Art & Language (Editorial) – Terry Atkinson

[. . .] Suppose the folio wing hypothesis is advanced: that this editorial, in itself an attempt to evince some outlines as to what ‘conceptual art’ is, is held out as a ‘conceptual art’ work. At first glance this seems to be a parallel case to many past situations within the determined limits of visual art, for example the first Cubist painting might be said to have attempted to evince some outlines as to what visual art is, whilst, obviously, being held out as a work of visual art. But the difference here is one of what shall be called ‘the form of the work.’ Initially what conceptual art seems to be doing is questioning the condition that seems to rigidly govern the form of visual art – that visual art remains visual. During the past two years, a number of artists have developed projects and theses, the earliest of which were initially housed pretty solidly within the established constructs of visual art. Many of these projects, etc., have evolved in such a manner that their relationship to visual art conventions has become increasingly tenuous. The later projects particularly are represented through objects, the visual form of which is governed by the form of the conventional signs of written language (in this case English). The content of the artist’s idea is expressed through the semantic qualities of the written language. As such, many people would judge that this tendency is better described by the category name ‘art theory’ or ‘art criticism’; there can be little doubt that works of ‘conceptual art’ can be seen to include both the periphery of art criticism and of art theory, and this tendency may well be amplified. With regard to this particular point, criteria bearing upon the chronology of art theory may have to be more severely and stringently accounted for, particularly in terms of evolutionary analogies. For example the question is not simply: ‘Are works of art theory part of the kit of the conceptual artist, and as such can such a work, when advanced by a conceptual artist, come up for the count as a work of conceptual art?’ But also: ‘Are past works of art theory now to be counted as works of conceptual art?’ What has to be considered here is the intention of the conceptual artist. It is very doubtful whether an art theoretician could have advanced one of his works as a work of ‘conceptual art’ in (say) 1964, as the first rudiments of at least an embryonic awareness of the notion of ‘conceptual art’ were not evident until 1966. The intention of the ‘conceptual artist’ has been separated off from that of the art theoretician because of their previously different relationships and standpoints toward art, that is, the nature of their involvement in it.

If the question is formed the other way round, that is, not as ‘Does art theory come up for the count as a possible sector of “conceptual art”?’ but as, ‘Does “conceptual” art come up for the count as a possible sector of art theory?’ then a rather vaguely defined category is being advanced as a possible member of a more established one. Perhaps some qualification can be made for such an assertion. The development of some work by certain artists both in Britain and the USA does not, if their intentions are to be taken into account, simply mean a matter of a transfer of function from that of artist to that of art theoretician, it has necessarily involved the intention of the artist to count various theoretical constructs as artworks. This has contingently meant, either (1) If they are to be ‘left alone’ as separate, then redefining carefully the definitions of both art and art theory, in order to assign more clearly what kind of entity belongs to which category. If this is taken up it usually means that the definition of art is expanded, and art theoreticians then discuss the consequences and possibilities of the new definitions, the traditional format of the art theoretician discussing what the artist has implied, entailed, etc., by his ‘creative act.’ Or (2) To allow the peripheral area between the two categories some latitude of interpretation and consequently account the category ‘art theory’ a category that the category ‘art’ might expand to include. The category ‘maker of visual art’ has been traditionally regarded as solely the domain of the visual-art object producer (i.e., the visual-art artist). There has been a hierarchy of languages headed by the ‘direct readout from the object’ language, which has served as the creative core, and then various support languages acting as explicative and elucidatory tools to the central creative core. The initial language has been what is called ‘visual,’ the support languages have taken on what shall be called here ‘conventional written sign’ language-form. What is surprising is that although the central core has been seen to be an ever evolving language, no account up to the present seems to have taken up the possibility of this central core evolving to include and assimilate one or other or all of the support languages. It is through the nature of the evolution of the works of “conceptual art” that the implicated artists have been obliged to take account of this possibility. Hence these artists do not see the appropriateness of the label ‘art theoretician’ necessarily eliminating the appropriateness of the label ‘artist.’ Inside the framework of ‘conceptual art’ the making of art and the making of a certain kind of art theory are often the same procedure.

Within a context such as this the initial question can be posed with a view to a more specific inquiry. The question: ‘Can this editorial, in itself an attempt to evince some outlines as to what “conceptual art” is, come up for the count as a work of conceptual art?’ Firstly, the established notions of what the presentation of art and the procedures of art-making entail have to be surveyed. The question ‘Can this editorial come up for the count as a work of art within a developed framework of the visual art convention?’ can only be answered providing some thorough account is given of what is meant by ‘developed’ here. At the present we do not, as a norm, expect to find works of visual art in magazines, we expect critical, historical, etc., comment upon them, photographic reproductions, etc. The structures of the identity of art-objects have consecutively been placed under stress by each new movement in art, and the succession of new movements has become more rapid this century. In view of this phenomenon perhaps the above question can be altered to: ‘Can this editorial come up for the count as a member of the extended class “visual artwork”?’ Here ‘extended’ replaces ‘developed’ and can, perhaps, be made to point out the problem as follows:

Suppose an artist exhibits an essay in an art exhibition (the way a print might be exhibited). The pages are simply laid out flat in reading order behind glass within a frame. The spectator is intended to read the essay ‘straight,’ like a notice might be read, but because the essay is mounted in an art ambience it is implied that the object (paper with print upon it) carries conventional visual art content. The spectator being puzzled at not really being able to grasp any direct visual-art-readout meaning starts to read it (as a notice might be read). It goes as follows:

‘On why this is an essay’

The appearance of this essay is unimportant in any strong sense of visual-art appearance criteria. The prime requirement in regard to this essay’s appearance is that it is reasonably legible. Any decisions apart from this have been taken with a view to what it should not look like as a point of emphasis over what it should look like. These secondary decisions are aimed at eliminating as many appearance similarities to established art-objects as possible.

Thus if the essay is to be evaluated in terms of the content expressed in the writing (WHICH IT IS), then in an obvious established sense many people would say that if it has a connection with art at all, that it fits better into the category ‘art criticism’ or ‘art theory.’ Such a statement at least admits the observation that when an artist uses ‘(a piece of) writing’ in this context then he is not using such an object in the way that art audiences are accustomed to it being used. But further it admits of a rather more bigoted view, that is this essay belongs more to art criticism or art theory because it is formed of writing and in this sense it looks more like art criticism or art theory than it looks like art; that is, that this object (a piece of writing) does not have sufficient appearance criteria to be identified as a member of the class ‘art-object’ – it does not look like art. This observation has a strong assumption behind it that the making of a traditional art-object (i.e., one to be judged within the visual evaluative framework) is a necessary condition for the making of art. Suppose there are some areas (say) pertaining to art at present which are of such a nature that they need not, maybe cannot, any longer meet the requirements that have previously been required as a necessary mode of an object coming up for the count as a member of the class ‘artwork.’ This necessary mode is formulated as follows (say): the recognition of art in the object is through some aspect(s) of the visual qualities of the object as they are directly perceived.

The question of ‘recognition’ is a crucial one here. There has been a constantly developing series of methods throughout the evolution of the art whereby the artist has attempted to construct various devices to ensure that his intention to count the object as an art-object is recognized. This has not always been ‘given’ within the object itself. The more recently established ones have not necessarily, and justifiably so, meant the obsolescence of the older methods. A brief account of this series may help to illuminate matters further.

1 To construct an object possessing all the morphological characteristics already established as necessary to an object in order that it can count as an artwork. This would of course assume that such established categories (e.g., painting, sculpture) had already evolved through a period in which the relevant rules and axioms had initially to be developed.

2 To add new morphological characteristics to the older established ones within the framework of one object (e.g., as with the advent of the technique of collage), where certain of the morphological characteristics of the object could be recognized as the type criterion for assigning the objects of the category ‘painting’ and other (newer) ones grafted onto them could not be so easily placed (e.g., in the introduction of Cubist collages and the collages made by Schwitters).


3 To place an object in a context where the attention of any spectator will be conditioned toward the expectancy of recognizing art-objects. For example placing what up to then had been an object of alien visual characteristics to those expected within the framework of an art ambience, or by virtue of the artist declaring the object to be an art-object whether or not it was within an art ambience. Using these techniques what appeared to be entirely new morphologies were held out to qualify for the status of members of the class ‘art-object.’ For example Duchamp’s ‘Ready-mades’ and Rauschenberg’s Portrait of Iris Clert. There is some considerable overlap here with the type of object mentioned in No. (2), but here the prime question seems to emphasize even more whether or not they count as art-objects and less and less whether or not they are good or bad (art-objects). David Bainbridge’s Crane, which shifted status according to his ‘sliding scale’ intentions as to where it was placed at different times, threw up an apparently even thicker blanket of questions regarding the morphology of art-objects. In contrast to Duchamp’s ‘Ready-mades,’ which took on art-object status according to Duchamp’s act of (say) purchase (e.g., Bottle Rack) entailing an asymmetrical transfer or rather super-imposition of the identity ‘art-object’ onto that of ‘bottle rack,’ Bainbridge’s Crane sometimes is a member of the class ‘art-object and crane’ and sometimes simply is only a member of the class ‘crane.’ Its qualification as a member of the class ‘art-object’ is not conceived as being reliant upon the object’s morphological characteristics but on Bainbridge’s and Atkinson’s list of intentions acknowledging two kinds of ambience, art and not-an-art ambience. Here the identity (art-object or crane) is symmetrical. [. . . ]

4 The concept of using ‘declaration’ as a technique for making art was used by Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin for purposes of the ‘Air-Conditioning Show’ and ‘Air Show,’ which were formulated in 1967. For example the basic tenet of the ‘Air Show’ was a series of assertions concerning a theoretical usage of a column of air comprising a base of one square mile and of unspecified distance in the vertical dimension. No particular square mile of the earth’s surface was specified. The concept did not entail any such particularized location. [. . .]

No. (4) differs from Nos. (1), (2), and (3) in the following way. The first three methods use a concrete existential object, the latter simply a theoretical one. This factor of ‘use’ is important here. The existential object upon which the ‘content’ of No. (4) is formulated (i.e., paper with print upon it) is not the art-object, the art-object is not an object that can be directly perceived, the ‘object’ component is merely specified. Once having established writing as a method of specifying points in an inquiry of this kind, there seems no reason to assume that inquiries pertaining to the art area should necessarily have to use theoretical objects simply because art in the past has required the presence of a concrete object before art can be thought of as ‘taking place’; having gained the use of such a wide-ranging instrument as ‘straight’ writing, then objects, concrete and theoretical, are only two types of entity that can count, a whole range of other types of entities become candidates for art usage. Some of the British artists involved in this area have constructed a number of hypotheses using entities that might be regarded as alien to art. Most of these inquiries do not exhibit the framework of the established art-to-object relationship and (if you like) they are not categorically asserted as members of the class ‘art-object,’ nor for that matter is there a categorical assertion that they are art (‘work’); but such a lack of absolute assertion does not prohibit them from being tentatively asserted as having some important interpellations for the art area.

This concept of presenting an essay in an art gallery, the essay being concerned with itself in relation to it being in an art gallery, helps fix its meaning. When it is used as it is in this editorial, then the art gallery component has to be specified. The art gallery component in the first essay is a concrete entity, the art gallery component in the second case (here) is a theoretical component, the concrete component is the words ‘in an art gallery.’ Lists (1), (2), (3), and (4) above might be followed by (5), the essay in the gallery, and (6) the essay possessing the paragraph specifying the theoretical art gallery; it is more likely that the nuances of (5) and (6) could be included in an expanded version of (4).

The British ‘conceptual artists’ are still attempting to go into this notion of the meta-strata of art-language. Duchamp wrote early in the century that he ‘wanted to put painting back into the service of the mind.’ There are two things to be especially taken into account here, ‘painting’ and ‘the mind.’ Leaving aside here ontological questions concerning ‘the mind/ what the British artists have, rightly or wrongly, analyzed out and constructed might be summarized in words something like: ‘There is no question of putting painting, sculpture, et al., back in the service of the mind (because as painting and scultpure it has only served the mind within the limits of the language of painting and sculpture and the mind cannot do anything about the limits of painting and sculpture after a certain physical point, simply because those are the limits of painting and sculpture). Painting and sculpture have physical limits and the limit of what can be said in them is finally decided by precisely those physical limits.’ Painting and sculpture, et al., have never been out of the service of the mind, but they can only serve the mind to the limits of what they are. The British conceptual artists found at a certain point that the nature of their involvements exceeded the language limits of the concrete object. Soon after they found the same thing with regard to theoretical objects. Both put precise limits on what kind of concepts can be used. There has never been any question of these latter projects coming up for the count as members of the class ‘painting’ or the class ‘sculpture,’ or the class ‘art-object,’ which envelops the classes ‘painting’ and ‘sculpture.’ There is some question of these latter projects coming up for the count as members of the class ‘artwork.’

Something might now be said noting the relationship of the psychology of perception with regard to ‘conceptual art.’ It is today widely agreed that the psychology of perception is of some importance in the study of visual art. The practice of this study by art theoreticians, for example Ehrenzweig, Arnheim, etc., has at least clarified some questions within the context of visual ‘visual art,’ which have enabled the conceptual artists to say these (such and such) projects have not such and such characteristics, in this way they have influenced what the formulative hypotheses of some of conceptual art is not about. Such concepts as whether art consecrates our ordinary modes of seeing and whether or not we are able, in the presence of art, to suspend our ordinary habits of seeing are strongly linked with inquiries into Gestalt hypotheses and other theories of perception; the limits of visual art are oTten underlined in inquiries into how we see. The British group have noted particularly and with deep interest the various Gestalt hypotheses that Robert Morris (for example) had developed in the notes on his sculpture-objects. These notes seem to have been developed as a support and an elucidation for Morris’ sculpture. The type of analysis that the British group have spent some considerable time upon is that concerning the linguistic usage both of plastic art itself and of its support languages. These theses have tended to use the language form of the support languages, namely word-language, and not for any arbitrary reason, but for the reason that this form seems to offer the most penetrating and flexible tool with regard to some prime problems in art today. Merleau-Ponty is one of the more recent contributors to a long line of philosophers who have, in various ways, stressed the role of visual art as a corrective to the abstractness and generality of conceptual thought – but what is visual art correcting conceptual thought out of – into? In the final analysis such corrective tendencies may simply turn out to be no more than a ‘what we have we hold’ conservatism without any acknowledgement as to how art can develop. Richard Wollheim has written, ‘. . . but it is quite another matter, and one I suggest, beyond the bounds of sense, even to entertain the idea that a form of art could maintain itself outside a society of language-users.’ I would suggest it is not beyond the bounds of sense to maintain that an art form can evolve by taking as a point of initial inquiry the language-use of the art society.

From journal Art & Language, 1969.

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