katherine Jackson – This is the work. I don’t think so

“This is the work. I don’t think so.”

When reading ICA Symposium’s title, “What Work Does the Artwork do? Criticality in Context,” a phrase from T.J. Clark’s Image of the People came to mind. Clark accounts for the radicalism of Gustav Courbet’s “Burial at Ornans” by suggesting, “…a certain world pressed in on him (Courbet) and gave him a different subject.”[1] Although Clark is referencing the socio-political ideological shifts of France in 1850-1, his sentiments are strikingly similar to Charles Harrison’s Essays on Art & Language describing art in 1960s and 70s in Britain. Harrison states:

“In our accustomed view, artistic groups are set up by collections of individuals with a will to change the tendencies of art and art history. Yet hindsight also suggests that, if some group has persisted, it is not to some present quality in aesthetic production that we should look for explanation of that persistence but rather to the nature of those conditions which imposed a kind of necessity upon its origins…”[2]

In light of these quotes and the excerpts from Art & Language provided by the ICA Symposium, we may want to shift our focus from investigating the work that we want artworks to critically do. Instead a more appropriate question might be: How do artists critically respond to their conditions or “a certain world pressing in”? And, rather than assuming that their criticality is conveyed in the finished autonomous artwork, criticality may be better understood in the artists’ methodological choices – their process. In the words of Art & Language, “This is the work. I don’t think so.”

 To examine these questions, this response will briefly compare Art & Language with the Artist Placement Group (APG). These two groups are an unlikely comparison, but when discussed side by side, they bring out notable similarities. Art & Language and the APG both emerged in the late 1960s, a period when artists responded to the perceived tyranny of the Modernist principles in the art world, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Britain’s escalating financial and trade union crises. Artists during this period not only confronted and undermined traditional political and ideological power structures but also demanded a “new” critical role for the artist – a role that questioned the art market, the artist as a maker of objects, and the definition of art itself.[3] Furthermore, artists from this period straddled both an era of utopian philosophies, and the subsequent failure of many of these initiatives after 1968. It is from this layered socio-political and artistic context that Art & Language and the APG established two different but equally critical methodologies that valued process over product and were directed at both the art world and society at large.

Art & Language directed their critical gaze to an art world that was changing but still highly saturated in Modernist ideology; an ideology that they felt separated discussions of the philosophy of art, the viewer, and the art object. Art & Language sought to collapse these perceived artificial boundaries; the conversation that previously surrounded the artwork now became the artwork. Art & Language’s Documenta 5 (1972) work, Index 01, renders this idea in the visual realm via a catalogue of their writings in eight filing cabinets presented on four plinths at eye level. They return to this concept in their artist statement from 2006:

“…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.” Art & Language (2006)

Art & Language’s “fragment lopped off from conversation” may be displayed in the gallery, but in actuality, as Charles Harrison and other members of the group have stated, form is better thought of as an index.[4] An index that on the micro-level referred to discussions of the philosophy of art, and, on the macro-level, a symptom of the larger socio-political conditions of that time.[5]

In contrast, The Artist Placement Group sought to leave the confines of the art world directing their critical perspective towards society and specifically, in their early work, towards industry. The APG argued that since the industrial revolution, high art and industry have been considered fundamentally separate. In response, they proposed the concept of artist placements as a potential solution. In contrast to traditional forms of patronage, the APG defined their artist placements with businesses as “open briefs.” The “open brief” emphasized process and no predetermined outcome and was publicized in their slogan: “Context is half the work.”[6] The APG’s “open brief” was asking industry to view and use the artist for a different and arguably new purpose – an interaction between artists and companies in “whatever form”.[7] The artwork was secondary, merely an index referencing the process of the work. The emphasis was bringing the artists’ critical perspective to industry.

The distinction between Art & Language and the APG is not without blurred lines. As indicated, both emerged from a similar context; particularly, conditions and pressures were reshaping the question of what the artwork should critically do to what should the artwork be an index of? Criticisms of the art world? The socio-political conditions of the time? Both? However, if what appears as the artwork is only a fragment or index of the complex process of art practice or the conditions of artistic production, as a representation it is doomed to fail. In fact, both Art & Language and the APG were accused of failing by their own members and critics. Failing according to Art & Language was seen as integral to the artwork. The APG was accused of failing both by leftist political artists (including artists active in the APG) for their supposed submission to industrial agendas and by more traditional art institutions such as the Arts Council for not producing enough results. Perhaps though, the claim that these projects were failures is less important then reshaping our question yet again to — what is an artwork a failure of? The failure of the Utopianism of 1968? The relationship between the artist and institution? The process of art?

To conclude, failure, process and index all become key words in rephrasing the question of what work we want art works to critically do. These themes are not new but have gained momentum in a contemporary art discourse obsessed with the ephemeral and blurring of disciplinary boundaries. Perhaps though, with our current toolbox of terminology, it is worth revisiting the lessons of social art history, TJ Clark reminds us, “Ideologies are not magically dismantled in single works of art.” … “This is the work. I don’t think so.”[8]

Katherine Jackson, University of British Columbia PhD Candidate


[1] Clark, T.J. Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution. (California: University of California Press, 1999), 8.

[2] Harrison, Charles. Essays on Art & Language. (Oxford UK: B. Blackwell, 1991), 1.

[3] Lucy Lippard, Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966-1972. (Los Angeles: University of California Press), 197.

[4] Harrison, Charles, 62.

[5] This statement references Frederick Jameson’s symptom. See Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious. (London: Routledge, 1983)

[6] Eeley, Peter.’ Context is Half the Work’, Frieze, 111, November/December, pp. 154–59

[7] Artist Placement Group. 20042/2/1/3/2. Tate Archive, London. See Lippard, Lucy. Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966-1972 and Walker, John A. Left Shift: Radical Art in 1970s Britain.(London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2002)

[8] Clark, TJ. Clark, T.J. “Olympia’s Choice” in The Painting of Modern Life. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) 80.