, original, not so much to the grass level I have had. But, maybe our problems are different too. Nevertheless, I enjoyed your post. Keep them coming, and my greetings to Kathy :) !!

  2. Nina Haritos says:

    Very clever and so well-written! Plus, it takes a very secure person to admit singing along to the Monkees!! Love it!

  3. David i enjoyed reading this so much.. your brillance shines through here. my question is, is an erased dekooning still a de kooning. and if not what was the purpose of erasing it?

    • David Leeds says:

      i don’t think it is still a de kooning. There’s nothing there any more, except an idea.
      not an image or an object.

      • tanja says:

        I think it still is a de Kooning. It is an object, image and an idea. A collaboration between two artists, where the goal for Rausenberg was to inspired other artists with the freedom of possibility that they could not find in Abstract Expressionist painting. I’m not sure what de Kooning goal was. Maybe it was a just a “crappy drawing” that still got him and his work a lot of attention. Brilliant!

        • David Leeds says:

          You are right, of course, in your analysis, but, it’s a different sort of activity. As Rauschenberg said in the video, He was not in de kooning’s league as an artist, so he took him on at a different level of enterprise. It’s certainly very clever, but for me, not very satisfying. I’d rather see a crappy de Kooning,
          than a clever art concept. I appreciate it, but it doesn’t nourish me.

          • tanja says:

            But than de Kooning dit give him the painting probably appreciating Rausenberg’s direction opening the dialogue. What if you are looking at a crappy de Kooning not knowing if it is a “real” or “fake” de Kooning. Will you still appreciate it?

          • David Leeds says:

            Whether I know it’s a real, crappy,
            de Kooning or it’s something else, my response will reflect what I see. All I’m saying is that my response to the Rauschenberg engages me only on a limited intellectual level. I would probably have a fuller response to an okay painting by an unknown artist.

  4. Laura Roosevelt says:

    David -

    This is so clever! I laughed out loud at least three times. But also, you made me think, deeply, about “what is art?” I think humor is often a great invitation to deeper thinking, it somehow makes deep thinking less intimidating. You totally nailed it here, in both ways.

  5. Lauren says:

    Absolutely love this entry. Clever and witty in all the right places!

  6. Kib Bramhall says:

    I was always pissed that Raushenberg did that, and I discuss it frequently with my own therapist.

  7. Eliana Delbuck says:

    Kooning and the Monkees – quite a journey through conceptual art!

  8. David, sorry to take so long to read this post, but very very busy with the maelstrom of things that matter less, on one level, than de Kooning, whereas on another level they matter an awful lot. As in they mean that I can pay the final bill that arrived today from RISD, from where my daughter will graduate next weekend, with her 2-year old sister will in the audience. I am scheduled to meet with a new therapist in June–first time in 19 years. I’m ready. My favorite art quote of all time:

    Willem de Kooning being interviewed about the New York School : “ya, ya, vee all loffed painting.”

    My favorite quote of all time:

    Gore Vidal: There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.

    By the way, anyone reading this should skip over and see David’s post about David Smith–reading it reminded me of how living above a hardware store framed the lens through which Jim Dine has always viewed the world.

    • nick leeds says:

      Very funny post. I’m on the fence. As an Anthropologist, I’m a big believer in symbols and can’t overstate their importance. Our world only comes into being through the meaning we ascribe to the abstract, mostly arbitrary symbols around us. If I tried to separate Rauschenberg’s idea from the object they might take away my pith helmet and field scrubs. As a consumer though, I prefer the De Kooning. It reminds me of something an Art History teacher of mine used to say, “there’s no way Mighty Mouse would beat Superman in a fight, because Superman’s a real guy.” It’s a good fight to watch, but De Kooning is a real guy. Either way, nicely done.

  9. edward jamieson says:

    you cant point to any old thing & say ‘this is art’. the curators & gallerists should not have fallen for duchamp’s joke

    • David Leeds says:

      This was like one of those long lines of pre-hominid species that never made it homo-sapiens. It distracted two generations of artists away from dealing with the real guts of human experience. ( And created more, “bogus”, art than any style in history.)

      • Mariela says:

        Hello, I´m a painting student from Argentina. I really liked this article and both these comments, it´s such a relief to find more people that think that Duchamp was just a fool… =)
        I´ve already read other of your posts and I liked them a lot! Thank you for being so not pretensious, and enjoyable to read! Liked a lot your sculptures too!!

        • David Leeds says:

          Thank you so much Mariela. I really appreciate your comment. Is there a site I can see your work on?

          • Mariela says:

            I only have some drawings and paintings on my facebook profile (Mariela Frias, from Mar del Plata) but they are old mostly, soon I´ll upload some new paintings wich I´m more pruod of, and let you know…

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard