Art & Language Chapter 2

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Mel: And I think that Art & Language was never really a group. It did work in a way on essays and it didn't work conversationally and socially. I mean in my case, if I had written something I would give it to someone else to look at. It seemed the natural thing to do, and then to simply claim that particular essay or something as my own work would have been dishonest. So [...] the thing that was worrying me about what you said first is the notion of conceptual art being a complete break with previous aesthetic positions, which is based on the idea that we used to have particular forms of art and then, with conceptual art, we now have »art in general«.

Michael: There was a post-modernist moment ...

Mel: [...] This is a seriously worrying thing I think because, well I don't want to get into the problems of art in general but there was never... What I understood from the beginning, it's silly to have an argument about [...] what is conceptual art, what isn't conceptual art because nowadays more and more things are being expanded to be included in conceptual art, including Fluxus and stuff like that which in my original understanding of what we were doing was that it was completely against stuff like Fluxus, that Fluxus was putting out something where anything could be art. And it seemed to me that if you had a situation like that where anything could be art, okay anything is art, everything is art, you might as well start looking for some different kind of criteria. And the logic, some of the philosophical terms which were mainly introduced by Michael, I must say, and Terry Atkins to a lesser degree, was a great liberation, because instead of talking about aesthetics, beauty and contemplation you had to start thinking in terms of epistemology, ontology, indexing, a whole different kind of vocabulary came in. But all of this was driven, I think, by a kind of desperation as to what to do after modernism's nervous breakdown, after modernism was almost laughable in the early 60s. And it was driven [...] by how to work with the wreckage. [...] I never saw it as this great kind of »wow, we've got conceptual art now, art in general. We are not stuck with any kind of the old mediums...«

Michael: No.

Mel: We are, I think, stuck.

Michael: It had a specific critical, insofar as I was involved and you were involved, there was a very particular historical critical dimension to it. I mean [...] the issues that were at stake for us were connected to the fact that in our - remember we were relatively young - but in our even younger lives the great influence on us, the great world to aspire to connect with was that world, if you like, of the attenuated modernism one associated with Frank Stella or Larry ) or whoever or even Noland but Greenberg or was still a voice, was still dominant, even in the form of his pupil Michael Fried and so forth. I mean I like Michael Fried a lot but at the same time that dominance of that voice was what seemed to drive one's critical activity. And that brings one to another point, which is that there's a very specific connection between those early moments of conceptual art and painting and the whole ideological apparatus, which surrounded painting. I mean it's a perfectly cogent argument to suggest that [...] a good bit of the early work produced by us was [...] intended to syndicalize the space of painting. It was either to occupy space which painting had previously occupied or, if it didn't occupy it, to draw attention to the fact that it could, in some sense. In so far as we produced all this, some of the discursive material there was always the problem of how to exhibit it. This was not a moment then in which one really tried to discover ways, in the words of our dear friend Daniel Buren, »to penetrate the space«. Those things weren't really an option anyway but one at the same time it had a rather shame-faced approach to this syndicalizing process but it definitely felt like that, didn't it? [...]

Mel: In, I suppose, the mid-60s there was plenty [...] of mad art around and it was never called conceptual art. And I think we were so much on the very end of that mainstream modernism that we wanted to, in a kind of really horrible, it seems horrible to me now, way we wanted to stay in the same space – as modernist painting. We wanted to stay in the same space, we wanted to keep the mainstream and not have this kind of diversified mad art which could easily be dismissed as being Dada, Hippie-Dada, late Surrealism.


Michael: It certainly was never on our agenda. But the fact is it changed very rapidly. [...] To try and argue cogently that the sort of discursive operations that we got engaged in in the late 60ies would or could be readily be reconstructed as having some sort of airlines to what you call mainstream would have been a pretty difficult thing to sustain. The nervous breakdown did occur. You can't have the mainstream and nervous breakdown simultaneously, except you want to.

Mel: ...and we wanted to.

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