Art History Books

Essay on Essays on Art & Language

INDEX: INCIDENT IN A MUSEUM VI, 1986, Art & Language

“Essays on Art & Language” (1991, revised 2001), Charles Harrison.

The Conceptual Art artists group “Art & Language” formed at the end of the 1960s. Art historian Charles Harrison was a member of the group from the start of the 1970s. In 1991 Harrison published a book on the history of the group up to that point, relating it to the wider history of art during the collapse of the authority of Modernist art criticism and the rise of Postmodernism. Modernist art criticism for Harrison here is the magisterial formalism of Clement Greenberg and their followers. It is an art criticism that produces psychologized readings of the surfaces of artworks for a genteel “spectator” to consume without remainder. It is, as Harrison puts it, “a theory of consumption masquerading as a theory of production” that masks the historical and technical content involved in that production. In response to this, Harrison argues for a historical materialist art criticism that restores Modernism’s dialectical contrast of values by “erasing the edges” of artworks. Doing this makes tractable to art history those “genetic” materials involved in each artworks’ genesis that Modernist art criticism masked with its decontextualized reading of art as primarily expressive rather than representational.

Against this backdrop of the collapsing authority of Modernist art criticism and the demands of a new critical relationship to art, Harrison presents Art & language as being committed to a critical project of going-on without an overarching theory or (as Harrison puts it) in the ruin of that arch. Going-on was a non-theory. Recognizing the contingency of all artistic representation and treating intellectual property and artistic propriety as oppressive expressions of class society, Art & Language produced work that looked very little like existing art not in order to produce saleable novelty but because that is where the work of art took them. When it is no longer possible to “mean the doing” of dominant discourses and there is still no clear path forward, taking action in the face of this dilemma means committing to unpredictable outcomes. The unpredictability of those outcomes may lead out of art into the wider world, or into hard-won moments of artistic autonomy.

The disinterested spectator presupposed by the discursive content of Modernist art criticism as its historical subject exercised a particular set of competences when stood in front of a painting or a sculpture and would use them to describe what they saw (and felt) in a particular way. Art & Language’s work, and organizational structure, was oriented to undermining the spectator’s understanding of and relation to that work in order to create a disenchanted viewer. Harrison examines many examples of this project of disorientation and their discussion of the physical and representational structure of one of Art & Language’s more complex paintings of the 1980s (for Art & Language turned to painting at the turn of the decade to avoid the trap of a “conceptual art” aesthetic that had been quickly recuperated by the artworld) shows these effects at work very clearly:

“This is the painting.” “This is part of the painting.” “This is a representation of the painting.” This is a representation of part of the painting.” “This is a detail of the painting.” “This is a representation of another painting.” [etc.] – p208

Art that seeks a critical autonomy, Harrison argues, must represent some non-trivial aspect of its historical moment. In painting, this must be animated by changes in figure/ground relationships. Historically significant changes in these relationships, in critical terminology, or in the spectator’s competences, must reflect moments of change in relations within class society. At such moments, Harrison argues, it is possible for technical concerns to become suffused by moral concerns. These changes are not and cannot be merely psychological – transgression is not an option to be taken. Even where artistic autonomy is achieved, alterity will be rapidly reclaimed by the mainstream as the example of 1960s Conceptual Art demonstrates.

The history of Art & Language that Harrison tells is not, by their own admission in the introduction to the revised edition of 2001, one that all of the group’s former members would recognize. A chateau in France now houses a museum dedicated to the world’s largest collection of Art & Language artworks. The historical moment at the end of the Cold War that Harrison was writing this particular collection of essays from is long gone, in terms of politics if not actors. And the Nietszchean “litterateurs” that Harrison criticizes for their LARPing of postmodern irony would have no trouble consuming Art & Language’s a bit aesthetic, a bit political, a bit speaking-of-their-own-manufacture, a bit unusual art-objects in the age of Contemporary Art.

But for a historical materialist project of critical art history these objections are part of that project. The strategies that Harrison follows and those that they identify in the art of Art & Language can be lifted up out of the brief moment of the “end of history” and translated into the current epoch even if their iconographic and discursive points of departure cannot. Harrison starts their discussion of the historical context that they situate Art & Language’s work in by identifying “Modernism in two voices”: one in the stentorian tones of the Modernist critic and the secure beholder of authentically expressive abstract art, the other in the more questioning tones of those who notice that the first voice is saying something considerably less secure and universal than it claims to be. What is at stake in the relationship between these two voices, Harrison argues, is nothing less than the moral content of history.

The existence and production of art, Harrison argues, can be justified by the fact that aesthetic oddness or intensity is uniquely revealing. These oddnesses and intensities can serve to emancipate art by producing critical representations of Modernism (or its contemporary equivalent) in order to present the “meanings of the dominated” using the media and aesthetics of high art. This is a direction that the litterateurs have long since recuperated the posture but not the content of. What oddnesses and intensities are possible in the age of global art fairs and freeports, at what levels of the creation of art? What can the second voice of art say with this now?