PRINT February 2003


Alexander Alberro's Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity

CONCEPTUAL ART HAS COME TO OCCUPY AN increasingly prominent position within the array of movements that sprang to life out of the ashes of formalist modernism. As both a synoptic moment in the development of avant-garde art and a symbol of its (ultimately unfulfilled) critical negativity, it seems to hold open the promise of the ’60s in a qualitatively different way from other, closely related types of art. However, despite this emblematic significance, not only do the political meaning and artistic legacy of Conceptual art remain uncertain, but its very notion is still hotly contested. The art-historical task of recovery and reconstruction is thus accompanied here by a pressing need for critical reflection on the effectivity of past works within the present. Academic discourses on art are, on the whole, ill-equipped to meet this need, since it requires taking a position on the historical meaning of the present, which is an inherently political task.

Alexander Alberro’s Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity makes a claim for the contemporaneity of Conceptual art not, as one might expect, on the basis of its ongoing critical potential but on the grounds of its wider symptomatic significance as an artistic enactment of the “deeper logic of informatization”—a term borrowed from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire to denote the latest mode of capitalist production. In this conception, an informational economy is one characterized by a high proportion of service industries in which jobs are “highly mobile and involve flexible skills” centered on “knowledge, information affect and communication.” The conventional view of Conceptual art as, at least in part, resistant to the commodity form of the art object is thus turned on its head: Conceptual art appears as the avant-garde precursor of a new historical form of commodification.

Robert Barry, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, and Carl Andre at the Windham College Symposium, Putnam, Vermont, 1968.

The means of this provocative reversal is a shift of focus, away from critical debates about what is to count as Conceptual art and what makes Conceptual art critical, onto the innovative exhibition, publicity, and distribution practices that were required in order to establish art-world careers for a small group of conceptually oriented artists between 1968 and 1970. Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity focuses exclusively on the activities of the “conceptual art dealer and entrepreneur” Seth Siegelaub in New York between 1964 and 1971. (Siegelaub’s name really ought to be in the title.) It is an “investigation of the emergence of conceptual art through the lens of Siegelaub’s involvement”—which also means, via the work of the four main artists with whom Siegelaub was associated: Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner.

The bulk of the book comprises chapters on works by these artists as promoted by Siegelaub, along with a separate treatment of the famous “Xerox Book” show of December 1968 (a book, publicized as an exhibition, in which seven artists were allocated twenty-five pages each to present their work in photocopied form, in order to minimize the significance of the visual aspect. Ironically, this turned out to be too expensive on a large scale, once Xerox refused sponsorship, and the artists’ photocopies were thus duplicated by a regular printing press.) There are also accounts of Siegelaub’s early and final promotional activities, charting his increasingly active collaboration in the production of work, as he moved from “dealer” via “consultant” or “organizer of information” to “catalyst” for the artistic process itself. For if, as Siegelaub argued, Conceptual art is an art in which forms of information traditionally regarded as “secondary” to the work become the “primary information” of the work itself, there is no longer any necessary material distinction between the work and its publicity. Publicity can now become part of the documentary materiality of the work itself. Finally, in line with Hardt and Negri’s use of the concept of informatization, Alberro emphasizes the fact that Siegelaub’s “Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement” defends artists’ interests wholly within the terms of the commodity form. (The agreement was a model contract for the sale of art that, among other things, gave artists a continuing financial interest in increases in the sumptuary value of their work. It was Siegelaub’s main contribution to the activities generated by the Art Workers Coalition, which agitated to give artists greater control over the use of their work.)

This is in many ways a bold and suggestive book. It also displays the strengths characteristic of the historical case study: empirical detail and close analysis. (The account of the generative significance of the April 1968 show of work by Carl Andre, Barry, and Weiner organized by Siegelaub at Windham College, and the chapter on Huebler, for instance, are particularly useful.) But it courts the attendant dangers of misleading generalization and the reinforcement of received ideas. These dangers are exacerbated by the fact that Alberro’s critical position is, by and large, simply (albeit somewhat ambivalently) stated as a framework for the historical study, as if each might benefit from the mere proximity of the other, by a kind of textual osmosis, without the need for a sustained argumentative elaboration of ideas.

Alberro is well aware of the vast and contested field of “Conceptual art” excluded by his restriction of the scope of his study (he lists some of its main features at the outset), but he goes ahead with his general claims nonetheless, as though acknowledgment of the limitation were somehow adequate compensation for its costs. Yet the main lacuna is found not so much in the book’s empirical scope as in the lack of a theoretical analysis that might bridge the gap between the particularity of its subject matter and the generality of its claims. As it is, acceptance of the Siegelaub/Kosuth understanding of “Conceptual art,” combined with Alberro’s reliance on Baudrillard’s account of the “sign-value” of the commodity (quite different, incidentally, from Hardt and Negri’s use of the idea of immaterial labor), prejudges most of the major critical issues in a manner that leaves several of Alberro’s historical claims looking spurious. (Hardt and Negri emphasize changes in the form of value-producing labor, whereas Baudrillard switches the site of the production of value from the labor process to the sphere of circulation.) In this respect, the book retains the field of vision of the notoriously closed historical optic of its two main protagonists, Siegelaub and Kosuth.

Advertisement for Douglas Huebler exhibition, Artforum, November 1968.

Some examples. First, Alberro’s idea that Conceptual art is “inherently contradictory” because it is inscribed within the commodity form that it strove to escape fails to distinguish it from a whole range of other forms of avant-garde art in the twentieth century. To do so, economic analysis of the historical specificities of different kinds of art-commodity would be required. Reference to Baudrillard fails to provide such distinction since his is an account of a stage in the evolution of commodities in general. Yet the fact that there is something different, and difficult, about the commodity status of this kind of art is the presupposition of the whole analysis—otherwise Siegelaub would not have been needed, historically, to invent new distributive forms. Here, despite himself, Alberro falls into that dualism of art-as-commodity and art-as-art that vitiates the attempt of most sociologies of art to do more than provide historical materials for criticism. If commodification is historically constitutive of the social form of artistic autonomy, and such autonomy is a condition of art’s critical function, as Adorno argued, the bare fact of commodification alone will not take us very far, analytically or politically.

Second, Alberro presents the development of a logic of instruction-performance-documentation in Huebler’s work during 1968 as historically novel—indeed, as a “completion” of Smithson—in such a way as to require Siegelaub’s new forms of marketing. As a result, it is argued, “it was Siegelaub, rather than the artists, who most thoroughly explored the specific operation of the institutional and contextual parameters that cordon off the work of art.” Yet this logic was a staple of the practice of a group of artists later associated with Fluxus (notably George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and Robert Morris) as early as 1962. The novelty was in neither the logic of production, nor in the fact of distribution, but in Siegelaub’s pursuit of a specific art-market form. Fluxus set up various alternative, rather different, distributive mechanisms. (One can imagine a companion volume to Alberro’s about George Maciunas rather than Siegelaub.) The economic form of Siegelaub’s marketing was thus in no way compelled by the artistic form of the work. Maciunas and Siegelaub represent historical alternatives. It would have been more interesting to compare the two than to present Siegelaub as the bearer of economic necessity. The argument from success is circular, as Walter Benjamin had reason to remind us.

Third, the foreclosure of the horizon of possibility concerning alternative types of distribution derives from a highly restricted deployment of the concept of publicity. In accordance with Siegelaub’s practice, Alberro treats publicity as a dimension of marketing; its egalitarian associations are confined to the “democracy” of the market. Hence the contradiction detected within Conceptual art’s “pursuit of publicness.” But this is a critically arbitrary restriction in the face of the rich theoretical literature on public spheres highlighting the plurality of modes of publicity as cultural forms. The self-restricting character of Alberro’s discourse here marks an unresolved tension within it between art-historical and more strictly critical concerns. It is a scar of the academic division of labor.

Finally, Alberro emphasizes the importance of Kosuth’s Second Investigation (first presented December 1968–January 1969) to the artist’s conception of the independence of an art idea from its presentational form. The works were shown as anonymous advertisements in newspapers and periodicals. Alberro acknowledges Kosuth’s “prompting” by Lee Lozano and Dan Graham, but there is no analysis of the latter’s historically more important earlier uses of the form; nor is there mention of related but different earlier uses of magazines by Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson. Bochner’s role as a teacher of Kosuth also goes unremarked. This might be unobjectionable if this were merely a case study of the Siegelaub artists, but it becomes questionable given the generality of the claims made here. To have inquired further in this direction would have destabilized Kosuth and Siegelaub’s highly restricted notion of “Conceptual art.”

None of these criticisms detract from the wealth of detail in Alberro’s historical reconstructions. But they do highlight the overreaching—at best, underargued—character of the book’s central claims. These claims have a politics of publicity of their own.

Peter Osborne is professor of modern European philosophy at Middlesex University and the author, most recently, of Conceptual Art (Phaidon).


Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, 239 pages.