PRINT May 1973

Things and Theories


MUST A WORK HAVE STABLE and material and formal characteristics in order to be acceptable as ‘art’?” Charles Harrison wrote in 1971. To Harrison’s question from a catalogue essay supporting the “British Avant-Garde”1—one immediate post-Conceptual art answer is no, not necessarily. It might be added, however, if a work uses other than “material and formal constituents” it simply is a different kind of art from one that does. To assume, as the question and the essay implies, one is more meaningful than the other, that a theoretically orientated art like Conceptual art is the same or displaces a practically orientated art like object art,2 is only to confuse the nature of theories with things.

Harrison’s question highlights a minor problem of the art of the late ’60s which now promises to be the most urgent of the early ’70s—the relationship of object to Conceptual art, or as one might say the issue of “things and theories.” Whereas it’s true to say a characteristic of recent art has been its questioning aspect, Conceptual art has taken this position to a reductio ad absurdum—the questioning process itself attempts to replace what is questioned. Conceptual artists in their enthusiasm to reinvigorate the flagging intellectual bases of the visual arts, to give precedence to concept over object, have merely confused theory with practice. This enthusiasm climaxed recently in the stance of artists who not only declare visual art practices like painting redundant, but also claim theory as its meaningful replacement.

Conceptual art is, in fact, a history of the confusion of theories with things, a confusion which is unique to the visual arts. Other disciplines, science and philosophy for example, recognize essentially different kinds of theoretical and practical concerns—theory seen as trying to understand, and practice as trying to alter the empirical world. In striking contrast, there is the contemporary art scene. Contrary to scientists and philosophers, Conceptual artists appear to recognize no distinctions between practice and theory. The variety of theoretical inquiries posing as practical objects is bewildering. But, such poses can be loosely divided into two categories: the largest and better known occupied by those artists who might be said to deviate from the norms of object art, and the lesser known by those who question those norms.

Groups who deviate from the norms of object art, like system, process, earth and body art with artists like Hans Haacke, Jan Dibbets, Michael Heizer and Vito Acconci attempt to rid the world of what Harrison calls cultural objects with “stable and material and formal constituents,” and to replace them with an extraordinary range of non-stable, nonmaterial and nonformal processes and procedures. For example, as Hans Haacke prescribes it, “The working premise is to think in terms of systems, the production of systems, the interference with and the exposure of existing systems.” He recently presented documentation of controversial real-estate transactions as a system and as art. “I’m more involved with the process than the finished work of art,” affirms Dibbets, who displays serial photographs of the process of moving and altering the camera. Ian Wilson goes one step further by just being available at the gallery talking about art! He says, “I present oral communication as an object.”3

Perhaps the clearest statements from the second category of artists, who question the norms of art, can be found in the texts of artists whom for convenience I call art theorists: those Conceptual artists who, in different ways, give priority to verbal theory over visual practice, artists like Keith Arnatt, Art-Language, Victor Burgin, Joseph Kosuth and John Stezaker. Consider the astounding statement of a 1972 advertisement for the English Conceptual art journal, Art-Language:

Art-Language is a journal devoted to the publication and development of a body of discourse on the theory of art. . . . It is assumed, for the moment, that broader concerns for the relevance, function and importance of art can more usefully be served by this means than by the production of further art objects.

Art-Language’s intentions here are fairly clear. Although their purist theoretical position has an escape clause in the phrase “for the moment,” which allows them a return to the making of objects if the “importance of art” decrees, the group exemplify the confusion that “art discourse” is not only more important than, but can actually take the place of art objects.

What appears to be Art-Language’s deliberate confusion between theory and practice is reinforced by the writings of Joseph Kosuth. Kosuth takes the jargon of metaphilosophy and applies it to art: “At its most strict and radical extreme,” he writes, “the art I call conceptual is such because it is based on an inquiry into the nature of art.”4 This, of course, is exactly what metaphilosophers say about philosophy, but most agree that “meta” means transcending, not usurping. Kosuth apparently doesn’t.

Evidenced by numerous exhibitions and recent writings, such examples from both the “deviant” and “questioning” arenas of Conceptual art are not atypical. To usurp traditional visual norms like painting and sculpture, Conceptual artists endeavor to replace all circumscribed object-making, on the one hand, by processes and procedures, and on the other, by discourse. Paradoxically, by playing up the theoretical side of art, by asking questions about the nature of art, Conceptual artists have not only called into question the norms of object-making, but also the norms of Conceptual art itself.

Conceptual art conceived as a culturally dynamic art, oriented to change and innovation, and object art seen bound by cultural horizons set by its tradition, is fast proving a dissatisfactory dichotomy. With “deviant” antecedents going back 50 years, and “questioning” ones going back four or five years, the gloss is off Conceptual art sufficiently to see its conception of the object tradition is too narrow. It can now be seen that frameworks, like painting particularly, are not simply obstacles to change, but are essential frameworks for creativity. Whereas the cultural dynamism of Conceptual art has propelled it to a stage for which it is completely unsuited, namely, practice.

It is my contention that all Conceptual art functions not only differently but poorly as object art. Whenever theories attempt to replace things, inevitably they function badly as both things and theories. A theory cannot function without the thing it attempts to delineate. “Good” Conceptual art doesn’t replace even “bad” painting. This is why Conceptual art, supposedly the most rejective of contemporary art movements, has confirmed painting, supposedly the most traditional of visual art forms. Conceptual art’s attempt to bring ideas and discourse into the gallery has served only to dramatize the essential difference between theory and practice. Verbal models, such as art theory, have been shown to be not only different from but inadequate as visual models of art like painting. Conceptual art has, in fact, endorsed painting by its very inadequacy.

Unquestionably, this is the most surprising consequence of recent Conceptual art—and no doubt the most unpalatable to Conceptual artists—the rediscovery of the importance of painting. Intellectually shunned by many young artists and also some critics, for the past few years at least, painting, I will argue, is revalidated as the strongest convention of the visual arts. Complaints that painting was at the service of the mind only within its physical limitations, and questions, like Harrison’s, about the necessity of artworks having particular physical characteristics, have only served to underline one of painting’s obvious although underrated values; painting’s physical limitations are, in fact, paintings primary strength.

To be a painter, to mark surfaces flat and on the wall, with meaning both intellectual and emotional, is shown as a unique activity. The physical limitations of painting act as quasi-rules with the painting itself acting as a real model of a theoretical position. In contrast, the art of a Conceptual artist giving precedence to art theories over art things is dealing with such an ill-defined body of variables that it not only has little to do with visual art, but becomes virtually meaningless.

Whether Conceptual art should be viewed with sympathy—which is why Harrison asked the opening question—is no longer an important issue; more significant is whether Conceptual art is meaningful. Harrison’s question whether art requires objects or not is perhaps the most consequential issue in contemporary art despite the simpleminded consideration he suggests. The issue whether theories meaningfully replace things in the visual arts cannot be brushed aside.


At the heart of these confusions is the philosophic one of meaning. “When I use a word,” as Humpty Dumpty once said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Humpty Dumpty could very well have been talking about art. The term art has become largely meaningless. Words like artist and artwork consequently have similarly suffered. To say, at the present time, that something is art, to say someone is an artist, or to say something is an artwork is paradoxically to say very much, and also to say very little. Becoming so broad, the range of meanings attributable to both universals and particulars of art has come to cover an almost limitless range of meaning. To ask the classic, “What has been done,” “What is being done,” or “What might be done” normally delineates the historical, empirical, and analytic possibilities of any subject matter. Questions like these in art appear to have limited use. Each answer might be, “Everything.”

Multiple connotations and limitless denotations are only part of the problem. It is further compounded by the belief that a major part of the avant-garde artist’s function is to stretch the meaning of art—consequently to change art’s function. Stretching the meaning of art, until very recently, has unquestioningly been called innovation. A not unimportant question—as the meaning of art is stretched to cover everything—is just how far a word, in fact, a category, might be stretched without losing all meaning, and all use.

“Art,” as numerous Conceptual artists particularly claim, “means what I say it means.” Or even, “Art means what I say.” Capable of inventing a world of their own caprice by merely altering meanings at will, such nominalists are responsible for the present plurality of meanings in the art world. Rarely has the term art stood for so much and meant so little. Rarely has such pluralism—especially in the meaning of artwork—been better received, documented, displayed, and sold by the art establishment, all in the name of the progress of art.

One argument for stretching the meaning of art has been that it helps us understand the importance of art. Groups, such as Art-Language taking this line of reasoning say they wish to discover “broader concerns for the relevance, function and importance of art.” In other words, they search for the “essence of art.” The “essence of art,” so this notion reads, is merely waiting to be discovered; one only has to look long and seriously enough. Essentialism accepts the vague and improper question, “What is art?” and undertakes the often trivial and always mistaken search for the answer. However, the spurious notion of the art, the one essential art, gives the finder an added advantage: believing in art essences, he can take the morally superior stance of claiming to have the right answer.

Rhetoric like the “importance of art” is easy to dismiss, but the way it functions in the art domain is complex. Meaningless slogans, such as the other rhetorically brilliant but meaningfully suspect assertions as the “art of art,” and “art as art as art,” have generated some interesting movements. But only when such slogans affect things! Things have always acted as a check on even the most outrageous of slogans. “Illogical judgments,” as Sol LeWitt once rightly suggested can “lead to new experience,” but LeWitt’s “illogical judgments” are not interesting per se, as theory, but by the form they take as things. Minimal art in its search for essential structures, the thing structures, appears to be a whole movement based successfully on such erroneous frameworks. Modernist painters also, apparently in an effort to get closer to true painting or true art, have used abstract reductionist techniques based on slogans. As though stripping the painting of size, composition, color, and texture enable the artist—even Reinhardt—to achieve such a mythical goal. Reinhardt’s paintings—as are many reductionists’—are existentially interesting as things, in spite not because of such amusing and powerful slogans. Both LeWitt’s and Reinhardt’s theories are interesting only as manifested as things.

Slogans, however, are pernicious when they are used as dogma, as a reason for rejecting the making of art objects altogether. Used first as a justification for the ideological domination of painting, the gospel intones that true painting means “no size, no composition, no color, and no texture”; then this gospel becomes a justification for abandoning the complete category. Painting has been frisked for art, and declared empty-handed. Painting having no metalanguage is incapable of asking itself where art is. So painting is declared redundant. What was once an ironic painter’s rhetoric is transformed into a dogma for abandonment.

Conceptual artists in the name of “art is what I say it is” are largely responsible for the present lack of credibility into any supposed investigation into the nature of art. Duchamp’s Readymade is the best known example of art name calling. Duchamp’s attempt to call art with his urinal did not “die out as an ontological caper,” as Jack Burnham hinted it might,5 but has become one of the art world’s most pervasive influences.

Unfortunately, apart from being primarily responsible for art’s loss of meaning, the problem of the simple Readymade is cyclical. Fresh generations of artists fall under its persuasive spell, unable to resist waving its magic wand. Some developments seem little more than an exploitation of a credulous art public which has no clear standards of its own. Witty and iconoclastic as was Duchamp’s quasi-ontological shuttling of objects in and out of meaning contexts, for the art world at least, his recent disciples have served only to underline the ontological lightweight aspects of post-Readymade maneuvers. The Readymade cult, in all its chameleon material and theoretical disguises, far from having the rigor and method of science—as some wishfully claim—is mere repetition of what was once an amusing and innovative perception.

Why so many artists, critics, galleries, and museums devote so much attention to Readymades is hard to understand. While assisted Readymades of the written art theory kind (of which I’ll talk later) are less easy to pick out, the unadorned, unassisted Readymade has high visibility and is usually patently obvious.6 Yet the tritest of slogans as art are heralded as innovative. Transplanting the disciplines of painting, for example, into the environment is insignificant. For it does not add a new perspective to what remain essentially painting problems. To walk a square, like Richard Long, instead of painting a square like Josef Albers, or to dig a stripe like Michael Heizer, instead of painting a stripe like Frank Stella, and to herald the material shift from paint to walking, and from paint to digging, as evidence for the progress of art, can only be taken as ignorance of the implications of the original Readymade, and as a truncated notion of progress.

Some justification could be found for such moves, but it would discount the importance of the material shift, a shift ultimately gestural. Formalists could no doubt claim “a well walked square,” or a “well dug stripe,” just as Conceptualists could perhaps claim some socially catalytic value of such procedures. The traumatization of professional walkers and landscape gardeners, perhaps? But merely to walk, to dig, or to anything as art is no longer enough—if it ever was. To confuse such theoretical moves with practical ones is a comment only on the extent to which the Readymade has made nominalists of us all.

Nowhere is this more true than in the literalist sector of the Conceptual art camp—the earth-workers, documenters, performers, and body artists who consider themselves avant-garde unknowingly in the name philosophically of the category mistake, and in the name artistically of the Readymade. Appearing to reject the norms of painting, such literalists continue ironically to paint literally—with earth, stock exchange systems, limbs, photographs, schoolboy science experiments, all in the name of art. Paradoxically, many present their processes and procedures in the manner of painting; and, of course, some paint well. But the problem with such literal painting, as with palettes of much color, and subject matter of much variety, is that, usually, they are existentially trivial when contrasted to the paradigm limitless variable system, the multicolored and multi-subject real world. Literalist art is really a crude kind of nudging activity. By nudging I mean an arbitrary pointing by artists at the random sights, sounds, and systems of the world, rather than in-depth discussion with circumscribed sights, sounds, and systems of the world. In-depth discussions—of the kind found in mathematics, philosophy, sociology, anthropology etc.—are revealed as somewhat more rewarding kinds of discourse.


Nudging of a more intellectual kind is also a complaint that can be made against the more extreme kinds of Conceptual art. The meaninglessness of art argument particularly affects art theory. First, it is necessary to restress the difference between art theory and other kinds of Conceptual art. Whereas Conceptual artists like the literalists generally deviate from the norms of object-making, art theorists like Art-Language instead question those norms, usually giving precedence to writing as a method. This is a simple and important distinction unfamiliar even to perceptive critics like Max Kozloff. He calls the catholicism of artists of the “deviant” kind like Robert Barry and Larry Weiner “extreme,” and lumps them in with contradictory art theory approaches of the “questioning” kind all under the same “Art As Idea” banner.7 Kozloff rightly recognizes Conceptual art is in trouble, but he’s not only caned the wrong boys, he’s caned them for the wrong reasons. I can understand his pessimism if he sees no difference between Barry and Weiner both in a minimalist tradition, generally using single sentence declarative techniques—Barry declaring his state of mind and Weiner flexible instructions for sculpture as art. In contrast, Art-Language artists like Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden collectively write long essays about art with arguments rejecting everything artists like Barry and Weiner stand for. To say they are similar is a little like saying van Gogh and Frank Stella share the same ideological paradigms because they both use brushes. True but not very useful.

Modern art theory might be said to have originated from a rebuke to such art criticism, criticism felt to be largely an over-the-shoulder visual voyeurism. Recent artist writers like Terry Atkinson or Kosuth, unlike Donald Judd or Robert Morris,8 have extended this rebuke by revamping art criticism to the level where it substitutes for artwork itself. Their writings rather than accepting their critical status as theoretical tracts on art practice, or art criticism by artists, are presented by these artists as a new kind of artwork. That theory is not practice, however, is clear to both Judd and Morris. Particularly Morris, whose influential “Notes on Sculpture“ never attempted to usurp his sculpture, saw his essays as a metalanguage incapable of meaningfully substituting for an object language. Because most theorists give a higher status to theory than practice, they fail to recognize their essential difference.

The writings of theorists can, of course, be said to replace practices like painting: the meaning of painting can be stretched in true avant-garde fashion to include essays as paintings. Terry Atkinson’s early editorial written in 1969 asking “Can this editorial come up for the count as a work of art within a developed framework of the visual art convention?”9 rather than being taken as a Dada gesture of some wit has been taken deadly seriously by art theorists. The number of artists trying to prove it can increases daily. Writings often of a quasi-theoretical kind, displayed primarily in the form of printed matter and photostats (although there was a short vogue for handwriting) are exhibited and sold as paintings. Photostats of dictionary definitions and philosophy quotes by Joseph Kosuth, the written instructions of Victor Burgin, and the scientific diagrams of Bernar Venet, among others, enliven many a gallery wall. Such enlarged photostats of words and formulas have an austere decorative charm, as do the essays of Art-Language plexiglassed and fanned along the walls. Although they are not paintings, they are still eminently saleable, lightweight cultural objects.

For many art theorists play the postobject game, a game which depends on the premise of a non-saleable, nonobject art. They would have people believe they have raised art practice to a higher intellectual, noncommercial plane, and liberated it from the tawdry market place of galleries and museums. Yet, in fact, the majority make, promote, and sell cultural objects—albeit written ones—some in a physical manner strongly similar to paintings, and others in a manner similar to desk sculpture, with an energy disproportionate to their high-minded intentions. It is a practice which might lightheartedly be termed, “the pieces of paper paradigm.”

Reading while walking, as I wrote of such pieces of paper in Revision and Prescription,10 is not the most effective way of receiving information. The procedure is rendered even more complex and ineffectual by placing the work to be communicated in glass cases at unhappy reading levels. Moving, stooped and crabwise, around a room, while simultaneously trying to read, is simply impractical. Yet the gallery as hybrid studio/study has proliferated, as have denials that theory texts are trying to replace art objects.

To rebut this some theorists would claim the gallery as merely the support structure of art information, and such texts in the form of photostats etc. as merely displays, not cultural objects. This stance conveniently ignores that gallery walls and tables are the most visual of the galleries’ dissemination features. It ignores other less overtly visual aspects of galleries, such as catalogues, entirely. Although catalogues did once have some vogue as a non-visual presentational form, displays like photostats and filing cabinets now hold sway. Skeptics, in any event, might claim a viable difference between an art object and a display when they both perform the same cultural function, displayed and sold as precious objects. But it is hair splitting. Another explanation is possible; the decline of the catalogue as a carrier of information, and the rise of displays are due to commercial reasons: Wall displays like photostats can be sold as painting, and floor displays like filing cabinets as sculpture.

A more sympathetic reason for what appears an ideological sleight of hand might be because of the notoriously antiintellectual history of contemporary art; theorists feel to change the existing model of art, information has to be infiltrated Trojan-horse style into the art system. In other words, meaning has to pose as form even to be considered by an art audience. But this is hard to understand. Cut-up or photostatted books and paperbacks, fastened to walls and tables and sold at inflated prices, are not considered effective dissemination of knowledge by libraries or bookshops. And their use in the art world, far from heralding a new ideology of effective communication which places art on a par with other sciences and disciplines, is rather a deification of the worst aspects of traditional art objects—good business and bad art. The contradictions of “the pieces of paper paradigm” would be more amusing, however, if its practitioners weren’t so morally self-righteous about their pure, radical, and extreme postobject stance.

To call theories things, although a triviality of far-reaching consequences, is still trivial. More important and more damaging than such economically motivated name calling is whether art theory standing for such diversity of theories is theoretically disqualified. Does art theory stand for so much that it stands for nothing?

From the evidence I would suggest it does. Art theory is often pure philosophy, pure ethics, and pure religion, placed, used, asserted in an art context. Pure philosophy, particularly, is often presented as art theory. Buttressed by the elasticity of art, but primarily supported by the Readymade, it has meant that any topic from any discipline can be linked to the visual arts. Like the literalists mentioned earlier, some art theorists may be said to be theoretical literalists. Just as ploughing declared as painting, or photostats as painting, initially has some catalytic or shock value, philosophy as art and painting had double shock value. Paradoxically, when art theory called into question the norms of object and Conceptual art, it also called into question its own norms, and revealed that the value of ploughing as art is not so dissimilar from the value of discourse as art.

For those unfamiliar with art theory texts consider briefly just the range of topics and styles of three recent Art-Language essays. I use Art-Language as an example not because Art-Language is right, but because the group have the happy gift of being wrong instructively. Atkinson and Baldwin in “Unnatural Rules and Excuses” (Vol. 2, No. 1) discuss ethics, as far as it is possible to understand the virtually incomprehensible language. One not atypical example:

The co-occurrence restrictions which breed category-meaning restrictions—typecrossing restrictions are considered with reference to category (lexis) specification and their position in terminated but open-ended syntax-element identificatory apparatus.

Burn and Ramsden in “Four Wages of Sense” (Vol. 2, No. 1), not only discuss ethics, but also introduce in quick succession elementary logic, analytic philosophy, and also some sociology. For example, logic lesson one:

“Valid” inferences are inferences in which the conclusions follow from the premises. . . . While seemingly all inferences within the practice of art can be valid, it is recommended that they henceforth be “sound.”

And Howard, in “Revelation and Art” (Vol. 1, No. 4) introduces religion. Joining God with art, he copiously quotes Aquinas and Spinoza, and unbelievably cross-references philosophy of religion with Art-Language texts! Howard, in true mystical manner:

God gives to man his esse and by means of revelatio which gives glimpses, as it were, of the state of beatus (which is salvation), but ‘man’ can in no way affect God.

Paradoxically, the appeal of such intellectual magpie texts is a certain artistic irresponsibility about subject matter and methodology, not unfamiliar to the more gestural of those traditional artists, the Abstract Expressionists. The words are still wet on the page and in some cases stirred with a stick.

From the Joycean prose of “Unnatural Rules and Excuses,” the laconic hybridizations of “Four Wages of Sense,” to the hilarity of the homage to the religious footnote of “Revelations and Art,” the methodology is Abstract Expressionist. Fragments of philosophy, ethics, logic, and sociology are scumbled into an art theory text.

Part of the problem is inherent in the nature of writing and scholarship. Verbal structures particularly encourage the collage, their strength and weakness. I do not intend to denigrate the respective quality of such intellectual collaging in which all written work, irrespective of subject is included, but rather to underline the limited formal nature of all collages, as things or theories. A collage is a collage is a collage. The permissive diversity of collage materials always breaks up the surface and as a consequence the joins have a tendency to show.11

The present disqualification of much art theory is not dissimilar; rather it might be called a relentless theoretical figuration. Figuration of a theoretical kind encompassing the total spectrum of man’s intellectual activities—a category already occupied in a theoretical sense by the synoptic philosophers of the world. Such theoretical patchwork quilts disguised one moment as the analytic/synthetic issue from philosophy, the next as the is-ought question from ethics, then recently as the paradigm argument from the philosophy of science, have tended to disqualify art theory as a discipline of particular theoretical individuality. It can be seen as a verbal collage activity, incapable of being a replacement for a restricted visual system like painting, even if one is prepared to accept the dubious notion of painting with words as analogous to painting with paint.


Painting though, as one of the most conservative and restricted art practices when contrasted with the limitless/meaningless practices of Conceptual art, suddenly appears to be a validated convention of some strength. It can now be seen not as an obstacle to change, but as an essential framework for creative activity. Painting, while capable of dealing with an enormous range of issues and methodologies, trades on the notion of being art, but only within its physical limitations as painting. But the kind of painting advocated here is not the irrational excesses of the “born with a brush in his hand and a beret on his head” school. The painter I refer to is a circumscribed kind of artist. A painter after Conceptual art is going to be more aware of the physical, conceptual, and societal limitations of painting.

Some hint of this kind of approach is given by Leo Steinberg’s comments in a 1964 monograph on Jasper Johns:12

What is a painting?
You don’t ask; you advance a hypothesis.
The question is, What is a Picture? or What sort of
presence is the Picture Plane? And the hypothesis
takes the form of a painting.

Condensed to “a painting is a hypothesis about what a painting can be” it confirms a neglected point that such painting trades least on being art; primarily it is painting. The onus is then rightly focused on the strength, wit, and pertinency of the hypothesis as painting. This has the advantage of tempering a purely art-historical view of painting, and allowing conceptual criteria as well. Painting hypotheses are importantly a mix of physical and conceptual aspects, quite unlike any of the purely theoretical hypotheses of art theory or the non-visual ones of Conceptual art. The translation problems of visual models are just different from verbal ones. Whenever anyone offers the sophistries of the postobject position, claiming painting is only at the service of the mind because of its physical limitations, the argument can be inverted. Painting, I again stress, is uniquely interesting just because of its physical limitations. Simply, one consequence of Conceptual art is that to be a painter is more meaningful than to be an artist.

Painting is loosely identified as a practical activity, concerned overtly with marking surfaces which are generally square, flat, and on the wall, and covertly with carrying meanings, both intellectual and emotional, through such markings. It can accordingly be conceived—and judged—as form and meaning. Painting, therefore, has a life as a thing as well as a theory. Simplistic as painting’s thing limitations are, such limitations can now be seen to act as rule structures, as bracketing and focusing devices of great strength.

Thus, painting in some important ways can be seen to parallel the structure and economy of a joke. The physical bracketing and focusing of visual information like painting is analogous to that of the verbal structure of the joke. Sigmund Freud in his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious13 points out that jokes deal with familiar material in an unfamiliar way—economically. Everyone in a community, he suggests, has virtually the same kind of material to work from because the components of most successful jokes are not esoteric, but commonly known and accepted. The art of the pun is particularly instructive, for the principle of success is twofold: to change the meaning, and to compress the form of a verbal structure. Change of meaning and compression, however, are always underlined by economy. Whereas the joke might be called the economy paradigm of spoken language, painting might be called the economy paradigm of visual language.

As a form of visual compression, therefore, the onus is always on painting to be economical toward limited variables. To be effective within a physical model, to change a visual narrative structure to a visual abstract structure, and in so doing to compress and change its meaning, the ideal painter must always be involved with economy, with rules and limitations. This is an explanation, no doubt, for the restricted painting vocabulary of spots, stripes, circles, and squares of the last 50 years, which are limited variables known and accepted. Just as good puns are abstractions and compressions of verbal structure, good paintings are often abstractions and compressions of visual structures.

The effectiveness of jokes both visually and verbally is not just a question of intention. The decision to be funny is no guarantor of success. Wit and good painting transcend intention. There is an aspect of joke structures which can’t necessarily be explained verbally. The painter Jo Baer makes a similar point in a recent note on painting: “It is almost impossible to write or speak about nonobjective painting which has been intentionally originated at the sub-verbal, non vocal level.”14

The implications of a number of recent paintings show this, and would be anomalies in any imaginary postobject art world. Two groups particularly, the “Device” paintings of Jasper Johns, and the “Black” paintings of Frank Stella, have had a power and intellectual interest which is inextricably linked to their different physical limitations, and the way those limitations have been made meaningful. Both groups are successful as visual jokes. And as with jokes they are not just explained away by explaining them away. For there was a mistaken view advanced by some Conceptual artists that verbalizing about a work of art was to understand it, and also to make it culturally redundant. To know Steinberg’s “non-hierarchic, flat, man-made signs” argument about Johns, or to know Fried’s “literal/depicted” shape argument about Stella is, however, not enough. To approach Johns or Stella through the support language of art, although stimulating as evidence of Steinberg’s and Fried’s art, is analysis rather than understanding. The “Device” things and the “Black” things as visual compressions with change of meaning are both curiously resistant to verbal understanding. Analyzing paintings like these is only to superimpose one’s own conceptual grid on them, and often only to weigh and catalogue properties in relation to other paintings in a historical continuum—an admirable, but rather limited activity. As Heidegger suggests from a rather different perspective about another kind of thing—hammers—in Being and Time, one can list all their properties, length, weight, size, etc., but one understands much more about hammers by seeing a broken one. At once it shows what a hammer is. Stella, notoriously reluctant to verbalize about his paintings, puts it only a little differently:

Maybe that’s the quality of simplicity. When Mantle hits the ball out of the park, everybody is sort of stunned for a minute because it’s so simple. He knocks it right out of the park, and that usually does it.15

Ideal painting which would include painters as diverse as Reinhardt and Pollock, Lichtenstein and Johns, is, of course, dependent on its claim to be art. More importantly, and more interestingly, it can be viewed as a visual translation activity, not overly concerned with its art status, nor overly concerned to outrun the visual beauties of the world. The potency of painting lies somewhere along the axis, then, of the encoding of information visually as well as emotionally and intellectually, within a physical context. Irrespective of whether it be poetic or scholarly, it is an encoding process within a limited gestalt. Although formalism has yet to come to terms with the conceptual aspect of painting, its recognition of the importance of the gestalt aspect of painting has always been formalism’s particular power. Another neglected aspect of painting is the experiential contemplative decoding process of the spectator who is rarely the painter. The Janus-like two-way facing character of paintings protects the pleasure they give from the attacks of critical reason, for painting is always intended to give pleasure to a second person. Painters rarely laugh at their own paintings; paintings need to be told. Yet to both encode and decode paintings are procedures significantly different again from the encoding and decoding of work not having “stable and material constituents,” namely, all kinds of Conceptual art.

To paint one simply accepts certain limitations. A post-Conceptual art painter is, therefore, not primarily a topologist of art or merely a literalist against nature; and, even if he is both, he is a circumscribed topologist and a circumscribed literalist. The flatness, squareness, and wallness of paintings are of limited elasticity.

Charles Harrison’s opening question can now, hopefully, be seen in a different perspective. Contrary to Harrison, I have been concerned to defend painting and to demystify Conceptual art. I defend an art convention using “material and formal” elements as not only different from, but incapable of meaningful substitution by those that do not. An overriding concern, therefore, has been to demonstrate the replacement myths of Conceptual art generally, and art theory, particularly. Neither meaningfully replace painting. The importance of Conceptual art, art theory, and painting are not being denied. Instead, the facts are being rearranged.

Conceptual art and art theory are not trivial movements, but they are trivial replacements for object art. To show their bogus status as art objects is necessarily to examine what is at the heart of the problem—the issue of art meanings. Meaning is not primarily a philosophic problem, nor is it purely verbal. What art means determines art behavior; and the physical consequences can be far-reaching. We saw what happens when artists inspired by slogans not only look for art essences, but also come up with unlimited answers. Answers to questions which often have already been posed, and answered, more interestingly by other disciplines. When anything can be declared artworthy—as the Readymade so admirably demonstrates—it is ultimately to devalue both the declarative act and what is declared. To merely introduce either the physical world by way of the processes and procedures of Conceptual art, or the intellectual world by way of the theoretical tracts of art theory are activities with largely plagiarized frameworks and elastic boundaries. For the world is more interesting per se, rather than having Conceptual artists present it as visual art; equally disciplines like sociology and philosophy are more interesting per se, than having art theorists package them in convoluted writing and present them as visual art.

To suggest that such practices replace the painting category is, of course, the fiction of them all, a fiction which insists that circumscribed object-making is intellectually redundant. It is a myth as I’ve tried to point out, underscored by wrong thinking, not necessarily willfully wrong thinking, but more like an obsession for the “emperor’s new clothes” or grins without cats. The visual poverty of our contemporary landscape as it affects our psychic life, rather than banishing the practice of intellectual and emotional ordering of visual matter, has instead served to make it an imperative. Equally it has raised the specter that the artist himself is beneficially able to consider the relation of that visual matter to society at large. Perhaps an enlightened fish is the one to ask about water.

James Collins



1. Charles Harrison, “Virgin Soils and Old Land,” The British Avant Garde, The New York Cultural Center, 1971.

2. Object art as a broad category refers to object-making generally where the character and organization of the physical material used is important to the work.

3. All quotes from the catalogue, “Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects,” The New York Cultural Center, 1970.

4. Joseph Kosuth, “Introductory Note by the American Editor,” Art-Language, February, 1970.

5. Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, New York, 1968.

6. An art magazine was even started in their honor. First published in early 1970 in New York, each issue is devoted almost entirely to photographic Readymades. The editors no doubt felt so strongly that the world was going to be overwhelmed by a “sudden rush of them” that they appropriately called the magazine Avalanche.

7. Max Kozloff, “The Trouble with Art as Idea,” Artforum, September, 1972.

8. E.g. Terry Atkinson, “From an Art and Language Point of View,” Art-Language, February, 1970; Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” reprinted in Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art, New York, 1972; Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook, 1965; and Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” Artforum, February, 1966; October, 1966; Summer, 1967; April, 1969.

9. “Introduction,” Art-Language, May, 1969.

10. An essay shown at the Paris Biennale, Concept Section, 1971.

11. For a good example of plagiarism by art theorists from philosophy compare the essay “Some Post-War American Work and Art Language: Ideological Responsiveness,” by Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin, Studio International, April 1972, starting p. 164, line 19 with “Given a theory . . .” (with no quotes) to p. 131–132, starting “Given a theory . . . .” from W. Quine’s From a Logical Point of View, 1961. As with all good plagiarism, of which this is just a sample, the “authors” footnote the references they barely use and only hint at those used verbatim.

12. Leo Steinberg, Jasper Johns, New York, 1964.

13. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, London, 1966.

14. Jo Baer, “On Painting,” Flash Art, Milan, Italy, November, 1972.

15. From an interview by Bruce Glaser edited by Lucy Lippard, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” reprinted in Gregory Battcock, Minimal Art, New York, 1968.