PRINT February 1974

Art and Art and Language

FOR MORE THAN A YEAR various writers in this magazine, and others, have referred to the Art & Language group of artists. Their remarks add up to a sorry list of misunderstandings, distortions, and hasty judgments, interspersed with occasional expressions of tentative and somewhat puzzled sympathy, that typify the reception of Art & Language work in this country. Part of the reason follows from the nature of Art & Language work itself: its modes of address and most of what it has to say are not only new and unfamiliar, but new and unfamiliar in ways which are themselves foreign to the art audience here.

Thus, it becomes important to give an accounting of the Art & Language point of view—or, more accurately, of my understanding of it. I should say immediately that I acquired my conception during the past year, as I moved from observing Art & Language (A&L) as an art critic to active participation in the A&L inquiry.

Approaching A&L from within the framework of beliefs and expectations current in the art world, one might feel that here are a group of artists making destructive, extraordinary, often contradictory and, perhaps, deceitful claims for their work. How can their typewritten essays be considered visual art? Why is their writing style so obscure? Are they trying to do philosophy of language or are they parodying philosophers? How does their work fit in with other Conceptual art? Are they simply artists taking on the roles of art critics and art theorists? Do they really believe that they can “clean up” the theoretical confusions rife in art discourse so that we all might be able to make “theoretically more sound“ art at some future time?

These questions can be easily countered in the rhetorical, polemical style typical of art-world debate. And some of A&L’s replies to criticism have been of this order. But it interests me more to propose a description of the A&L point of view alternative to those these questions presuppose. To begin doing so, I need to outline reasons why A&L seems so pertinent.

My openness to A&L started from the broad view I took of the current state of art. It seemed to me that the condition of art was—as it remains—disastrous.

And not because of the announcement of the “death of painting” on every corner; nor because a systematic style had failed to succeed Minimalism; and finally, nor because of some kind of “failure of sensibility” that had mysteriously afflicted all the practicing artists of the world. Rather, insofar as these and other fears had any sense at all, they were symptoms of a deeper shift from certain fundamental conceptions of what it is to make art, to be an artist, and to understand art. It seemed imperative to determine what these conceptions were, how they related to one another, how they functioned in other contexts, and how they so thoroughly informed the making of art. Furthermore it seemed obvious that trying to create yet more art objects (“thinking in paint”) or conjuring up still more ingenious art-critical theories, was to do no more than to desperately strive to “save the theory.” Yet much Conceptual or “Art-as-Idea” art of the past few years willfully compounds this problem-set by using it as material for art. Most recent criticism has shown itself inadequate precisely because it refuses to surrender the self-imposed limitation that it dance attendance on what the artists do. (A critic can always wait, saying: “There are hundreds of thousands of artists out there, all dedicated to producing the best art they can—how can I say that some of them, at some future time, won’t come up with the goods?” Artists can only partially take this option; finally, an artist has to act through an art-making situation, or give up entirely.)

As the necessary tools were not to be found in current art and art-critical practices, it seemed natural to turn to that aspect of philosophy which addressed itself to the expression of concepts in language. It was equally natural to turn to the philosophy of science because this is a field of inquiry consumed in controversy—what it is to do science and what it is to do the philosophy of science. These controversies might, perhaps, throw some light on those debilitating the art world. It became clear to me that the making of art entailed the holding of a set of theories about art (to which T. S. Kuhn’s notion of paradigm seems only an approximate analogy1), theory-sets constituted by notions of what the world is like.

A formalist artist and critic, insofar as his beliefs are consistent, holds intuitionist ideas of the immanent properties of things, “empirical” attitudes to the experientially of his products, and a theory of autonomy guiding the self-definitional nature of his artworks as well as their place in an immanently developing history and future of art in general. Other artists have assumptions which cluster around a romantic subjectivism, adding another version of autonomy which aims to secure the uniqueness of themselves and their products, along with a “special” status for their insights within the society at large. Still other artists emphasize theories that artworks are essentially physical objects with a necessarily material character, and believe that sacred among the rituals of producing artworks is the activity of making(“manipulating stuff,” “displaying processes”). Obviously, these notions are held with varying degrees of self-consciousness, are rarely systematized beyond random “right intuitions,” and appear in many interwoven and differently emphasized guises. But, nonetheless, in my view they amount to the overall theoretical framework within which all art activity is conducted; they individually constitute “deep” concepts of art for those who hold them, generating the different points of view which we see operating during controversies; and, most importantly, they are in the artworks, governing their form and content.

It hardly matters to any artist that the theories constituting these theory-sets are being shown in philosophy to be seriously flawed. “Good art from bad theory” is a slogan which can be decked out with many illustrious names. My point is that the negative side of this half-truth has recently come into play: as the structural power of these theory-sets becomes more overt, their inherent inadequacies become unavoidable, with the result that they foreclose on activity derived from them.

The key cause of art’s misfortune is that, through the past decade, each one of these theory-sets, having initially clustered together to form open concepts of art for those who employed them, have become progressively more closed, fixed, over-determined through continual usage and ever more refined self-definition. They no longer have the generative power of “essentially contested concepts”: all too clear criteria for their “proper” use has been developed.2

The paucity of invention and the puerility of talk in the current art world is a direct result of this situation. Basic beliefs, fundamental features of one’s concept of art, stand revealed as anomalies within a whole too easily grasped, or ungraspable. Superficial changes, in “style” for example, become trivial when the foundations are shaking.

A glance through some of the better-known A&L essays will reveal that a critique of this sort (although not as wide-ranging and total) was being developed during the later 1960s, and continues.3 The A&L critique includes a notion perhaps more disturbing than any which I have offered so far: that the anomalous features of the various concepts of art are incorrigible in principle. The suggestion here is that none of the concepts capture anything natural to the practice of art because nothing is natural to that practice—rather, they are merely conventions adopted by artists as if they were natural. None of them are essential, they are all expendable, all relative to time and place. It is this, rather than any distaste for “objects” per se, which limits any application to the visual arts of Victor Burgin’s suggestion to architects:

Perhaps it is time for a moratorium on things—a temporary withdrawal from real objects during which the object analogue formed in consciousness may be examined as the origin of a new generating system (Architectural Design, August, 1970).

The situation won’t be righted by stepping back in order to get one’s “theoretical support structure” into good shape, and then returning to the fray ready to make fundamentally the same kind of art, albeit in some sense “improved.” Nor will it be righted by dropping the anomalies, or even by heightening them as the rule of practice. It may well be that, in the long run, it will not be righted at all. Or, if you want to employ analogies from Kuhn’s paradigms in science, while it might be possible to show that art has recently shifted from one paradigm (or set of paradigms), it cannot be shown that a new paradigm has developed for artists to shift to.4

In these circumstances, A&L hardly appears from the wings on a white charger waving the banner of its own activity as an alternative form of art—nor, indeed, as an alternative to art. What, then, does A&L see itself to be doing? A simple formula answer to this question is not available; nor should we expect it to be. Like any human activity, A&L’s is complex and many-sided; it has also been subject to change—constantly on surface levels, occasionally in radical depth. As I see it, the first radical change arose out of the instincts and practices of mid-’60s Conceptual art to a distinctively A&L set of intentions: to construct a complex methodology for nonspecialist critical discourse which would function in the “interstices” between some of the concepts and procedures raised thus far within specialisms such as art, philosophy, sociology, etc. The approaches used were, for example, relativism, “theory-trying,” recursivity, and falsification. This first shift began late 1968, early 1969, and is symbolized by the founding of the journal Art-Language. The current point of view differs as a result of responding to the difficulties, accumulating during the last three years, involved in realizing such a program. The concern now is focused more on exploring the logical, linguistic, and psychological sets which appear to be problematic in considering the possibility of a program such as the initial one—including, of course, consideration of its potential impossibility. It is, as a 1971 memo puts it, “a body of discourse that literally just searches; out of that “search” for what is necessary there is a form of skepticism in modality arrived at (or not) in this way.”

Perhaps the above concedes too much to the impulse of any “team performer” to display a united external front. Like any other group activity, dissent rather than consensus is internally typical—all notions, including (perhaps especially) those about the A&L point of view, are essentially contested concepts within A&L discussions.5 The proper use of concepts involves endless dispute about their proper use. This should start to indicate that the inquiry as a whole is not systematic, that it does not study objects in the world external to it and capable of providing “objective” adequacy criteria. It accepts no empirical tests for its sentences, no analytic axioms. Its criteria and modalities are discovered in process, generated by the “search,” and are all, in principle, regarded as ad hoc. A&L’s frequent use of material from established disciplines is heuristic—no obligations are necessarily felt to the material’s previous context of use.

A key characteristic of A&L work is its conversational thrust. The current focal concern is with the implications of various proposals for mapping the semantics and the ideologies of the intersubjective exchange which constitute these conversations. Charles Harrison’s essay “Mapping and Filing,” and Atkinson/Baldwin’s “The Index” give clear accounts of some such proposals (The New Art, Hayward Gallery, London, August–September, 1972, pp. 14–19). Of more intensive concern is the idiolectic dictionary currently being compiled by various English members of A&L, and the “Annotations,” an exchange of written and verbal commentary, currently being pursued by A&L members in New York.6

I cannot summarize this work, but I can give a partial impression of the character of some of the conversations by citing excerpts from notes sent to me in relation to writing this essay:

[Early] A&L seemed concerned to discuss, in conversation, the problem of the fundamentality of language (or language-dependent items), in relation to propositional attitudes instantiated in contexts of criticism . . . [There was a] programmatic concern with the reductions suggested particularly in “ordinary language” linguistic philosophy and in the philosophy of science . . . [This did not mean] theory-trying, [nor did it] entail a reference-class, e.g. “field of study”. . . . One wasn’t trying to provide an epistemology as aesthetics, or vice-versa. . . . There was the strain of not seeing the discourse at the opposite end of the cultural continuum from, e.g., the discourse of the scientific community.

Our position at one stage may have been that of a category analysis of languages. A metaphysical revision of the language at a Sellars sort of level. This, one suspects, was the surface of something more basic, from an ideological point of view. The requirements of a theory of art seemed in some basic way related to those of a theory of language (or a theory of the possibility of language). We believed that, except in some ideologically remote ways, a theory of this kind was a purely descriptive device. A hermeneutic aspect to the work, engaged with the idea of theoria, and thus to some extent prescriptive/prospective. . . .

The present state of the art might be said to be concerned with dealing with the problem of our context, the kinds of entailments that might exist in our social system, the network of our interpersonal relations—manifest in interactions, certain representative types of interactions regarded as central to the understanding of ideological, political and moral matters . . . [However] one can’t assume that the discourse functions in only one way, even though one might want to point to some primary functions, or note that specializations occur. . . . One breaks with traditional philosophy’s assumption that discourse functions in a restricted number of ways and always serves the same purpose, i.e., to do something like convey thoughts.

One is not dealing with out-and-out epistemology. Rather, the development of a semantics adequate to dealing with problems—that one’s situation is problematical is a basic tenet. Our activity might have to function in terms of a massive indexicality, a philosophically. This would require epistemic organization, revision etc. Considering sets of interrelated items may lead to progress towards finding out what instrumentalities our teleological priorities commit us to.

Much of the activity has been involved in self-description; indeed, a form of “self-description-trying.” A basis might be: if we describe whatever it is we are doing, how does that description alter what we are doing? There are of course no neutral descriptions, any description is relative to one point of view. Slogans: (i) “Analytic” 1969–70, (ii) “Theory-trying” 1971–72, (iii) “Talking to each other” 1972–73. (There was a sense in each of these of finding out what that particular description committed us to.) But our work doesn’t state an ideology, it shows one (or several).

[We] are concerned with pragmatics. That is, with problems, not idealist “good ideas” (like the past six years of Konzept Kunst), nor with realist “things in the world” (stuff like art objects). The latter enter into the A&L problematic but only in a secondary way . . . Giving primacy to problems links with our ideology, not our ontology. Thus (citing Hintikka correcting Quine in Reference and Modality, p. 153) we have to distinguish between what we are committed to in the sense that we believe it to exist in the world or in some other possible world,.and what we are committed to as part of our ways of dealing with the world conceptually, as part of our conceptual system. The former constitute our ontology, the latter our “ideology.”7

The current interest in A&L that turns on problems of intersubjectivity within the conversations is of little interest to at least two members: Joseph Kosuth and David Bainbridge. They would also, perhaps, find my formulation of the A&L point of view not merely inadequately descriptive of the thrust of their work, but also incapable of including their work. However, their anomalousness to the current range of A&L self-descriptions hardly rules them out of A&L altogether (although Bainbridge, as a matter of fact, recently chose to leave the group), for part of the dynamic of the group depends on the diversity of outlook of its members.

Nor is the concern with intersubjectivity a retreat into the hermetic. All members of A&L accept the obligation to publicness:

. . . we are not simply concerned with the simplistic idea of solving some of the problems of inter-subjectivity. There is the priority of making public—demonstrating the publicity of—the difficulties of talking to one another. The public paradigm and the repudiation of “private languages” is basic and central as a methodological thesis of the Art & Language Institute (The Art & Language Institute, Suggestions for a Map, Documenta 5, Kassel, 1972).

The hoped-for public is something like “the general (intelligent) reading public”—a reality to at least certain publishers. In practice, however, the immediate audience for A&L work lies in the art world. And most of the controversy surrounding A&L arises from its deliberate refusal to satisfy the requirements which this audience, including fellow artists, demands of any art. It is here that a series of crucial problems arises.

Obviously, given the nature of the A&L inquiry, such demands are unrealistic and impossible. When members of A&L review the work of other artists, it is usually in an effort to define oneself by contrast, to see what it is that one refuses to do. But there is also an implicit (sometimes explicit) attempt to change the ideologies of other artists. The tensions which occur in this situation, it appears, result from the incommensurability of the A&L point of view with the formalist, romantic, materialist theory-sets discussed above. For most of the debate the parties “talk through” each other, even at those rare moments when they might seem to be agreeing. The A&L inquiry does not differ from, say, the formalist theory-set in the same way that, say, Einstein’s physics differed from Newton’s. The latter seem to have some bases in common, making comparison possible (although if Kuhn is right, only seemingly, because both “paradigms” construe these bases differently and both are of sufficient magnitude to determine what such bases of comparison would be). There is no common measure between A&L and formalism because A&L is not a “deep” concept of art, nor are the theories about art which it examines and proposes definitive of it. What happens, rather, is that members of A&L address themselves to theoretical questions current in art-world debate from a point of view developed within an inquiry which, as I’ve shown, ranges far beyond art questions.

This dialogue takes some very odd forms. Rational argument is threatened by the fact that what counts as “rational” is determined by one’s point of view, one’s commitment. The available forms of exchange seem to be either the exertion of various psychological pressures, or the elaboration of one’s point of view until the other party, for reasons best known to himself, finally concedes its viability. More drastically, there is a sense in which it is impossible to fully understand a particular point of view without adopting it. This has been my experience with the A&L point of view, and it remains the cause of acute frustration to sympathetic critics of A&L. It follows that external conceptions of A&L cannot but be misconceptions. And that, as they say, would seem to be that.8

But the discussion won’t close itself down so easily. What seems, from my point of view, to be a misconception may well satisfy you as being accurate from your point of view. That is, if we both give up the prospect of persuading each other, we might still be able to refine our differing points of view by further discussion. Yet I am unwilling to settle for so little rationality. Having offered so far an outline of my own views of the present state of art, and a general account of what I take to be the A&L point of view, I want now to give some reasons why I consider the many versions of A&L currently abroad in the art world to be mistaken, incomplete, or irrelevant. While full understanding of another’s point of view is impossible externally, it is possible to understand more or less adequately the notion that there is an A&L point of view in art contexts, and that it has certain characteristic assumptions and modes of operation. To believe that “Art & Language” is an art movement would be a misunderstanding of this sort.

There is a further basic cause of the current misconceptions of A&L. The outline of the A&L point of view introduced here will be unrecognizable to many people because it does not seem to encompass the A&L work they know. It might be asked: Why have I said little of the essays in early issues ofArt-Language? What of the many exhibitions in galleries in England, Europe and, less often, in New York? What of the “early work” of Atkinson, Baldwin, Burn, Kosuth, Ramsden etc., so much a part of Conceptual art in the mid- and late 1960s? These questions perhaps occur because of a failure to notice the shifts in intuitions as to possibilities for inquiry that happened within A&L first in late 1968, early 1969, and again during 1971 and 1972. These shifts were to the point of view upon which I have concentrated so far; they were from an A&L which might be better known.

There is in A&L self-conceptions (or should be) no underplaying that the first glimpses of a possible inquiry of some interest were formed in the crucible of British philosophy of language and the mid-1960s immediate post-Minimal art context. There are no apologies for this not having been a “clean and easy birth.” Nor is there any current feeling of obligation to past failures, or successes. For the ongoing A&L discourse the import of one’s history is only its usefulness for the ongoingness of that discourse as of now; however, this is by definition no answer to those external to A&L. So let’s see what answers can be given.

A&L is visual art in the forms of writing/words/text/book.

This view is based on two mistaken assumptions: that A&L’s typical mode of presentation is typed words on sheets of paper arranged along a gallery wall, and that this mode is somehow essential to the “meaning” of the essays so presented. The truth is that articles in journals, lectures, seminars, and above all conversations, are the typical presentational modes of A&L work, and that while gallery displays are “baggage” unavoidable in the art context within which A&L partially operates, they are incidental to what is being said in the essays etc. To persist in the belief that this criticism of A&L counts is to fail to see past the fallacy that innovation in art takes place primarily (if not essentially) in terms of morphological change. Some have even used this contention in an effort to reduce the whole A&L enterprise to an avant-gardist ploy of questioning the nature of art by (trivial) innovations in the use of materials.9 This is as mistaken antipathetically as the odd idea of “book as artwork“ is mistaken sympathetically in relation to A&L.10

A slightly more sophisticated misconception along these lines is to regard A&L essays as post-Duchampian Readymades, as qualifying “as art” under the McLuhanesque rubric of “art is whatever you can get away with in the art context.” Where this idea does have some bearing, the situation was quite the reverse—one of the first ideas to surprise Atkinson, Bainbridge, Baldwin, and Hurrell in 1966–67 was the question: what is implied when an artwork is taken out of the art context and placed in one where it doesn’t function as art? It should be obvious that there are many, much easier ways of doing the simple thing of controversially locating something in the art context than the kind and depth of work that typifies A&L.

When the “irreducible visuality” of visual art is raised against A&L and other nonconforming art, what is perhaps nascent is a rallying to the gates against barbarous threats to the integrity of the category “art.” But if the concept of art is consensually an open one, we can’t demand that all candidates first qualify under such closed concepts as “painting,” “sculpture,” etc. So it is at least contentious that “visuality” is a necessary (not to say sufficient) condition of something’s being art.

Others might want to argue, not from necessary qualities (properties), but from definitional cases. That is, visual art should properly approximate its indisputable artworks, literary art its exemplary instances, and so on. Synthetic or hybrid forms are permissible, on this view, but they are importantly components of already constituted categories. In this light A&L becomes hybrid visual art, literature, philosophy, etc.

As Wartofsky has noted, when we are caught in a categorical ambiguity, we have three possible courses of action: to resolve the ambiguity by incorporating the problematic case into our habitual canon; to revise our canon radically, perhaps to the point of replacing it; or to leave the ambiguity unresolved and manipulate very different and perhaps mutually exclusive canons at will or as the occasion demands. He calls these options “conservative,” “radical,” and “opportunistic” respectively. It should be clear by now that the first and second are not readily available with regard to A&L. As he goes on to say:

Anti-art, non-art, end-of-art are claims not so much against art, but against the category within which art is framed; that is, they are not so much demands for an end to categorization, as for an end to a specific categorization, and for a recategorization.11

A&L members are not indifferent to the incessant recategorizing epidemic in art talk, but it is hard to imagine just what a recategorization which included A&L would be like. So, at most, A&L has an “opportunist” position on this question.

The “art” in A&L writings lies in the style in which they are written.

This is an extension of the above misconception—a shift from how the work is displayed to the manner in which it is written/spoken, while still avoiding what is said. To Lippard “ . . . words, thoughts, tortuous systems are their material”(Six Years, New York, 1973, p. 151), while Collins ridicules what he calls “Joycean prose” and “intellectual collaging” (Artforum, May, 1973), as if A&L members willfully sought out recondite philosophical exotica, rendered it meaningless, then presented their lists according to some hermetic principle—or (dreadful thought!) according to no esthetic principles at all.

Collins’ criticisms are reminiscent of the famous misdescription “explosion in a shingle mill,” as applied by Julian Street to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and by Howard Devree to Pollock’s method (New York Times, March 25, 1945); all three utterly failed to grasp the ordering principles operative in the work. Insofar as there are similarities in the manners in which A&L texts are written, it is simply because the authors are, in the first instance, trying to communicate with each other—they are in constant and close conversation, share many of the same attitudes, read many of the same books, etc. One of these attitudes is an ambivalent skepticism toward all “given” forms and methodologies, as well as one’s own. So it is hardly surprising that the clarity of expression which follows from even relative certainty as to one’s aims and traditions is absent. The obligation to publicness does not extend to adopting the “style” of appearing more certain than one is of what one is saying—as scientists, for example, tend to do.12 A&L conversations do cover complex, difficult, often intractable subjects—surely no one wants to claim that broad public comprehensibility is the measure of the validity of any statement, in art contexts or out.

The question really is this simple. While one can hardly avoid dealing with the “esthetics” of one’s mode of presentation, to regard such “noise” as the “message” of the whole of an A&L information display is myopic distortion. It is really to demand that a quality of “artness,” susceptible of “esthetic contemplation,” must be central to any situation which claims to have a bearing on art. This is not an argument, but an exhortation to A&L members to subscribe to a notion of the autonomy of art which they have frequently attacked. This fallacy compromises Bruce Boice’s more sympathetic complaint: “Their sentences tend more towards 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 and examining any such theories” (Artforum, March, 1973, p. 86).

A&L in relation to philosophy.

For example, Boice sees A&L’s “basic aims” as “presenting some sort of philosophical analysis of art theories and art questions in general.” While this was an early aim, it is now an incidental one. Lippard worries about not having feedback on A&L “from the linguistic philosophers they emulate,” and amusingly characterizes A&L members as inhabiting “a land of Quine and Rroses” (Six Years, p. 263, p. 151). Others are less polite: bad philosophy, comic philosophy, half-dressed estheticians, artists disporting themselves in foreign fields, irresponsibly ignorant of the rules, etc.

The A&L inquiry is not, has never been, nor ever claimed to have been, a philosophy of any sort. This is not to say that it is independent of philosophical inquiry, but simply to expose the crudity of the sequence: A studying B, and A making use of B, makes A a form of B. Any map of A&L reading over the past six years would have to take Russell, Austin, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Tarski, Quine, Husserl, Frege, Kierkegaard, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Chomsky, Fodor and Katz, Martin, Hintikka, Apostel and others as major landmarks. But, while A&L members often do use the methodological rules employed by these and other philosophers, they see no reason to slavishly follow the ways these philosophers use the rules, simply because their aims are different. Likewise, they do not feel confined to what most philosophers take to be the proper scope of philosophical inquiry. Indeed, the philosophers used by A&L members are often those who are deeply questioning received rules and definitions of “proper scope.” Philosophy compromised by assumptions of autonomy is of little interest. One instinct that has persisted from the beginning of A&L has been an urge towards a nonspecialized openness of inquiry. Just this openness is crucial to its reason for being.

A&L as a form of Conceptual art.

There is no doubt that A&L emerged in the mid- and later 1960s from many of the same impulses as other post-Minimal, “Conceptual” art. The first issue of Art-Language (May, 1969) bore the flyer ‘The journal of conceptual art’ (subsequently dropped), contained Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on conceptual art,“ a “Poem-Schema” by Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner’s “Statements,” as well as an introduction by Terry Atkinson in which he suggested that “an art form can evolve by taking as a point of initial inquiry the language-use of the art society,” language-use in “both plastic art itself and its support languages.” He devoted most of the essay to speculating about what would be involved in proposing the essay he was writing for candidature as an artwork.

That artists should want, as an aspect of their activity as artists, to inquire into the language of art discourse and into language itself, were impulses crucial to the genesis of A&L but not unique to Atkinson et al. at this time. More definitive was their coming to see such inquiry as central and, eventually, as exclusive of “normal” art practices and attitudes because the newly acquired vantage point made it inescapably obvious that “normal” art was so contradictory, compromised, and anomalous that any return to it was impossible. The steps toward this vantage point were no more free from compromise, contradiction, and anomaly than any other post-Minimal art in that confused time. But they were steps which eventually led out of at least that set of confusions.

A version of the crudest notion of Conceptual art, the use of “ideas” as a new material, informed the presentation of pieces of linguistic analysis as art in such works as Atkinson/Baldwin’s French Army and Hot/Cold, 1967, Kosuth’s Second Investigation, 1968, Ramsden’s Six Negatives, 1968. The regarding of “support” discussions of such art as art is assumed in, for example, Burn’s “Read Premiss” for Six Negatives, 1969, Atkinson et al., Lecher System, 1970, Bainbridge’s Notes on M1, 1969. But after this we see the growth of something qualitatively different from these mere “extensions” of normal art practice—we see the growth of the A&L point of view such as I’ve described, an activity constituting itself as inquiry uncircumscribed by even covert demands that it bear some relation, however indirect, to “art theories and art questions.” Of course, the inquiry may have such a bearing and often does, but such a bearing was no longer definitive nor was it claimed to be an adequate justification of it.

Therefore, developed A&L is different not just in degree but in kind from its “Conceptual art” origins. Its basic aims, and its methodologies, differ radically from those of Conceptual art—indeed, of any recognized art. No matter how diverse and seemingly new its aspect, all post-Minimal, Conceptual art subsists under one or other, or some combination of, those formalist, romantic, or materialist theory-sets which I discussed near the beginning of this essay. Committed as they are to one or another of these theory-sets, critics have failed to see this distinction of kind, and tend to see it as a difference of degree, with the early work foremost in their minds.13 Like most of the other misconceptions we have reviewed, this is a natural mistake in the context of the hostility, wariness and/or indifference which surrounds A&L.

Terry Smith



1. T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Cambridge, 1962, and Chicago, 1970 (the latter has an important postscript).

2. See W. B. Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1955–56, pp. 167-98; and M. Weitz, “Open Concepts,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Vol. 99/100, 1972, pp. 86-110.

3. For example, T. Atkinson, “From an Art & Language Point of View,” Art-Language, February, 1970, pp. 25–60; J. Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” Studio International, October, November, December, 1969; P. Pilkington and D. Rushton, Concerning the Paradigm of Art, Editions Bischofberger, Zürich, 1970, and Analytical Art, no. I, July, 1971.

4. Point made by T. Atkinson and M. Baldwin, “Some post-war American work and Art & Language: ideological responsiveness,” Studio International, April, 1972.

5. See E. Coffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York, 1959, chap. 2.

6. In England: Terry Atkinson, Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison, Graham Howard, Harold Hurrell, Phillip Pilkington, David Rushton. In New York: Ian Burn, Michael Corris, Preston Heller, Joseph Kosuth, Michael Krugman, Andrew Menard, Mel Ramsden, Terry Smith.

7. Respectively, Baldwin, Burn, Ramsden; all early 1973.

8. These remarks attempt to deal with comments made by Lynda Morris after an early version of this essay was given in a lecture to the Royal College of Art, London, June 7, 1973. They are based on Wittgenstein, e.g. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. C. Barrett, Oxford, 1966; T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; P. K. Feyerabend, “Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge,” Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 1970, IV; essays by Popper, Masterman, Feyerabend, Lakatos and Kuhn in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Cambridge, 1970; and others. See important objections by R. Trigg, Reason and Commitment, Cambridge, 1973.

9. For example, J. Collins, “Things and Theories,” Artforum, May, 1973.

10. G. Celant, Book As Artwork, Nigel Greenwood Inc., London, 1973.

11. “Art, Action and Ambiguity,” forthcoming, The Monist, April, 1974. The idea of “opportunism” in this sort of context is extensively explored in I. Burn and M. Ramsden, A Dithering Device, Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, 1973.

12. See J. Ziman, Public Knowledge: The Social Dimension of Science, Cambridge, 1968, especially chap. 3.

13. For example, L. Borden, Artforum, June, 1972; M. Kozloff, Artforum, September, 1972; C. Ratcliff, Art International, November, 1972.