PRINT February 1973

Some Splashes in the Ebb Tide

I don’t know if it is my star that is on the wane or an entire constellation that is dimming.
—Carl Andre

WORKDS OF ART REMAIN AFLOAT on a sea of words. Those refractory facts, art works, are launched into the treacherous currents of language with its sudden undertows, backwaters, and shifting mainstreams. Works will sink out of sight, cause ripples or even occasional tidal waves. But this trackless, navigational nightmare is not without direction. For below, silently at work, is that force which waits for no man: the tidal pull toward judgment which assigns to works a certain coefficient of power measured in terms of cold cash and those slippery verbal chips to be redeemed for a piece of history. Duchamp’s balanced equation of work and audience is here somewhat expanded by marine metaphors: the work and its coefficient of power are mediated by the tides and currents of the spoken, the written, the read, and the heard. To attempt a broad oceanography of the recent art enterprise would involve more than a plotting of the superficial profile of power found in the converging and interfering wave fronts of language which swirl around art. For one must also take account of those less visible currents which surge below the surface. There one finds the forces of unspoken attitudes and strategies flowing beside the undercurrents of linguistic presuppositions. If directionality can be located only at certain depths, the intended picture is one of shifts and surges below open water. And if to employ such metaphors is to risk continuing in the worst tradition of art writing—from Focilion’s forms unfolding like giant, relentless ferns in a Bergsonian swamp to Kubler’s electrical genetics of mutating primes and replicas—the risk is here sustained by the optimism that the historicism underlying the former metaphors is absent in the present hydraulic hyperboles. It can only be hoped that any sparks of Vitalism do not survive the liquid environment. In any case, perhaps it is preferable to risk being lost at sea if the alternative is to be incarcerated in structuralism’s iron triangle of the culinary.1

Obviously art discourse itself is not confined to those surface articulations of critical expressions. Beneath this visible face on discourse lie the extensive sets of mental procedures and analytic methodologies, the shifting thresholds of relevance which in turn mask value judgments which are themselves so deeply embedded in the sediment of historical beliefs. Only the briefest plotting of currents and dredging of sediments will be attempted here.

At its incipient, undifferentiated level, discourse is little more than a form of gossip, constantly anxious and shifting. And like gossip at its depths, it probes perplexities and searches for insecurities as much as it nominates heroes. If energized by a restless, antipoetical itch to rationalize, a greedy mental orality, a fear of loneliness reaching out for perpetual reunion, a constant repetition of reassurances in the face of threat, an endless appetite for that understandable hero, it is also compelled by a need to reduce all experience to what can be discussed across a table. But talk as mere talk is the most unstable of trivialities since it can suddenly accelerate to such great density, initiate such profound consequences. Perhaps that contradictory, palpable immateriality of the unspoken constitutes discourse at its most political and most powerful levels. But there are also levels of language which interpenetrate such incendiary potentialities to either pass by or become absorbed by the undercurrents of power. For discourse is also, at each level, a working out of a particular form of knowledge. Perhaps each springs from a different anxiety. An anxious major task of art’s discourse over the last half-century has been to mediate and rationalize constant change and sameness: holding in suspension the individual identity of art facts as a sequence of shattering disjunctions while at the same time delineating their family resemblances in a casual, hereditary, genealogical series. Art’s vague claim to a mythical status resides in the maintenance of this contradiction.

If the identity of art facts is singular and that of discourse communal, this does not mean that discourse is given shape by unanimity. More usually it receives its shape by a slow resolution of conflicts: the opposing opinions of colleagues in an ongoing process of challenge and answer. Yet underlying agreements and assumptions are necessary—the most important of which are those epistemological ones at the sedimentary, not fully conscious level where even questions on the overall worth of the enterprise do not stir the mud.

But in what relation does this discourse stand to the art facts—those curious productions in themselves which seem with their first appearance to be already halfway suspended into language? Even when most objectlike they seem incapable of retaining the dumb, dense energy of things. They take on the nature of signs the minute one becomes aware of them. And art facts seem to contain the dual power to both generate and destroy speech. For as they call speech out from its own domain it seems on approach to melt and merge with art facts, to become hallucinated and entangled, losing its ability to surround and separate. On the other hand, speech seems almost to flow from art which reflects language as much as light. Yet discourse is neither passive nor dependent, and its history is partly the history of ideas. Ambitious system building is involved. Efforts to erect monuments of material art are matched by equally looming structures formed out of the antimatter of commentary. And that art facts and discourse are at some fundamental level in deadly opposition cannot be denied: the former most usually dedicated to impulses beyond rationalizing, the latter committed to absorb by ever higher levels of abstraction every expressed art fact—to say nothing of exercising its ego-demolishing, ranking hierarchies. Yet the two are locked in symbiosis. Pulses of energy and ideas pass between the two: a dialogue which both incapacitates and sustains.

Conceivably it is our agreement about causality which not only orients us in the world, but puts the majority of people on what is believed to be the outside of a fence isolating them from others, called insane, who have more idiosyncratic views on the matter. If a sequence of events in proximity never established causality for Hulme, nor even resulted in his confinement, no doubt his enormous equanimity would have enabled him to bear what historians have not. Thus torrential, if shifting, mainstreams have so often been perceived by the larger number of critics who would have us take them as being on the outside of the fence. Those who see merely eddys and ripples where torrents should be are considered to be documenting not the fluid surges of art’s direction but merely the disturbed electrical storms within their own heads. For, without doubt, a tidal undertow has informed most art discourse: a rational, deterministic, and progressive mainstream of history connects the art facts which are borne along. By virtue of the fact that they are seen to move in one direction their differences and their discontinuities are allowed, the twin properties of interruption and flow mediated. Most art discourse has, in one way or another, subscribed to this Hegelian oceanography. Of course, it is to the text of modernism that one must turn for its most comical and even fascistic aspects. There that grim, flatfooted, numbing catechism of the linear, the inevitable, the developmental, the immediate, the concrete, the irreducible, and the self-critically dropped pieces of abstraction provide a full-blown caricature of this defense against the discontinuous, the merely sequential, and most of all, against the unnecessary.

Within a society so guided by the mechanistic values of Pragmatism an enterprise claiming to aspire to the nonutilitarian needs a ready rationalization for its existence. And if art has not been very willing to admit that it serves classes or institutions but seeks for itself a separateness, then the assertion of a historical necessity by a dialectical unfolding within its own internal development is, if not justification, at least a strong excuse. A less politicized need for a rationale of dialectical necessity emerged from abstract art’s strenuous efforts to rescue its status from that of the merely decorative. That is to say, it must, besides being rife with esthetic qualities, signify something beyond its existence as mere object. In short, it must assert its power as a sign if it is not to collapse into what Levi-Strauss called the status of a “signifier without a signified.” The only avenue abstract art ever had to significance led to and away from history. But a work could bathe in the historical mainstream and frolic in its bubbly significance only by demonstrating dialectical clout. A dialectical profile of necessary moves has notarized the significant in all advanced art. In effect then the mainstream was not only an inevitable torrent but it also virtually stopped and started forward again within the space it took to nominate the next necessary masterpiece. A threatened and dramatic notion of a current, to say the least. And one which was kept in motion by the most elaborate mastery of a system of verbal locks, levels, tributaries, etc. The force of the mainstream was alternately seen as unstoppable or, like the old movie serials, saved from imminent drought by the next dialectical cloudburst of an individual breakthrough: necessity was claimed both ways.

The conversion of a sequence of past events into a series of dialectical steps confers on the past more than directional progress. At the root of hypostatizing differences into thesis and antithesis, oscillations and contrasts into contradictions, lies the desperate, animistic compulsion to deny the contingency of man’s acts at all costs. The uses of the past to illustrate the shape of art’s change as a coherent progression informs all recent art theory. Institutionalized memory remains the primary mythical arena, dominated and terrorized by the inadmissable suspicion that time passes the more or less random processes of cultural change rather than receiving the impress of evolving systems.

The process has its political and economic basis as well, for all theories of art’s recent history are also theories of scarcity in which a given “line” of works and people are posited as the significant one. Continuities can be established by building a Kublerian sequence of generative influences: primes, traits, replicas, etc. The game of building a dialectical line allows for rationalizations of more discontinuities—in fact, it demands them. Which way one works backward into the past is not so much of consequence as is the maintenance of agreed-upon exclusive nodes along the line: only a ratified few can occupy the line. One of discourse’s major tasks is to see to the maintenance of exclusivity. A requirement for these few is not so much that they create a single, unique work but rather that they produce by repetition or slight variation a large amount of one kind of thing: a kind of “modulated” scarcity suitable for the present distribution systems. The latter feature is further mediated by those rankings of “quality” within such a spread.

If modernism was merely the narrowest text in recent art discourse, the historical mechanics of progress through self-critical, dialectical redefinition is ubiquitously called upon to account for the abundance of those disjunctive stylistic shifts which have been going on since the 19th century.2 It might be asked whether in recent years such thinking has been confined to mere rationalization. Perhaps it even achieved the status of literally embraced doctrine. For a kind of self-conscious critical thought informs those moves which came to be known as post-modernism. Perhaps what explained programmed as well—a case of those pulses passing the membrane of commentary to animate the waves of production. As formal permutations within the classical modes of painting and sculpture reached the saturation point of critical inquisition their imminent transcendency had been for some time in the program. Once that quantum shift consisting of the substitution of modes or formats for formal moves occurred, once the so-called dialectical game was played with proliferating formats as moves rather than the permutations of forms within formats, a certain compressed tension, previously bound by the enclosing classical modes, deflated. Deploying into the front ranks of action that critical method which had been discourse’s instrument for keeping score in the battle was the first of three broad strategies which served to bring a somewhat militaristic, half-century-long campaign to an end. For this particular strategy of converting the critical into the active had more than the ironic consequences of demolishing an oppressive discourse with its own methods. Something was being stirred in those sedimentary layers and muddying the waters.

The dawning of crisis frequently comes with a loss of innocence. Art’s innocence went with having to give up a certain historical naïveté concerning the necessary. And as claims to a deterministic, dialectical tide began to recede into ideology, so did the claims to meaning for that large enterprise the discourse had kept afloat: abstract art. A flooding pluralism—from Conceptualism to body art to all kinds of performance and documentation—surged over the intricate system of necessary historical locks, past reservoirs, deep channels, and rights of way. If, at the time of occurrence, any of these new modalities claimed dialectical necessity (and Conceptualism was the only one to articulate such a claim), their initial tidal waves soon subsided to ripples. So too did much that had previously gone on within the classical confines. A trivializing of art, in retrospect, was a consequence of pluralism overthrowing linearity, for the sense of the inevitable becomes undermined, historical claims to. necessity which anchor signifieds be- come absurdities. What was previously stiffened by a militaristic dialectic suddenly collapsed into mere individual expression. Actions previously sustained as critical moves began looking like so much production. Certain suspicions of programs of economic expansion replaced those of glittering historical conquest. Something had come loose in the anchoring of art discourse and that looseness, felt almost as a vacuum, was discourse’s inability to embed art facts into the reassuring authoritarianism of history. Art’s recent history collapsed into ideology.

Animating a pluralism of modalities, however, was an underlying commonality of means which might be termed the strategy of automated making. While it has not been very emphasized it seems important to recognize that this gradual, pervasive development of the automated came to infect so many areas of art and to join in the mutual task of undermining the heroic. Frank Stella3 initiated some of the first of these structuralist strategies by converting the process of painting into a system of picture-making in which the arbitrary and incremental are abolished in favor of compulsory development. The weight of the art act is thereby shifted from judgments about termination toward decisions for initiation. The a priori idea hovers over and informs the work. Unlike the ideological levels, in the process of making, the inevitable and the necessary are both mocked and underlined. If the shadow of Duchamp clouds such acts, it also shades even the earlier work of Pollock’s from a different angle. For every noticeable act of American art which emphasizes the strategies of making passes through this shadow to learn from Duchamp’s uses of processes and materials. While the art of the ’60s set systems in motion by the a priori, it was not until Conceptualism that the work ethic was surrendered. Making then looped back to close a circle initiated by the Readymade which had employed the ultimate method of the a priori: choice alone. If these strategies of the a priori lead back to Duchamp they touch only the operational areas of his work. With the exception of certain obvious iconographic references there have been few efforts to mine the semantic levels of that oeuvre.

The subsequent passage of relevant making strategies from painting to sculpture in the mid-’60s had primarily to do with the expansion of this making behavior into the increased possibilities offered to the body in three dimensions. The move from virtual into actual space involved also the annexation of a number of readymade technological forming processes to replace hand forming. The body’s manipulation of things—or the identifiable extension of its work potentialities by simple technologies—intersected with actual space, time, and gravity to expand definitions for self-regulating and self-competing making systems. The strategy moved into a number of modalities, each of which played a variation on this structuralist theme of surrounding a given process with systematic developmental rules to produce wholeness and self-completion. This strongly phenomenological strategy of activities seeking natural limits, regulations, and closures through the release of what was systematic in that alignment between the properties of actions and the physical tendencies of a given media seemed to know neither rest nor fatigue, traversing as it did object art, Process art, all kinds of documentations of nature and culture, and all kinds of performances including music. Perhaps it is finally tailing out as narrative proxy in film where the final use of this self-referential device to compress form into content will expire. Certainly it is time it was retired. Undoubtedly its waning is bringing to a close those discreet risks known as formal innovations, although its exhaustion may be incapable of stemming that running high tide of formalistic productions.

If the making process once seemed to have all the notches of the handmade, that holistic phrase with its sequential nodes of idea, process, object, perception, and critical reevaluation, Stella’s strategies in the striped paintings compressed the phrase, rendering irrelevant both process and reevaluation. Not only was his painting thereby driven toward a constructed object but the making phrase itself had been made highly visible by this short-circuiting strategy which was as abbreviated as it was systematic. Later Minimal work, being more fully three-dimensional, was not subject to the contradictions inherent in driving a flat image into the status of an object. But if its phenomenological examination of a type of making which considered real space, materials, and undisguised shop-type forming amputated no steps in the process, its very deliberate directionality—toward ever more dense objects—confined to invisibility everything in the making phrase which had to do with time. Did those subsequent branching formats of the late ’60s punch through the classical modes of painting and sculpture, and can their motivations be ascribed to programs for splitting the obdurate object along the laminated seams of those facturing strategies which generated its density? Or was it more a matter of seeing and using what had been left out? For art since Stella had called attention to the subtracted and unused even as it emphasized the systematic. Perhaps Leo Stein-berg’s seemingly astute observation that American art strove to replace love by work falls somewhat short of the mark.4 For American art has been revealed, little by little since World War II, as an extensive horizon of behavior—not work—in which any given realization touched but a few nodes on a vast expanse. Perhaps neither workmanlike delamination nor dialectical transcendence was required to get at these nodes. One entered at any given point. Each node opened as a separate strategy—from Conceptual, to Process, to body action, to the critical. Possibly neither the blind forces of cultural contradictions nor the alienated belligerence of art “workers” need be called on in tracing the proliferating currents of recent art modalities. Perhaps a certain analytical intelligence, available even to some artists, was at work as they reached out for the obvious options.

And as the making phrase diffracted into its separate parts, the artist began to face his activities in a different direction. If art previously had something of the character of an act taken against the world, or more accurately, against the world once removed by the isolation of the studio, it ceased to address itself to that lonely situation of rehearsal where the individual act was adjusted and finalized for subsequent presentation as communication in a gallery. Armed with an ever more tightly wound sense of the a priori, the artist turned more directly to address his audience, to release his plan energized by this or that self-completing system without the need for rehearsal. Moving closer to his audience, the artist finally seized the act of transmission itself as subject. Objects, in one form or another, still mediated but with all the transparency that linguistic, photographic, or personal presences could provide. No doubt Vito Acconci’s Seed Bed achieved a kind of ultimate transparency and directness of transmission by requiring the audience to assume without proof his behavior and to fill in its contours with their own fantasy. The transmission of fantasy is possibly the ultimate reduction of the mediating object and the most inclusive use of audience. At this point the audience becomes both the artist’s subject and his object.

The third set of forces eroding the foundations of art as a heroic enterprise are less distinct, more pervasive, more subtle, and even contradictory. For these forces have their locus in the very support systems which made modern art such an illuminated chunk of the culture. The mediation of discourse is, of course, one pillar in this support. The unwinding of those formalistic features—from the abstract formalism of painting in the early part of the century to the verbal formalism of Conceptualism today—served as a perfect comfort to a middle class willing to pay for a spectacle of nonpolitical risks. Art provided reassurances that creativity was not only safe but that its monuments were bound to atrophy and perish outside the protective incubation of the various supports guaranteed by that middle class. And if art discourse wished to assign revolutionary characteristics to this long march, could not those comfort stations of the esthetic be found at every point along the route? Art constitutes the only totemism of the bourgeoisie. It alone conjures up the only transcendent objects to be had in the midst of faceless valuables. Needless to say, the producer as well as receiver is governed by this totemism of the magical product imbued with the magical, comforting act. Mediating the rituals of exchange was one of the functions of discourse with its gentle nudges, its slightly opaque signposts, its beckoning promises of adventures, and its accompanying superstructures of justification. Its myriad voices blended into a soft humming which regulated as well as rewarded, sustained while it saturated: a surrounding background presence of gentle voices. In short, discourse articulated an environment of class commands so inclusive as to appear directionless. Over the last half-century advanced art has been expanded by media and enlarged museum programs and proliferating galleries to become both an extended market place and cultural byword. It has been a safe, contained spectacle where one could watch the critical turn constantly back on itself where it might not only harmlessly “purify” itself but finally transform the critical itself into those production values under whose banner now swarm the legions of SoHo.

But if discourse reveals itself now as little more than a reflection of class commands for production or collective ideology of historicism, if art itself is pulverized and diffracted, and if other support systems convert art at every turn into entertainment and investment, what can be expected to arise from the blasted horizon of the art enterprise? Could discourse reconstitute itself? No answer. It appears demoralized. Impotent to usher art out of the cultural anterooms of the decorative, it oscillates between hysterical, but half-hearted attempts to prop up one more hero and sour dismissals of large blocks of related works. At its most positive it occasionally launches one more unneeded, safe historical text on some artist too well established to involve any risk. Discourse founders and no longer knows what it is supposed to mediate. If art facts always had an individual identity, that identity could only be ratified by the communal affirmation of discourse on the basis of family resemblances. The bow of discourse toward related works was a gesture of control, a nod for exclusive entry. In short, it was a political act—and one so often and so tiresomely made by condemning one type of work, or even one individual, in order to moralize about the virtues of another. Certainly no act of discourse has been an encouragement for freedom. And discourse is now at a loss with such an expanded horizon, with the plethora of individual expressions, modalities, and forms so often abandoned after a single use. Perhaps also threatening now is the slight rise in the coefficient of personal content, since what has been coherent in art discourse for a half-century has been at the expense of avoiding semantic levels. Confined to mediating the syntax of form, discourse has primarily articulated a grammar of visual lumps.

But perhaps demoralization is not total. Perhaps some see a certain hope in the possibility that art might yet undergo a seismic shift at its bases of social place and function. Only then could a coherent art arise. Such an art might be less closed, less self-involved. Given certain shifts in function such an art might be less anxious to deliver an “experience” unique unto itself. It might be an art less concerned with individual icons, less concerned about productions than with services. In short, an art might yet arise which would be less about individual expression and more about public environment. Public, environmental art has been a subject of continuous discussion as an alternative to the kind of individualistic art which has predominated in the modern era. William Morris, Mondrian, Léger, and the Bauhaus took up the question in various ways. But can it be imagined today? Do its beginnings reside in dispensing spray cans to every subway rider? Or perhaps larger and finer public parks will usher it in. Certainly more abstract monuments burdening the landscape could not stir that hope. But if the imagination falters, the speculation raises a further question. Perhaps no social value can now be assigned to art in any of its forms. Any expectation or hope for coherent art which would be broadly based in the culture is completely deluded. Art’s present collapse is merely the result of overextension and nothing can be slipped under this to shore it up. And, finally, what remains the least comforting and most interesting of facts about art is its unneededness: that indissoluble grit of its arbitrariness which is left over after all of the justifications and uses have been made for and of it. Perhaps art deserves no more support than it can manipulate for itself. If its discourse now sloshes back and forth causing a kind of tired flood in the support systems which come to look more and more like old MGM lots, one might expect art to sink below the surface to reappear or not reappear elsewhere. Or, perhaps it won’t. sink but will continue to float around, soggy, bloated, and malodorous.

It has been said that the uses and transmissions of signs and things constitute culture and sets man apart from nature. And if man’s survival was based on these means, he nevertheless, exists wrapped in their alienness, homeless with his powers. It seems that until now art has served, in one way or another, to soften or temper the harshness of these means, to find access within them which would either 1) lead back to nature or 2) where subversion could be worked on them in order to reduce their strictly pragmatic, operational instrumentality. If the former effort was toward a reclamation of intimacy, the latter was toward a reduction of alienness. This is not to say that art functioned to naturalize culture and culturalize nature. It would seem rather that art was involved in a contradictory contraction away from both polarities even as it occupied them. For if art tempered the servile instrumentality of culture, its moves toward nature were not unmediated affirmations of some unconscious propensity for onement. For this would have been a pull toward a loss of identity and art until now has been completely at the service of underlining man’s identity. If art occupied these polar areas of perplexity—culture’s instrumentalities and nature’s rawness—it was an occupation for resistance, not collaboration. It was through this resistance, made within that particular space provided by art, that man returned to himself. Through this double refusal he reconstituted himself as a transcendent agent free of the dictates of either nature or culture. If this was a form of self-flattery these heroic refusals have a long tradition stretching back to the Renaissance.

In this drama of continuing Humanism, the abstract object proved to be a final and most serviceable totem, for it combined the density of physical properties found in nature with the animistic projection that all things must, somehow, speak to man and bear signs which only his humming discourse could unlock. Abstract art perpetuated the heroic picture because it allowed man to pull toward himself the impenetrabilities of things and the transparencies of signs in a single contraction. Nothing sums up this attitude better than those bombastic expressions, Earthworks. Slightly mutated off the family line of sculpture, they perhaps represent the terminal acromegaly of abstract art in which a kind of Wagnerian geometry is imposed upon the vegetable and the mineral.

If the Readymade was at the time of its appearance an intense denial of the instrumentality of culture, the repetition of cultural appropriation as a method for producing art was just the opposite—an acquiescence to the cultural and an abandonment of personal refusal. (Duchamp obviously knew this when he “limited” the number of Readymades he would produce per year.) By means of a number of different modalities much recent work appropriates both natural and cultural processes. What is judged as a lack of nerve, as a flaccidity and weakness in such work, is precisely its deliberate abandonment of heroic refusals. This is not to imply that the strategies of these various modalities either grew, step by step, out of the Readymade, or even that the Readymade was the first manifestation of a larger, inevitable structure. Either assertion involves the kind of historicizing to which objections have been raised. On the whole the sort of dredging operation attempted on some of the now fading attitudes and beliefs concerning the heroic and the historic, together with the attempt to plot a few of the flow patterns of some recent developments, has not been a diachronic, developmental effort. Rather a converging of complementary and even contradictory forces, a collection of related attitudes, a seeping and spreading of strategies have been sketchily charted as interpenetrating currents.

First eased in as aiding techniques in the classical modes, self-completing strategies now find their emancipated realizations in so many linguistic, documented, photographed works which appropriate the structural features of either culture or nature. With this emancipation has come a fundamental shift at the bases underlying the making of art. The former negating, inward contraction of the nature culture extremities as an assertion of transcendent individual identity gives way to the agreeable embrace of either polarity. The artist as journalistic antihero ostensively locating his art replaces the Romantic artist who would draw his art out of himself as he resists absorption by either nature or culture. This new personality cuts across the need for a responsive discourse not only because he frequently uses language itself as means but because he does not produce transcendent objects in need of language’s mediation.

A phase of art ends. It foundered partly on the contradictions of a negating, critical enterprise transforming itself into one of bland production. Its success was its undoing, the notion of “professional artist” is a contradiction in terms for any avant-garde position. Other corners of the edifice crumbled because the underlying epistemology of the accompanying discourse was so rotten with historicism. What seems most to have ended is a kind of discourse for which there now seems to be no need. Art has by no means ended, only transformed itself to a position of adjustment and accommodation. Polite to a fault in dispensing its services, aware of its modest skills, it moves with all that quiet self-assurance which knowing and accepting one’s place confers on actions. It is true that there is not silence surrounding this work. There is still language, some of which speaks for the work, pleased perhaps to at last relax; some speaks against it, out of nostalgia perhaps for the old Sturm und Drang. But there is now no discourse which need speak to the work. Perhaps discourse as a communal text formed out of competing and complementary but related readings of art cannot form in the present environment of pluralities of expressions and a lost historical faith. Or, conceivably, the kinds of generalizations which would mediate and forge the apparent pluralities into a coherent text have not yet been made. If the former proves to be the case, discourse will perhaps transform itself—losing much of its former political power in the process—into a collection of divergent, personal appreciations and commentaries: a prospect as doubtful as it is hopeful.

––Robert Morris



1. Jack Burnham’s The Structure of Art has been the only attempt at coherent art theory within the last few years. It always seems as risky as it is attractive to extrapolate from other disciplines. Structuralism as a methodology came of age in its application to static phenomena: first in the synchronic investigations of the phonetic side of language and later in nonhistorical anthropological investigations. Given the apparent fact of change itself as the major characteristic of recent art, the suitability of a structuralist methodology might be questioned. Certainly it is as questionable as to whether its binary categories give any more access to the fundamentals of either art or the mind than would the claims for more complex innate formal or syntactical programs made by structuralism’s major critic, Noam Chomsky. For if Chomsky emphasizes the “creative” aspects of language over static categories, there seems little in his methods—as he himself asserts—which could be formed into keys to other enterprises of the mind (if the phrase does not overly elevate the art endeavor). Because a number of enterprises—from athletics to art—involve signs, symbols, codes, and rules, does it follow that such endeavors are, therefore, “disguised” languages operating according to either a displaced syntax or semantics which make them open to a direct linguistic analysis? The components of a “semiology” of such activities may be so far from the sorts of complexities found in language that there can be little expectation for a congruent structure.

2. Rapid stylistic shift as a description of historical events implying sequence is questionable. It might have been formulated otherwise: since a multiplicity of art activity can be found at every point in the recent past, it is perhaps discourse itself which is involved in “rapid shifts” as it moves from designating as important first one group of related works and then another.

3. Simone Fort: in her “dance constructions” and “rule games” of 1960 was one of the first to begin programming chance and choice in the areas of performance. While her work was extremely influential on dance of the mid-’60s, it has received little attention.

4. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York, 1972, p. 60.