PRINT March 1973


Art & Language

Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Harold Hurrell, Joseph Kosuth, Art & Language (Cologne, Germany: Du Mont, 1972).

Quadruplicity drinks procrastination.
—Bertrand Russell

Despite the rather thrasonical aspects of the “air-conditioning” situation, it might be said to siphon off as a protasis for an inverted Eurekaism.
—Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin

It is appropriate that to speak of Art & Language is to immediately get entangled in a word confusion: Art & Language is the name of a group of artists whose main activity is the publication of a journal titled Art-Language; the members of the Art &Language Press involved with the book were Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Harold Hurrell, and Joseph Kosuth. If this is a book review, and it probably is at least in part, it is a review of a book titled Art & Language, which is an anthology of the group’s writings. In light of the commitment of Art & Language to logical analysis, it is ironic that decisions involved with reading this book, such as whether to continue reading it, are essentially of the same type as decisions involved with reading the writings of acknowledged metaphysicians. That one is faced with such decisions is immediately apparent as soon as one begins reading, and the decisions are made on the basis of whether one anticipates a reward commensurate with the struggle that obviously lies ahead. Or, more simply, is plowing through so much intentionally obscure writing going to be worth it? Remarkably enough, the book has been translated into German which, according to some semantic philosophers, is evidence that the book as a whole, and individual paragraphs and sentences, have meaning, but such theories of translatability have their own rather serious problems.

To read Art & Language is also to read a dictionary, unless the reader is the sort of person who already has one memorized. For example, in the sentence by Atkinson and Baldwin quoted above, “thrasonical” means bragging or boastful; “protasis” is an outmoded, rarely used logical term which refers to the antecedent of an implication (that is, the “if” part of an “if . . . then . . .” sentence); and “Eurekaism” is understood as “Eureka” with a suffix. Certainly these are but questions of style in a sense. But within what I gather to be the basic aims of Art & Language of presenting some sort of philosophical analysis of art theories and art questions in general, the use of so much obscure and exotic language constitutes a genuine problem not only by leaving the meaning of specific sentences in doubt, but also by leaving it doubtful whether they have meaning at all. Their sentences tend more toward being models for questions of theories of meaning (as Russell’s syntactically correct but meaningless sentence is such a model) than being sentences capable of setting forth or examining any such theories. Here the question comes up of whether I am writing a book review or a review of an artwork, for it is possible to consider the writings of the book as a model for theories supposedly contained within them, generally analogous to the situation of art objects as models for art criticism and art theories. The questions in this case would be of the type: How do objects become symbols, that is, how do objects, in this case words, take on meaning, and how does meaning exist? This type of questioning is not different from that which occurs in much of what is more easily thought of as artwork. But if this were an accurate reading of the intentions of Art & Language, then they would be subject to their own criticisms of other artists in terms of conceiving language as an extended form of the art object, a conception which Atkinson calls “mundane in the extreme.” To consider Art & Language as asserting theory as artwork is similarly to subject them to their own criticism of Robert Barry’s work, that is, of simply introducing new entities within the art framework for ontological questioning. But this is not a fair criticism of Barry or of Art & Language because it simply misses the point. Atkinson writes: “There is an attempt in Art & Language Press work to go for the contextual questions not the object questions.” In this light, if they are replacing art objects with art theory rather than asserting art theory as extended art objects, they run into other problems, but not uninteresting ones. Here we encounter perhaps the most interesting and puzzling of ontological questions, similar to Russell’s antinomies, which is: Is the framework itself included as being within its own framework? Or, more simply: Is the art framework itself art? Andthis is essentially the question posed by Art & Language, though for all the plowing I’ve done through their writings, I have not discovered anything like a clear examination of this question. Art & Language seems to want to go further than the question and assert not only that the art theoretical framework is art, but that it is the only significant art. Here we have as self-referential a system as any system is likely to get; this amounts to saying that all that is significant within the scope of the art framework is the framework itself, which is to say that the framework is a framework only for itself. Here we might imagine a set of parentheses “(”, “)” which bracket only themselves and are their own parenthetical expression. But certainly this case is a peculiar use of the word “expression.” For when a framework is a framework only for itself and including only itself, then it becomes questionable whether the framework is a framework at all. To try to reduce the problem to a less entangled sentence, when art theory replaces art, then the theory ceases being a theory of art or of anything else, and in a sense (though not a strict sense) ceases to have meaning. There can be theories about theories, and theories about nothingness, but what would it mean to have a theory that was not about anything? Would there be any reason to insist on calling it a theory? By another approach, when art theory replaces art, then art theory simply becomes art in the same way that the art replaced was art, and we are back to the introduction of a new kind of entity into the framework, i.e., Duchamp’s urinal introduced into the art framework as art.

As the members of Art & Language are allegedly artists doing art, it seems irrelevant to their work as art to discuss Art & Language as a book or as a collection of writings, but it is, after all, a book and a collection of writings. For all their insistence on philosophical sophistication and rigorous logical analysis, Art & Language on the whole is a philosophical mess. In philosophy, failure to clarify ordinary language is generally disastrous but failure to clarify exotic language is unthinkable. The soundness of philosophical theories and analyses is contingent on the precision with which the language is used, and it is no surprise that many philosophical problems are the direct result of nothing more than the careless use of language. This is why questions of style are not in this case a matter of quibbling. It is curious to notice that the philosophical writings which are constantly referred to and are the source for much of the writings of Art & Language are not at all difficult to read. The reason is fairly simple: the philosopher’s problems are difficult enough without his willfully compounding and obscuring them. Finally on the subject of the careless use of exotic language, it should be pointed out that Kosuth does not indulge in this offense. Occasionally, Atkinson doesn’t either, for example, in “From an Art & Language Point of View” which proves that it is within his power to write in a straightforward manner.

The other major philosophical offense in Art & Language is the frequent use of argument from authority, that is, using the remarks of philosophers to support an argument, which amounts to saying “X is true because Y says so.” This is a patently fallacious form of argument which would probably horrify the philosophers used as authority; X may be true, but if X is true, it is not because Y or anyone else says so. A confusion that occurs commonly in the Art & Language writings is the confusion of arguing about the way art is discussed as if that constituted an argument against a given artwork or body of artworks. And there is a similar confusion which results from a failure to recognize the differences between art and science or language. Analogies can be formed between art and language, but to infer a proposition from propositions about the nature of language is not to infer a proposition about art, even though the inferred propositions may coincidently hold within the analogy. The analogy is made more tenuous when it is understood that most of the questions about the nature of language are still unsettled and most linguistic theories are in dispute.

Generally, that an artwork dealing with philosophical concepts commits serious philosophical offenses is irrelevant to the work as art. In this sense, it is irrelevant to Art & Language when Art & Language is considered as art. What compounds the problem in this case is not only their insistence on their own philosophical sophistication (they are obviously well-read), but also their harsh criticism of other artists for lacking philosophical sophistication. This is most evident in Terry Atkinson’s extremely severe criticism of Robert Barry’s work in “From an Art & Language Point of View.” Referring to Barry’s work Everything in the unconscious perceived by the senses but not noted by the conscious mind during trips to Baltimore, during the summer of 1967, Atkinson writes:

Therefore the two components [conscious and unconscious] of the first half of Barry’s assertion constitute the tritest tautology, and the assertion itself could have supplied exactly the same information in either of the following two forms . . . (p. 156).

There are several misunderstandings here, not the least of which is the fact that Barry’s work is not even a grammatical sentence (it has only a subject, a nominative clause, but no predicate). Therefore it is not an assertion, and it makes no sense to speak of it as an assertion of information, for it asserts no information. Barry’s nominative clause names a category and specifies, however ambiguously, the criteria for inclusion; the ambiguity is obviously relevant to Barry’s intention, and what would be included in the category is precisely the question Barry’s work raises. Further, the conscious and the unconscious are not necessarily a situation of p or not p, and therefore, there is no reason to assume that whatever is perceived by the senses is either in the conscious or the unconscious, and not both. (For that matter, there is nothing to say that whatever is perceived is in either the conscious or the unconscious, as we have no way of knowing what was perceived but not retained in either.) Obviously the words “conscious” and “unconscious” can be defined as an exclusive disjunction, but such a definition is problematic; words like “mind,” “conscious,” and “unconscious” are metaphors of the vaguest kind, and as such, do not lend themselves to logical analysis. Finally, as tautologies say nothing but only exhibit their form, all tautologies are trite in the same way, and there is no point in claiming more triteness for one tautology than another. Atkinson goes on at great length questioning what kinds of things Barry means, why Baltimore, why that summer, etc., and criticizing Barry for not making it clear. Ironically, all the questions Atkinson raises as evidence that Barry doesn’t know what he’s doing are exactly the questions Barry intends his work to raise and precisely the Conceptual problems Barry is trying to uncover in the work. It is as if, in his determination toward philosophical sophistication and logical analysis, Atkinson never noticed or thought about the intent of Barry’s work. Even more remarkable, however, is Atkinson’s “pinpointing” of Barry’s “weakness”:

It seems likely that here one can pinpoint a possible crucial weakness in Barry’s method. The statements are simply not long enough to extrapolate the possible notions he is concerned with; if they were longer they would probably alter the notions. It is obviously possible to nominate these statements as works of conceptual art no matter how short they are; it is quite another thing to assert them as significant works of art, or to assert them as evidence of Barry being a significant artist (p. 162).

In these terms, it is possible to consider whether Art & Language is doing nothing more than fulfilling their own prescription for Barry, that is, the writing of statements “long enough to extrapolate the possible notions” they “are concerned with.” If this is so, there is an obvious question of what these notions are; and after laboring over their writings, I can say only that they seem to be concerned with providing a theoretical justification for getting rid of the object paradigm in art, which is to say, getting rid of the habit of thinking of art in terms of objects. And this concern seems to underlie all their cumbersome, elusive theorizing, thick jargon, and references to philosophers. But as Atkinson grants that Barry’s statements “no matter how short” can be considered as works of Conceptual art but not as significant works of art, we can question what prevents significance for Barry’s work that allows significance for the work of Art & Language in their own terms, presuming they would assert their work as being significant. If brevity is Barry’s weakness, is lengthiness Art & Language’s strength? That seems a peculiar criterion for significance for Conceptual art or for anything else.

Probably I would not complain about Art & Language so much if I weren’t so interested in the possibilities that seem implicit in what they’re doing and in their generally philosophical approach to art and what gets said about art. It seems to me that their work is loaded with problems, but the problems are new ones, and that makes them interesting.