PRINT May 1986


THE ENGLISH ARTISTS CALLED Art & Language, it has been said, have “never had a world view. [They have ] had projects. These have largely been determined by a sense of the need critically and contingently to address the culture of Modernism, and the agency which that culture is and reflects and misrepresents.” When Modernism presents a “self-image as a dynamic culture,” it obscures “the economic and political agencies which are the real limits on its autonomy . . . ”1 Art & Language’s new series, “Index: Incident in a Museum,” l985–, represents these misrepresentations by dropping us in the museum environment, experienced as an indifferent, claustrophobically closed, almost nightmarishly insular space where pictures or fragments of pictures are presented with bland matter-of-factness, almost as though they were the mechanical reflexes—tics—of the walls on which they hang. The museum’s hermetic character signals the oppressive reality of modem society and the limitations that the museum as an institution puts on Modern art. The Whitney Museum of American Art is the site that Art & Language has chosen in order to represent the museum as institution. There may be a special American point in the appropriation of this museum, representing the Americanization and institutionalization of art in general, for the Whitney shows only American art, and, with its Biennial exhibitions, it has become a circus of equivalents and pluralist entertainment. There is also the fact that the Whitney building—with its Modernist floor and ceiling grids, and its conception by Marcel Breuer, a classical Modernist architect—is itself a target of appropriation in Michael Graves’ proposed expansion of it, an extra “appropriate” stratum which Art & Language may or may not have intended.

When, as in the series of canvases in “Index . . . ,” pieces of an un-Modernistic painting “realistically” represent an act of social oppression, they become lost in the museum’s space and its crowd of paintings, neutralized as one among many—or perhaps unwittingly punned on as windows to the world (the Whitney window looking out on Madison Avenue). They are also displayed as examples of a kind of style, rather than for their subject matter. For Art & Language the museum has become a demonstration of the contrasting variety of styles, keeping up the illusion of art’s autonomy, which style perpetuates, and obscuring the fact that by being taken strictly as a matter of style art becomes as oppressed and oppressive as economic and political reality—part of the System. The museum, and art’s own expectation that its destiny is the museum, keeps art on a leash, so that it will never spring at us with any threatening revelations of reality.

The attack on the Modernist fiction of art’s autonomy is Art & Language’s basic ongoing project. What gives it new life and mystery is the fact that for the last few years the group has carried it on not simply by critical discourse about art, but by the production of critical material works of art. In the early ’80s, their paintings of their studio represented the place of art’s production. Now, with “Index: Incident in a Museum,” they represent the place of art’s distribution. Built into these works are issues regarding Art & Language’s ostensible move from “language” to overt “art-making,” a change that raises the question of whether their previous “critical scrutiny of technical and generative systems” has not been sacrificed to the “manual dexterity” that they have repudiated as “conceptually over-valued in art.”2 If they are cashing in the chips, as it were, of the earlier analytic gambling that they carried out in written texts, aren’t they contradicting their own original critical intention, which gave them so much credibility? In creating their own dynamic self-image, haven’t they become trendy, where they were once revolutionary and out of step with the art world? They have always functioned critically, that is, as a “meta-agency” of art; have they simply become one more talent agency of it? Have they succumbed to ’80s grandiosity: grand-scale object/image making? Is their new “objectification” a mirror image of their old criticality, more socially acceptable than in its language form? Is their new work further evidence that criticality has become cosmetic in ’80s culture, one more “dynamic” surface of a “dynamic” society in which it is as comfortable to be critical—of society and art itself—these days as to be uncritical? Is the answer either/ or, or both/and? The power and importance of these works is in their self-contradictoriness—in the way they articulate the appropriation/autonomy dialectic that informs much significant art-making today.

These indexical pictures can be regarded as properly naming institutional Modern art and symptoms of the social disease it is. More frightening yet, they show only phantom limbs of art. Their materiality articulates art’s illusion of “heft and puissance,” “substance,” and “autonomy” in the museum spectacle that castrates it. Erwin W Straus has written, “Facing the world through the antagonistic cooperation of gravitational and antigravitational forces I experience my body as ‘heft’ and ‘puissance.’ . . . The limbs . . . as extensions to the trunk, [are] characterized through direction, reach and boundaries . . . the potential reach—once firmly established—persists as phantom, even after the loss of limb.”3 Art & Language shows us that the body of art is also subject to the gravitational force of the institutions-political/economic agencies—through which it faces the world, but which in the very act of presenting it to the world rob it of the “reach” that gives it substance. Once this reach has been established, it remains as an illusion.

Art & Language show their “teeth” when they imply that the art machine is simply another form of money—an abstraction that looks like material—and the museum is a sedate bank in which one can look at the money in the vault. The paintings also function like the teeth in the harrowing machine in Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony: they mean to make art feel guilty over the quality of its existence. There is a severe moralistic purpose to this work. It is a harrowing of art as it lies dying in the museum, cooperating.

In Art & Language’s twelve “Portraits of V. I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock,” 1978–80, and “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in the Style of Jackson Pollock,” 1980, the first paintings to ironically mix codes of representation (Russian and American, realist and abstract, the socially and artistically revolutionary), they seemed to be dealing directly with the death of art through institutionalization and commercialization. In the new works, the museum is used to demonstrate the jumble of artistic codes that can be made to flow into—hook up with—each other. The museum as a whole is the perfect post-Modern art work. Today, from the post-Modernist perspective, world as well as art history have become a museum. The Pollock-style pictures embalm the political misrepresentations for which Pollock’s supposedly apolitical “spontaneity” was recruited during the Cold War. As Art & Language said in a song they wrote in 1980, “Art, for Jackson Pollock, / Was inner necessity. / But it was surplus value / Got his place in history.’’4 The lyrics have Lenin saying, ”If you think culture’s revolution / Stick it up your arse.“ The implied extension is ”If you think revolution’s culture, / Stick it up your arse.“ And, ”if you think revolution’s revolution and culture’s culture / Stick them up your arse."

Index: Incident in a Museum (3) and (4) both offer a Jasper Johns type of picture: a Chinese box of paintings, in which the images under scrutiny are reduced as they repeat, theoretically ad infinitum, in a museum space continuous with our space. In Index . . . (3) the word “Surf”—short for “surfeit”—is written in works of different sizes, suggesting a “pop” type glut, its redundancy correlate with its commodity reification. The mix between linguistic and visual modes of signification, another of the group’s uses of détente, is characteristic of these works. In Index . . . (4), sections of a work in the “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in the Style of Jackson Pollock” series and a realist painting of a street incident line up on the back wall. A full view of the realist picture is blocked by a piece based on an Art & Language poster from 1975, showing a schematized worker figure holding a sign that says, “The artist, the ideologist WITHOUT VIRTUE, is just like ANYONE ELSE without virtue: his TERROR is GRATUITOUS-SUICIDAL.” I take this “slogan” to refer both to Pollock’s presumed existential terror and “gratuitous-suicidal” behavior (presumably reflected in his chaotic, “anxious” painting—Pollock the ideologist of angst) and to the person for whom the police have come in the esthetically unsophisticated, schlocky, “bad,” political/realist painting which is half blocked from view here and which can only be seen in full in a separate study. This continued linking brings together supposedly political/realist and supposedly existential/abstract paintings in a single Art & Language painting, canceling out both—demonstrating their neutralization into mere museum styles. The innermost image within the work’s Chinese box of images shows only the lower-right corner of the abstract expressionist painting and the lower-left corner of the realist painting, a sly way of suggesting how each loses autonomy and becomes ideological: the Pollock becomes a rightist tool, the realist painting a leftist one. Both, after all, are pictures in an institution, of equal validity and value as trophies of art, representing the opposing sides of the parliament of art that a museum is. Down the right edge of Index . . . (4) are two partial images incorporating what looks like René Magritte’s handwriting, one of a horse representing “the modern historical consc,” the other a Johnsian jug labeled “the Walter Benjamin.” Are these clichés of vision and understanding? Are they surreal allegories, the displaced center of the work? The actual center is a void.

In 1980, Art & Language said they wanted to show “the conceptual problems of the relations of representation” (which are of “two sorts: ‘descriptive’ or denotative and genetic”), especially “the genetic ‘link’ [that] is either neglected or fuzzed into description. We need to rummage around between pictures and representations and the world before we can go on to explore the consequences for the higher reaches.”5 In the new series—ongoing at this writing, and including many studies—they have not only successfully articulated their wish with the depiction of the museum as producer, but punished art by bringing it to painful self-recognition. They have shown that criticality begins at home in art that criticizes the situation of art and in art that criticizes the institutions that house it. Far from thinking themselves immune to the questions of institutionalization, Art & Language’s very presentation in this work suggests that everybody’s autonomy—even theirs—is affected. In one of the paintings they show pages of earlier texts plastered on the museum’s walls beside a fragment of another painting with the word “too?”

The Renaissance perspective in “Index: Incident in a Museum” fixes the spectator as only quasi autonomous. We, who imagine we stand outside the picture, are part of its system, here indicated by way of the controlling perspective. The vice of the perspective is the final touch to these works, for it confirms the spectator’s institutionalization by the museum. Like the artist, the spectator imagines that the institution exists for him or her, but in fact he or she exists for the institution. This dilemma—the dilemma in art and selfhood today—is what Art & Language’s new work is about. If there is masochism in remaining stuck on the horns of the dilemma, there is also the courage to face the pressure of the century’s prolonged, inescapable emergency laconically.

Donald Kuspit is the editor of Art Criticism, published at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is a regular contributor to Artforum.



1. Charles Harrison and Fred Orton, A Provisional History of Art & Language (Paris: Editions E. Fabre, 1982), p. 4.

2. Ibid., p. 76.

3. Erwin W. Straus, “The Phantom Limb,” Aisthesis and Aesthetics (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1970), pp. 147–48.

4. Harrison and Orton, p. 70.

5. Art & Language, “Portrait of V. I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock,” Artforum vol. 18 no. 6. February 1980. p. 35.