Traces of Conceptualism

Traces of Conceptualism
Artifice 4

Traces of Conceptualism

You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright 
Whilst you can only wonder why.

‘Common People’, Pulp.

Writing in pursuit of conceptual art is a tricky business. The object of one’s pursuit always feels, at the same time, too distant and too close. It is distant historically, to which the thorough retrospective view of ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975’ is testament. It is too close in that any artist today worth his or her salt is working in, and out, the legacy of conceptualism and I shall get round to talking of some current concerns. But it’s not always easy to figure out what is, and was, going on.

I want to talk about ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975’ as itself an object for consideration and as such one trace of conceptualism. It is a large book of over 300 pages. 55 artists are included, each getting either two or four pages, with illustrations of work and a few paragraphs telling us about the artists. It is interesting for a book about conceptualism, which was characterized by a most forceful verbosity, that the curators wrote these words and that the artists are only represented by pictures of their work. Moreover, the only reason I could think as to why some artists had more pages than others was that their work looked more interesting. There are three long essays in the book by Lucy R. Lippard (at the front) and Stephen Melville and Jeff Wall (at the back). Lippard does her best to make conventional art history out of the unconventional; Melville talks about the usefulness of the terms “conceptual” and “conceptualism”, then and now; Wall discusses intelligently the status of photography in modern art and its transition through conceptualism, and ultimately against its reductivist logic.

This book is haunted by conceptualism, one feels: it wants to possess a spirit but ends up with a body of work: the dissections of historicity. Conceptualism, of course, has become a normal and respectable object of art-historical and curatorial attention. Looking at the work is not without interest but when the work and artists are shown and expounded without being allowed to speak for themselves, one begins to wonder what are the professional interests of the curators. More interesting in a straightforward way are the essays at the back by Melville and Wall, which start to plot what has happened through and in conceptualism. Here we can begin to entertain the ghost.

I shall begin by rehearsing a few, by now familiar, truisms about conceptualism.

1. To put it in the jargon of the time, conceptualism was, or marked, some kind of paradigm shift: unimaginable practices to become accepted and expected.

2. An aspect of this shift was to question the ontology of art. Greenbergian essentialism of medium was smashed to bits, amongst other things.

3. Conceptualism was heavily embroiled in a critique of art’s institutions and institutional relations.

4. Some artists also concerned themselves with the cultural division between high culture and its others.

5. Conceptualism was in no way a cohesive ‘movement’ or ‘style’.

These truisms have a certain ring of familiarity, do they not? Most interesting contemporary art could be catagorized with a similar list. Living in the legacy of conceptualism is pretty much unavoidable, notwithstanding the continuance of certain archaic practices (and even through these). At the same time making art now is very different. There are traces of conceptualism in various productive and critical practices now.

In critical practice these truisms don’t seem to pin down very much and in a way that is the point: conceptualism is prone to much interpretation. A strong tendency is to see conceptualism as something finished and closed off: historical, over and empirically in place. In some ways this book does this. It sounds comfortable and complacent.

For Lippard ‘reconsidering the object of art’ signifies her own vaunting of the “dematerialization of the art object”: a dematerialization which was, apparently, the breaking of the shackles of commodity status, so that “conceptual artists were free to let their imaginations run rampant”. Lippard’s reductivist version of fetishism doesn’t admit that ‘ideas’ can be invested with value in a cultural economy as much as ‘objects’. For Lippard, the attachment to objects is an unnecessary mediation and impediment between the artist’s imagination and the spectator’s existential presence.

Doubtless Lippard is and was in tune with what a fair number of conceptual artists thought they were doing. But some, on Benjamin’s side (so to speak), set out to deny and confuse the habitual, institutional forms of attention of art’s usual constituency. 

Some of this art aimed, amongst other things, to impugn professional interpretation. Often this involved out-manoeuvring the boundary or relation between the artist’s proper role as producer and the critic’s (or curator’s, etc.) power to speak on behalf of the artist. The critics job has rested on her or his ability to speak in front of the work. A trace of conceptual artists’ readings of philosophy and critical theory can be seen in subsequent critical writing. Critics had to become better read, if not more knowledgeable. Dave Bachelor has light-heartedly suggested a game that could have been played with Artscribe in the ’80’s, whereby one covered over any article and tried to guess what it was about by looking at the footnotes; the joke being that it would be impossible because all the footnotes would be the same: Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard. This critical game plays out the legacy of conceptualism at a cost to itself. Its claims to a privileged speech is haunted twice: once, historically, by the idea of the articulate artist and then by its borrowings from other disciplines. Kant cannot be sleeping easily.

This book is a great resource as a document of the aforementioned paradigm shift: a task which it undertakes with a professional eye. However, what is most interesting and most engaging about most of the work is its sheer amateurism: authentic photocopies and the like are meticulously reproduced, apparently with little irony. Jeff Wall, however, is articulate about amateurism in his essay, arguing that some conceptual art set out to defeat the proper protocols of competence in art qua skilled production. Such competencies were seen as props to bolster an exclusive and excluding culture, so that to embrace incompetence was to side with the culturally disenfranchized. Incompetence and a commitment to other spectators are still with us, but not in conceptualist clothes.

Conceptualism’s incompetence was an incompetence in the face of art’s autonomy. It was made from the wrong stuff; it was of the wrong things; it was presented wrongly; and it was often in the wrong place. However, it tended to do all this wrong stuff, not against art’s autonomy, but within its orbit and indeed out of its logic. Conceptualism was a way of going on within the crisis of late modernist self-reflexivity (how to get more reductivist than abstraction). This incompetence (largely) remained within the register of high art cultural autonomy, retaining a sense of presence, inherited, at least, from Minimalism’s attitude to materials and processes. What is retained with autonomy is presence as self reference: a referential immediacy rather than an ontological one.

Quite a bit of contemporary incompetence is incompetent in its reference and cultural location. Rather than self-conscious bad art, it is quotidian cultural fragments: kind-of-not-really-art-at-all. The point of this work is that it actively requires knowledge and access to cultural realms other than high art for it to make any sense at all: it requires another spectator, a mutation of the spectator.

There are many ‘others’ to high art. It is a pretension of ‘the cultured’ to treat all other forms of cultural life other than their own as equivalents. It is a sensitivity to this diversity and particularity of cultural forms, which has led to the idea of ‘the everyday’ being so prominent amongst young artists today. This concern is a trace of conceptualism. Moreover, conceptualism can be traced in the diversity of ways of making and media that are appropriate to sub-cultures of the everyday. Today’s prominent use of video, performance, photographies, installation and other bits and pieces is nothing to do with “dematerializing” the art object. But it is haunted by the critique of commodity status and privilege. In its turn ‘the everyday’ can, and often is, treated as just another presence to stick in the gallery (or wherever). But when this is not so, ‘the everyday’ can signal the need for other knowledges, other forms of attention, and other experiences in order to be able to see what is going on. ‘The everyday’, here, tends to be mundane, if not vulgar, two characteristics that the cultured are keen to deny, avoid and silence.

The recent ‘Cocaine Orgasm’ show at Bankspace was full of incompetence, vulgarity and everyday mundanity, in the best possible sense. To start with, the title of the show tries to place the work in the orbit of sex and drugs and, as a bad pun, the interior is turned into a rampant snow scene of B-movie proportions. This all makes the works look anything but professional, discrete and autonomous. Some interesting bits of work were as follows. Small white panels with neat black text promised conceptual weight, but in fact were diverse little snippets of overseen incident or overheard conversation, more or less interesting and apparently true (x Glynn). An unspectacular story of an unmonsterous monster (a bloke with a mask on) was shown in a series of slides, in which he went through ordinary working class past-times, such as drinking and taking drugs (Dave Beech). Next to this Thomas More was trying to beat up various leading lights of the Britpop scene in a series of cartoonish portrayals: he’d got the better of Jarvis, who seemed like he might be enjoying it, but the Gallaghers were taking no shit from no one (David Burrows). A woman’s face, sideways, on video was repeatedly splattered with spunk; her default expression was passive and expressionless, but moments of amusement, embarrassment and annoyance kept breaking through, of course (Rebecca Warren). Being able to see such work relies on understanding, and in some sense appreciating, the cultural worlds from which they come. It is for this reason that small bits of narrative, whether they be about eavesdropping, getting out of it, pop, or sex, become important. Such fragments of narrative bind the work to other forms of life and culture, outside of art. This is not object based work, but it’s a long way from 1975, let alone 1965.