English text



[52a] ‘A Story, a Moral and a Postscript’ in Payne (ed.) Research and the Artist, Oxford,  2000, pp. 70-78.

A Story, A Moral and a Postscript.

Michael Baldwin

I should begin with a couple of observations regarding some earlier contributions.

It’s a pity that Richard Wentworth’s pile of art junk mail has been cleared away. My friend Mel Ramsden praises that stuff very highly. He has four cats and they occasionally disgrace themselves; the stiffest and most lavish cards are terribly good for shovelling up cat shit. Perhaps the existence of all this art mail is a testament to some sort of energy as Wentworth suggests but, in fact, I suspect that it speaks of an undifferentiated fetish for public relations and distribution. I personally find it intrusive and irritating.

Lynda Morris discussed some efforts in France. While the French are heavy public consumers of art, and there are lots of museums, and culture is no laughing matter, the École des Beaux-Arts has not in this century produced anyone who might be called a world-class artist. This is not for the lack of funds or trying. In an effort to address this problem, Alfred Pacquement moved from the Musée Nationale du Jeu de Paume to run Beaux-Arts. Whether or not he will have any effect remains to be seen. I suspect that the institution is too grand, too self-regarding and too full of superannuated sub-surrealist professors.  Even just professors.

She was interested in Thierry de Duve’s collaboration with Daniel Buren in the development of a new art school in Paris in the early 1990s. I find the prospect of Daniel Buren running an art school both plausible and alarming. I have always found his work impressive. It is also extraordinarily funny. His situationism and so forth is both necessary and bathetic; a radical tendence. His collected writings – researches(?) – have been published in connection with an interminable retrospective. The book is immense and unselfcritical, an exercise in bombast and vanity.  In a division of modernité transacted in 1967 between Buren, Parmentier, Toroni and Olivier Mosset, Buren got stripes, Parmentier horizontal bands, Toroni dots and Mosset circles. Stripes, those great penetrators of ‘spaces’, have become indistinguishable from the curatorial and managerial ambitions that were nascent in the art theory and conceptual art of the 1970s. We have in Daniel Buren’s work an early example of the artist’s practice converging with the interests of managers. These are known in the trade as curators. Here we have someone whose achievement, as it were, is to give the curator and the artist (the management and the artist) an equal share in artistic production. There are many who regard this development as a good thing. There are others, my friend and colleague Mel Ramsden, for example, who regard it as an oppressive shift in determining conditions.

I thought that Charles Harrison unwhited the sepulchre of ‘research’ a bit. The earlier speakers had drawn rather predictable pictures of terribly under-funded, under-paid, under-fed people (that is to say, senior-lecturer-style artists) struggling manfully to be creative in an unresponsive world. With the exception of Charles’ contribution, very little of what has been said so far is inimical to the first speaker’s truly appalling suggestion that lottery money be used to buy art collections for universities: a tax on the poor and gullible to fund the cultural experience of the privileged.

I have no art-school axe to grind. I haven’t had one for a long time. Perhaps that’s why I’m here. No one will be very surprised, therefore, that I don’t have much to say that’s informed about the current state of research-talk in Fine Art Departments. I did once work in an art school. I was chucked out in 1972. David Bainbridge (who is here) and I were blacklisted for many years. Dave eventually returned. I was flung into the arms of art dealers in Europe and elsewhere. It could be that the practice of the artist who is not dependent on teaching is a research paradigm of some kind. I make no such assumption about my own activity.

Anyway. Research and so forth.  I guess that we all more or less agree that to talk of research in connection with art is to use the term in analogistic, metaphorical, inexact and all sorts of other ways that are not very closely connected with scientific practice. In response to Michael Corris’s question to Charles Harrison, I suppose that we can make a distinction fairly easily. The paradigms of the research world are those experimental sciences in which questions are put to nature on order to find out about its laws, with the corollary objective of finding out what is created by the researchers and what is not. Other sciences – the so-called ‘human sciences’ – presumably aim for a methodology akin to that of the experimental natural sciences, even though they cannot perform real experiments on what has already been produced by people. Orotund talk earlier today of ‘experiment’ in art is just so much claptrap. There is no experiment in art except in a deeply domestic – that is to say, ordinary – sense. And these are ‘researches’ that almost everyone does in the trials and projects of their ordinary life. Let’s forget about experimenting and turn to the matter of research.

I remember that there were ‘research fellows’ in the sculpture department of the art school in which I was employed. Sometimes they were the girlfriends of the head of the fine art department. (It was always a man in those days.) Their research was to put slightly recherché objects in resin or aspic or something, and I can only suppose that their research objective was to find out how to put things in aspic … having decided what to put in it, etc., etc. They tended to hang about, play cards at lunchtime and drink beer. Their activity was usually connected with some technical fetish of the head of department. Once, I recall, it was holograms – high technology that was going to change everything at a stroke. Everything else would be doomed to derogation as handicraft – you know the sort of stuff. It was always hilarious, but it was called research, and I guess it must have involved some sort of inquiry and work.

I wish to narrate an anecdote concerning my own experience of a more or less authentic research institution, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory at Heidelberg. The Dutch Government or, rather, the Dutch Ministry of Education and Science decided, in its wisdom, that Art & Language were going to be jolly good candidates to talk to these post-doctoral scientists in this institution. It’s a very isolated, strange place. But, for various reasons, we were persuaded that it was indeed a good idea; we thought we’ll talk to the scientists about interdisciplinary representation and narrative or something. I don’t know really what we thought. Anyway, off we hopped for a lively exchange of Leitmotif. It soon became apparent, however, that they didn’t give a shit about art, and that they weren’t at all interested in talking to us. They were working without respite in a place that stays open twenty-four hours a day. They were doing nasty things to monkeys, and it smelt. We did see all kinds of fascinating equipment, and we learned a bit about various research programmes, many of which anticipate a tenfold increase in computer power every five years.

What we had in fact agreed to do was to propose an art work which was to be placed in the lobby of the laboratory. The management’s space. Any relationship that this might have with the work of the institution was, from the management’s point of view, entirely traditional. The walls and doors of the working section of the laboratory – the quotidian space of the researchers – were occasionally decorated with posters and scrawls in more or less adolescent and jokey style. They were also put to more serious use as sites for the ‘publication’ of working papers or fragments thereof as contributions to an internal conversation. There was, in other words, a continuously changing exhibition where ideas and projects were informally exposed and exchanged, not as finished articles, but as largely inchoate fragments or as abstract slogans and headlines. Here was a conversation with which we could identify; indeed, its talkative form was much like our own. At the same time, it was a conversation that had no interest in us. We were tempted for a moment to make some cute and artistic intervention in all this. It was, however, difficult, given the resistance of the scientists, to discover a means of intervention that would be neither emptily artistic nor self-regardingly opaque.

We made a study – a drawing of sorts - that we hoped might get us into conversation with the scientists.  It was submitted to the Ministry and approved by it. A little later we received a visit from the Director of the laboratory, who was a distinguished scientist, accompanied by his exceedingly bossy wife who knew a bit about art. Well, pottery and macramé. Our study consisted of a group of three landscapes that formed a continuous image of the woods around the institution. The landscapes were to be doubly disfigured. Firstly, soft oil paint was to be squashed and manipulated upon their dry surfaces, large sheets of glass having been screwed down so as to cover all three of them. Secondly, large printed texts were to be fixed to the front of the glass obscuring the painted surfaces. These texts were a kind of nonsense in which Darwin had been visited by Mrs.Malaprop. The upshot of the conversation with the Director and his wife was, effectively, “Couldn’t you make it a bit nicer?” That is to say, couldn’t we make it a bit more likely to impress the bureaucrats and politicians who were responsible for funding this extraordinarily expensive institution. The conversation took place late one night. It was a strange and unnerving experience. We said we would think about it.

Meanwhile, the study had been shown to the working scientists who objected strongly to the Director’s bowdlerising demand. They were quite interested in our visiting Mrs.Malaprop’s solecisms upon the sacred texts of Darwin. It was something that could supply the pretext for a conversation. We had found out very little about the relationship between art and molecular biology, but we had discovered something quite interesting about the culture and the social structure of the research institution in which we had been placed or upon which we had been visited. We had also begun to find out how it might be possible for us, as artists, to find ways of mapping our conversational practice into another with which it was largely incommensurable. In the end, the conflict was resolved in a compromise: we made one piece of work for the lobby and one for upstairs where the researchers actually worked. The researchers got the complex Darwin-tweaking stuff, and the lobby a less controversial work in which Darwin remained intact.

For the opening ceremony we had the honour of being Dutch for about two to three hours. The appropriate tricolour was borrowed from the fire department and our work in the lobby was covered with it, speeches extolling the glories of art and science were endured, the flag was whipped off and, without warning, I was invited to give a talk about our project to a crowd of post-doctoral molecular biologists, biophysicists and a few politicians.

My first task was to provide some sort of description of the work as the product of a relatively autonomous artistic practice. This was, of course, inadequate. It was impossible to discuss the work adequately without referring to the conditions of conflict that had created it. Indeed, the work itself was an index of this conflict, whatever its apparently autonomous origins. And the conflict in question was between the management on one side and the researchers – the workers – on the other. The project, which had begun as a possible intellectual challenge, had been co-opted by the management and put to its specific purposes. An entirely different intellectual challenge had been introduced as a consequence of this co-option. The researchers – the practicing scientists – had recognized the co-option and had sought to save the project as internally complex and discursive. But this was not an unmediated interdisciplinary complexity or discursivity.  For the scientists our work remained effectively sui generis. Our conversation with them began to mean something insofar as they recognized that the project had been deformed by the management. But this was a story of the conflict that had been ruled out a priori by the Ministry of Education and Science. For the Ministry, it is possible that an atmosphere of intellectual purpose – research-ishness – would have remained irrespective of the actual outcome of the project. This was an institutionally recognized research project, even if the artistic component was more or less opaque to the biologists and the biological component opaque to the artists. They had made a bet that we’d stand up for ourselves in somewhat exotic intellectual and cultural circumstances. Another possibility is that they assumed that these circumstances would offer the possibility of some sort of synthesis. The synthesis did not occur and we would have been highly resistant to any such interdisciplinary possibility. What did occur was something altogether more interesting – I might even say pleasurable.

There are many cultural, social and political isomorphisms between universities, art schools and cognate institutions. The management at Heidelberg is no doubt quite like the management of an art school. What is different here is that the institution in Heidelberg is exclusively a research institution (its publication rate is second only to MRC), and art schools generally are not. I realise that in the latter there may be many art historians and similar engaging in some sort of research – i.e., study, inquiry and publication – in ways that would be recognized in a conventional university. Papers are papers. This is not what is being discussed here. What we are trying to talk about is research in the drawing and colouring-in departments which are now university departments.

The effort to dignify artistic practice with a research-like character – or at least to reward it with points and with the financial rewards that points attract – has led to the development of some fairly undignified devices and contraptions. There is, for example, a small and obscure gallery in New York.  It is the administered property of an English art school. Its staff and the staff of other institutions have shows there. A ‘show in New York’ is thus made possible for those who would otherwise not stand a chance of such a dubious privilege. Points follow from what is essentially a legalistic fraud. Similarly, anthologies proliferate. Art history lecturers who previously led quiet and more or less blameless lives are now editing or being edited ad nauseam in various collections and compilations. Everyone gets a turn. Vanity publishing like this earns points.

Against this rather shaky background, I do have a few constructive suggestions. The first is don’t worry. Scientific research, either in the form of putting questions to nature or in the form of the human sciences, need not be our inescapable methodological paradigm. And the epistemological question of how knowledge of the world is possible under the conditions of autopoietic closure cannot be disconnected from the specific socio-historical conditions under which it arises. As Luhmann suggests, the theory of science conceived historically is “a belated product of science-in-operation”. Similarly, a theory of art will always be a latecoming product of art in operation. And this operation is self-referential and autopoeitic. What is now in question, however, is the matter of that self-describing itself. We inhabit an artistic culture that confronts little more than the triviality of its self-description and consequently of the means by which it might reproduce or change itself. The second is that a remotely serviceable art practice (there are no transcendental bases) will be engaged in one form or another of an emancipatory task. This will, among other things, involve trying to find ways to be free of certain critically oppressive and unwanted conditions. And among these will be the cultural conditions that provide unchallenged hegemony for the managers, therapists and simple weighers in charge. This is a hegemony that trivialises or empties the self-description of all that it touches. That is to say, it robs what it controls of internal complexity and volatility, redescribing it in line with its own instrumental purposes. There is much artistic work that submits in advance to this form of control and co-option. An art practice with any claim to research-like power will be in the first instance resistant to institutional co-option and equally unsubmissive to Spenglerian notions like the demands of the epoch. Indeed, its raison d’etre will be to provide a critical discourse regarding all of the sources of the self-image of the age. ‘Research’ in this sense will depend on what is produced, and what is produced will depend on (and be) a discursive, talkative, self-describing job of work that is resistant to assimilation by any institution it cannot harm or at least change. 

I do not deny that there will have to be some form of administrative activity, some sort of organization. Work has to be done somewhere. At the same time, the protocols and strategies of administration are always liable to instrumentalize enquiry, or at least to render it in its own image. In many ways, the internally complex artistic products of recent post-Duchampian times are extraordinarily amenable to administrative priorities. We might even say they are directed at them. But research in the administration’s image or interest is not the same as research that might be enabled or administered by it. Artistic practice will be openly inquisitive if it is to be in any sense aesthetically serviceable. Inquiry is not an optional extra in artistic practice, but there are many artistic careers consumed institutionally in which all apparent inquiry is foreclosed as some form of administrative feat. This lends a sense of bathos to today’s proceedings.

Hayden White suggests that (almost) all narratives need to end with a moral. While the administrators of a scientific institution will qua administrators of science bring different criteria of instrumentality, coherence or extensibility to bear on their scientific fiefdoms than they will apply to merely artistic visitations, their capacity to perceive the internal complexity of both is limited. There was something universal and inevitable about the meeting with EMBL’s director and his wife. The material exigencies and mysteries of corporate interest facilitate as they distort. That the scientific workers ultimately fought to recognize and to defend the relative autonomy and internal complexity of an artistic project was as exemplary as it was unsurprising.

 Our sense of ‘research’ – albeit weak and attenuated – will always depend upon the nature of the artistic work undertaken. It will depend on a certain distance between the predicates and practices of administration (including curatorial ones) and the actual artistic practices practised. What is required of these latter is a complexity and inquisitive ambition sufficient to preserve this distance. In short, they must be resistant to certain kinds of co-option. The art school is borne upon by many barbarities. Not only are they emotivistic worlds of administrative persuasion, they are often nasty little hierarchies presided over by the vestiges of Hegelian comedy: inner necessity still lives in them. They are still sites of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse.  Social horrors or no, the art schools possess a certain strength in their students. These are, or were, often malingerers of various kinds, awkward and resistant to many standard forms of social and epistemic processing. There is (or was) an intellectual space within them in which various kinds of informal learning and teaching can occur. These are small and aggressive autopoietic systems perhaps.

Charles Harrison suggested that institutions tend to kill art. I am very little concerned if art gets killed – that is, if students don’t do art. It doesn’t matter if what they do is not readily categorized as art, either institutionally or prescriptively. What can happen is that the art institutions can kill the critical and inquiring powers of the people who study there. If the people survive in this regard, they can always do something like art later if they wish. The artistic – or not – practices conceived as analogous to the research practices of other institutions will be correspondingly project-like, and as self-deflating as they are self-inflating. They will be internally complex, significantly reflexive and opaque to the administrators of the academy.


There is another, even more modest, possibility. The studios of the art schools contain both students and teachers. The teachers rarely teach anything much, if they teach anything at all. The studio is the easiest of all places for the staff to get away with it. Laziness and incoherence are all too easily mitigated by third-rate clubbability and good-blokeishness or by the illusion of bureaucratic indispensability. There are indeed many distinguished ‘teaching’ careers that are mysteriously bereft of achievement. The malaise is largely traditional. Those few pseudo-theoretical accounts which allege ‘transformations of studio practice’ are usually as vacuous as they are corrupt. A decent beginning to research in the circumstance of the studio might be made in trying to find a shape and a substance for what is actually taught there. This would involve some attempt to discover what you can teach once the conventional studio ethos of abuse and arbitrary power is abandoned. This would, of course, be a reflexive project. The abandonment of an abusive ethos will equally depend on what the teachers teach.