In 1971, John Baldessari wrote the words ‘I will not make any more boring art’ over and over on the sheets of a notepad. The punishing performance—captured on videotape for the world to remember—lasted 31 minutes and 17 seconds. Some might say it was a bit boring. But what followed were more than five decades of outstanding, versatile and witty artistic work which distinguished Baldessari as one of the world’s most influential Conceptual artists. He died on 2 January 2020.
In the days since his death, the tagline ‘no more boring art’ has turned into a trending hashtag and defiant catchphrase among his mourning fans and followers on social media. It is this particular piece in his vast portfolio of work that seems to capture people’s hearts and minds. But what is it that makes boredom such a divisive, emotional topic in contemporary art?
John Baldessari’s ‘I will not make any more boring art’ was originally conceived in the context of an invitation Baldessari received to exhibit his work at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Due to a lack of funds which would have allowed Baldessari to travel to Halifax, the artist instead wrote a letter to the college which included instructions for the piece. He suggested that the students or some other ‘mercenary’ who may be induced by a payment of fifty dollars should write on the gallery wall ‘from floor to ceiling… one sentence under another, the following statement: I will not make any more boring art.’ The piece was intended as a ‘punishment piece’, a kind of symbolic gesture of sacrifice and repentance. Much like Christ who died for our sins, the surrogate should stand in for Baldessari and take upon their shoulders the artist’s sins.
Baldessari’s dedication to repentance and sacrifice was not just empty talk. Mere months before the commissioning of ‘I will not make any more boring art’ he had hauled all the abstract and landscape paintings he had created between the years 1953 and 1966 to a San Diego funeral home and burned them to ashes. He never looked back, soon establishing himself amid the burgeoning conceptual art scene in the US and going on to redefine what it means to make art.
The significance of ‘I will not make any more boring art’ for Baldessari and his career is hard to deny. Baldessari revisited it again and again. After its original inception as a performance and installation at Nova Scotia College, the work was soon turned into the afore mentioned videotape, a lithograph print and even a wallpaper. As late as 2010, Baldessari was asked to recreate the work for the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of their exhibition Off the Wall: Part 1—Thirty Performative Actions. The question of boring art clearly mattered. But why?
Boredom is generally defined as a negative, unpleasant emotion. We feel bored if we are stuck in a situation that does not offer us optimal levels of stimulation. This may be because there is nothing to do or look at, e.g. if we are stuck in an empty windowless room by ourselves. But it could also be that what is available is not relevant or comprehensible to us, e.g. in a lecture on higher maths. Our natural response is to want to leave the boring situation—either physically by trying to sneak out of the room, or mentally, by starting to daydream, pulling out our phone or chatting with our neighbour.
It is difficult for us to focus on something that is boring to us. Even if we try our best to keep paying attention, our mind starts to stray and wander off. Before we know it, we are in the middle of going over our shopping list or making plans for the next weekend.
Boredom is a powerful force that relentlessly drives us away from its source, a kind of reverse gravitation which is nigh on impossible to resist.
Viewed in this light, boring art appears not only as slightly annoying but utterly pointless. It will repel its audience, making it impossible for anyone to truly see the work. After all, any sustained contemplation of it will merely end up in a detailed plan for next Saturday’s lunch with the in-laws.
But this view of boredom in art is only half the story. Baldessari’s ‘no more boring art’ can be contrasted with the view of Andy Warhol who famously declared ‘I like boring things’ and whose 1960s film works can only be regarded as a celebration of boredom. He is not alone in his appreciation of boredom. The contemporary American philosopher Alva Noë even goes so far to declare that ‘art is valuable only in direct proportion to the degree to which it can, or might, bore us.’
The point made by Noë and Warhol is that art doesn’t always have to be nice. Art may be difficult and challenging—indeed, most art that matters is difficult and challenging. Not because it is boring or non-boring but because it invites us to look at the world anew, to take a different perspective and reconsider what we think we know. This view was shared by Baldessari who believed it was the job of the artist to ‘jump-start the mind’ of audiences, to make them see afresh what they might have looked at a hundred times already.
Pulling audiences out of their comfort zone and confronting them with new ideas and new viewpoints comes with a risk. If the work is too shocking, people may want to look away. If it is too foreign, people may not understand it. If it is too different, people may not accept it as art. Boredom is just one of the emotional responses we might have in the face of art that challenges our preconceptions. We might not understand it, we might not know where to look, what to look for, or how to engage with it. In each of these cases, boredom is a perfectly natural response. But it would be wrong to reject this art as pointless merely because we are bored by it. Instead, we might take this as a reason to look again and look more closely.
Often, the reason we are bored in the face of art is that the world outside the gallery has increasingly become a high stimulation environment. We are so used to the constant competition for our attention which plays out on our streets, in our homes and on our screens that art galleries may appear to hold little to capture our attention. In this context, art that refuses to go along with the attention arms race may turn out to be the most challenging of all. Like most good art, it forces us into a different, uncomfortable position from which to view the world. But once we assume that position and let the noise die down, there is no knowing what powerful new insights we might find.
It is easy to get bored. It is much harder to stay with what bores us. But if we dare to stay and dare to view the world from that different perspective, it might truly jump-start our minds. Baldessari obviously knew that, why else would ‘I will not make any more boring art’ be so very boring to watch and perform?
Annie Runkel is a poet and artist based in Glasgow. She is also a PhD researcher at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee where she investigates the role boredom may play in the making and reception of art. You can find her on Twitter @Boredom_Project.