Can a work of visual art be a list? In The Broad in Los Angeles, there is a painting by the Californian artist John Baldessari (b. 1931) entitled “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966–68”. On a white canvas, written in black capital letters, he writes: “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell”, followed by a list of three such tips, each item introduced by a black bullet point: artists are advised to use light rather than dark colours, choose a subject that sells well (such as still lives – but without any disturbing details – or nudes), and pay attention to the subject matter (bulls and roosters are better than cows and hens). Have a look at the picture here: https://www.thebroad.org/art/john-baldessari/tips-artists-who-want-sell
Baldessari’s list challenges our notions of art by presenting us with a list of rather absurd pieces of advice for aspiring artists. The absurdity increases if one learns more about the history of the painting and the origin of the list: it is a list, taken from an art magazine, which Baldessari reproduces here – only it was not Baldessari who reproduced it. Rather, he had sign painters do most of the painting. The painting is thus the product of a collective effort rather than the work of a single named artist. As a collective effort, “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell” thus undermines received notions of creativity, originality, authenticity, and authorship of the artwork – and I would argue that it is by no means a coincidence that Baldessari uses a list (of all forms) to act out his game with the viewer and the art scene.
There is hardly a form less ‘artistic’ than a list; triviality and practicality – or in graphical terms, surface structures and lines – have taken the place of colour, perspective, and depth. And yet, at the same time, the list exerts an immense power: it seems to be certain of itself; its clear and ordered form, here coupled with imperatives, make it hard to question its truth claims: that is, to even think that someone other than Baldessari may be the artist – or the executor of the artist’s idea – or to doubt that the text is his own. Thus the list form also allows for concealing authorship, for masking who is pulling the strings behind its order and content.
When Umberto Eco curated an exhibition in the Louvre in 2009 entitled Le vertige de la liste, he explicitly took ‘list’ to encompass visual lists. By that, he understood, in a very broad sense, the depiction of masses, assemblies, or collections, that is, scenes of totality. Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (c. 1500) would be an example of a visual list in Eco’s sense, as are Rubens’ “Fall of the Rebel Angels” (c. 1620) and Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962). In these cases, the list becomes figurative; it is a figure of thought, a term for certain principles of depicting accumulation in quite different contexts. Baldessari takes the list form in its most basic sense; the artwork is a series of phrases – or rather a list has taken the place of a work of art. The list, on the level of its content, projects future artworks and thereby, through the list form, takes away everything that is artistic, creative, original. It is paradoxical, of course, that Baldessari’s list has been understood as an artwork from the very start, and it is this paradox that makes the painting so suggestive.
The very same clashes between our notions of art and the list form’s seeming triviality and lack of artistic potential also provided the basis for two other list-related artworks: the Australian artist Kenny Pittock created a series of ceramic reproductions of actual discarded shopping lists he collected from a local supermarket; his work, from 2016, is entitled “Fifty-Two Found Shopping Lists by People Who Need Milk” (have a look at it here: https://www.bunjilplace.com.au/fifty-two-found-shopping-lists-written-by-people-who-need-milk-by-kenny-pittock ) for which he also won a prestigious art prize ( see e.g. here: https://www.broadsheet.com.au/sydney/art-and-design/article/redlands-prize-28-03-2017). And in 2017, the British artist David Shrigley installed “Memorial” in Doris C. Freedman Plaza in New York at the south eastern entrance of Central Park. “Memorial” honours the mundane and trivial: it is a shopping list, listing items such as crackers, peanut butter, yogurt, tampons, and Aspirin (https://www.publicartfund.org/view/exhibitions/6116_david_shrigley_memorial). Pittock and Shrigley use the list form to mock our expectations of art by inviting us to reconsider our expectations of what is and can be ‘art’; of what could be creative, poetic, original, exemplary even; of how to defamiliarize the familiar – and therefore not only make us see our everyday lives anew but also question our own creative potential.
Can lists be art? Think twice when you make your next shopping list.