English text



[67a] ‘Julian Opie’s Sculpture’ in Julian Opie, (catalogue), Lisson Gallery, London, 1985, pp. 7-11.

Julian Opie’s Sculpture

Art & Language. Mel Ramsden – Michael Baldwin

Part I

Le sage ne rit qu’en tremblant.
The sage doesn’t laugh without trembling.
(Baudelaire, L’Essence du rire.)

Such a maxim might be known secretly to a perfectly orthodox and regular subscriber to the canons of modernism. But he would keep such a strange and elliptical thought to himself. The critic or artist animated with the orthodoxy of modernism or the practitioner of any other divinely authenticated formulation does not laugh. Neither can he suffer to be produced anything which might engender laughter.

Julian Opie’s laughter touches lightly perhaps on certain memories. The ‘incarnate word’ of artistic authenticity never laughed. Never laughs. The comic disappears in the delusions of the undivided self of the artist, of the authentic critic. It is not present in the sewn-up system of hand-me-down authority which is the basis of most expressionist theories of art and which forms the veneer of discursive respectability for the pseudo-critical transactions of today’s ‘postmodern’ pseudo-expressionism. Today’s little Wagners are as sure they are possessed of dominion over the empirical world as anyone so nervous can be.

Laughter never deforms the features of those who will suffer no pain, who have driven it from the canon. For the dessicated modernist, laughter on the lips is as great a sign of critical wretchedness as tears in the eyes. For those who have staked everything on the simulated tears of pain, the complacent neurotics of neo-expressionism, laughter would signal the total failure of the system which sustains them, a system which allows them intact a sense (a delusion or a lie) concerning their artistic selves.

Laughter is the worst of news in our artistic culture.

Convulsions of the features are not only more instructive than convulsions of the soul, they signal the deconstruction of the existential basis of most systems of cultural security. Yet the phenomena engendered by the inadmissable humanness of art may yet be some condition of its continuation. Irony, the ‘absolute comic’ of Baudelaire, is perhaps best treated in simple examples. For Baudelaire it was the spectacle of someone’s tripping and falling in the street. Opie’s sculptures are aphoristic. They are quick and terse. (It is as if irony did not allow for extendedness.) They are, as it were, quite simple spectacles of falling (including blue-chip and better masterpieces seeming literally to fall from a salesman’s suitcase). The idea of falling represents the comic specifically. Finally it introduces the ironic component of the ‘absolute comic’. When an artist, or one similarly determined, falls or sees some (precious) symbol of that self falling, and laughs, he or she is responding to certain mistaken (though apparently ‘nccessary’) assumptions made about the self and its mode of existence. These assumptions are the basis of a sense of authenticity. The artistic self conceived as distinct from the inchoate world, the self as being in the world has the mistaken tendency to mask or to hide the artist as sign. The falling and the laughter at falling is an acceptance that the artist is also a sign, and that the being in the empirical world is inauthentic, that ‘meaning’ even in the empirical world is never a recovery of unalloyed experience; and similarly for artists. Laughing at the fall is the end of an authentic self-hood, a self-hood which mysteriously, and yet somehow naturally, produces signs.

The moment of laughter puts in question the authenticity of the artist’s sense of being in the world. This moment initiates a far from diverting or entertaining set of possibilities. Irony has the uncomfortable tendency to build up momentum, to plough-on, upending all in its path. It stops when, in a sense mysteriously, it runs out of skittles. This irony is not the intersubjective comedy or wit of gentle artistic fun for insiders; it is not the comedy of decorum.

Opie’s sculptures touch the absolute irony of the pantomime. At their simplest (A Pile of Old Masters) they are frozen moments of pantomime. Less simple, they fall somewhere between the self-animated stage props of farce and the footprints of a dizzily ironical spectacle. His emphasis on a professional vocabulary – they do function as, are readable as sculpture – is evidence of the technicality of the comic action. The language of sculpture is a material and not merely a tool; the ‘material’ of irony (laughs), not just a tool to get irony (laughs).

The language of sculpture is taken out of the empirical world to become an entity like others, not a privileged category. It is an entity that bifurcates the artistic self: the artist stuck in the world and the artist become like a sign. In the polite chortling of educated arty fun this duplication is not evident. The artist can hang on to the mystifications and the self-mystifications that sustain him.

We must therefore avoid making the assumption that the disinterested ironies of Opie’s work release the onlooker or the author from that prolonged labour which the ironic mode entrains. As soon as irony is thought of as knowledge able to cure the world, it is transformed into platitude or diversion; the conditions of its existence disappear. The burden of ironical comedy is not to tell us that we may have art reconciled to the world by the right kind of art. In the descent from artistic grandeur to comedy, Julian Opie’s sculpture releases us from certain delusions of exaltedness and authenticity. But for author or onlooker to make an idyll of this release would be an ironical spectacle itself.

Considerez les ironies de ce texte.

None of this contributes meaning to the art-worldly use of the term ‘postmodern’. Nothing at all.


‘POST-MODERN’ has been about for around ten years in art circles. It has a longer history in literature, a distinct one in architecture, and it is a parvenu in Parisian philosophy. Endless use has by now given it some sort of meaning. But it is vague, ambiguous and categorically insecure. On the one hand, we are warned that the post-modern marks the return of bourgeois or philistine attitudes. It is an oikish new conservatism ridiculing the sensitive ‘authenticity’ of earlier generations of avant-garde artists. On the other hand, we are told that the postmodern is only an extension of modernism itself – that its play of historical allusion and quotation has replaced the ‘political’ and ‘terrorist’ stance of the older modernist avant garde. The ice of ideology has sold out to what Coleridge would know as fancy and Schiller as aesthetic play.

‘Post-modern’ seems to be a catch-all phrase for all sorts of anxieties and hopes. It leads one to the following anxieties and hopes: is it the supersession of older artist’s ‘authenticity’ with the funky inauthenticity of younger artists? No, not quite. Now you can’t just be inauthentic, you’ve got to know inauthenticity. You’ve got to know how to malinger. Julian Opie’s sculptures, Cultural Baggage and A Pile of Old Masters, are examples of one sort of malingering. The art world is today run for malingerers. To think about this kind of work ought to present one with a string of negotiations concerning the real and the counterfeit, metaphors (or not) of forgery, imitation, fraud, fakery, that is potentially rich in semiology, or bullshit, or both.

Opie is an extremely young artist working in a climate where the producer is silent. Artists used to talk and Write a lot. They were sort of taken seriously. Critics used to talk and Write a lot. There were ideas. Curators and managers curated and managed. There still seemed some ideas. But in the current barbarous art market, the person with the cheque book is always right. It is a bubble that is bound to burst. Perhaps artists will Write some more. Until then, the silent artist means the optimalisation of the art system: furious collecting, brutalizing exhibitions, obsequious criticism, the whole system propelled by the moral and intellectual virtues of the stock market.

Against this, one hopes that Opie’s work dwells in the honorable tradition of the pantomime, but fears that it could be British artsy-crafty, romper-room furniture. The same worries follow other new-generation British sculptors. One hopes their work is grounded somehow in the uncanny objects of Surrealism, but worries that it could be just expensive executive jewellry – British, old-hippies’ art again. Another bluff. One hopes that the punning of allusion and quotation would generate a structure of ambiguity leading to divisions and multiplications of self as in Baudelairean irony, fallenness. One fears, however, that the work could be a celebration of alienation, the making-oneself-at-home in an alienated being. The celebration of the junk space of capitalism is the celebration of a space which would destroy them (as it does others) were they to dare not to celebrate it, to show us its charming masks. These kinds of remarks, this hopefully critical strain, are negotiations. They are the only thing worth bothering art for. Whether Opie’s works looks like a Caro or a David Smith before it’s painted seems irrelevant except as part of the joke. Otherwise, it’s the nervous importation of older authenticity by those who are not aware that the joke is the post-modern genre par excellence.

This is no joke. Or rather it is. Post-modernism illustrated by a theory of the joke must become the joke of theory, and the post-modernist joke must become the joke of post-modernism. Just as the whole superstructure of the theory of irony must become the irony of theory, so we can have genuine representation complexities, so we can have a self as factual and fictional, so we can have lives not just careers, neighbours not just address books, etc., etc.

There are reasons for the joke seeming the post-modern genre. It may invoke all the old anti-modernist prejudices (the contemporary satires ridiculing Manet’s Olympia, Courbet’s Studio). The joke presents us with a structure of ambiguity and differentiation, peculiarity of structure, duplicity and conflicting interpretations. It presents us with a perpetual category of failure of category. The ‘incompetent’ representation of old masters in A Pile of Old Masters may – to be serious – unfetter rather than revere the history of art, but it does so with the faint whiff of an embarassing pun (which may indeed be a post-modernist effect in itself). If Opie wants to work in the problematic boundaries between fiction and reality, he must surely strive hard for the uncanny. Melting watches and fur-covered cups and saucers are more or less uncanny. Surrealism is no joke. Manet is uncanny. Seurat is really uncanny. Pollock is quite often. Dali was quite frequently. Baudelaire knew deep and profoundly of the modernism of the comic. Freud is fought over nowadays with his previously marginal work of jokes. Somebody’s work should square up to this. The peculiarity of structure of the joke may suggest the peculiar structure of the post-modern. But the last laugh may be on the post-modernist: if the jokes are good enough, they must return us full circle to the ironist of the nineteenth century – to the modernists: Baudelaire – or Nietzsche.