[10a] ‘Artist’s Writing’, Art-Language, New Series No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 16-35.
What do we mean by ‘Artists’ Writing’? What kind of category of writing is it, and how and why does it come to be accorded a significant status? How we answer the first of these questions will have some bearing upon our approaches to the second. This paper proposes three sub-categories of writing: writing as documentary accompaniment to artistic practice, writing as literature and writing as art. The aim is not to impose rigid distinctions where they don’t apply, but simply to dispose of the less interesting cases of artists’ writing in order to concentrate on matters of some potential critical interest. It is assumed that these will concern the last of the three categories – the possibility of writing which is neither documentation nor literature but which may be art.
I Documentation and its absence
The great majority of artists’ writing can be thought of as Documentation. Manifestoes and treatises acquire documentary status immediately, through the intentional actions of their artist-authors, while other materials such as journals and correspondence usually gain it post-hoc through the interest of art historians and biographers and curators. Documentary materials have a necessarily dependent status. We study the texts in question because we are interested in the artistic work they can be made to bear upon, because we want to know more about that work, and because we place a particular value on information from the horse’s mouth. Artists’ art criticism is something of a special case, but the more secure the author’s identity as an artist, the more likely it is that any critical writing will be read with a view to that artist’s own work rather than to the work it explicitly addresses. If we read Don Judd’s early writing in Art News it will not usually be for the sake of his views on other artists. It will be because they are Don Judd’s views. Even where we read out of a primarily biographical interest it can be assumed that that interest was aroused in the first place by some value placed on the artist’s work. After all, their engagement with their work apart, artists generally don’t have time to lead very exciting lives.
The value of artists’ writing as Documentation is nothing if not patchy, however. For much of the past ten years the author has worked with Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger on a project of publication known as ‘Art in Theory’. Our aim has been to survey the intellectual materials out of which art has been made during the past 350 years and to publish a comprehensive selection of these in three large volumes. Of course one turns first to the artists themselves. For any enterprise of documentation such as ours, theoretically relevant and substantial writings by the actual producers will always be sine qua non. Poussin’s letters to Chantelou, Friedrich’s ‘Observations’, the ‘Discourses’ of Reynolds and of Constable, Delacroix’s Journals, Van Gogh’s letters to Theo, Matisse’s ‘Notes of a Painter’, the manifestoes of the Dadaists, the tracts of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, Rothko’s ‘The Romantics were prompted...’, Morris’ ‘Notes on Sculpture’. These are among the materials that anyone seriously interested in the art of the wider modern period will want to have to hand, even if they will not read through them all with the kind of expectation or enjoyment that is supposed to attend upon other forms of literature. Delacroix was an entertaining and accomplished diarist, while Matisse and Rothko wrote with an economy and intelligence rare in professional writers on art. But other artist writers make heavier demands on the reader. The texts of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian are engaging enough so long as we can maintain their connection to the strange experimental practices and peculiar speculative theories they once accompanied, but it is hard to imagine them being read for pleasure or for any other reason by anyone not already interested in the early development of abstract art.
The early-twentieth century avant-gardes were in general much given to publication, and the emergence of abstract art certainly saw a proliferation of theory written by artists. Such wealth of documentation is exceptional however. Had we confined the selection of Art in Theory to texts by recognised artists, our published volumes would have been very much thinner than they are. They would also have been very unevenly connected to the standard narratives of Art History. Within those narratives, for instance, a high priority is normally accorded to Impressionism and to Cubism. If we relied entirely upon the written testimony of the artists involved, however, Impressionism would appear as a movement concerned solely with quotidian financial problems and chronic minor illnesses, while the account of Cubism would allow no significant role to Braque before 1917 or to Picasso before 1923. In contrast, Symbolism would dwarf all other early Modernist movements in the sheer quantity of relevant texts by the artists involved. The anthologist seeking to represent a body of generative theory relevant to Impres-sionism or to Cubism must thus redress the balance with other stuff – not the post hoc ratifications of sympathetic writers, but text which is representative of the intellectual and conversational world in which the artists’ work emerged.
When we go back into earlier periods, the problems of documentary representation become even more dramatic. The forthcoming third and final volume of Art in Theory is concerned with the years from 1648 to 1815. We are presented with an enticing wealth of letters and discourses and treatises with which to complement any study of French art in the later seventeenth century, following the formation of the Academy. But when we turn to the Low Countries at the same period – to the rich artistic culture of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Ostade, Pieter de Hooch – what do we find? Nothing. Absolutely nothing, not even the quasi-ekphrastic and radically uninformative self-justifications which are all too often found in anthologies of artists’ writings. Only once the so-called Golden Age is effectively over in the Netherlands does a familiar chorus swell among the ranks of the second-rate, calling for a return to just those classical values that Rembrandt and others had managed critically to circumvent or to transform. Of course this quantitative difference in the available documentation tends simply to confirm what we already know about differences in the market status and class character of art in France and the Netherlands respectively. But there may also be a more interesting conclusion to be drawn, and it is one which bears directly on the matter of artists’ writing. It seems possible that one reason why so little writing accompanied the art of Rembrandt or of Monet or of Picasso and Braque as Cubists is that some significant essay-like impetus was already driving the work itself – and driving it beyond the reach of any writing that was still caught in the toils of exegesis.
The notion of an essay-like impetus in works of visual art is one that has often featured in the conversation of Art & Language. In the writing of a speculative essay, the author tailors thought to the materiality of language, and language to the intellectual requirements of imagination and argument. The resulting text is both a deliberation upon its overt subject and a self-conscious account of the dialectical relationship between language and thought – or rather, it is the one in so far as it is the other. The competent reader of such an essay – in Barthes’ terms the ‘writerly’ reader – engages with the artifice of its linguistic expression as a condition of engaging with its argument. By the same token, as the essayistic work of art develops in practice, its surface elaborates a reflexive account of its own life as representation, and of the complex dialectical relationship between imagined reality and material genre. The competent spectator of such a work sees whatever the surface shows, but is at the same time alert to its status as representation – to the relationship between how it appears as decoration and how it has come to be as it is. This relationship is rarely a straightforward matter. For it can often happen that an understanding of how a painted surface has come to be as it is effectively controverts its appearance as decoration, thus putting into question whatever response that appearance may have provoked. The spectator may then be induced into a form of self-critical reflection – a reflection, for instance, upon the disparity between those predicates of appreciation that the culture makes available and the practical and ethical circumstances under which the work of representation actually gets done. It seems that the essay-like impetus involves some speculative address to an other, an opposite, a contrasting world of discourse. This is to say that it implies a dialectical structure of some sort.
The point may be clarified by reference to two examples. The first is the late self-portrait by Rembrandt which hangs in Kenwood House in London. To the spectator who keeps her moral distance from the image, this is an arresting picture of an ageing man, composed in a harmony of warm colours, with concentrated highlights and patches of impasto on the figure contrasting with the soft and neutral tones of its ground. But to devote oneself more assiduously to the work is to be drawn into the account of its composition which the picture narrates, to occupy in imagination the practical and imaginary circumstance of one who looks and sees himself, and who works to constitute an equivalent not only for what is seen, but for the vexed psychological activity of looking – and of reflecting upon that looking. To concentrate in this manner upon what the picture shows is to be caught in a world of contradictory perceptions: on the one hand the vividness of the achieved if figuratively incomplete image, imbued with an inescapable sense of psychological presence; on the other the sheer artificiality of its constituted surface, upon which the artist has at times literally scribbled – almost written – with the pointed handle of his brush. If we have once come this close to the self-deflating bravura of its inscription, how purblind a valuation it must be to speak of the work as a beautiful picture, and how hostile to the spirit of its maker it must seem to employ such valuations as one’s normal currency.
My second example is drawn from the work of Art & Language. The painting Attacked by an Unknown Man in a City Park: a Dying Woman; Drawn and Painted by Mouth was made in 1981. It shows the prone figure of a nude woman – almost life-sized – isolated and expiring in a dark and empty landscape. The expressive distortion of the figure and the agitated treatment of the ground encourages a presumption that the woman is a tragic victim – perhaps of violence. The ressourceful icon-ographer might note an echo of David’s unfinished study of Barra, the Horst Wessel of the French Revolution, itself in part derived from Poussin’s Narcissus. So far the painting invites connection to a tradition of elevated subject pictures, to the moderate modernisation of the classical nude, and to that moment in the mid-nineteenth century when the lingering aesthetic credibility of heroic Romanticism was finally extinguished in the French Salon. Given the time of its composition the painting also relates or refers to the revival of a kind of romantic and expressionistic machismo in the work of the ‘Neue Wilden’, the ‘Young Italians’ and other constituents of the so-called Trans-avantgarde of the late 1970s. But this painting comes accompanied by a text as title. It might in fact be more appropriate to say that the title defines a conjectural work which the picture then both enacts and illustrates. It transpires, in other words, that the expressive distortion and agitated brushwork were generated as it were automatically as consequences of a thoroughly bathetic technical procedure. To envisage the artists with brushes in their mouths, heads nodding away, is effectively to rule out any vestigial value in the classical or romantic connotations of the image, and a fortiori to uncouple its expressionistic appearance from any authentic expressive disposition – which is to say a disposition which is both male and aggressive. Once again the apparently inflated appearance of the image as decoration is countered by the self-deflating evidence of its production. In this case that evidence is given in writing, but it is writing from which the picture cannot dissociate itself – not, at least, without the risk of being seen for that which it is not. It would make as little sense to treat the picture as art and the text as documentation as it would to treat the text as literature and the picture as illustration. It is in the mutual operation of picture and written claim that the essayistic character is produced. Its effect is to render exegesis potentially absurd.
To the extent that the title-as-text generates a picture which exemplifies it, it might be thought that the relationship between picture and title is like the relationship between the Duchampian readymade and its name. But there is a crucial difference. The readymade and its various descendants are enterprises devoid of real essayistic power. In its oscillation between the identities ‘commodity’ and ‘artwork’ the readymade merely celebrates the power of the artist – or of some other cultural agency – to render the one into the other. The spectator is unlikely to become self-critically engaged in the relationship between its status as decoration and the narrative of its production, since its status as decoration is necessarily low and the narrative of its production reduces to a single intentional act. Once past whatever conventional problem we may have in allowing the object in question the status of art, there is no self-critical work for the spectator to do.
These suggestions will be revisited in due course. Meanwhile, regarding the status of artists’ writing as documentation, there are two observations to be borne in mind. The first is that while some writings by artists may be of unquestioned documentary significance to those interested in their work, there will be many substantial cases where artists’ writing is uninformative or simply non-existent. Clearly, if we insist on some form of literary accompaniment to a given body of artistic work we will often have to turn to other writers than the artists themselves. The second observation is this: while the inclination or ability of artists to put pen to paper may be revealing of their contingent aims and preoccupations, the very absence of documentation may also direct us to some critically significant properties of their work.
II Literature and Theatre
So to the second of our categories: artists’ writing as literature. Here it is the very emptiness of the category that is of interest. To put the matter bluntly, there is no single artist who has made a substantial contribution to modern literature. The world would not be much worse off for the loss of Kurt Schwitters’ poetry or Wyndham Lewis’ novels or Picasso’s drama. And as to the fictionalised autobiographical writings of exhibitionists like Gauguin and Dali, we are generally more comfortable according them an unquestioned standing as documentation than in addressing the question of their literary merit. It is of some additional interest that writers generally make very indifferent artists. William Blake was a remarkable poet whose illustrations are certainly considerable works of art. But his more ambitious independent paintings do nothing to advance his standing as an artist. And anyway, he died 170 years ago. There have been a few critics who could paint plausible pictures and there have been one or two literary figures whose exotic graphic output is of undoubted interest – Victor Hugo and Antonin Artaud come to mind – but there have been no writers whose work could be said to have been significant in the development of a modern artistic tradition. There are the Gesamt-kunstlers, of course, but among those who deserve serious consideration there is never any doubt as to which form of art their technical elaborations are actually required to serve. Would anyone bother to read Wagner’s librettoes or to study his architectural designs were it not for the claim his music makes on the attention? In modern western culture at least it appears that some principle of mutual exclusion operates to distinguish the production of one art from the production of another. It is an open question whether the problem is one of sheer capacity – some relevant limit on what one life can sustain – or whether the respective competences are simply irreconcileable at some level, but it does seem that no one nowadays gets to be very good at both art and literature.
There is a potential confusion here which we need to avoid. To say that the professions of artist and writer tend to be clearly distinct at the higher levels is not necessarily to assent to all and any grounds on which the distinction might be explained or theorised. For instance, the finding that no one gets to be very good at more than one art form is apparently commensurable with that familiar account of Modernism in art which was developed by Clement Greenberg and extended by Michael Fried. According to this account the condition of Modernism imposes a demand of specialisation; the virtue of each art form is secure to the extent that it is entrenched within its own area of competence, the aesthetic effects of art are compromised by any similarity to literature, notions of aesthetic merit have meaning only within the individual arts, what lies between the arts is theatre, and all arts degenerate as they approach the condition of theatre. This account both supports and is demonstrated by a canon of authentic modernist art which tends to exclude those Dadaists, Futurists, Contructivists and Surrealists whose work slips out of the categories of painting and sculpture into the fields of the ready-made, of performance, of poetry or of agit-prop.
But of course this is by no means the only account of Modernism on offer. Indeed its final refinement in Fried’s 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ has been widely represented as a last attempt to stem that tide of ‘three-dimensional work’ and ‘generic art’ by which its authority was finally to be swept away. Nowadays, the account associated with Greenberg and Fried is so lacking in support that one might assume its theoretical basis had been wholly overthrown. The narratives now more favoured by the art-historical academy are those which tend to associate the dynamic of Modernism specifically with the early twentieth-century avant gardes, with a sustained assault upon the autonomy of artistic genres and technical hierarchies, and with a continual skirmishing in the no-man’s-land between image and text. Far from seeking to prise the literary and the artistic apart for purposes of evaluation, the typical tendency of the critic is now to emphasise the mutual implication of the verbal and the visual. According to Tom Mitchell, recent laureate of the American College Art Association, ‘The dialectic of word and image seems to be constant in the fabric of signs that a culture weaves around itself. What varies is the precise nature of the weave, the relation of warp and woof.’ (1) In other words, just where the conceptual boundaries are drawn between the verbal and the visual is seen as a historical and an ideological matter, and thus as open to inquiry.
As might be expected, the boundaries established by Greenberg between ‘literature’ and ‘aesthetic effect’ and by Fried between ‘theatricality’ and ‘presentness’ have attracted their fair share of such inquiries. The ‘Modernism’ these critics were concerned to defend is now typically conceived as an area of cultural dead ground across which the postmodern artist reconnects with the unjustly marginalised aspects of previous avant-garde episodes. The artist Martha Rosler may be taken as representative of those for whom critical virtue lies precisely in transgressing the boundaries in question, and in breaching the larger cultural decorum these boundaries are assumed to protect.
I read Michael Fried’s essay... which was a sort of terribly starchy defence of high Modernism, and he spoke of the problem of art that did not follow these modernist precepts as being ‘theater’. And I said, ‘bingo, that’s it, that’s right.’ The art that’s important now is a form of theater, and one thing that means is that it has to be in the same space as the viewer… (2)
In that space supposedly shared with the viewer the attention-seeking artist does not simply interpose her own physical presence. She writes herself speeches and slogans – and does so in the name of art.
The purpose in citing this example is not to dignify the work of Martha Rosler, merely to draw attention to the potential for confusion of two separate issues. On the one hand we may observe certain categorical distinctions between art and literature or art and writing, and we may inquire into the reasons for these distinctions. On the other hand we may argue over the constitution of a modernist canon, and in the process may draw upon or may implicate arguments about the autonomy of art vis-à-vis literary forms of narrative or theatrical forms of relationship between work and viewer. The two issues are clearly connected, but they are not connected symmetrically. For example, it might be conjectured that the competences respectively involved in painting and in writing are connected to different wirings in our biological natures, or that they are differently connected to the ways in which we are wired for language and grammar. If there is indeed some such biological tendency effecting our various means of expression, then we can be sure that it will bear upon the conditions of success or failure in any given art form or perhaps even in any genre, irrespective of our contingent aims and interests. In this event we might expect Fried’s admonitions to be of some continuing critical pertinence. In allowing him to be possibly right about the degeneration of art as theatre, however, we would not necessarily be committing ourselves to his views about the continuing vitality of Modernist abstraction or about the security of its genres. This, after all, is someone who preferred Jules Olitski’s three-dimensional work to Donald Judd’s. To speak of biological determination and of cognitive domains is not to say that practices of art or of writing are conducted outside ideology, nor, of course, is it to suggest that we can be free of ideological determination either in the ways we distinguish the artistic from the literary or theatrical or in the criteria we employ to judge success or failure in one form or another. It may well be the case that transgression of cognitive or categorical domains is a likely condition of critical redundancy and thus of aesthetic failure, and that the theoretical limits Fried sought to define go to some real material conditions. But it may also and coincidentally be true that transgression of ideological demarcations between ‘verbal’ and ‘visual’ forms of expression is a condition of critical vitality and thus of aesthetic success, and that some refusal of ‘Modernist precepts’ and genres is therefore justified.
The point needs to be made, however, that in so far as the results of any such refusal achieve the status of representations, they cannot be ‘in the same space as the viewer’, since it is precisely in the distance between viewer and viewed – between ‘reality’ and ‘genre’ – that the very possibility of representation is established, by whatever form it may be conveyed. It is in the articulation of this distance that substantial critical problems are encountered, not in the merging of genres per se. To ask whether vivid forms of art can be made by combining images and texts, or by performance involving speech, is to risk diverting practice into a world of pseudo-experiments – the fatuous world of ‘Out of Action’ and its hysterical cognates. (3) The more interesting question is whether there is or can be a form of artist’s writing which is neither documentation nor literature, which is challenging to ideological beliefs about the demarcation between the visual and the verbal, but which connects to and extends a tradition of artistic representation. It is to that possibility therefore, and to the third and last of our categories, that consideration should now be given.
III Writing as Art
What might it mean to conceive of artists’ writing as art? We can start with two extreme cases, and with examples drawn from either end of a long historical continuum. The first is a picture: the remarkable Tapestry of the Creation, made in the eleventh century and now housed in the treasury of the Cathedral of Girona in Catalonia. To whoever commissioned and manufactured the tapestry it was important that it should be understood, that’s to say that it should be clear what was to be imagined by those who would use it as a picture. So in the section that shows the Creation of Eve, we are told in writing just what it is that is happening – why it is that this strange half-figure appears stuck to Adam’s side. The Latin text informs us that the woman is being fashioned from the man’s rib. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is also labelled for good measure. It is probably safe to assume that at the time the tapestry was made there was no current concept of art by which the combination of image and text might be disparaged. Such disparagement would in any case be wholly inappropriate given the ease with which both text and icon are accommodated to the decorative flatness of the tapestry. Of course this is not a text which the artisans themselves would have composed. Its presence was no doubt authorised by those to whom they were subject. This in itself tells us something about the social and cultural world within which pictures and writing were so readily conjoined.
If we leap forward half a millenium, however, though we will find the same episode still being picked out within pictured accounts of the Creation, it is clear that the accompanying words have now no proper place. A later version of the Creation of Eve was included in the ceiling decorations for the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Within the figurative world of Michelangelo’s picture the descriptive text has actually become un-thinkable. There is no non-virtual surface for it to inhabit, which is effectively to say that the kind and degree of mimesis achieved by the picture is sufficient to render the written text superfluous. We might conclude that the picture is now a world within which the artist is allowed a certain authority and autonomy – a certain freedom from the power of others to attach texts to images. There are many ways in which we might explain this development from one type of image to the other. Some of these might be used to support or to prefigure a quasi-Modernist account of the necessity for specialisation among the different humanistic disciplines. Already in Michelangelo’s day, Florentine theorists of art were associating technical progress with challenge to the primacy of literature as an expressive medium. Using the language of hindsight we might say that to have inserted words into a picture such as his would have been to compromise its modernity. Or to put the point another way, the apparent necessity driving word and image into different cultural worlds is actually a function of a historicistic narrative – one which receives its final formulation in Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’ of 1960. (4)
The second exemplary case is taken from the first issue of the journal Art-Language, published in 1969. Notoriously, the editorial introduction to that issue invited its readers to consider the following hypothesis: that the essay itself be considered as a work of Conceptual Art – or as a member of the extended class ‘visual artwork’. It is important to note that this hypothesis functioned as such primarily within the speculative framework of the essay, which was addressed to recent developments in art and art theory and in the relationship between the two. In other words, the significance of the editorial lay not in the avant-gardism of its potential status as an art work, but rather in its critical pertinence as inquiry. What was most substantially at issue was not whether essays or other texts could actually count as ‘primary’ works of art, but rather how the nature and direction of artistic work was to be understood once that question had become unavoidable. It may have been necessary that the essay fail in its conjectural claim to artistic status precisely in order that it might succeed in raising the more substantial issue at stake in the Conceptual Art movement: not whether words could be used to make works of art, but how to reinvest the work of art with an essay-like character, whatever it was made of. Michael Baldwin has said of the Art & Language work of the late 1960s that it was subject to a reciprocating form of ‘emergency conditional’: it was ‘art’ just in case it was (taken for) ‘philosophy’, and it was ‘philosophy’ just in case it was (taken for) ‘art’ (5) – in other words it was intentionally volatile in the face of any attempt to represent it as one or the other. It was not simply resistant to the presumed authority of those accustomed to attaching texts to works of art. In closing the gap between work of art and text, it pre-empted that authority entirely. Those who first encountered the work of Art & Language in the role of critic may testify to the strangeness of the experience. Any attempt at exegesis was doomed to self-parody. One either ignored the enterprise or joined it.
IV Conceptual Art
In case the point needs making, it is not here proposed that the Tapestry of the Creation is a work of proto-Conceptual Art. Nor is it suggested that the possibility of healing some historical breach between image and text was what motivated the Conceptual Art movement. That movement has often been represented as engaged in a radical critique of the ‘visual’ and as seeking to reclaim art’s lost intellectual potential by writing, as though this was a means to fulfil Duchamp’s earlier programme to ‘put painting back into the service of the mind’. But as the Art-Language editorial argued, painting and sculpture had never been out of the service of the mind. They have simply been subject to certain practical limits. As to the exiling of words from the pictured surface, this may never have been more than a contingent necessity in the development of specific kinds of pictorial mimesis – those which have their culmination in the developed naturalism of western figurative art. And long as that development lasted, it was complete by as long ago as the 1830s, at which point photography became available as a means to automate the previously manual processes involved.
In fact, of course, the exile of words was never absolute. It was suggested above that some painting which is far from literature may nevertheless possess a significant dialectical and dialogical aspect. It might be said that pictures hazard a form of existence as texts in history, and that texts put themselves at risk to the extent that they constitute possible kinds of picture in history and in culture. Sometimes the risks involved may be conceived as reciprocal and may be invested in one ‘compact’ work. Such occasions are rare, however, and may be connected to relatively exotic cultural and historical circumstances – such as those which gave rise to Conceptual Art. It is nevertheless clear that in the long development of modern pictorial forms, texts of one kind or another have made frequent anomalous but significant appearances, sometimes within the picture’s figurative world, sometimes upon its literal surface, as though testing the political climate with a view to some imagined return in the future. (6) In a retrospective survey of ‘artists’ writing’ the works in question might be installed in some interesting niches.
In the light of these considerations we might amend the Greenbergian account according to which Modernism entails progressive specialisation within individual media. If the inception of Modernism follows on the culmination of pictorial mimesis, its extension over the next hundred and forty years appears less as a gradual and logical development constrained within the limits of individual media than as a restless and wide-ranging search for other principles and practical procedures by which the currency of artistic representation might be secured. Among the expedients to which artists resorted some were a great deal closer to writing than others. Within this scenario, we might say that Cubist collage, Constructivist montage and abstract art each in their different ways prepared the way for a full return of writing to art. Ironically enough, none did more to effect the final collapse of writing into art than those who argued longest and most eloquently for their practical separation. The more theoretically sophisticated the supporting structure of criticism by which abstract painting and sculpture was upheld in the 1960s, the more the art in question was reduced to the status of mere demonstration, leaving the writing looking more and more like the effective representational medium. With hindsight of this order the emergence of Conceptual Art appears highly over-determined. To paraphrase Mel Ramsden, ‘The time had come, finally, to put the writing on the wall’. Around 1967 the entranced Modernist spectator was finally dislodged from his century-long rule as primordial arbiter of art, to be replaced by an engaged and inquisitive reader of writings – discursive writings which both occupied and reanimated the space of painting and which might or might not themselves be art.
The moment of Conceptual Art is discussed in the paper ‘Artist’s Language 1’ in this issue. The culmination of that moment coincided with ‘Documenta 5’ in 1972, when Art & Language exhibited the work known as Index 01 or the Documenta Index. At least ten individuals can claim direct experience of this work, though at widely varying levels of involvement. As one might expect, there are considerable differences in the accounts that have already been offered of its production, and perhaps more significant differences in the implications drawn from it. It is important to note, however, that the Index was built on what was at the time a common conversational terrain. Perhaps the best way to indicate the nature of that terrain is as follows. The eight filing cabinets of the index contained some 350 separate items of text by those who contributed in one way or another to the work of Art & Language; and what was displayed around the four walls of the room was an enlarged typescript specifying certain kinds of relations between those texts. Yet this was a work which could not have been made by writers – not, at least, unless they were writing as artists. In fact few if any of those who worked most assiduously on the design and production of the Index were either confident of its potential status as art, or much concerned at the time that that status be attained. Yet in the end the writing was in a sense left behind, and left behind by something that was almost a picture – the conversation of texts replaced by the quasi-decorative representation of a conversational world.
V And after
Mel Ramsden has described Conceptual Art as ‘like Modernism’s nervous breakdown’. By the same analogy, if we are now to recover and to go on with a clear mind, we may need to revise our understanding of the past that has made us what we are. Whatever might be in prospect, there can of course be no return to the easy coexistence of text and picture that distinguishes the tapestry from Gerona. We have as much hope of recovering the lost innocence of past modes of representation as we do of solving the problems of modern capital through a revival of peasant agriculture. It may be more to the point to return to a suggestion made earlier: that some art which is entirely free of text, either as documentary accompaniment or as complication of its actual surface, may yet be seen as driven by an essay-like impetus. If we seek an antecedent tradition to which a Post-Conceptual art might establish some critical connection, it may not be in the writing of artists that its traces are to be found, but rather in those works which invest ordinary artistic genres with some significant discursive aspect. If artists’ writing as literature tends to re-duce to minor literature, and if artists’ writing as documentation can be sorted into a range of available categories, the possibility of artists’ writing as art may depend on its being significantly rooted in artistic traditions as distinct from established documentary genres or literary traditions or traditions of theatrical experiment.
If the writing is still in some manner to go up on the wall, then, what we will require of that writing is that it be possessed of sufficient art-like antecedents and properties to distinguish it on the one hand from theory conceived as secondary to practical production, and on the other from literature and theatre. To say this, of course, is to assume firstly that there are properties which are distinctly art-like, and secondly that these are such that they may be associated not only with pictures and three-dimensional objects but also, somehow, with texts. What might this ‘writing with art-like properties’ be like? If it makes sense to conceive of an image/text boundary which may occur in one place quasi-naturally as a function of neural programming or some other innate capacity for grammar, but which might be drawn in another by ideology, then perhaps ‘writing as art’ might be thought of as writing which, without necessarily voiding its semantic content, tends to generate quasi-theoretical or quasi-poetic structures and gestalts rather than arguments or narratives, and which in doing so bears critically upon ordinary assumptions about the means by which such structures and gestalts are properly brought to mind. The practical circumstance here envisaged is one where, for all the semantic content with which writing as art might be endowed, it is as something like improbable decoration that its critical power is in the end discharged. It should be clear that the concept of ‘improbable decoration’ is not here meant to refer to that graphic elaboration and enlargement which has enabled some quondam Conceptual Art to transform itself into museum-friendly decor. What is at issue is not with the visual style in which artistic texts may be publicly presented, but rather the possibility that the intention of a given text might somehow be realised in its quasi-pictorial remainder.
To refer to such a circumstance is not to set aside all ordinary distinctions between pictures and texts. On the contrary, there remains a clear contrast with the workings of literature. However radical the form of a novel or a poem may be, and however great the loss may be in any translation, it is never the decorative appearance of the page that is significantly at issue or at risk. A poem is a poem in manuscript, in typescript, in print, or even in speech, whereas the character of art changes according to the how of its appearance, even when that appearance is imaginary or theoretical. The significant point is a more contingent one. However we may theorise the relationship between the verbal and the visual, it happens that the recent practice of art presents us with specific cases in which we are unable to distinguish for the purposes of criticism between the reading of text and the recovery of decorative detail.
In 1997, twenty-five years after the first Index was shown, Art & Language returned to Kassel for Documenta X. On this occasion there were two large rooms to be filled. The work was based on units of identical size and type. In each of 436 small canvases, the image of an open book was set within an apparently shallow illusionistic space. Each canvas was given a single colour, its tone varying only in accordance with the shadowed centre of the book and its surrounding. Each showed a different spread of printed text. The majority of the texts were writings by Art & Language. Some were based on pornographic texts transformed by Art & Language through the device of malapropism, on which see the paper ‘Artist’s Language 2’ in this issue. The texts varied in legibility according to the depth of tone, the degree of contrast with the type, and the extent of loss in the shadowed gulley of the open book. In one room at Documenta some 244 of these panels were arranged into the forms of domestic furniture: a table with dining chairs, a sofa and two armchairs. While some of the texts could be easily read under the circumstances, others required some degree of physical exertion from the spectator if they were not to be reduced to the mere status of decorative panels. In the second room 192 panels were set horizontally into 12 vitrines composing a large square. A spectator standing at one edge of the square could easily read the text on the nearest row of panels, contrast permitting. The next row was harder to read, the third row very difficult and so on. As the individual texts shaded into illegibility so the spectator was invited to surrender to the decorative properties of the whole. At the spectator’s furthest horizon the panels formed a brightly coloured chequered border.
In teaching students new to the humanities it is often necessary to dwell on the relationship between adequacy and completeness in the reading of both texts and pictures. A complete reading of a novel would entail the reading of every word of the printed text. Of course no one required to provide a critique of the novel could be expected to recall every word. Yet understanding what a complete reading would entail might still be a necessary condition of an adequate critique. No one could read every word of Art & Language’s Documenta Vitrine, however assiduous they might be. It is an inescapable condition of spectatorship of the work that it shades into decorative illegibility. Yet it matters that its text be understood as continuous throughout its 192 panels, and it matters that it be experienced as legible – that at least some of it be read. However enchanted a viewer may be by the work’s decorative properties, if she fails to read any of the texts she has failed to understand the relationship between detail and overall form. On the other hand the viewer who reads the printed text attentively to the limit of his powers of focus has also failed unless he has looked up to the work’s horizon, has acknowledged the illegibility of the intervening material, and has allowed that very illegibility to be a condition of the work’s decorative extent.
It is time to aim for a kind of conclusion. Of course we still know when we are reading and when we are not. And what has been said here puts us in no greater danger than we ever were of confusing texts with pictures – or of assuming that the respective competences could somehow be united in the conjuring of mental images. The point is that what change are the specific cultural and aesthetic circumstances under which we practise the relevant distinctions and assign value to the respective activities. Artists’ writing as documentation is rarely of much interest in the study of these changes. Nor is there much to be hoped for from the enforced co-existence of artistic materials with texts. It is when art strives for the reflexive character of writing and when writing strives for the formality of art that we are most likely to be exercised to some larger critical effect, not simply as readers or viewers, but as persons whose ability to make sense of culture and the world is at stake.
If different competences are actually involved in reading text and in seeing decorative detail, under what circumstances might we conceive of these competences as possibly brought together? Works such as the Creation Tapestry offer a kind of juxtaposition which is merely spatial, the straightforward convergence of icon and text justifying our sense of the apparent simultaneity of viewing and reading. In comparison, we might say of certain works of Conceptual Art that text and image were made to bear critically upon one another, in such a manner that they seemed to compete for the same space in our attention, rivalling each other in their powers of definition. Some other works of Conceptual Art achieved a degree of parity between the relevant competences as a consequence of ambiguity in their ontological status. That is to say it was not clear whether a given work was to be realised by imagining an object on the basis of some writing, or whether the writing was itself the object under critical regard. If the ambiguity was resolved, this was less a matter of one kind of competence being favoured over another than of recourse being made to some specific cultural or critical theory, according to which one or other form qualified for critical attention. In some cases the ambiguity was deliberate and strategic. According to Lawrence Weiner’s formulation, written prescription and actual fabrication ‘being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver on the occasion of receivership.’ You paid your money and made your choice.
There were some works of Conceptual Art where the actual or potential
iconic content was so low or so incidental as to invoke a more or less undifferentiated
visual field – one where it was hard to connect ‘seeing’ to the registering
of any significant detail. At another extreme, there were pictorial forms
of High Modernist art which so explicitly distanced themselves from writing
that the very necessity of writing as other became their raison d’être.
If what we are concerned with is some possible convergence of the competences
of reading and viewing, then examples of these latter types might be thought
of as highly diffuse. To say this is not necessarily to disparage these
works. They are cited here merely to draw attention by contrast to the sheer
of the Art & Language work in the series Sighs Trapped by Liars – a
series which includes the Documenta Vitrine and the various composites
in the form of furniture, as well as a number of individual panels. What
distinguishes these works is that picture and text appear on and in the
same image. While the recovery of detail in a picture may be categorically
distinct from the reading of a text, in the confrontation with these works
the two practices merge, not because the exercise of one competence is in
the last instance rendered sufficiently incidental to let in the other,
but because a maximal decorative vividness and a maximal textual content
are both invested in the same surface. It is around this point of convergence
that ‘artists’ writing’ may now be of most interest to the criticism of
(1) W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago and London, 1986, p 42.
(2) From an interview of 24 November 1991, included in Art and the Left: The Critique of Power, TV23 in A316 Modern Art, Practices and Debates, Open University, Milton Keynes, 1993.
(3) The exhibition Out of Action originated at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles, and was shown in Vienna and Barcelona in 1998-9. Opening with a large all-over Pollock from the late 1940s, it offered an international survey of developments in not-painting and not-sculpture (performance art, happenings, process art, body art, video etc.) over the ensuing fifty years. One of the few things the exhibition served to make clear was that the more effectively any artistic enterprise distanced itself from traditionally sanctioned genres and media, the wider the potential gap between that enterprise and the material actually presented for critical review.
(4) Modernist Painting was originally broadcast over Voice of America in 1960 and was published the same year in Forum Lectures, Washington. It is reprinted in Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. IV: Modernism with a Vengeance 1957-1969, John O Brien ed., Chicago, 1933, pp 85-93.
(5) See ‘Artist’s Language 2’ in this issue.
(6) Consider, for instance, Poussins Arcadian Shepherds (Louvre, Paris), Ribers Magdalena Ventura with her Husband (Palacio Lerma, Toledo), Moreelses Scholar Holding a Botanical Thesis (Toledo Museum, Ohio), Davids Marat (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and the trompe lil paintings of Collier, Peto, Haberle and others.