Friday, 22 July 2016

'CONCEPTUAL ART IN BRITAIN 1964-1979'

Tate Britain
(Yes, a review of an art exhibition that's actually still on!)


”Conceptual art was a critical art rather than a contemplative one – not necessarily for looking at, but for analysing or for reading.”
- From the indicia

”No Rhapsody Here”

Things you will see if you attend this show...

Art made from non-art or even perishable materials, such as oranges, sand and ice. Photography, but clearly intended as documentation rather than as artform. Sometimes documenting the perishable stuff before it... well, perishes. (See for example Bruce McLean's 'Six Sculptures' (1967/9) below.) More widely, a focus on the paraphernalia of recording - on reports, on filing drawers and card index systems. Documentation as a thing in itself, often at the expense of what's being documented.

Hamish Fulton's 'Hitching Times From London to Andorra, And From Andorra to London' (1967), rather than give us photos or sketches of his trip, provides a dryly typed list of the time it took him to get from one place to another. For 'The Spring Recordings', (1972) David Tremlett took field recordings of spring sounds from each of the eighty-one English counties. The eighty-one cassettes are displayed lined up neatly on a shelf, with a sign to helpfully tell us what they are. And with no means for us to hear them.


But what you will really come across is text. Reams and reams of the stuff. Normally in bold geometric fonts, as if serifs weren't considered sufficiently rigorous. The group Art and Language, in the show's words, “echoed the conventions, format and content of academic philosophical journals”. No. 1 of Vol. 3 of their journal was headlined 'Draft for an Anti-Textbook' (1974, below).


Some works come ready-built with their own indicia. While others effectively are their own indicia, words in a frame or just thrown up on a wall. With both, of course, the show then recursively slaps their own indicia on. The show comes to look like the largest and most comprehensive optician's eye test in recorded history.

Okay... so... what do we make of all of this?

Reviews of the show, which were almost universally negative, focused on it's dour tone, it's monochrome look, on those uninviting chunks of text. Adrian Searle in the Guardian called it “uptight... bleak... pleasureless... [and leaving] a taste of ashes”. And it's true, it does have a similar hair-shirt tone to the Godard films of this era. You know, the ones with the five-minute shots of someone eating an apple at the camera while someone else recites Marx. Even the dates it gives in its title are unrounded and unwieldy. It's like it has a disdain for the digestible, like it's decided it'll best gain attention by scraping it's nails down a blackboard. As Art and Language proudly declare, “there is no rhapsody here”.

But beneath the dry deadpan surface there's traces of an impish humour, as if all this is a mischievous provocation. The show's quoting Marcel Duchamp's “art of the mind” as an influence before we've even got in the door, and his philosophically pranksterish brand of Dada does seem a strong influence.


Keith Arnatt's 'Self Burial' (1969, above), is made up of a time lapse series of photos in which the artist, maintaining an identical pose, sinks deeper and deeper into the ground. It couldn't be closer to Duchamp's mission statement to “annihilate the ego of the artist”. Ian Burn's 'Mirror Piece' (1967), quite adequately described by it's title, is one of those works which comes with it's own indica. Which also seems to be channelling Duchamp, stating “any of the materials may be replaced at any time necessary/The technique of assembly must be devoid of any interest/ the process is to be simple and ordinary.”

Because this is conceptual art of a particular kind. It's not art in service to a big idea, with anything not conveying that idea in the most direct way possible dismissed as irrelevant. It's concept is art, which is another way of saying it's concept is itself. And it exists not to clearly convey that concept but confound the brain. It doesn't seek to make art in new ways, but corrode the art already made. This is the King exposing himself in your face and defying you to claim he's wearing clothes.

It's true some of Duchamp's chief strategies, such as the use of the random, aren't particularly taken up. But the main way they differ from him is by taking it further. He, for the most part, used objects as art. He didn't use art objects as art, but found objects or assemblages of non-art materials. But times had moved on. Anthony Caro, for example, would make his sculptures from any old bits of metal, not necessarily the 'classical' bronze. So the conceptualists mounted an attack on the art object in itself.

As Joseph Kosuth said in 1969: “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art... Painting is a kind of art. If you are painting you are already accepting the nature of art.”

Toppling the Plinths

And those dates in the title, however unwieldy, tell all. By the Sixties Modernism was no longer the wild child but the steady parent. As seen in the earlier 'Out There' show at Somerset House, local authorities by that point had a budget to stick modernist statues up in shopping centres and around housing estates. People now knew what it was and where to find it. It had triumphed. Which of course meant it was time to depose it.

As Richard Cork said, looking back on this era: “It was extraordinary; everything was being questioned, everything opening up, nothing was sacred at all. And all the work you had grown up thinking was revolutionary, like Caro, all that was being superseded.” Caro seems to have been a particular target, which suits me as I've never taken to his work. But Moore and Hepworth, in fact pretty much everybody seen in 'Out There', were doubtless in the sights too.


Take for example Bruce McLean's 'Pose Work For Plinths' (1971, above) in which the artist improbably substitutes himself for his artwork. In some pictures he does valiantly seem to be trying to pose, but in others he's more trying to settle back on them like into the world's worst sofa. The repeat images become like a kind of cartoon strip which betrays how impossible this task is, as he tosses and turns in different failed combinations.

This time the joke's so visible you almost need to look past it for the point. The differently-sized plinths stand for art removed from it's environment, possibly for hierarchy in general. They stand not just for all the plinths in all the galleries, but all the perspex vitrines, the little bits of red rope and watchful attendants. Those plinths need to be toppled.

But, inevitably, it may have been not an artist but art theorist Clement Greenberg (champion of American Abstract Expressionism) who functioned as their main Aunt Sally. John Latham borrowed a copy of his 'Art and Culture' from the St. Martins College library, held a party where guests were encouraged to chew and spit out it's pages, collected these in a jar then sought to return it. His contract was instead suspended.

But the attack was not always so direct. The show says “placing and context for the artwork were seen as key issues”. And this was true in both the immediate and the general sense. Once people figured they knew what a Modernist artwork was, making those elements absent was to deliberately with-hold them. And conscious with-holding starts to take on an almost totemic force. What's not there matters as much as what is.

Art and Language's Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin provide two anti-maps, 'Map of a Thirty-Six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean, West of Oahu' (1967). It's entirely accurate but, being just of the surface of the ocean, entirely blank. While the somewhat gloriously titled 'Map Not To Indicate' (1967, below) is of the United States, but showing only the states of Iowa and Kentucky. (Chosen, I suspect, because both have borders which are simple straight lines.) Keith Arnatt even called a work 'Art As An Act of Omission' (1971).

“Artists were making blank films,” said Lucy Lippard in 1969. “They locked galleries and practiced doing nothing. They were denying conventional art by emphasising emptiness, cancellation, the vacuum, the void, the dematerialised, the invisible.” (Most probably about the similar American scene, but it's too good not to quote.)

Art is Language

The second big influence, at least as big as Duchamp, doesn't get mentioned by the show at all. Which is probably because it wasn't itself an art movement. But then Conceptualism was almost unique in being an art movement based in art schools and academia. Normally, you went to art school only if you wanted to join a band. Not here. Art and Language for example were based at Coventry College of Art.

And they picked up on the then-current academic interest in Structuralism and – increasingly, as the Sixties progressed – Post-Structuralism. This was the notion that language was not just slippery or open to abuse. It contended that what language really described was itself, it was a self-referential, self-defining system. Language was not a neutral labelling device, providing tags by which we might describe the world, but a mechanism by which we impose meanings upon it.

We're used to the idea of institutionalisation, of how a powerful organisation can not just win people's compliance but shape their thinking to its moulds. We're used to the idea of this being achieved partly through language, by devising terminology that people inevitably then adopt. Get them to talk your talk and you're almost there. But this, it was contended, was inherent - language always worked that way.

And more, it threw open the definition of language - seeing it as a system of signs. The clothes you wear, they're a language where you 'say' something about yourself to the world. Road signs and traffic lights? Language. And visual art? Language, too. Art, in seeming to spring from the individual genius artists, is quite possibly ideology in it's neatest form. And visual art may be the most pernicious form of ideology. Images appear to us to be naturalised. Literally, and with it metaphorically, they seem to be not saying anything.

So all this text as art was an attempt to jog us into seeing art as text – to look in the same critical way that we read. As the show says of Art and Language, “language was to be used as art to question art”. And as soon as you convert image back into words the outline of a critique starts to appear. Supposing you read something like “this painting is a portrait of a Seventeenth Century landowner, at home with his possessions”? There's no real value terms in the sentence, no 'feudal' or 'exploiter' or even 'wealthy'. But doesn't it sound like it's already being set up for a social critique, the lead-in to the John Berger chop?

Props Without Agit

The show seems keen to connect this movement to the tumult of Sixties political events, devoting a long wall to a timeline paralleling show openings with anti-Vietnam demonstrations and the like. Those unwieldy years in the title are themselves politically driven, spanning from the start of the Wilson government to the end of the Callaghan.

And, unlike Post-Structuralism, Marx is mentioned. Art and Language in particular declared “a class analysis through the study of meaning in discourse, and the practice of class struggle through didactic activity”. The even said it in a work not so subtlety titled 'Dialectical Materialism' (1975). There's talk of “an art that might reconnect with the world, and act within it”.

But is any of this earned? Like Post-Structuralism, Marx was then fashionable in academia, a name to cite if you wanted to be in the cognoscenti. You could carve a career out of studying him. True, we shouldn't get too sweeping here. Many took up academia as the best means available to combine earning a living with spreading Marxist ideas. But all too often Marx, the man whose axiom was “philosophers have only interpreted the world”, became the subject of academic interpretation. And Marx without the commitment to social engagement isn't Marx any more.

So, in the precise mirror image of Post-Structuralism, Marx is mentioned when he probably shouldn't be. It's like that Godard film with the five-minute shot of someone eating an apple at the camera. Without the other guy reciting Marx.

There's something strangely rarified, even hermetic about this world, those neat shelves of tapes, card index files and aligned text. However rigorously insistent it is that art as a whole should be critiqued, that art is a social product, it seems strangely uninterested in that wider society. Look back at 'Map To Not Indicate'. Something it doesn't indicate is the wave of civil rights, black power and anti-Vietnam agitation then raging across the USA. In fact, it spotlights two states where those movements weren't particularly strong.

The Sixties as we think of them, a conflagration so bright and vibrant, are happening somewhere else. It's almost entirely unlike the agit-prop art of Pete Kennard, so recently seen at the Imperial War Museum. And certainly it's stark monochrome anti-aesthetic and it's incessant problematising is the polar opposite of hippie subculture, with it's dayglo psychedelic posters and it's “do what you feel” hedonism.

But what's perhaps most surprising is how unlike it is to the other Dada-derived movement of the era. Fluxus (originally Neo-Dada) had it's Festivals of Misfits, it's iconoclastic happenings, it's pranks and stunts and jamming of high culture. Fluxus was as messy, as convulsive, as Conceptualism was neat and rigorous. Just compare those neat lines of aligned text to the scrawl and collage of the 1963 Fluxus manifesto (below), before you even get on to the content calling to “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART”.


The critique commonly (if wrongly) made of Dada is that anti-art was still art. Whereas the critique of Conceptualism, that anti-academia is still academia, that an anti-textbook is still a textbook, is much more on the money. This was, let's face it, scarcely inflammatory stuff.

Conceptualism's impersonation of academia was simply too successful, the infiltrators gone native. By rooting itself in art colleges and public funding, it was genuinely trying to bite the hand that fed it. But who else was it encouraging to do the same? You wonder what kind of audience it considered itself to be aimed at. The attempts to reach “the people” by the public artists of the 'Outside In' show may have been flawed, and to a degree even patronising. But at least there were some.

So have the Tate simply gone for the wrong target, and it's Fluxus we need to be spirit guided by right now? Certainly the summation of the manifesto is stirring stuff - “FUSE the cadres of social, cultural and political revolutionaries into united front & action.” But it's not just that it was active in the political and cultural spheres simultaneously. It's that it seized culture by it's lapels and shook, audaciously stoking up people's imaginations. Dissent was made to seem not just necessary but enticing and attractive – we were too cool for rule. That is something we seem to have lost hold of in more recent years.

But it might be truer to say that the two movements were the broken halves of what needed to be one thing. Inheritors to a radical tradition, Fluxus was never as hippy-dippy or bliss-out hedonistic as other Sixties scenes. But it was more concerned with iconoclasm than incisiveness, more about motion than substance. It was often accused of uncritically replicating that radical tradition, of diligently reassembling the past and so making yesterday's mistakes today. While Conceptualism was merely critical. One frenzied, one lucid. 

And perhaps those halves mirrored the two wings of original Dada, the cerebral questioning of Duchamp on one hand and the savage tracts of Grosz and Heartfield on the other.

Time For Strife

The show states “by the mid-1970s there was a widespread recognition and institutional support for conceptual art”. Which of course meant orthodoxies had to be overthrown all over again. And in fact the final room, 'Action Practice', is so different from all that’s come before that it’s like walking into a different exhibition. As the name suggests politics finally enters the frame, and as it does the monochrome anti-aesthetic departs.

Why should that be? This segues into another point. While earlier it seemed far from convincing this wasn't the British wing of an international movement, making the parameters of the show somewhat arbitrary, here the context does seem more uniquely British.

In Britain 1968 had not been the seismic year that it had in other countries. In France, they talk to this day of soixante-huitards. While the Wikipedia article ‘Protests of 1968’ doesn’t even contain a section on Britain. It's widely accepted that here the social changes most associated with 'the Sixties' almost entirely happened in the Seventies.

And the politics employed have moved from the theoretical to the concrete. Two of the main works are concerned with feminism and the troubles in Northern Ireland. Feminism had not been shy of savvy media events, such as the 1970 Miss World protests. But it's backbone had been grassroots consciousness-raising groups, and it had devised the now-well-known slogan 'the personal is political'. If much Sixties activism had been no more than the radical chic and attention-grabbing antics it's detractors claimed, feminism was one of the exceptions.

And those roots gave it a staying power. Moreover, while it was as keen to expose and question unstated norms as Conceptualism, it was not some dry and disengaged formal enquiry – it was directly concerned with lived experience. (It was only at this point I noticed how few women artists there'd been up till now. So much for my political credibility!) Northern Ireland, in some ways similarly, was a slow-burning issue – something which refused to go away.


In fact, when you start to look at Margaret Harrison's 'Homeworkers' (1977, above) and Conrad Atkinson's 'Northern Ireland 1968 – May Day 1975' (1975/6) you can still see traces of Conceptualism's dry formalism. Neither work is at all concerned with self-expression, but with social enquiry – art as reportage. Harrison's subject is the then-widespread practice to get women to perform piece work from home, so she stitches in examples of the things those homeworkers would assemble – buttons, stamps and jewellery.

While Atkinson juxtaposes quotes from Loyalists, Republicans and British soldiers. One squaddie is reported as wishing the Catholics were “wogs”, the easier to shoot them with impunity. It's posted up without comment, it's for us to decide how we feel about it. This is still some way from the heated agit-prop of Pete Kennard. Yet in art the aesthetics matter. And Harrison's work in particular looks mid-way between a collage and a banner, messy and immediate, art as weapon in the culture wars.

Downhill To Here

Okay... so... that's what to make of it was. But a more pertinent question might be, what does it look like from here? Whatever the faults, I think the short answer to that is “we look back up at it from downhill”.


Complaints made about this show often suggest that this is where we got sold the magic beans. Conceptualism was a bum deal where, seduced by fine-sounding film-flam, we swapped aesthetics for empty gestures. At which point it normally gets associated with Brit Art. For example the Stuckists, Brit Art's perennial antagonists, use the slogan “death to conceptual art” (variant above). But if people associate the two that's because they dislike both, so figure they must be linked.

Art and Language always exhibited under the group name. (Even if I've followed the show's convention and credited individual artists here.) Can you imagine Brit Art doing that? It marked the inevitable degeneration from artist as individual genius to artist as celebrity. Art became the means to propagate yourself as a brand, just as music had before it. Tracy Emin's bed gets displayed in a gallery like Kurt Cobain's smashed guitar, something come down from the world of fame which we can gaze on. It was because of this that Brit Art could become the public face of contemporary art.

But the face is not the body. Go to a regular, not a well-known, contemporary gallery and chances are it won't be Brit Art you'll see. And it's this art, the crappy polaroids attached to some polysyllabic screed, which is a debased parody of conceptualism. (See here for a particularly egregious example, but there's plenty of them.) It's like the difference between piss and shit. Shit smells worse, but piss is more prevalent.

It's chiefly characterised by what Alix Rule and David Levine tagged as International Art English. And you can see the degeneration from Seventies conceptualism to IAE right on the gallery walls here. Try...

“By deciding one area to be the 'area of attention', then the area that is designed as 'not the area of attention' will demand a sufficient amount of attention for it to be acknowledged as 'not the area of attention'.”

...against...

“...anathema to an understanding of a modernist compositional syntax that valued quality of presence over process.”

The first is from Art and Language describing their work 'Air Conditioning Show' (1966/7). The second is, irony of ironies, from the show's own indicia describing Art and Language. The first is sharp and witty and above all does actually mean something. (It describes, for example, the white surround on Malevich's 'Black Square' perfectly accurately.) The second... well I don't think it means anything. But more to the point I don't care. It's just so damned uninvolving. It sounds like its saying something clever. So let's just assume it is, rather than bother reading it again.

What's significant here is that this is so unlike the pseudo-poetic luvvie speak so often associated with art writing. It's prose is sterile and bloodless, the jargon of academia without the content, the glossolalia of intellectualism. Ben Davis called IAE “the joke that forgot it was funny”. Just like anti-art became art and anti-music became music, this deadpan parody of discourse became discourse. Yet by remembering when it was funny, by looking back up that slippery slope we rolled down, perhaps we can get out of that lake of piss art is now in.

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