1960 –
Age of Post-Colonialism

Nauman's The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths

Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, neon and clear glass tubing suspension supports; 59 x 55 x 2 inches, 1967Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, neon and clear glass tubing suspension supports; 59 x 55 x 2 inches, 1967 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Bruce Nauman’s neon sign asks a multitude of questions with regard to the 
ways in which the 20th century conceived both avant-garde art and the role of the 
artist in society. If earlier European modernists, such as Mondrian, 
Malevich, and Kandinsky, sought to use art 
to reveal deep-seated truths about the human condition and the role of the artist 
in general, then Bruce Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing 
Mystic Truths questions such transhistorical and universal 
statements. With regard to this work, Nauman said:

The most difficult thing about the whole piece for me was the statement. It 
was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you 
believe it. Once written down, I could see that the statement [...] was on 
the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. 
It's true and not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it 
and how seriously you take yourself. For me it's still a very strong thought.

By using the mediums of mass culture (neon-signs) and of display (he originally 
hung the sign in his storefront studio), Nauman sought to bring questions
 normally considered only by the high culture elite, such as the role and function of art and
 the artist in society, to a wider audience. While early European modernists, 
such as Picasso, had borrowed widely from popular culture, they rarely displayed 
their work in the sites of popular culture. For Nauman, both the medium and 
the message were equally important; thus, by using a form of communication 
readily understood by all (neon signs had been widespread in modern industrial society) and by placing this message in the public view, Nauman let everyone ask 
and answer the question.

While it is perhaps the words that stand out most, the symbolism of the spiral (think of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1969), also deserves attention having been used for centuries in European and other civilizations, such
 as megalithic and Chinese art, both as a symbol of time and of nature itself.

Theosophy in interesting in this regard, and since was such an important aspect of the early European Avant-garde. In 
particular, Theosophists believed that all religions are attempts to help humanity
 to evolve to greater perfection, and that each religion therefore holds a portion of 
the truth. Through their materials, artists had sought to transform the physical into 
the spiritual. In this sense, Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky sought to use the 
material of their art to transcend it: Nauman, and other of his generation, did not.

Instead, Nauman’s work transgresses many genres of art making in that his work explores 
the implications of minimalism, conceptual, performance, and process 
art. In this sense we could call Nauman’s art “Postminimalism,” a term coined
 by the art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, in his article "Eva Hesse: Post-Minimalism into Sublime" (
Artforum 10, number 3, November 1971, pages. 35-40). Artists such as Nauman, Acconci, and Hesse, favoured process instead of 
product, or rather the investigation over the end result. However, this is not to 
say they did not produce objects, such as the neon-sign by Nauman, only that 
within the presentation of the object, they also retained an examination of the 
processes that made that specific object.

In this sense, Nauman's neon sign isn’t only an object, it’s a process, something
 that continues to make us think about art, artist, and the role 
that language plays in our conception of both. The words continue to ask this of each beholder who encounters them. Does the artist, the “true 
artist” really “reveal mystical truths”? Or confined to the 
specific culture that it was made in? If we are to believe the statement (remember, it is not
 necessarily Nauman’s, he merely borrows it from our shared culture), then we might, for example, recognise Leonardo 
da Vinci as a Neo-Platonic artist who showed us ultimate and essential truths through painting. On the other hand, if we reject the statement, then we
 would probably recognize the artist as just another producer of a specific set of 
objects, that we call “art.”

This type of logic and analytical thinking was influenced by Nauman’s reading
 of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953).
 From Wittgenstein, Nauman took the idea that you put forth a proposition/idea 
in the form of language and then examine its findings, irrespective of its proof or
 conclusion. Nauman’s “language games,” his neon-words, his proposition about
 the nature of art and the artist continue to resonant in today’s art world, in 
particular with regard to the value we place on the artist’s actions and findings.

Text by
Jp McMahon

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