Half a century ago, Lawrence Weiner noted these conditions for the work of art: The artist may construct the piece; the piece may be fabricated; the piece need not be built.
At the time, this was taken as a manifesto for conceptual art, but in retrospect its implications seem much broader. Well before 1968, there were many artworks that were never made and yet exerted a powerful fascination. Among these were some that were created, not by people who are known as artists, but by novelists, philosophers, and film makers, among others: people who needed artworks to think with or to think about and therefore had to conjure them with the means they had at hand—not unlike the artists who needed artworks that did not yet exist and conjured them by their own rather different means.
Every artwork has to be imagined before it is made, and every artwork that’s made only takes effect in someone’s imagination, where it may continue to unfold even long after it has been lost to sight.
One way to think of some of the imaginary artworks that have been proposed by writers, philosophers, and directors is as thought experiments—“devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things,” as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it. When in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981) Arthur C. Danto imagined several visually identical but differently titled red monochrome paintings, for instance, he’d invented fictional artworks as a thought experiment. Likewise, when Robert Smithson proposed “concrete abutments that supported the shoulders of a new highway in the process of being built” and “a pumping derrick with a long pipe attached to it” as among the monuments of Passaic in his famous 1967 essay, he was conjuring imaginary artworks as a form of thought experiment, just as Robert Morris would do in his 1971 article (or is it a short story?) “The Art of Existence” when he described the works of nonexistent artists Marvin Blaine, Jason Taub, and Robert Dayton. (When there are fictitious artworks, there can also be fictitious artists, fictitious galleries, critics, museums, and collectors—entire fictitious art worlds.) And in William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions (1955), forged paintings become tools for thinking about many forms of fraudulence in contemporary life.
But the tradition of the imaginary artwork is far older than that. Perhaps it begins with the shield of Achilles, that wonder of ancient artisanry, as described in the Iliad. And Homer’s account of it served G.E. Lessing, in his Laocoon (1767), as a great how-to for art writers: don’t try and render an image through a static word-picture, but describe it as a process.
With all this in mind, I invited a number of writers, poets, artists, and philosophers to tell me about the imaginary works of art that have been important to them. One of the things that struck me in the results was how attached so many of us today remain to the “modern classics” of the nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth—European writers like Balzac, Zola, Wilde, Proust, Woolf, and Kafka still define for many of us the conditions of art and art-making. These are the myths we live by, to borrow Mary Midgley’s phrase. Or maybe it’s just that the images that stick with us are the ones we internalized when we were younger and more impressionable; my idea of the poet will never be other than that of Jean Marais frantically transcribing the phantom broadcasts he hears over a haunted car radio in Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). But still, I’d have expected more citations of recent writing: novels such as Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014), Katherine Faw’s Ultraluminous (2017), or Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions (2018)—or, a bit earlier, Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star (1996), Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (1998), César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000). Whether or not you’re interested in novels, you might wonder why novelists are more interested in art now than ever. And artists too are still imagining works they may never need to make, fictions that still leave their mark.