Art & Language: Five Edited Extracts.
As the discursivity of the text increased, so the remaining sense of it as ‘readymade-by-description-or-ostension’ weakened still further. Similarly, as the text ceased to function as a form that usurped the place of painting on the gallery wall, in the manner of one of Kosuth’s ‘Definitions’, so the legacy of the containing frame also diminished. As both effects weakened, so did the power of those formal constraints on the length of the text that characterised the ‘definitive’ post-Minimal genres of Conceptual art as they were established in New York between 1967 and 1969. It was our experience at this point that the lack of formal constraint on the extent of the text allowed the mechanisms internal to its discursive production to take over. What drove the discourse in practice was not now the need to produce the brief illusions of transparency, but those recursive and dialogical processes by which the discourse itself was pursued and continued. This was a crucial moment in the establishment of what might be described as a new genre …
Consider then, the idea of the work of art as an essay that gives voice – often a ventriloquist’s voice and form – to a project. Consider further that this form is a fragment lopped off from a conversation – a performance of sorts that is always under the pain of erasure, conceived as both form and social reality. Finally, consider the possibility that ‘“This is the work.” “I don’t think so”,’ is the work. (2006)
This postmodern settlement has created an expanding and often confusing range of difficulties and opportunities, affecting the interests of both artists and institutions. A typical opportunity might be characterised thus: a partnership – i.e. a collusion – between a sponsor, a curating institution and an artist. The curating institution (call it Tate Modern) gets a crowd-puller and the publicity attendant upon spectacle; the sponsor shares the publicity that speaks of innovation and high culture; and the artist receives the opportunity to work in a grander than grand manner, and the consequent public status of a minor celebrity. There are many other forms of this relationship. Indeed, we might say that the fabric of the art-world has been largely composed of them for some time.
These were conditions that bore upon the emergence of our own practice and that afforded us our own earliest opportunities. Here were new opportunities for career development, for the formal and material expansion of the work, for development of an aesthetics of critical complexity, and for upward social mobility as the artist was liberated from the requirements of craftsmanship to order belt-way technology by phone; opportunities also to exploit the distributive potential of the institution, and to develop new managerial and organisational skills. At the same time, the effective convergence of interests between artist and institution led to erosion of the privilege associated with the autonomous and contained artwork, and to the consequent displacement of the Wollheimian gentleman – the ‘adequately sensitive, adequately informed spectator’ – from his (sic) role as the prime arbiter of significance and value in the experience of art. What could go wrong?
Here’s what went wrong. This moment of liberation was also a moment in which a plethora of unwanted and unbearable determinations began to press. As artists are remade in sparkling white-collar mode, they join the ranks of the institutional management. Far from producing a critique of the institution, they become complicit in creating the falsehood that the institution is the cure and not the disease – that the critique of the modern art institution is something best left to its functionaries. The fact that these functionaries may have been among the dissenters from a cultural ethos does not mean that the institution’s socially negative effects will be overcome. Management supplies a discursive and practical frame in which curiosity and inquiry are understood only in terms of its own instrumental closures. The consistent and predictable one-idea artwork is readily conscripted to these ends. The consequence is a neurotic compact between artist/curator and institution. The institution demands a predictable form of excess as an embellishment or furtherance of its hegemonic interests, and the artist/curator strives unself-critically to supply it, in the process struggling to outdo the last spectacle to which his or her name could be attached.
There are no failures possible here. So long as the goods are as specified and described, they are guaranteed to rule out the horrors of alienation and deflation, save in the picturesque of the abject and its cognates. The institution has demonstrated its democratic power. In abandoning all memory of education, deflation and critical negativity, it procures the artist as a minor enabler of its new status as celebrity venue. Armed with public relations, the artist waits for his or her share of that celebrity or, if he/she somehow outranks the institution in this regard, is flattered by its further confirmation. (2007)
In his book The Laws of Cool what Liu seeks to describe is a ‘truly new art’ propagating within the corpse of the avant-garde. The mark of this new art as he conceives it is a ‘viral aesthetics that at once mimes and critiques knowledge work so as to circumvent the corporate tumour that “creativity” has become. Viral aesthetics’, he claims ‘invents an alternative mode of productivity resident within the other dark lobe of contemporary creativity – to coin a term, destructivity.”(p 327)
We need to bear in mind that Liu remains resolutely within the ambit of the Humanities as they are more or less conventionally taught and studied in universities and similar institutions. As a consequence of this, he has a necessarily limited view of the art world, and of the determinations that are associated with it. Indeed, he retains a somewhat romanticised picture of such notions as creativity and its cognates. What he proposes is a recast version of Philip Sidney’s ‘diviner, soldier and critic’, adding to this triumvirate the figure of the ‘hacker’. The examples he cites as instances of ‘creative destructivity’ are, if we understand his metaphor correctly, only too vulnerable to being redescribed as mere excrescences of the corporate tumour. Far from reducing it, in their various ways they add to its mass. (2008)
The attendant aesthetic of the corporate tumour is an aesthetic of embellishment and spectacle. The institution expands in order to reproduce its own form. Art is the sign of the beneficence of corporate narcissism. Before art is subject to any sort of internal ‘interpretation’, it is required to satisfy certain mediate needs of the institution – encoded with a measure of clarity and drama – as these are projected onto the development of the corporate tumour.
It would seem that an endogenously applied artists’ aesthetics has been largely superseded by corporate taste, which is the aesthetics of corporate narcissism. What now stands in for an aesthetic discourse is the market jargon and celebrity romance of the sub-corporate supplier – a pragmatism sustained superveningly by one form or another of adolescent theatre. Of course, this does not mean that there are not passing theories and fashions informing the decisions of artists regarding what they offer to the Leviathan. But if we conceive of aesthetics as a set of theories, rules and precepts regarding the historical, psychological and social trajectory of the work of art, conceived as in some irritable relation with its determining conditions, then we might say that there is now indeed an art without aesthetics, albeit it may itself be subject to some form of definition – implicit or explicit – by the set of theories from which it claims its independence.
What follows is that artists’ working theories are now a strange mishmash of institutional (anti-subjective) canniness and the old ‘autonomous’ (subjectivist) theory. Artists still talk the talk of autonomy.
Why, for example, while the paradigmatic artwork is Duchampian, are the self-reflections of the artist paradigmatically romantic? Answer: while the Duchampian artwork enables the expansion of management, as the competence of management expands, so the workplace conceived as a productive site becomes increasingly and necessarily fictionalised and romanticised. The artist who wants a career will learn how to inhabit that contradiction – will know the truths of life and death without being able to tell the truth about management. The artist is thus a necessary personification of a fiction. (2009)
While the essays that appear in Portraits and a Dream have all appeared in academic and artworld publications, they now compose the textual content of an artwork. They have undergone a transformation over and above the adjustments that have been made to the texts themselves, that sees them recategorised as a distinct genre. This is a genre that emerged in the late 1960s: the (partly discursive wall display of ‘textual’ Conceptual Art) which at its margins approaches the condition of painting. They are unstable inscriptions that oscillate between text as something virtual or pictured. While this was a new artistic genre in the 1960s, some of its logical complexities were not entirely unprecedented. While the Conceptual Art text is rarely to be seen in the pictorial form of an open book, for example, a genre of depicted texts in this form has existed in Spanish art of the 16th and 17th centuries. A Vulgate bible is pictured as an open book, its text painted in legibly naturalistic and meticulous detail. While the recovery of the detail of these pictures must entail that they be recognised as images of texts, it is perhaps not necessary for the viewer to understand fluently the Latin of the Vulgate. We would conjecture that here it is not possible to legislate with regard to the viewer as reader. Similarly, with the text form of Conceptual Art, a lot will depend on what else there is to see – both in the work itself and in the physical, historical and cultural circumstances of its appearance. Works whose origins lie partly in the displacement of painting will carry its shadow with them.
There are perhaps other factors that might limit the requirement that the viewer of the wall display in Portraits and a Dream be also a reader. Each page of the wall display is headed with a claim that a certain number of portraits are to be found in it. There are in fact no portraits in the form of pictures but a page that is supposed to contain portraits will be one where the text contains names. (A possibly adventitious connection between names and portraits can be made neurologically. In experiments at a UCLA medical facility, patients who were shown the names of movie stars showed activity of the same kind and at the same location in the brain as they did when they had been shown pictures of the same individuals. We definitely do not wish to make the philosophical error of equating these neurological occurrences with cognitive experience, but the apparent coincidence is nevertheless striking.)
As we had worked on Portraits and a Dream, we had surmised that the effect of this heading might, for some viewers at least, be to wipe the greater part of the text away by initiating a search for names only. The viewer may thus be fully a reader of the headings and, having read them, be absolved of the task of reading the text in an ordinary way (whatever that is). Having been so absolved she would scan it for names – only in a more or less desultory way. The text may thus be relegated to being the wordy penumbra of the names. While the headings of the wall display are potentially erasive of much of the text beneath them, they have to be read for this effect to occur. Similarly, a search for names-cum-portraits is a rather irregular but quite commonplace process of reading. It seems that we have described the viewer of the wall display as a reader in a limited sense. But a reader in a limited sense is still a reader.
To be close enough to the wall display to make reading difficult or impossible would be to mark the paper with one’s nose. One could refuse to read, stare blankly with the text not quite in optical or mental focus. Would one have ‘seen’ the wall display in the sense that one might see a large painting from passing acquaintance or with the distance and hurry of distaste?
It’s tempting to try to continue adding to a list of all the ways that one can approach the wall display without reading it, ways that would not disqualify the claim that one has ‘seen’ or ‘looked at’ the work. From a non-reader of English to the most resolute hater of Conceptual Art, from the lazy dealer to someone fanatically in search of non-textual detail, we will assuredly find those who don’t or can’t read the text in their different ways and for their different reasons. But these are not strictly non-readers. The non-English speaker might ask for a translation and the lazy dealer might change his ways and so-on. A viewer with competence in English would either have to work hard on some artifice of viewing behaviour or even harder on her inattentiveness if she is to maintain no readerly contact with the wall display. She would have to cultivate an incompetence, a capacity to look at a text without reading it, an aspect blindness or a withdrawing of focus, a little like that required to look at the surface of a mirror without ‘seeing’ the reflection ‘in’ it. Of course, an attempt when unimpeded by linguistic incompetence or aphasia to avoid recovering any of the text as text does not mean that the text is not there to be read. Indeed, we might say that a refusal or an inability to read the text of the wall display will lead to an incompetent viewing of the work. In the case of a non-English speaker, the social quest to get a translation or even guesswork would be arguably sufficient as an appropriately readerly address to the wall display.
While various ‘natural’ artificial and cock-eyed ways of looking rather than reading are indeed possible, the wall display is not easily detached – indeed cannot be detached – from the distinct genre of ‘textual’ Conceptual Art. This was a genre supposed erroneously by some critics to be capable of suppressing unreflected content (not allowing the mind or eye to wander as it might before a picture). While not at all coercive in this regard, it was a genre largely differentiated by the fact that it demanded reading skills of its viewers.
The headings on the wall display will suggest to some viewers a certain mode of reading – a scanning for names. Others will read a bit of the text attentively, others a lot of it. There is perhaps some lowest limit with regard to the amount of text that ought to be read if we are to claim some working acquaintance with the wall display. It is, however very difficult to say where that limit is. It is presumably a sort of hybrid composed out of the degrees of attentive visual contact that might confirm the claim ‘I have looked at (I know?) Valkenborch’s scene of winter in the Kunsthistoriche Museum and ‘I have read Moby Dick’ (or perhaps ‘I have read the Chiltern Railway timetable for services between London and Banbury’). (2011)