frits bless starts his talk at the symposium held at schloss buchberg in 1979 asking a straight forward question "what is the artist doing?" the answer is cut short in the following excerpt of the talk's transcript: there is no such thing as the practitioner 'or' the theorist, it needs both. scientists with ties to the visual arts, aesthetics and mathematics were invited to discuss the then current state of the discourse together with artists—many of them part of the gallery's program.
only when people had their business in both fields, can we find a really fruitful combination
what is the artist doing?
a rudimentary sketch.
i. anyone wanting to have a clear idea about theme concept and content in art, has to have first an idea about art and more especially about the practice of the artist. for, to define what theme, concept and content of science mean, we must know what a scientist is doing. therefore i prefer to speak about the problem of theme, concept and content by trying to formulate an answer to the question: what is an artist doing? to make this question less complex i shall discuss only the visual arts, i.e. painting, sculpture, and what has arisen from it during this century.
a lot has been thought, and written about art. in fact the ancient greeks were already interested in the inner nature of art, which was for them more or less synonymous with beauty. since the renaissance even more has been written. this is not astonishing if we mention that at that time the artist as humanity in its totality became aware of his individual existence, and also of the special character of art. in this thinking and writing about art we can, i think, distinguish two different kinds.
first there are artistic theories which were and are mainly formulated by artists. their principal concern were artistic problems, such as color, form, material, reality, and closely related to them and their themes and concepts, the inner nature of art.
the second category, the theories on art, were and are formulated principally by philosophers, art historians, critics and so on. these theories were talking in general terms about the inner nature of art, about such things as aesthetics f. e., and about what i call classifications or styles, problems of judgments, etc. both kinds or categories have a quite different starting-point and although they have mutual interest and influence, they are often difficult to combine.
only when people had their business in both fields, can we find a really fruitful combination. but nearly always we are confronted with a gap between the two positions. perhaps this gap is partly caused by the fact that the thinkers of the second category, the theory of art, did not really formulate the practice of an artist, or: they were not interested enough in the question: what is an artist doing? this resulted in a series of theories on art in which the artistic theory was not so much a starting-point, as more some kind of auxiliary, a reference. [...]
frits bless, 1979 (excerpt from "what is the artist doing?" in "theorie und praxis der konstruktiven kunst heute" (vienna/buchberg: exakte tendenzen, 1979), 17-18. translation from the original german by robert b. roger, 2021)