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Conceptual Art and PaintingReview - Conceptual Art and Painting
Further Essays on Art & Language
by Charles Harrison
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Daniel Davies
Aug 12th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 33)

Charles Harrison (1942- ) has long held an interest in art and its criticism and this most recent book proves his continued commitment through its rich, lucid and compelling arguments.

Harrison has been a central figure in the ‘Art & Language’ group since shortly after its formation in 1968 and first published journal a year later. He writes on the work of the artists Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, the other central figures of Art & Language, and himself contributes to the practice of the group, indeed he intends the two roles to blend into one another. More generally as an ‘art historian’ his publications have focused on Modernism in Europe and America and on contemporary Conceptual art. Most recently his works for the Open University such as the ‘Art in Theory’ series, edited with Paul Wood and later Jason Gaiger, have been welcomed and widely recommended.

The current book is a counterpart to the earlier Essays on Art & Language (1991). The arguments concern the interrelation of various aspects of art, its practice, theory, history and criticism, with particular concern for the explanation of ‘conceptual’ works, and also to the description and criticism of the Art & Language group itself. An important expression of this dual task is his aim that the book not only be a work on Art & Language but be a work of Art and Language. (Foreword p. xii)

This statement of the project might give the reader two reasons to be sceptical. Can Harrison legitimately take the work of Art & Language to be representative of the conditions of recent and contemporary art as a whole, and can he successfully give a critical and historical account of the Art & Language group, and at the same time produce a work belonging to it?

The essays in the book benefit from being read in sequence as they form a clear overall position but they can be read separately. The sections are divided into an introductory look at the issues and difficulties of ‘Conceptual Art’ (section I) then we are lead through the examples of ‘Landscapes’ (section II) and ‘Nudes’ (section III) and a final section examines the conditions of engagement, ‘Who’s Looking?’ (section IV). The whole project is fostered by rich description and critical engagement with the practical work of Art & Language.

The central arguments are focused on the relationship between pictures and texts and how these issues bear on art practice and interpretation. According to Harrison the initiation of conceptual art, as represented by the work of Art & Language, came from dissatisfaction with the practice and criticism of high modernism. Harrison highlights two assumptions made by the conceptual apparatus of modernism. Firstly an implicit appeal is made to an authentic experience of, and disinterested response to, a work of art in its phenomenological and morphological aspects. The audience is idealised as a sensitive, empiricist, and bourgeois. The second assumption concerns the autonomy of art (both p. 41). So broadly, the conceptual project is not just to put art back in the service of cognition or intellectual concerns - rather than some empty opacity - but is to see art as a socially distributed practice emerging from particular contexts. The way the conceptualists sought to fulfil this is to reassert art’s intellectual and theoretical grounding in language. (p.22)

Some readers may be uncomfortable with the apparent self-regarding nature of the book. After all, they might say, if Harrison is a member of the Art & Language group he should not use their practice as justification for his theory. Occasionally this sort of worry is born out in the way normative arguments are supported by substantive examples from Art & Language, whilst at the same time the theory is trying to articulate that very practice. That is to say some sort of charge of circularity might be put. A more detailed account outlining some of the roots, influences and sources of the Art & Language group itself might add verification to the story. Independent arguments could be made for Harrison’s theory and for the work of Art & Language without the two seemingly depending on each other. For example, when talking about the criticism of conceptual art Harrison wants to affirm the need for ’interpretative reading’. As with other arguments he says the concept is already ‘implicitly asserted’ in the early work of Art & Language (p. 47). There is however no mention of the long tradition, most associated with Dilthey and Weber, from which his concept of ‘interpretative reading’ or Verstehen comes. An examination of the arguments from this tradition would lend independent support to Harrison’s theory and to the practice of Art & Language. Neither does the book make much of the roots of Art & Language practice, such as earlier forms of avant-garde art. For this reason some might object to the implication that, it is Art & Language that marks the start of conceptual art and that it is uniquely representative of it and finally, that it is somehow independent of other conceptual and avant-garde practices. This probably misunderstands Harrision’s intention and yet the self-regarding agenda encourages such a reading.

How does the theory sit with art as a whole rather than just conceptual art? Harrison suggests works that might appear problematic for his theory, that is works which have little apparent connection with literary culture have themselves an ‘essay like’ impetus. More obviously ‘visual’ works from the Low Countries like Rembrandt’s Self Portrait (1665, Kenwood House London) involve a ‘dialectical and speculative address to an opposite or contrasting world of discourse’, much like, he says, ‘the essay’ (pp. 7-10). But is this ‘dialectical structure’ enough firstly to say something important about paintings and also enough to call them ‘essay like’? We should at the very least remain cautious about such a claim. The suggestion remains at the level of analogy and I want to know, as a beholder of paintings, what happens in the space where the essay-painting analogy runs out.

There is also a reluctance to talk about what is particular to practice as opposed to (verbal) theorising. For example the ‘theory installation’ of the ‘Jackson Pollock Bar’ group is obviously not equivalent to artistic practice, (and as Harrison says this may be the key to its interest), but we are left unclear as to what does count as such in conceptual works. That a picture, which is painted by actors as opposed to artists, is a new and interesting kind of category does not explain what counts as genuine artistic agency, (the genuine agency which the actors can only ‘play’ and cannot ‘do’). The beholder is still left searching for what it is that painting qua painting contributes to cognition, independent of theory.  While it maybe that painting is no longer an entirely distinguishable medium and that very little art is securely ‘visual’, as Harrison claims, we still need an account of the kind of content paintings can in principle manifest before they can be understood as collaborating with text or other kinds of media. The worry is that talk like mine is a concession to an anti-intellectual kind of ‘opacity’ which Harrison sees in Modernist criticism. I don’t think, however, we are forced into an ‘empty’ formalism, as the worry suggests. For example the ‘phenomenology’ of the Modernist critics can only be of a fairly shallow kind. A brief look at the work of Merleau-Ponty (who is approved by Harrison) shows that phenomenology itself cannot be accused of privileging vision and yet neither is it forced to look for an intellectual content ‘outside’ painting. What would ease this concern is a better understanding of not just the interweaving of text and painting but (as indeed Merleau-Ponty argues for) a more fundamental account of how thinking can be mobilised in the pictorial. This would prevent us from prioritising vision in a shallow way, as Harrison thinks Greenberg does, and at the same time give painting intellectual content without needing to defer for that content to adjacent theory.

I’m not sure that Harrison would disagree with this. He says, and quotes from Art & Language, that it is not the aim of Conceptual art to reduce pictures to language (p. 23) and neither he says should we settle so easily for the ‘cognitive conceptual art’ versus ‘modernist opacity’, dichotomy. (p.97).

But despite his compelling arguments for the necessity of understanding the collaboration of art and language, the reader is still left at sea as to what, exactly, in conceptual painting, language is connecting with.

Nevertheless Harrison clearly argues that conceptual art, such as the work of Art & Language, has successfully questioned a once dominant mode of high modernist criticism, which is simply untenable now. He also shows those unwilling to accept the work of Art & Language as representative of conceptual art as a whole, that at the very least the issues he addresses in the book are relevant, if not pivotal, to any discussion of art over the past forty years. Indeed many of his searching questions and arguments concern the making and understanding of all art. Also, in his obvious commitment he shows how ‘overt engagement’ is preferable to some unreachable, indeed undesirable, objective and dispassionate point of view from which to assess the material. By the end of the book I was far more willing than in the foreword to accept the idea that what was contained in its pages could be both a piece of descriptive criticism and at the same time belonging to the practice of Art & Language itself. Finally I am certain that others who pick up the book will similarly be enthused and encouraged by Harrision’s passion to be active in what he reassuringly points to as the continuing ‘conversation’ of art practice and criticism.


© 2002 Daniel Davies


Daniel Davies is studying for a Philosophy PhD in Painting and the Understanding at Bristol University.


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