PRINT October 1973

What Is Content? Notes Toward an Answer

WHAT IS CONTENT? IT HAS been several decades since the question has even been raised, much less answered. Once, content was held to be a natural component in the work of art, as natural as color or facture in painting, form or mass in sculpture. Since publication of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture, however, we have been led to believe that it is a corrupting agent in esthetic structures that are irreducibly visual and experiential, directed at the eye rather than the intellect. We have been trained not to seek a meaning in art beyond its corporeal components. I believe that we are about to leave that indoctrination behind, that it is time to begin thinking about content again. Not in the traditional way, not in the rhetorical terms leftover from narrative painting or Social Realism, but in new ways, grounded in our present condition. I furthermore believe that a proper understanding and use of content—of symbols and meanings that point toward the outside world—is the fulfillment of a desire explicit in Duchamp and implicit in much recent work in painting, performance, and linguistic proposition—the restoration of the mind to art. These are notes toward that end, and toward a definition.

The proper definition of content might further liberate American criticism to deal with the immediate past, with the few modernist artists who depend heavily upon content and have so far escaped serious evaluation or understanding here. Among this small group are Edward Kienholz and Diane Arbus. Kienholz’s audience is primarily in Europe (where he is misread, too, for obvious reasons, as a builder of anti-American political tableaux, such as Five Car Stud, exhibited at Documenta last year). As for Arbus, we are already being told that her photographs of psychically and physically scarred people have nothing to do with the people themselves—with content, that is.

Harald Szeeman’s Documenta V, rightly understood, is a step in this direction. It is as natural for a European curator like Szeeman or an artist like Joseph Beuys to work freely with symbols, meanings, and nightmares, unburdened by the memory of Art and Culture, as it is unnatural for someone like Robert Morris. At Documenta, Szeeman organizecl several varieties of Realism in a single wing of the Neue Galerie. The American work, grouped largely by Jean-Christophe Ammann, represented the so-called “New Realism,” which is in fact a retreat forward, toward content, away from the iconic blandness of Pop art. New Realist images are much closer to real images, to genre painting, if you like, than Pop. In certain cases—Malcolm Morley’s attack on South Africa, and very nearly all of John Clem Clarke’s Neoclassic paintings, toying with previous literary or visual references—the handling of content as content is frank. In most cases there is a pretense to formal dumbness. We are told (both verbally and visually) that the photographic image is the subject matter, not the automobile, not, as in John de Andrea’s case, the couple copulating, nor, as in Duane Hanson’s case, the pathos of street bums. But the stronger, sharper, and more lifelike these works become, the less possible it is for anyone, least of all the artist, to avoid thinking about what his forms depict. Ammann organized the show by subject matter, of course: paintings of automobiles followed by paintings of storefront windows and commercial signs, each work straining to pretend that it has no subject, by imitating the effect of photographic reproduction. Seen in this way, the photograph is now serving, somewhat ironically, the evasive needs of a whole generation of painters.

A few more examples of the problem stasis. Vito Acconci’s early events and performances were minimal in iconography and plot. Take Following Piece, 1969, which scored nothing more than that—following someone, anywhere, until the end of his trip. Scarcely two years later, Acconci began to deal with deeper psychic needs, though still pretending that it is form; he scored a 1972 meeting at Pier 17 in New York in which he would reveal “Something I would normally keep concealed: censurable occurrences and habits, fears, jealousies—something that has not been exposed before that would be disturbing for me to make public.” The moment Acconci takes this step—analogous to the sharp-edged Realism of de Andrea or Hanson—is the moment he takes on content. For Acconci to deal directly in the implications of his censurable occurrences, rather than using them (unsuccessfully) as neutral material, would be—I suspect—a weakening of the esthetic structure, in his mind. This fear/myth is—negatively speaking—the major factor in current art. Depending upon the artist, it can inhibit development by itself.

Gene Swenson once pointed out that Jasper Johns is a latent literary painter, kept from completing the full cycle—and implications—of his work. Dan Flavin is, I think, a similar case. Why those long, provocative titles and dedications? Behind them is a mind and a sensibility frustrated by the dogmas of anticontent. Flavin clearly lusts for ideological conflict, which he is kept from engaging in his art, except peripherally. His series of Monuments for Tatlin need the title in order to communicate the message, a message that operates beyond the medium employed. Finally, in his extraordinarily naive and powerful poster created in the service of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, the real Dan Flavin emerged. Very much the same can be said of Rauschenberg’s Currents and Richard Hamilton’s Kent State, both products of 1970, the year of the Cambodian invasion and the long-delayed reaction within the Western art community against the war. I find the Currents themselves, an endless collage of newspaper headlines gathered over a period of several months, much more visually effective than has yet been allowed. But Rauschenberg’s statement, attending them, was another naive cry: “Art can encourage individual conscience. Everyone’s independent devotion is the only vehicle that can nourish the seed of sanity. . . .” The artist skilled in sophisticated visual devices turns Childe Harold when it comes to stating or communicating a message—to dealing, in brief, with content. Hamilton’s Kent State, a largeeditioned lithograph based on a live television newscast, is less successful in visual terms and equally banal in strategy: we are invited to view the fallen student through the neutralized surface of the cathode-ray tube and presumably rise in anger. Yet the iconic act, the freezing of the real-time image into lithographic form, accomplishes precisely the reverse: what was affecting on TV news is diffused in lithography, as if the poignant figures of the running Vietnamese schoolchildren (an image that McGovern described repeatedly in his speeches), bombed out of their homes, screaming with pain, had been stained into canvas.

The point is that we have no skills for dealing with content, after decades of avoiding it. The results—when an artist weaned on experiential doctrines turns to content—are always bathetic, particularly so when he is prompted by chance, for this or that political issue. When modernist art attempts to deal with the real world it cannot do so on grounds beneath its visual sophistication. Flavin, Rauschenberg, and Hamilton evidence a hidden elitism in the works cited above: when I attempt to communicate verbally or factually with you, audience, instead of visually, they seem to be saying, I must lower my standards. My argument is that advanced art should deal with content in an advanced way, as a natural weapon in its armory. Even so iconoclastic an artist as Les Levine—in the statement that accompanied The Troubles, an exhibition at Finch College based on documentary films and tapes made in Northern Ireland—doubts the proper place of content in art:

The question I asked myself was: are the social and political problems of a society a valid medium for art or should the artist be limited to esthetic values for his expression? As I have worked with several art systems, I think it is my duty to impose these sensibilities on interpreting existing social systems which are changing and affecting our lives at a more rapid pace than we can finesse our culture to cope with them.

Notice the word “impose.” How tentatively, then, does Levine approach content, certain that its place in art is an imposition. How free of these reservations is Joseph Beuys, who deals with the real world and his own esthetic on the same level, not sacrificing one for the other. His German political party is an Aktion, at once an instrument in the real world and an instrument in advanced esthetics. Beuys does not go to the world and ask it to do good, or to believe in McGovern. He asks it to see art and life as linked, to begin where he begins, before ending in conclusions. “Man, you have the strength for self-determination,” he said, in a performance at the Tate Gallery in London. The next step toward the fruition of this goal is his referendum “for a new democracy,” at once a practical step and a metaphorical one. In his organizational charts proposing a newly structured society, in his pamphlets, in the hundred days of discussion at Documenta, Beuys demonstrates how a modernist mind can work in the real world as carefully and acutely as in the studio. The closest American equivalent to Beuys is the Guerrilla Art Action Group, manned by Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche, both of whom are committed to dealing with real-time problems, political and legal, as valid esthetic problems. But none has yet thought sufficiently about form. The error of Guerrilla Art is directly opposed to the error of elitist art: it sacrifices form for content.

We handle content badly because we are ashamed of and unskilled before it at once. The content in Rauschenberg’s Currents is its conclusion, which points toward the world, away from itself. But the conclusion itself—that the world is in bad shape—is banal. The conclusion implied by Beuys’ activities is infinitely more complex, and forces the viewer to decide for or against a particular line of action. Now neither Rauschenberg nor Beuys is playing a proper game, according to the formalist canon, which maintains that quality art achieves that status by ridding itself of impurities. I hardly need demonstrate the profound absurdity of this position, however, which has been under unremitting attack for almost five years. Though the attack has not been wholly successful, its appearance indicates—as I said before—that we are passing through a transition, from a sensational esthetic to an ideational one. One more comment, before I pass on to a more important enemy. The Cambodian invasion in 1970 may have destroyed the realpolitik of formalism in the United States, by making it impossible to live with, morally speaking. It is then that we witnessed the amateurish spectacle of artists who had built their careers on anticontent suddenly engaging in political causes, demonstrating, destroying paintings, and assailing the morality of a capitalist society to which they were organically bound. On the surface, things have changed: Robert Morris, who led the post-Cambodian withdrawals, has returned to the museums. But the moral malaise continues.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how important in this context was Robert Morris’ tableau Hearing. In a matter of years, it may be looked back upon as the major transitional work, not because it succeeded but because it failed. I was immediately struck by the incompleteness of the tableau upon seeing (and trying to hear) it, without knowing what had been overlooked. Had I come across Hearing in 1965, or even as late as 1967, I could have accepted it. There it stood, a copper chair, a sheet-metal table, and a lead-plated bed, all burnished, primary structures. But Morris could not stop there, working as he was in post-formal American time. First, the structures were mounted rather dramatically, on a raised platform, and thus elevated above the plane of the specific object. Second, the viewer was warned not to touch any part of the tableau, or suffer electrical shock. And last, a tape-recorded dialogue between many voices filled the space. The quality of the recording—and the “actors” —was below the level of the visual installation, and I find this particularly important, considering Morris’ knowledge of Beuys. The latter works, as I said before, in a European, preformal, postcontent time. In his Aktions—the Documenta 100 days is an example—the meaning and the symbol are in front, filling the viewer’s mind and eye. At Documenta, Beuys debated and argued continually, from morning till night, over the meaning of political power. By unlocking the latent creative powers in the public, he claims, new political structures can be created, then realized, through referendum. Beuys believes that the ongoing dialogue about these subjects— back and forth—is an oscillating sculpture. The dialogue in Morris’ Hearing is as rich as any single part of Beuys’ 100 days, yet it could barely be grasped by the ear, at the installation. I heard it clearly much later, by listening to the tape played on a recorder, close-up. Morris’ dialogue pits an interrogator and a series of witnesses against a lone defendant. They debate a long series of esthetic and metaphysical points. At one point a speaker says: “Talk is cheap”; his adversary replies: “Objects are not.” Morris himself obviously concurs, for he chose deliberately not to raise the audio level of his dialogue so that viewers could hear the content of the debate he had written and recorded. He preferred to let the sound perform abstractly, below the level of audibility.

The risk is that by dealing in meaning the work of art may immediately absorb itself into the world, losing its privileged (esthetic) shelter. It is no accident that Beuys has been dismissed from his professorship at the Düsseldorf Academy (while Morris continues to construct sculpture), or that he pronounces the founding of a free International School his most important esthetic goal. The difference is not between virtue and vice but between two contrasting esthetic systems. Beuys, not afraid of content, is by now skilled in feinting with the world, and uses it like a canvas, expanding the sense of scale—a subject I hope to treat fully in another essay—beyond the physical to the social. Morris, trained to avoid meaning, confronts the world on rare occasions, is rebuffed (withdrawing sculpture from the Whitney failed to stop the war in Vietnam), and returns to the sanctuary of noncontent. But he breaks out again, in Hearing, almost. His tableau offered a stage upon which form, metaphor, and meaning could have met, in a richly articulated, multidimensional work. Yet one dimension failed. Much should have been heard from Hearing; very little was.

Hearing nonetheless signified something, as does all of the work I have been discussing: a deep, long-repressed hunger for what art needs to complete itself. Conceptual Art appears to do precisely that, breaking the hymen protected so faithfully by Greenberg, but in fact it does not. As James Collins says, Conceptual art attacks the antiintellectual bias of the art world system while it subtly reinforces and strengthens that bias. Time and again, its statements, definitions, and essays are installed and marketed like paintings, not like linguistic provocations (it is no accident that the catalogue no longer serves as the basic medium for Conceptual Art messages). This is entirely consistent with the paradox implicit in nearly all analytic Conceptual theory. It surfaces most sharply in Joseph Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Philosophy.” Here Kosuth announces his determined opposition to formalist esthetics, and to its sensational, antithought premises. Yet in the end Kosuth retreats to precisely the reductivist point where Greenberg began: works of art, he states, “if viewed within their context as art—they provide no information whatso-ever about any matter of fact.” That is, Kosuth locks himself back into the confines of the work of art itself by this tautological proposition: art is about art, in other words, as science—allegedly—is about science, no more. The work of art is not allowed in either Greenberg or Kosuth to comment on the world beyond, even though language is recognized as a proper medium. “Tautology,” now, is a simple synonym for “flat.”

But this position cannot hold, least of all in terms of linguistics. The use of language leads inevitably toward content because language is an instrument forged by necessity—by man’s need to describe and deal with the outside world. No matter how reductively it is used or how repeatedly hung upon the wall, language inexorably engages the mind, through meaning. The prevalent art-world bias against meaning is only that, a bias. Morphological rules and propositions are hardly the chance occurrences that many artists have taken them to be. The more we learn about languages the more we discover how similar are their structures. Each has a lexicon, a grammar, a phonology, a syntax, and divisions between elements that deal in time, space, and number. The proposition that a sentence makes is structurally irrevocable. Language is anything but a game; it is a deep law. No linguistic proposition can be a tautology, since language does probe beyond itself, into the outside world, which it exists to describe. Already we can see in recent Conceptualist propositions an expanding involvement in issues beyond art. Daniel Buren recently furnished an astonishing statement for his exhibition at the Jack Wendler Gallery in London. Read aloud from a videotape playing on a lone monitor in an empty gallery, it began with the now-familiar questioning of the art system, and the himself finally to the art system without reference to the larger system:

All exhibitions here have the same frame, and this frame is not neutral. But to pretend to escape from these limits is to reinforce the prevalent ideology which expects diversion from the artist. Art is not free, the artist does not express himself freely (he cannot). Art is not the prophecy of a free society. Freedom in art is the luxury-privilege of a repressive society. Art, whatever it may be, is exclusively political.

Of course Buren lacks the rhetorical and conceptual skills to implement this essentially public theme. Of course he is better at picking apart the art system than the world system: So am I, and so are Flavin, Rauschenberg, Levine, and Morris. We are all caught in the tautology that art counts only as art when it is about art. The essential step is to break out of this restrictive trap, which requires a willingness to integrate the complex self (with its feelings about the outside world) and the work of art. The use of content does not require a simplification of the self. The difficulty inherent in art is a condition of its existence. So is its source in the intellect. Duchamp proposed a return to this source, which is why he reclaimed painting for the mind. But there can be no natural place for the mind in art without meaning. Content is the expression of mind; it is also the link between the work of art and the outside world.


“You have arrived from many different areas to this specific location which is the Jack Wendler Gallery which is not only a location to see this exhibition but all those before and after. In this context, do you not think that this location has an effect on the exhibitions which you come to see here? Outside the fact of the physical location I have just described, this gallery, although it is new, has a certain reputation from preceding exhibitions from which the exhibitions cannot escape. At the same time the next exhibition will be partly framed by this one. All the exhibitions here have the same frame, and this frame is not neutral. But to pretend to escape from these limits is to reinforce the prevalent ideology which expects diversion from the artist. Art is not free, the artist does not express himself freely (he cannot). Art is not the prophecy of a free society. Art, whatever it may be, is exclusively political. What is called for is the analysis of formal and cultural limits (and not one or the other) within which art exists and struggles. Those limits are many and of different intensities. Although the prevailing ideology and the associated artists try in every way to camouflage them, and although it is too early—the conditions are not meant to blow them all up—the time has come to unveil them.”

—Daniel Buren, Exhibition statement presented on videotape, London, March, 1973.