We Aimed to be Amateurs: Art & Language

Art & Language. Background incident, 1995.

Art & Language. Background incident, 1995.

The fact that this event has been divided into old folks and young suggests that Conceptual Art has been identified and processed if only in a working sense. We wish to resist this suggestion by pointing out some of the difficulties entailed. Actually, what we want to resist is the thought that Conceptual Art is or was a readily recognized and ordered artistic style which remains inviolate in the hands of some purists and which has been variously abandoned or aetiolated by others like ourselves. And I want to suggest that one of the implications of this is that the renovated form of Conceptual Art is no more than a nostalgic husk; a look; text and various neo-neo-Dada bits and pieces.

What is quite interesting about some old Conceptual Art is its paradoxical relationship with the well-policed and the professional. I'd argue that there exists some set of inverse relations between what might be called the prevailing (historical) self-images of Conceptual Art and conceptual artists, and what might be called its vividness, or aesthetic effectiveness. Some conceptual artists, for example, radically appropriated some of the strange appurtenances of another professionalism like lawyers’, managers’ and therapists’: suits. These were often inexpert borrowings, indeed so callow as to reduce the resulting appearance to no more than an adolescent posture—an ironical spectacle, perhaps. Some continued (and continue) this in their more conspicuous adult life. It is and was a quick way to the collector's and curator's heart: his world becomes coextensive with the internal dialogue of the artist. Of course there was a lot of art which was called “conceptual” which was simply compulsive and obsessive and which more or less automatically eschewed such an executive-impersonating professionalism. (But the “cold” professional and the compulsive obsessive are not always unadjacent in the culture of Conceptual Art.) What I'm trying to say is that notwithstanding its “professionalized” later self-image (and perhaps because of its early efforts which were often rather sad and aspiring), old Conceptual Arc is vivid in virtue of its cognitive and cultural character as dis- placed and exiled, unable-to-be-professional-really.

This is not unconnected to the fact that, in general, it was practiced—and certainly animated—by relatively young people. This is not a claim for conceptual art as youth culture at all. It is an observation that “early” Conceptual Art, in its culturally radical, relatively untransformed form, is more or less essentially the work of people who saw themselves as in process. That is to say, people with a high degree of mobility, low security (and a relatively low perceived need for security), high discursivity, amenability to dialogical situatedness, possessed of a relatively meager economic base; fairly active in their efforts to extricate themselves from unwanted structurally-ordered determinations, and so on. These are, perhaps, additional conditions which might separate Professor Rorty’s “strong poets” from Professor McIntyre’s “managers and therapists” . . . or perhaps a way of pointing the way to such a separation. It would be pleasant, for example, if we could extract the strong poet from the patronage of the university: strong (adolescent) poets . . . as inept and aspiring adolescent managers and therapists perhaps.

In highly volatile cultural circumstances, the cost of failure and similar risk is often perceived to be bearable, while there is relatively little pressure to produce objects of a negotiably middle-sized dry sort. And for many conceptual artists there was certainly little real pressure to act with any mechanical consistency concerning the formal appearance of any of their “products” which eventually found themselves in the public domain. This is not the apotheosis of youth culture. It is merely that being young tends to coincide with these conditions being present. What is clear is that Conceptual Art was vivid insofar as it approached the condition of what might be thought of as an exotic variant of amateur art activity. This does not mean “amateur” in the sense of subservient to the grand style passé, nor does it mean “primitive” in the sense of untutored or somehow “naive.” This later sense is, however, important in some way of at some point—as may be clear later.

And continuing on the via negativa, | do not use “amateur” in the sense of a gentleman amateur's lofty and privately-funded disinterest. And while I have no sense of Jamesian clarity as to how this amateur might finally be specified, I do mean to suggest someone who signs up for the game without any guarantees as to where it will end—what the result will be—and, for that matter, without being sure where and when it began. This is not so much a world of collaborative and self-abnegating security (or hiding), so much as one of openness and inquisitiveness and contingency concerning one’s self-description—an openness which runs the risk of being composed out-of-cultural-character. It is such that the materials upon which ingenuity is turned are acquired without shame or a sense of posterity, image or face. (.. .)

Conceptual Art might for the moment be regarded as more or less non-pictorial, more or less physically or formally reduced post-Minimal art, which was exhibited (called “New Art” or something) between about 1968 and 1974, and which enjoyed avant-garde pre-eminence at that time.

But many kinds of work are captured by this gloss. There are, for example, various incar nations of what might be called Minimal-ish, or ultra-minimal-ish mad art. This obsessive-compulsive iterative stuff (iterative on the page or panel, or iterative in a matrix of time and place) is in its discursive poverty, its fraudulently aesthetic (and essentially Modernist) silence, always “mature.” It is work without internal or discursive complexity, work whose “development” is transacted in predicates which exclude or sidestep a sense of “ordinary” connected human political development. To describe this work as “callow” would be more or less a waste of time as it is simply callow (non-complex and relatively undifferentiated, relatively autonomous) culture. There was also another species of “mad” art. It’s possessed of a little more internal complexity than the former sort. This is a variety exemplified by Broodthaers— in his role as the presumed heir to that other great proto-conceptualist, René Magritte. What Broodthaers did was to orchestrate a quasi-literal world—a world of socio-personal props. Very Belgian, a bit jokey, and reliant on the power of the literal object to fire meaning and desire. Deleuzean machines, perhaps. There is no “no” among the possible predicates which these flimsy ma- chines might provoke or bear. This is one of the variants in the curatorial (indeed the highly managerial) spectacle of mad art: the corollary of the fraudulently ascetic compulsive-obsessive. It is art which is, again, always “mature.” The suggestion that this or that example of work is somehow immature or inchoate is more or less uninformative. (. . .)

I guess—or hope—that I'm staggering towards something a bit more positive or constructive than the remark that Conceptual Art was a mess, not something “identifiable” like Cubism ... I am not suggesting that the late 1960s and early 1970s are immune to retrodiction, but rather that what is interesting about (some) Conceptual Art (and what makes Conceptual Art interesting) is that it is radically incomplete.

This means that all or most claims chat Conceptual Art can be isolated as some sort of discrete historical well-formed epoch are false unless severely limited and apparently almost paradoxical, that any attempt to invest the use of certain textual-type materials associated with certain artists who became (a bit) prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s with some sort of present cultural pre-eminence—resisted only by reactionaries—is doomed to bathos and failure.

So what is to be extracted from this? Perhaps something like the following. Conceptual Art does not correspond tout court to some sort of linguistic turn in artistic practice. It does represent an appropriation of certain dialogic and discursive mechanisms by artists who sought thereby critically to empower themselves and others, and to that limited extent it represents a linguistic turn. But Conceptual Art did not reduce (or attempt to reduce) the pictorial to the linguistic (or textual). The point is, rather, that the gaps and connections, the lemmas and absurdities between the pictorial and the textual, are spaces in which much cultural aggravation was and is possible. The eruption of the text into the cultural and historical space of the picture or the painting is an exemplary moment. A dialogic—and consequently more or less linguistic—sense of work and action provides a considerable critical purchase upon the prevailing stereotypes of artistic personality and practice, and even upon what is to count as artistic practice in a social context. And these considerations bear quite powerfully upon what it is to claim historicity for any Conceptual Art. Again, what is interesting about some Conceptual Art is its resistance to (its own) history.

And what is odd about what I am saying is that it both seeks to identify Conceptual Art as some activity engaged in by young people from a position of internal exile at a particular time (and at a particular time in their lives), and attempts to refuse the proposition that the morale of this moment died with the passing of 1974 or whatever. Perhaps this is not as odd as it seems.

... And now, I suppose I am talking largely about Art & Language's work, and in particular chat now somewhat vexatious group of works known as Indexes.[1] | will not dwell on the anecdotal nostalgia with which certain small-business inspired ex-colleagues have sought both to infiltrate and to derogate these projects, except to say that it is far from edifying to witness these former friends, who departed Art & Language out of a perfectly understandable combination of economic necessity and what might be called incipient ideological difference, now reduced to the production of an apologetics in the interests of a pathological monomaniac whose only project is at best the settling of imaginary scores.

To be sure, these Indexes did not contain very much pictorial or iconic material. They consisted mainly of text or of text-like material. This was text, or rather conceptual material, which was always in internal exile, paradoxically situated both within (just within) and beyond the borders of disciplines as traditionally defined and institutionally policed (as were the artists themselves, with one notable exception). And it was from this internal exile that far from stable artistic meta-languages were generated; unstable because there was and is no prioritization of concepts that live in the borders which define them internally. There are writers and critics who have seen this dialogical implosion as representing a strange bureaucratization of Art & Language’s and inter alia of Conceptual Art's practice. To these, I would say that far from representing grounds for the denunciation of a demonic authoritarianism, these indexing projects are and were Conceptual Art's best chance (a) of an internal complexity which might be capable of resisting the management culture these writers allege to fear, and (b) of an anti-hegemonic and non-purist critical path for a morale which was falling apart in a dying culture: the best chance of maintaining internal exile, and of insuring Conceptual Art (or some relatively young artists) against co-option and worse. The margins of the index-projects were such as to model inter alia some rather fugitive (though compelling) forms of solidarity: talkative and aggressive non-proprietorial tolerance. Others have tried to suggest that a lively (or something) anarchy was evident as the productive ethos of Conceptual Art, insofar as it is represented by the work of Art &¢ Language, and that this was brought to an end by the organization mentality of the Index. This is a tawdry distortion. The Index ruined the atmosphere for the small-business tendency. It should be added that small-business can acquire any political odor according to expedient. Indeed, a recent criticism of the Index is a monument to a career almost medieval in its capacity to grub for a niche, a place at some table or any. The Index had the tendency to proliferate tables and places in surprisingly uncentered locations; in an exile unlikely to satisfy the mechanical aspirations of small-business—and intolerable to small-business gone historical.

The Index provided unforeseen resonances, conversations and cultural misfortune or embarrassment: exile and hybridity; distance from the putative cultural center. Therein lies the class character of these projects. On the one hand, the garagiste tendency faced loss by appropriation (or expropriation) followed by implosion, on the other hand, very little work at the time aspired to (or stood much chance of achieving) the necessary qualifications for co-option. The projective mechanism was relentlessly to pull things away from the accultured center. (And remember, almost everyone involved had started life very far from that center.) This pulling away occurred even when (though this was quite rare) the autonomous character of a given item was more or less commensurable with the mechanisms of co-option, actual or potential. The artists were tied, as it were, to a machine which exiled and bastardized them in virtue of its power to operate as a function-spitting container. The workers had no need to learn to overcome their real (one might say structurally induced) discomfort with the fine things which allegedly preceded them, nor did they need to devise the latter's structurally successful replacement.

And it is exile, this generative context of hybridity and malingering, which is conceivably the only vivid and continuing legacy of Conceptual Art: its post-imperialist confusion. It is perhaps understandable that those who would seek to persist with an historical account, more often an historicistic account, cast about with various attempts and purifications and convergences, are the acculturated representatives of the cultural interests of the remaining globally imperialistic paranoid power, witting or not. The manipulative strivings of Conceptual Art's last purist seem to owe almost as much to the nitty gritty of American foreign policy in the 1950s as to some unavoidable mental disorder. The “theme,” if you like, of internal exile which is played out, no doubt upon the surface of cultural margins, is no more than worthless provocation unless it is the prospect of the annihilation of the artist herself. “We Aim to be Amateurs” is a surface enfolded in the unabated compilation of the Index. This is exile which entails the derogation and loss of hard won competence, not the promise of Napoleonic return and final triumph. A history of pie in the sky is a history of expectation and loss, of allusions and displacements. The history of Conceptual Art had better be a story of some artists and how they tried to account for themselves. This will be a story of neither pies nor skies.


1   The name Art & Language designates the collaborative artistic and literary work of Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden. It also identifies collaboratively written work of these two and Charles Harrison. It has done this for almost 17 years.

The name is derived from that of the journal Art-Language (first published in Coventry in May 1969) which had its origin in the work and conversation of Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin (from 1966) in association with Harold Hurrell and David Bainbridge. These were its original editors. Art & Language was used subsequently to identify the joint and several artistic works of these four in an effort to reflect the conversational basis of their activity which, by late 1969, already included contributions from New York by Joseph Kosuth, lan Burn and Mel Ramsden.