Print version interview Charles Harrison

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Interview with Charles Harrison

S.R.: Ok, we are guests of Charles Harrison in Oxford on the 29 th November 2004 and my first question is: How did you start to work together with the collective Art an Language what was the starting point for you?

C.H.: It was gradual. I was working at Studio International the magazine in London as an assistant editor and I'd have heard a little bit about the activities of Art and Language in Coventry from a colleague who was there associated with the international American girl called Barbara Rice. She was teaching at Coventry so she knew the people there. So I heard a little bit about them and about the work they were doing and then Terry Atkinson and Harold Hurrel from the original group Art and Language came to see me at Studio bringing some materials. They were just introducing themselves as artist to somebody who worked on an art magazine. I found it very interesting because they were very different from the other artist I met. They looked a little bit more like ... well they had suits and briefcases you know quite like an artist and Harold was very depressed. Shortly after that hype in the spring of 69 I went to New York. I went partly because I wanted to meet Clement Greenberg and I wanted to see more American painting and I met Joseph Kosuth. I met him in a Ken Noland(?) exhibition in Larry Luton's gallery and we got talking and he latched on to me as somebody who was an English art critic and told me around, introduced me to people in New York. So through him I met Lucy Lippard and the (?) state of artists When I came back to England I was keen to try and get more involved with the kind of work that I had seen in New York, I think and renewed my contacts with the Art and Language people. I can't remember exactly how that happened but I do remember being invited up to Coventry to talk. I think it must have been by Terry where I met Michael and David Bainbridge. That confirmed my sense that these were interesting people. I think that also I was very upset about what I was doing ... I wanted to be an art critic and wanted to know that curator but I started to find that this kind of career that I thought I had set up to myself didn't really work and I explain more about why not in a little while. And I didn't really know why it wasn't working why/where.... the competence is that I thought I had didn't seem to give me the results that I hoped for but these were people who knew why they knew what was wrong with having sensitivity, culture and class in a context with art where that didn't work any more I suppose and I felt increasingly that they were people I could learn from I suppose but I was still then working as a exhibition organiser critic and so what I tried to do was to get involved with them in that roll and so initially I(?) my context with art and language by trying to organise exhibitions with their working and put them into exhibitions that I had a chance to organise by writing about that work also and through them I became more closely involved with the group. I remember writing an article about Art and Language, Burgon and Kosuth in Studio, I think in 1970 and what I remember from that is I remember Michael Baldwin coming on to visit my house in London where I was living. The first he said was:»Your article was shit» And I said how good, Art and Language was so important ... that was not a reaction I'd had from many of the other artists I had written about and it was interesting and he was right. So it increased my sense that these were people that I could learn with. So I suppose I worked to become more closely involved. The other strong content was through the magazine through Art and Language which I was certainly interested but (?) I didn't stand it. That was the thing that made it interesting it was really difficult and strange. But it was also full of mistakes and I am quite a competent editor and I couldn't bare the fact that this interesting material was being spoiled slightly by the fact that you couldn't tell a difference between what was difficult and what was a radiant form of mistake. So I offered my services as an editor to the magazine just to try and get some of the mistakes out and I became initially more closely involved with A+L as a just as a working editor but of course what happened to AL is that those who join in the work and particularly those who try and made a (?) critics become drawn into the production. So I just got gradually more closely to the journal. [...]

S.R.: What was the challenge of this project?

C.H.: The project of Art and Language?

S.R.: Yes.

C.H.: Partly it sheer(?) difficulty, it was also strange. They were making claims for a kind of artistic status for works that took a form but simply not formal texts that were very hard to understand hard to read. So there was a kind of intellectual challenge. But it also was work that seemed to have kind of a critical purchase on the standard kind of modernist fair of the time and that made it interesting and I think it made it particularly interesting to me because I was trying to be a competent and sophisticated consumer of modernist art and couldn't find out why I was failed.

S.R.: In respect of the last 30 years how did the circumstances change in the 80s and the 90s to the contemporary art field?


C.H.: That's a very difficult one to answer, I think. Part what changed was the character of the market and I think that some of the barriers between art and the commercial world became eroded. I suppose that when the sense was a long term consequence at the decline of some modernist critical s that notion that the aesthetic and the commercial were each chosen necessary opposites and that division that we've in art and language we have sort of caricaturist at the one side and the artist does its art in a necessity and the rest of the world does it for the money. So if you'd say the artist is doing it for the money than it says you are compromising what is supposed to be special about art? I think that idea, that division, with so many of the other things that went to me in the 80s and 90s that just collapsed and what the consequence was of that was that it broke down the barriers between the notion of high art on the one hand and the popular arts on the other. And that fail of a generation of artists who would always perhaps felt a lot closer to the world of popular culture than the world of high culture so that you get artists who see themselves ideally as much more like rock stars then like in a traditional artist working way in a lonely studio and trying to put himself up to the ? So maybe... that ? what is a lie to the fact that increasingly those responsible for the distribution of art, the gallerists, the curators and so on tended to see themselves rather more like publishers, like advertising inspectors, like ? and so on rather than ? So you just get a change in the whole of images, I think of the business of the art world, I think. So that the notion of artist what the career is, of being an artist, represents that changes. And I think most of the changes are driven by substantial changes and the sort of economical cultural base in society coinciding with the shift away from modernist values so that may itself be partly determining by what was happening with the social economic base.

S.R.: For example we can come to a kind of re-doing? For example when attitudes had become form there was a 2nd exhibition in the 80s ....


S.R.: For example what was the motivation to re-do an exhibition in parts again?

C.H.: I think, there are two reasons for that one – and they are connected- one was that you began to get a new generation of curators who perhaps where young when the first exhibition was shown who then go along to study modern art history and have maybe done their gradual work on the original conceptual art movement and so now they are organising their shows connected to a kind of gradual work of art history students. I think that was part of the reason why that particular show was organised in Cambridge. It was organised by somebody who done her graduate thesis on the art feature, I think. And then of course that's the reason that conceptual art movement generally starts become fashionable as always happens after a certain laps of time. So the work starts to cause a value in a certain ... things start getting to the museums and it time to have another look. I mean its interesting that the two English exhibitions sort of being related to the attitude/architecture, one of the...and one of the White Chapel have both removed the essentially cosmopolitan character of a regional exhibition and turned them into sort of exhibitions of a (?) British avant-garde which (?) rather defeat (?) exercise and turn them into little exercises influential celebration.

S.R.: When I connect this question of re-doing an exhibition of Conceptual Art, we are all the time talking about Conceptual Art. It must be allowed to ask if there is something likeS conceptual paradigms in your interest as an art historian. Do you think that these if there are or there where some paradigms, conceptual paradigms, which is denied by some artists, and are they still in function?

H: I think there are certain thinks. Firstly speaking as not an historian I would say there is no denying that there was something that ? convenience call the Conceptual Art movement and so there was a substantial shift in the character of avant-garde practice over a very wide area, that was an international movement. You can date it ? precisely to a period of 1965-1972 and there were several large survey exhibitions at the time which were connected together artists of that generation tried to ? I mean all kind of names were applied to the movement. CA seems to be one of the ones that stuck. But of course that term gets used very widely for a lot of practises ? doesn't apply very well. So a lot of all gets cold Conceptual Art, historically speaking I wouldn't see as necessary connected to the core ideas that I would associate the Conceptual Art movement. But I think that's very normal. But if you ask what this core ideas were what for me makes sort of conceptual Art. It would be a particular kind of critical purchase on the break up of the authority of modernist criticism and modernist para... of art. So its not so much that I think of there being a Conceptual paradigm within the movement. Its rather more that the idea of a critical attack on the paradigmas that we associate with modernism was a factor in common between the number of interesting artists of the time. More generally I suppose the notion of CA its head up a history rather than the term of history of abstract art that from up to the 20th century abstract art got used very loosely I mean stuff that looked quite strange... and wasn't obviously figurative. But if you go back to the beginnings of abstract art movement if you go back to the work of Malevitch, Kandinsky, Mondrian and in the second decade century, you are talking about a very specific set of problems and ideas the imaginative possibilities response to the break up with the power of figuration to determine the category painting and if you really want to understand that you got to go back to that moment and understand what these artists where addressing and why they felt they couldn't go on doing what other artists have done. Similar if you want to go back to CA movement you understand why it was like it was you have to understand that little nexus of problems certain things seem as practices you just couldn't carry on with any more. So you need some act of historical reconstruction to give CA a real practical sense.

S.R.: In respect to this background and how you figured it out there is a talk or something like a fashion, you said it became fashionable of CA in the last 10 years more and more. How do you differentiate between if you go beyond the generation question how do you differentiate between the more closer field of CA and the more wider field. I mean today everything can be conceptual in the press releases you read that architecture is conceptual, that painting is conceptual, theatres are conceptual ...

C.H.: It just becomes a label. Like a marketing label that gets applied stuff it means not conventional painting hanging on the wall, not conventional, sculpture on the pedestal, not conventional theatre ... To terms you'd always loosely experimental. For me CA is something that was a transitional faith in art that lasted over a certain historical period I would say again between the mid sixties and the early 1970s and it was transitional and certainly of course it was a factor in the kind of changes in art which we've seen since of course it was but you cant draw a very consistence set of drawled set of ....

S.R.: What do you consider as beside that it was a strong critique by modernism in the middle of the 20th century what do you consider as the strongest influence for conceptual artists that you know?


C.H.: Its difficult to generalise to much I think. Again the sense of negative possibilities were very strong in a sense that you couldn't go on working in the same way. I think some of the strong influences of some people I knew where a kind of critique of class culture and the sense of modernism had become a kind of institutionalised class culture that left no room for certain ways of conducting oneself of having a career. So I think the idea that it was necessary to establish some other way of preceding was important and then if its necessary to establish a different way then you need different intellectual resources, you need different arguments and so I think some of the younger artist started looking for critical material were given a purchase on the situation they found themselves in... so far as Art and Language was concerned I think two main resources where on the one hand the Marxist intellectual tradition which reveals one of the critique of class culture and the tradition of analytical philosophy which avails one of the critique of the sort of a language structure thing of the art world .... There's no Art and Language slogan not Marx or Wittgenstein, but Marx and Wittgenstein and the idea bringing those two kinds of resources together seems the strongest intellectual influence on the people I knew and was closest to.

S.R.: I mean, the artistic practice of conceptual artists is a very intellectual practice, can be seen as very intellectual...

C.H.: Yes, it is intellectual but it is irresponsibly intellectual and opportunisticly intellectual. As to say it is not quite intellectual in the sense that following an academic curriculum is an intellectual activity. People were reading books they had no right to read they were not wouldn't being considered as properly trying to educate read and getting out of whatever they could use and putting different kinds of intellectual resources together so it was slightly reading this bricollage reading this collage and it was intellectual in a sense that some of the materials were quite intellectually demanding, but they weren't necessarily used in a standard intellectual fashion. They weren't use to make the right/proper kind of intellectual product. So that's something like the Art and Language index in 1972 was a kind of intellectual product, it was made out of a lot of strange texts, but the texts were insert there's a ...(??) had produced for themselves certainly out of some kinds of strange reading it wasn't a standard kind of intellectual kind of product, it wasn't a book it wasn't a university course it was artwork

S.R.: How do you think that this specific practice to be a very intellectual artistic have a very intellectual practice. How did the circumstances change in the last 10-20 years? H: I think the idea of being some sort of a »reading artist» that's gone. No longer Its ....unfashionable to deploy the same kind of intellectual resources. That again I think I would see as connected to that break down between the notions of the high culture and the popular culture that certainly happens to ,.. in the 80s and 90s. But you don't expect rock musicians to be intellectuals and if the model for the artist to the model for the career of the artist is rather more like the rock musicians career than its like a Barnett Newman's career then you wouldn't expect them to read that much or at least you wouldn't expect them to talk that they read they probably keep...quite about it.

S.R.: As you are talking about the role model of the (?) for a lot of contemporary artists there is a discussion about how the artist behaves in front of the camera but also what can the role of the artist be in a film and there is the opinion that they have only two options: to play the role of the authentic artist in what way ever or to speak about this situation he/she is in, the production of the film. What do you think, is it approbate to have this two options?

C.H.: Yes, except that now I suppose the authentic artist is somebody who is smart about the fact that what they involved in is a representation. So authenticity no longer means being an inarticulate person locked up in the privacy of the studio. Being an authentic artist means being smart and being smart about things like the fact that there's a camera over there and we need to be concious to the fact that we are talking in the presence of the camera. That's just non sophistication, isn't it? We cant no longer pretend that we are all alone in the world and unsurveyed and unrepresented.

S.R.: I want to close with a more personal question to your own practice. We started with your approach to Art and Language and the CA and I am specifically interested in your own self reflection. Do you think the work with AL and CA changed your own practice in a way. That f. E the big collection of theoretical artist writing ART and Theory from 1900-2000 is representing a specific kind of practice of Art history that was not possible before.

C.H.: Its undoubtedly true that involvement of AL changed my practice and changed my sense of what I could reasonably do. I had conventional education, I was privately educated, I went to Cambridge to study art history academicly and then went to do gradual work at the Quota Lins Studio. I mean that's very standard and conventional academic career for an art historian. I would say that the point at which I really started to learn was the point of a trial became involved at the people of AL and that involved a lot of unlearning of the things that I had learned previously. I mean of course I still retain some of the advantages of having had a formal education and I don't mean to minimize it. But I think what my involvement with AL gave me was the sense how necessary it is to stand apart from some of those values and to consider their limitations. Now also those limitations are all thought of social ?? I have always liked teaching and I think teaching is important. And one of the things I have always been concerned to do is to try and put materials into the hand of students. I think I have learned that one of the problems with my education was that the material that they put in my hands was the materials that those sort of responsible for me thought of source proper. They tend to control the materials available to me. I think that AL has always been concerned with the idea that your job is to try and make people think for themselves to turn consumers into producers to use a sort of Walter Benjamin-Ism. Certainly the object of those anthologies was to try and put him to the hand of students: that kind of materials that it takes, the resources of a specialized library, an art historical training and so on to dig up. So its really just trying to give people the tools to do their work. I think the sense of that is really important ...... that came to me through the work with AL. As did the idea that you can actually break down some of these professional barriers, that it is possible to be an art historian with a foot in the practice of art as it is possible for artists to have a group on theory and history ...for themselves.

S.R.: Thanks a lot. I think that was very precisely.