From Art & Language to October
In 1977, Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s theory of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) sought to provide an explanation for the American left’s failure to generate a “movement” despite the politicization of American society toward the left during the last decade.1 It was an autocritique that can be compared in its terms, assumptions, strategies, and conclusions to those of contemporary artists and critics on the left in the United States. This essay examines the emergence and schism of the Art & Language collective followed by the rise of the October group, focusing on the former’s once-famous 1976 critique of the latter, titled “The French Disease.”2 Notorious for its harsh and mean wit, I read it closely and contextually below, taking the substance and repercussions of its arguments seriously. The artists and critics did not need to read the sociologists to diagnose their common political predicament. As the conservative columnist William Safire put it in 1976, “There’s no Left left.”3 Indeed, after Carter came Reagan, in spite of the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s.
In anticipation of what follows, a few excerpts from the “French Pox” on “the rise of semiology among the academic and lumpen intelligentsia,” which “the journal of managerial idiocy” represented for the New York contingent of Art & Language:
Most of those radically enamoured of the Science of Signs are explainers, critics, sociologists -or want to be interdisciplining all over the place. They have a job and it is, in part, to effect a mystification of capitalist economic relations and liberal-bourgeois social relations. Radical artists who have contracted the Gallic disease endeavor to substitute all sorts of “correct” managerial panaceas for the historiographical principle of point-of-production struggle.4 (FD 23)
The Science of Signs (sic) is managerial, not historical. The management of capitalist culture is isomorphous with the management of capitalist industry. “Men” once used to negotiate with their “masters”. Now they negotiate with “the management”. Management is more abstract and implies disinterested criteria – which is a mystification, of course.5 (FD 24)
The omni-explanatory “system” has secured an intense group of worshippers in the literature and art history departments of universities. It is the “job” of these departments to expunge and so deny any activity which cannot be academically rehearsed. They seek thus to inhibit worker self-activity. Those activities are encouraged which take as axiomatic the perennialism, pedigree and privileged access of the university. For the constant flow of liberal-bourgeois “harmony” we are provided with the interpretive morass of semiology. As Gore Vidal (yes) has pointed out, today there is a glut of “university novels”. We are also witnessing an epidemic of University Art.6 (FD 29)
While nominally directed at the founding editors of October—“Monsieur Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Mademoiselle Rosalind Krauss and Mademoiselle Annette Michelson”—I argue that Art & Language’s invective should probably also be seen as a critique of the artistic collective’s own similar intellectual, academic, and professional origins, as well as what the politicized New York contingent charged was October’s dangerously contagious and efficacious displacement of activist politics by academic theory (FD 29). It really takes one to know one, as we must know. Just as Art & Language wrestled with its origins and legacy, as it was being transformed in the New York art world, October borrowed a great deal from early and later Art & Language, building upon its example in a number of ways and not only by likewise launching such acerbic personal attacks, which would have been out of place in polite art criticism.7 In rapidly trendsetting edited journals, these groups problematized, one after the other, the dominant American critical discourse and culture of modernism through dueling analytic and continental philosophical approaches. At the same time that both groups emphasized the priority of language—whether from the perspectives of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein or Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault—both were heavily critiqued by outsiders for the opacity of their own language and the exclusivity and narrowness of audience that necessarily followed from it.
From the standpoint of later Art & Language in New York, October was basically providing a dressed-up version of early British Art & Language’s interdisciplinary critique of formalism, but one that perpetuated formalism instead and, moreover, flourished within the uppermost echelons of the elite higher educational system that British Art & Language had set out to reform on its lower levels from within. That is, if early Art & Language had indeed been a thorn in the side of the British art school where it first coalesced during the late 1960s, October, on the other hand, was fast becoming a rose in the American university’s lapel. What the New York offshoot of Art & Language sought in its turn was an escape from the limitedness of the art world and academia altogether and entry—somehow—into the larger realm of social and political reality where history could be made. At the same moment that the Ehrenreichs formulated their theory of the PMC, Art & Language and October were likewise problematizing the growing gap between themselves and the working class and rethinking the relations between art, criticism, theory, and politics. Art historians know the outsized importance of these rival groups. They have set research agendas and authored the main textbooks that are used to teach the field of modern and contemporary art history.8 The critiques, which these groups produced of themselves and one another, allow us to see their strengths and weaknesses through their own, and each other’s, eyes and to think about them historically, contextually, and relationally.
This essay also tests the applicability of the Ehrenreich’s theory of the PMC, which was rooted in a class analysis of American society, to the example of Art & Language in the British context. Of particular relevance in this inquiry are the insights of the Ehrenreichs on the importance of higher education to the PMC within capitalism, the profession as a mode of PMC organization and the antagonism between the PMC and the working class over the “issues of knowledge, skills, culture” (NL 22). The Ehrenreichs highlighted the need to address cultural, rather than mainly economic, issues in order to resolve this antagonism. Hence the relevance of this essay’s focus—from the perspective of the Ehrenreichs—on a series of competing and clashing groups of leftist artists and critics.
While British Art & Language was composed of artists of mostly working-class origin who rebelliously drew upon and further developed elite and middle-class knowledge, skills, and culture, there was a sharply increased class consciousness and political consciousness among the New York Art & Language artists who were driven by the need to examine their own class positions as part of their explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist politics. Like the Ehrenreichs who presented their theory of the PMC to the remnants of the university-based New Left in Radical America, the journal of the Students for a Democratic Society, New York Art & Language argued to their British brethren that class needed to be re-theorized from the perspective of lived experience in the present because the existing Marxist models failed to explain the class contradictions that characterized contemporary society. This intellectual shortcoming was stymying the progress of the left. In their introduction to the issue, in which the Ehrenreichs’ theory of the PMC first appeared, the editors of Radical America expressed reservations about the Ehrenreichs’ break from the Marxist two-class model but noted the need to understand the “phenomenon of ‘middle class’ radicalism” in order “to think more precisely about where the Left is coming from and what the class contradictions are in America today.”9
While New York Art & Language identified October as liberal bourgeois in “The French Disease,” October’s editors would contribute to the critique of capitalism, a critique which the Ehrenreichs argued had long been dominated by the PMC (NL 21). October can be located within a particular subset of PMC radicalism, namely “the tradition of socialist thinking kept alive by ‘middle-class’ intellectuals,” which the Ehrenreichs traced to Lenin’s 1902 political tract, “What Is To Be Done?” (NL 21). What October refused from its outset was the current trend—which British Art & Language also mocked in New York Art & Language—for social critique. The editorial in October’s founding issue proclaimed its stance: “We will not contribute to that social critique which, swamped by its own disingenuousness, gives credence to such an object of repression as a mural about the war in Vietnam, painted by a white liberal resident in New York, a war fought for the most part by ghetto residents commanded by elements drawn from the southern lower-middle-class.”10 For October, such social critique—yet another variety of white middle-class liberalism—amounted to the characteristic PMC condescension and elitism, which, according to the Ehrenreichs, was then dooming the prospects of the left. This essay explores how these groups reached their conclusions and where their thinking diverged and coincided with the goal of identifying, if not what is to be done, then what we can learn from what was done, or not done.
The Ehrenreichs’ “radicals-in-the-professions”
According to the Ehrenreichs’ 1977 analysis, unlike the earlier European or then-ascendant “Third World” lefts, which were led and peopled by the working class, the American left remained a “subculture” based in the PMC (NL 7, 20).11 They defined the PMC as the vast middle class of monopoly capitalism for which Marxist theory had not yet accounted. According to their estimates, while about 65 to 70% of the U.S. population was working class, 20 to 25% was PMC, which amounted to roughly fifty million people.12 Rather than a capitalist illusion, the PMC was ultimately produced, and reproduced, by the corporate- and state-funded university in order to serve as an intermediary between capital and labor. As the PMC came into its own in the early twentieth century, it sought to overpower the capitalist class, although not on behalf of the working class. Nevertheless, a certain group within the PMC, whom the Ehrenreichs designated “radicals-in-the-professions,” attempted the “demystification” of their professions during the 1960s, in effect reversing the PMC extraction of working-class skills and culture that the capitalist class had devised in order to weaken labor and obfuscate its oppression (NL 16). (As self-made sociologists whose doctoral degrees were in the hard sciences, the Ehrenreichs can be counted among these radicals.) From the perspective of the present, it probably goes without saying that, however heroic, this ended up being a small-scale and short-lived effort—no match in retrospect, as the Ehrenreichs wrote in 2013, for the 1980s capitalist counteroffensive that later came to be known as neoliberalism, which entailed the explosion of college and university tuition, endangering the reproducibility and status of the PMC.13
Already in 1977 the Ehrenreichs recognized that the New Left strategy of “radicals-in-the-professions” had failed during the early 1970s (NL 17). Still, they argued that it was necessary to build upon what they described as the New Left’s PMC-driven critique and strategy, praising the PMC as “an enduring reservoir of radicalism (from Progressivism and the Socialist Party to the New Left)” (NL 18, 20–21). In directing their attention to the PMC, the Ehrenreichs were aligning themselves with the New Left and differentiating themselves from the New Communists, who heroicized the working class and erred, the Ehrenreichs contended, in neglecting the PMC entirely. Without offering any particular strategy of their own to replace that of the “radicals-in-the-professions,” the Ehrenreichs concluded their class analysis by somewhat vaguely emphasizing the importance of “culture” in overcoming the PMC-working-class antagonism, which they called “the class stalemate of the contemporary left” (NL 21). Their “cultural” emphasis on “the division of labor, the nature (and ideological content) of science and technology, art, psychology, sexuality, education, etc.” arguably generalized the New Left’s “radicals-in-the-professions” strategy, ultimately faulting the PMC for its “ingrained and often subtle attitudes of condescension and elitism” towards the working class (NL 21).
This remained, roughly, the political strategy that Barbara Ehrenreich advocated in her 1989 book, Fear of Falling, which was published shortly after the election of Bush validated the popularity of Reagan, ensuring that Reagan’s revolution toward the right would continue. Her counterintuitive argument was that it was also in the interest of the anxiety-ridden PMC “to expand the class, welcoming everyone, until there remains no other class.”14 Indeed, this was the only way that the PMC could be cured of its characteristic fear of falling. Ehrenreich’s appeal was directed at the PMC after Reagan had convinced American voters that, instead of looking to the state for support, they should count on the capitalist class whose wealth would eventually trickle down to them. Somewhat surprisingly given the theory, history, sociology, and psychology of the PMC that Ehrenreich rehearsed, the PMC became the model for her vision of the future classless society, in which the pleasurable and rewarding education and work that distinguished this class would be accessible to all.15 Her solution assumed that the better angels of the PMC could be called upon to address the problems of social inequality and the separation of mental and manual labor that for the last hundred years this class had, as a whole, helped to perpetuate, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes selfishly, sometimes in spite of its very best intentions to the contrary.16 There would thus be no need, as Marx had reasoned, for the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to produce the abolition of all classes. But would the PMC, which prided itself on the intellectuality of its work, want to engage, physically, in its fair share of manual labor? Would it agree to forfeit its higher status and thereby lose its precious prerogatives, all for the sake of humanity? How could it locate and populate this lofty abstraction?
Radicalism from a U.K. art-school classroom
The consciousness of British Art & Language was implicitly political and, if militantly political, then chiefly in its critique and reform of the existing art-school curricula. Art & Language originated in critical and theoretical discussions about the nature and status of art between a small group of rebellious teachers and students of mostly working-class origin at the Coventry College of Art in the West Midlands of England. One could argue that this predominately middle-class arts college was provincial from a British artistic perspective, which was centered on the “Swinging” London scene, let alone from the Americanized “international” perspective that privileged the modernist art coming out of New York above all else.17 And yet, one could more convincingly argue, as the British painter Patrick Heron did in 1971, that the publicly funded art schools, which had thrived during the 1960s as a result of the recommendations of the 1960 Coldstream Report, were transforming British culture from within and, moreover, even making the U.K.—which had long been a cultural backwater—the global leader of culture in music, fashion, and art.18 In his justly celebrated diatribe “Murder of the Art Schools,” published in The Guardian, Heron wrote in opposition to the Conservative government’s program to eliminate the autonomy of the art schools, which the previous Labor-government-appointed Coldstream Committee and Summerson Council had secured for them. Addressing himself to “the Government worried about the cost of the art schools,” Heron argued that putting the schools under the purview of the new polytechnics was a completely misguided and short-sighted cost-saving measure:
If they added up the export earnings of the Beatles and the rest, not to mention those of the rag trade, whose famous designers cream-off scores of ideas all the time from the endlessly varying gear of the art students, they might begin to see an economic justification for the “art school scene,” not in spite of, but because of, its notorious freedoms and excesses.19
Notwithstanding this public campaign against the Conservative government, the Coventry College of Art, sharing the fate of the other art schools, merged in 1970 with area technical and engineering colleges, becoming Lanchester Polytechnic, named after Frederick Lanchester, the famed local automotive engineer. The ramifications were immediate: in 1971, the “Art Theory” course, which had been taught since 1969 by Art & Language members Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, and Michael Baldwin, was canceled by the administration, while Bainbridge’s and Baldwin’s teaching contracts were not renewed. Conceived amidst the deregulation and decentralization of national arts education, the “Art Theory” course introduced art students to, and emphasized the necessity of, criticism and theory for the making of art.20 As part of the course, students were assigned readings in analytic philosophy, as well as on the history and philosophy of science. They became familiar with figures foreign to the field of art, such as Russell, Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper. In the “Art Theory” course, art-school students were obtaining an Oxbridge-style education, contrary to the prevailing assumption that such students either lacked the ability, or would lack the occasion, to make use of such learning. In a country that lacked the expansive higher educational system that had produced the PMC in the U.S., according to the Ehrenreichs, the teachers of Art & Language were demystifying and democratizing elite knowledge within an exceptional field—that of art—which remained a middle-class cultural preserve in spite of its valorization of manual skills. Only 13.5% of young adults, ages eighteen through twenty-two, were enrolled in all forms of higher education in the U.K. in 1968-1969, as compared with 35% of young adults, ages eighteen through twenty-three, in the U.S.21
The goal of the new polytechnics was to modernize and massify higher education. Merging the art schools with the polytechnics reversed, in effect, the trajectory that had recently been established by the Coldstream Report, which sought to formalize and elevate the study of art and design nationally through the introduction of university-style academic requirements. Traditionally, art schools, including at Coventry, had been primarily vocational, focused on the transmission of the practical, manual skills needed in order to support industry. The “Art Theory” course built upon the new climate and system of liberal education that the Coldstream Report had generated, further underscoring the importance of general and specialist knowledge—from both within and outside of the discipline of art—and critical and logical thinking, regardless and even in defiance of the demands of capitalism. Yet the Art & Language group took this new educational philosophy and policy considerably further. Such studies had been proposed as a complement to studio practice, but, for the teachers and students in the “Art Theory” course, they were functioning, practically and intellectually, as a replacement. It represented a major victory for the group in 1970—albeit, one that would be short-lived, considering the terminations soon to follow—when a student, Graham Howard, exhibited a textual work, which was based upon Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, as an artwork for his degree and, after some negotiation by Atkinson on his behalf with skeptical examiners, succeeded in obtaining his diploma in art and design.22
In this political climate, in which arts education was the subject of heated local internal and national public debate, what resulted among the members of Art & Language within the Coventry College of Art was a heightened consciousness of the way that prevailing norms for artistic education had downplayed theory over practice.23 These norms ran counter, we may observe, to the PMC prioritization of mental over manual work, according to the Ehrenreichs. Art & Language might have disagreed with this division of labor in principle, insisting upon the artistic importance of both theory and practice. But their emphasis on theory, within an institutional context that privileged practice, made them seem like purely mental workers to their art-school colleagues and classmates. Art & Language stressed the value of discursivity at a time when traditionalist notions of artmaking still reigned supreme in art schools and yet felt themselves to be under siege as American minimalists, conceptualists, and their ilk were pushing past the boundaries of painting and sculpture and making eloquent cases, in print, for what they called objects and structures. Increasingly, these mostly middle-class, university-educated minimalists and conceptual artists, based in the United States, delegated the production of their artworks to industrial fabricators and artisans, polemically downplaying the importance of execution and highlighting instead, and thereby, the primacy of the idea. But what could Art & Language show, as a group, for its collective labors? And to whom could they address themselves, if their work consisted primarily of reading, writing, and conversing with one another? Certainly, it would not be possible to make an argument directed at the cost-cutting cynics à la Heron for the economic impact of Art & Language. Although its youthful members would likewise cast themselves—competitively more than nationalistically—as underdogs and Brits against the establishment Americans, their discoveries would have no practical or commercial applications to mass culture.24
On the contrary, and in opposition to the dominance of mass culture and the prioritization of the economy, they addressed themselves, self-consciously, and sought access to the world of contemporary art, or the artworld tout court. Which had only recently been discovered and defined as a distinct entity by the American philosopher Arthur Danto in 1964, shortly after the debut of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York. “What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is,” argued Danto.25 Boxes of cleaning supplies were stacked in an art gallery otherwise full of Heinz Ketchup and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes as if they were all still in transit between the factory and the store. It was precisely because of the Brillo boxes’ culturally low identity, caught in the no-man’s-land of distribution between production and consumption, that its elevation to the level of art revealed, as Danto observed, that “The artworld stands to the real world in something like the relationship in which the City of God stands to the Earthly City” (TA 582). Pop Art had paradoxically revealed, at the same time that it reinforced, the existence of an elite art world whose superiority, and authority, depended upon “an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art” that only insiders possessed (TA 580). New York Art & Language would later resent, and attempt to escape, the rarified art-world basis of British Art & Language.
The Art of Criticism
In the rural classroom setting of Coventry, international texts on art were more physically accessible than international art and may have felt more real and actual. They also provided a way for Art & Language to connect with the world of art beyond Britain. Whereas in London in 1966 John Latham had led his students at the Saint Martin’s College of Art in a “chew in” of the school library’s copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture of 1961, reducing the book’s pages to a slimy pulp, in Coventry such texts were chewed over. It was in Coventry, where Art & Language focused on the group discussion of texts rather than the individual production of artworks, that the art criticism of Greenberg and Michael Fried, which was written in a clear, crisp, and compelling American English, appeared as both a barrier to entry and a mode of access to the elusive and necessarily exclusive international world of contemporary art. In instantly famous talks and texts, such as Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” of 1960 and Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” of 1967, these American art critics fought back against the chaotic free-for-all into which they saw contemporary art descending from the Happenings movements to minimalism.26 Rather than joining this pandemonium, Art & Language became immersed in the close and careful reading of American formalist art criticism, thereby identifying a key contradiction, not necessarily within the texts themselves, but rather in their relation to real life. The modernist art that was being celebrated for its autonomy was not autonomous; quite the contrary, its coherence and meaning depended upon the rhetorical power and theoretical apparatus of Greenberg and others. Art and language were inseparable. This was much more ground than leading minimalists and conceptualists, such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt, were willing to concede in the emerging territorial battle between modernist critics and artists. Even as these American artists wrote, oftentimes brilliantly and movingly, their writing was only ever supplementary, serving in a secondary status to substantiate their physical or conceptual artwork, which lay elsewhere.
As LeWitt famously drew the line in 1969 in his “Sentences on conceptual art,” “These sentences comment on art, but are not art.”27 First published in the first issue of Art & Language’s first journal, Art-Language, LeWitt’s statement firmly resisted the possibility that the self-described British conceptual artists were advancing. In the same issue’s editorial, Atkinson wrote on the collective’s behalf: “The type of analysis that the British group have spent some considerable time upon is that concerning the linguistic usage both of plastic art itself and of its support languages,” concluding “I would suggest it is not beyond the bounds of sense to maintain that an art form can evolve by taking as a point of initial inquiry the language-use of the art society” (EI 878–79). While artists like LeWitt, Morris, and Judd occasionally threw barbs at the critics in their writings, questioning their claims to authority, Art & Language developed their artistic inquiry out of art criticism and theory, describing their work as a “type of analysis,” and speculating, in print, whether art could not do the work of criticism and theory (EI 878).
This radical stance on the critical and theoretical potential of art coincided with the views of Fried, as the later member and historian of Art & Language Charles Harrison pointed out.28 In his “Three American Painters” of 1965, Fried reflected upon the relationship between formalist art criticism and modernist painting, which was defined in the Greenbergian tradition by its self-criticism: “criticism that shares the basic premises of modernist painting finds itself compelled to play a role in its development closely akin to, and potentially only somewhat less important than, that of new paintings themselves.”29 In isolation, this might have read like a self-aggrandizing statement that raised criticism to the level of an art and, by extension, the critic to an artist. But it followed upon a self-deprecatory admission that in retrospect reads—or maybe even at the time read—like an invitation to artists to write criticism:
It is one of the most important facts about the contemporary situation in the visual arts that the fundamental character of the new art has not been adequately understood. This is not altogether surprising. Unlike poets, painters and sculptors rarely practice criticism; and perhaps partly as a consequence of this, the job of writing about art has tended to pass by default to men and women who are in no way qualified for their profession. Moreover, the visual skills necessary to come to grips with the new painting and sculpture are perhaps even more rare than the verbal skills demanded by the new poetry. But if the inadequacy of almost all contemporary art criticism is not surprising, it is undeniably ironic, because the visual arts—painting especially—have never been more explicitly self-critical than during the past twenty years.30
Art & Language pursued the implications of these insights, beyond their author’s intentions, eventually submitting criticism as artwork in New York, and not only on gallery walls, as in Comparative Models of 1972—which displayed the group’s caustic annotations of a recent issue of Artforum—but also in the pages of its very own journals.
The Politics of Reproducibility and Accessibility
The first and main collective artwork of Art & Language was its publication, Art-Language. Its foundation should be seen as a political act, even as it was limited to the artistic sphere, because it constituted a claim to power and defended the right of artists to speak for themselves, define their own audience, and author art criticism and theory. Rather than an image of an individual artist’s artwork—as was then and remains the norm in arts journals—the names of artists, along with the titles of their writings, were featured on the cover, giving a form and a place to the “Contents,” italicized, that had been denied in formalism (fig. 1). Self-published in Coventry and identified, also in italics, as “The Journal of conceptual art,” the journal sought to reach and thus form a larger audience of like-minded artists beyond the British group’s own small membership. It allowed this group to join an artistic movement, which the journal at once ambitiously claimed to represent in its title and to which it contributed a forum.
Although LeWitt’s “Sentences on conceptual art” denied language the status of art, Dan Graham’s Poem-Schema and Lawrence Weiner’s Statements, both consisting of text, could be read as art in the same issue, as could Art-Language as a whole. These easily accessible and reproducible language-based works carried on the inherently political fight of the minimalists against the dictatorship of the singular, precious, expertly made and evaluated art object, which ruled art history, the art market, and museums. As Morris defended this fight in his “Notes on Sculpture” of 1966:
Such [minimalist] work which has the feel and look of openness, extendibility, accessibility, publicness, repeatability, equanimity, directness, immediacy, and has been formed by clear decision rather than groping craft would seem to have a few social implications, none of which are negative. Such work would undoubtedly be boring to those who long for access to an exclusive specialness, the experience of which reassures their superior perception.31
Demystifying art would, in theory, advance the democratization of art and thus society. But Morris’s distinction between “clear decision” and “groping craft” betrayed his belief in the superiority of mental over manual work and in the possibility of their separation. Such artwork could thus be seen, following the Ehrenreichs, as a PMC-extraction of working-class skills and labor. This in turn rendered the work of the artists, as Judd once described his own role, that of “supervision,” placing them, at least in this respect, within the classical PMC, whose management of workers had benefited the capitalist class.32 This was, obviously, a deeply ironic outcome, given that these artists’ explicit aim had been to challenge the existing social hierarchy and its social and psychological mechanisms of support.
Years later, in 1975, the New York Art & Language members Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn would demand in The Fox that Judd, who they noted was once a professional art critic, engage in the autocritique that he should have initiated himself:
Prior art had reflected the “psychological” effects of the modes of capitalist production—its fragmentation, the abstraction, the passivity, the myths of individualism and personal choice. The form of art you advocated embodied those modes, reproducing not merely the effects but the production modes themselves.33
“What would you say if people started referring to you as the first complete capitalist artist?” Beveridge and Burn challenged Judd (DJ 138).34 Beveridge and Burn acknowledged their debt to Judd’s work, which they classified as “radical, even revolutionary,” but only because its “heightened alienability” made them “self-conscious” of “the possible transformations of subject-object relations” that it “precluded” (DJ 132). Burn personally, and New York Art & Language generally, would eventually be consumed by the autocritique that minimalism lacked. The goal of New York Art & Language became to transform minimalism’s passivity into self-aware and oppositional political activity.
From its origins in Coventry, Art & Language worked within the new subfield of art generated by minimalism, likewise relying upon skilled workers for the fabrication of their works. Art-Language and other textual works were printed by Ted Harrison, a friend and colleague in the Coventry College of Art’s printing department, as well as print technician Frank McGrath (SA 186). Still, Art & Language pursued the path of the demystification of traditional artwork, which the minimalists had introduced otherwise. The group arguably undertook a partial, conflicted, and ultimately failed effort to demystify the PMC skills that sustained what Atkinson called “the art society” (EI 879). Art & Language continued its outreach to prominent American artists in 1969 by bringing Joseph Kosuth onboard as the journal’s American editor. In 1971, Burn and Mel Ramsden, who had co-founded the Society for Theoretical Art and Analysis in New York in 1969, joined the group, forming the core of Art & Language’s New York contingent.
Also a product of British art school (Nottingham College of Art), Ramsden was similarly interested in testing the relationship between modernist art and language. His Secret Painting of 1967-68 alluded to the black paintings and influential writings of Ad Reinhardt, producing, however, a paradox internal to the work between the painting and the framed text, which both referenced and negated the painting and in turn the meaning of the text itself (fig. 2). In his 1962 statement, “Art as Art,” Reinhardt wrote: “Without an art-as-art continuity and art-for-art’s-sake conviction and unchanging art spirit and abstract point of view, art would be inaccessible and the ‘one thing’ completely secret.”35 What made art accessible and knowable, in Reinhardt’s utopian view, was the autonomy and universality of art. Prompting the viewer to look and read at once, Secret Painting insisted to the contrary upon the necessity of language, including, by implication, for Reinhardt as an artist, who wrote voluminously about art—though practically speaking, Reinhardt’s writing appeared far afield from his physical painting. This was true to Ramsden’s first experience of Reinhardt’s art: Ramsden read about Reinhardt’s painting before he saw one in real life in New York in 1967.36 Apparently authored by the artist and addressing the viewer, the text of Secret Painting distinguished harshly between the artist and the viewer, who would be kept in the dark by the artist: “The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist.” In teasingly arrogating the modernist artist’s hard-fought right to inaccessibility, Ramsden revealed the important role played by the vast culture and discourse of modernism, which Reinhardt actually also acknowledged in “Art as Art.” Further, the display of text and painting counterpoised and connected the usually distinct acts of close reading and close looking, which formalist critics such as Greenberg had adopted from the New Criticism. What Secret Painting led one to question was whether such visual and verbal analytical skills should remain the prerogative of the critic and the artist. What Secret Painting allowed, and Art & Language promised for a moment, was visibility and legibility—in short, accessibility—for those who could solve, and indeed enjoyed solving, such logical puzzles but lacked the apparently requisite university education, or elite knowledge, for the aesthetic appreciation of modernist art.
Importantly, this effort did not involve dumbing art, or language, down and rather relied upon other bodies of knowledge, which resulted in artworks with higher levels of complexity and difficulty. Perhaps predictably, this quickly ran counter to the objective of demystification. But more broadly, and in accordance with the movement for mass higher education, the goal of Art & Language was at once to expand access and raise the level of art and art discourse. These aims were not seen as contradictory for, since the end of the Second World War, there had been a massive increase in the numbers of the college educated in both the U.K. and the U.S., especially among the working class, women, and religious and racial minorities. Even though Britain had not developed the mass system of higher education that existed in the United States, it was moving steadily away from elite towards mass education by the early 1970s.37 This is to observe that Art & Language’s high expectations for an educated, curious audience were grounded in reality. Although only ever printed in less than a thousand copies, the acts of publication in the U.K. and distribution in the U.K., U.S., Canada, Italy, France, and Germany contained within them the promise of this new, egalitarian, enlightened public.38 But the audience of Art & Language would never exceed a small subset of the art world.
The ultimate narrowness of this audience was foretold and, indeed, envisaged by Kosuth in his “Introductory Note by the American Editor” of 1970:
Because of the implied duality of perception and conception in earlier art a middle-man (critic) appeared useful. This [conceptual] art both annexes the functions of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary. The other system: artist-critic-audience existed because the visual elements of the “how” construction gave art an aspect of entertainment, thus it had an audience. The audience of conceptual art is composed primarily of artists—which is to say that an audience separate from the participants doesn’t exist. In a sense then art becomes as “serious” as science or philosophy, which don’t have “audiences” either. It is interesting or it isn’t, just as one is informed or isn’t.39
In this configuration, critics, and thus the larger public, were cut out of art discourse and art experience, and the remaining audience of participants was composed of artists who were specialists in their field. This professionalization constituted a reversal of the “radicals-in-the-professions” strategy. However, Art & Language even had trouble making itself understood to fellow artists and art critics, too. In 1973, it was accused of esoterism by the critic Lucy Lippard in her historic book on conceptual art, Six Years:
I don’t understand a good deal of what is said by Art-Language, but I admire the investigatory energies, the tireless spade-work (not calling one one), the full commitment to the reestablishment of a valid language by which to discuss art, and the occasional humor in their writings. The chaos inherent in their reason fascinates me, but it is also irritating to be unequipped to evaluate their work. I don’t know how it is or if it is evaluated by adepts in philosophy as philosophy, but I find it infuriating to have to take them on faith. I agree with their goal of clearing the air around the “pseudo mystique” of art and artists, their demand that observers stop being “good catholics.” If only they could exorcise the Jesuit in themselves at the same time …
Having arrived early (1966) and radically at that stage, the danger now is that A-L will be surpassed at their own game, so much as that they may become the critics they are trying to make obsolete.40
The following year, the Art & Language member Terry Smith attempted to provide an explanation of the group’s purpose and methodology to the art world in Artforum: “to construct a complex methodology for nonspecialist critical discourse which would function in the ‘interstices’ between some of the concepts and procedures raised thus far within specialisms such as art, philosophy, sociology, etc.”41 That Art & Language needed to explain itself was, once again, deeply ironic. It had hoped to demystify and democratize modernist art and especially its discourse. But Art & Language ended up demanding of artists knowledge and skills that they did not possess. Their solution reproduced and might have even exacerbated the problem, as nonspecialism required at least working knowledge of multiple specialisms.
After the schism, “The French Disease”
In a rebellious act against the British leadership of Art & Language, the New York contingent established its own journal, titled The Fox, in 1975. From the very first issue, and thereafter during its brief life (1975-76), The Fox foregrounded Marxist politics and opened itself up to anyone who wanted to contribute, rather than soliciting submissions by invitation like Art-Language. The first page of The Fox’s first issue declared in capitalized letters:
IT IS THE PURPOSE OF OUR JOURNAL TO TRY TO ESTABLISH SOME KIND OF COMMUNITY PRACTICE. THOSE WHO ARE INTERESTED, CURIOUS, OR HAVE SOMETHING TO ADD (BE IT PRO OR CON) TO THE EDITORIAL THRUST … THE REVALUATION OF IDEOLOGY … OF THIS FIRST ISSUE ARE ENCOURAGED, EVEN URGED, TO CONTRIBUTE TO FOLLOWING ISSUES. ALL OTHER CORRESPONDENCES ARE WELCOME.42
In her “Memo for The Fox,” Sarah Charlesworth, one of its six editors and the only woman, did not mince words about their reasons for “[t]he New York/England split”:
The Fox was not conceived of as a weapon to “fight Capitalism.” It was not at first even initiated as a project of Art & Language. It emerged in part out of my struggle to come to terms with a very stagnant, alienated and alienating art culture of which Art & Language New York at the time was very much a part. It had a lot to do with Joseph rethinking and needing to rethink his relationship to the world. It had to do with the frustration felt by Andrew, by Michael and Preston with the extremely oppressive nature of a very elitist and rather irrelevant (in terms of effective practice) theoretical debating society which was Art & Language.43
In the existing “artworld,” Charlesworth had found herself dominated by the British Art & Language group, “the teachers of competitiveness”; what she sought to create in opposition through The Fox was “a transformative activity/community which is (perhaps?) one model of art” (MTF 34, 38).
It is in this heated social and intellectual context that we may, in conclusion, reconsider “The French Disease,” which appeared without a byline in the final issue of The Fox. This review pilloried the then-brand-new journal October (fig. 3). Shortly thereafter, the New York contingent of Art & Language would dissolve as a combined result of personal rivalries, differences in individual and group priorities, and disillusionment with the idea that the art world could be changed and cause larger change.44 To the editors of The Fox, October registered as a retreat on the part of already comfortable critics to the bourgeois safe haven of the university:
Almost all of the writers and many of the artists involved in October (sic) are connected with a University. Can you sort out what’s what? Coming as it does, at the time that it does, October (sic) is a shot in the arm for liberal-bourgeois social relations. This journal comes from the University and has its commitments to the University. Gratuitous intervention in various forms of actual historical practice is a norm of University “humanities” life. To turn these practices into items of consumption, courses of study, is intellectual vampirism.45 (FD 32)
October was worse than taking the Lord’s name in vain. Celebrating the history of political revolution, The Fox artists believed, as if that in itself constituted a political act, undermined their own efforts as activists to militate for actual social change and ultimately political revolution on the ground. Their concerns might have been warranted. In what could be described as an autocritique of October, Hal Foster, writing in retrospect from the position of a “second-generation initiate” in 1996, observed that critical theory had served as a substitute for avant-garde politics after the energies of 1968 had dissipated, “at least to the extent that radical rhetoric compensated a little for lost activism.”46
Indeed, when critical theory came too close to political activism, it defied the October project. A telling case of October’s limits occurred around the work of Douglas Crimp. In the fight to end the AIDS epidemic, Crimp, an October editor and another second-generation initiate, mobilized critical theory for political engagement, editing a special issue in 1987 under the title “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” but was soon afterwards “pushed out of October” as a result.47 From Crimp’s perspective, critical theory was compatible with activism. In his special issue, he sought to demonstrate that “there was a critical, theoretical, activist alternative to the personal, elegiac expressions that appeared to dominate the art-world response to AIDS.”48 It was thus in spite of external and internal pressures that October’s relation to politics would remain abstract, in a word, detached—on the modernist model of autonomous art, and Danto’s notion of the exclusive art world—from lived reality. Like Charlesworth, who sought to build a community through The Fox, Crimp, taking inspiration from the AIDS activist collective ACT UP, thought it necessary to escape from the white middle-class art world in order to try to reach the wider world of the communities in the plural, especially the poor and minorities, who were suffering the most in the epidemic.
That members of Art & Language taught in art schools in the U.K. and the U.S. and that editors from both The Fox and October decried the impact of the art market on art went without mention in “The French Disease.” Practically speaking, beyond art school, the university, and the market (including the magazines that were subsidized by it), how could artists, or critics, make a living? In “The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation” of 1975, Burn called upon his fellow artists to “masochistically” destroy the market.49 This anti-capitalist political strategy represented the limit of what both the British and New York Art & Language groups could tolerate. Burn’s outreach to the New York art world in the pages of Artforum led to an even greater, and more definitive, break with British Art & Language, which played out in the pages of Art-Language and The Fox. Under the pen name of Professor Norman Trotsky, Baldwin, representing the British leadership, mocked Burn’s “art market radicalism,” his “degree of identification with the capitalist basis,” and the New York contingent’s political solution of “a ‘community’-in-general” as “(a priori) ‘a political instrument,’” “yet opportunistically so.”50 Burn, in turn, defended his position in the same issue of Art-Language as a political strategy that addressed local American social and psychological conditions, unlike Baldwin, who was “adopt[ing] the ‘Marx hath said’ stance toward American society,” later arguing in The Fox:
Baldwin obviously feels more comfortable ignoring the very conditions which reveal “why socialism has never gotten much further than the ‘lunatic fringe’ in U.S. politics. Romanticizing about the working class may still be a viable academic pursuit in England …, perhaps it’s harmless enough, I’m not sure—but here you are “compromised” by having to deal with the material conditions of what has happened and is happening to the working class. You’re wasting your breath otherwise.51
Disillusioned and frustrated, Burn would soon thereafter leave the New York art world, returning to his native Australia, where he devoted his energies to the Art Workers Union and the labor movement.
Like Crimp, Burn could not persuade his colleagues and peers to follow his lead. Like October, the relation of Art & Language to politics would remain primarily theoretical rather than practical. The economic collapse that Burn foresaw in 1975 and hoped would cause transformative change in art did not come to pass. Quite the reverse, the 1980s ushered in an unprecedented art-market boom, which most artists eagerly embraced. As the sociologist Charles Simpson concluded in his 1981 study of SoHo artists, which was conducted during the mid to late 1970s, artists belonged to the middle class and sought to maintain its values and lifestyle, including by cultivating the art market.52 On the whole, they did not enlist themselves in the socialist cause on behalf of the working class, lacking any identification with it. Their leftism was of a different PMC variety, focused more purposefully on progressive cultural, rather than radical or revolutionary class, politics. Over the course of the 1980s, art critics on the left became increasingly concerned that artists had lost the antagonism to the market and capitalism that had defined the avant-garde tradition for 150 years.53 Enterprising artists, like Jeff Koons, even seemed to be attempting to join the capitalist class and, moreover, advertised that ambition, deliberately provocatively, within the art world in order to further offend already scandalized art critics on the left.
Two decades after New York Art & Language disbanded, Krauss penned a furious critique of the British Art & Language group, comparing Art & Language to Koons. Published in French in the French periodical Art Press, her essay accused Art & Language of “self-advertisement” and complicity with spectacle culture.54 In particular, she attacked Charles Harrison and Paul Wood’s 1992 anthology of primary sources, titled Art in Theory, 1900-1990, and the televised courses that they prepared at the Open University for broadcast on the BBC.55 (Open University students were generally older, working part-time and could not always come to campus at prescribed times; the TV broadcasts allowed them to attend lectures remotely.) The second generation of Art & Language, Krauss contended, was self-servingly exaggerating the art-historical importance of Art & Language, assigning the group too much weight and space in Art in Theory, 1900-1990, while neglecting far more significant artists. This reversed the accusation of “blatant cronyism” that Kosuth had made of Benjamin Buchloh, whose 1989 account of Conceptual Art, published in October, had praised artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haacke, while singling out Kosuth for particular criticism and making him representative of Art & Language without considering the diversity of the British and New York groups.56 Further, Krauss maintained, they were neglecting the new media that defined avant-garde art since the 1960s, which Krauss found to be symptomatic of the artistic conservatism of Art & Language. The group had returned to the practice of painting—albeit, it should be noted, for precisely the reason that Buchloh had valued Conceptual Art, which was the rediscovered potential of painting as a medium to advance the critique of institutions after Conceptual Art had been institutionalized. Ironically, given New York Art & Language’s critique of October in “The French Disease,” Krauss charged that Art & Language was reducing the aesthetic experience of the public to passive and spectacular classroom learning. Krauss’s criticism, we may note, accorded with Charlesworth’s complaint of the British leadership as “the teachers of competitiveness” (MTF 34).
It may have been because Art & Language and October were so similar and competitive that their differences assumed exaggerated proportions in their eyes. As the critic Robert Pincus-Witten wrote in 1971 in words that could have been equally applied to the future October: “acute Conceptualism possesses the characteristic features of academic art. It is wordy, literal, and rhetorical. The way has been paved for Art-Language, a nonpictorial and tractarian English journal, the most academic expression to date of Conceptualism.”57 Further, both groups weighed in on the ongoing war between modernist critics and artists on the side of the artists through language. Krauss first became more widely known for critiquing Clement Greenberg for altering the sculptures of David Smith after his death.58 Art & Language had opposed itself not only to the dominant critics but to critics in general, who, Kosuth charged, had taken on a “supervisory, even ‘parental’ role … in the 20th century toward artists.”59 At first, October united critics and artists on its editorial board and in its pages, redefining a traditionally antagonistic social and power relation in positive terms: “the central aim of October’s texts,” the journal’s first editorial concluded, was “the location of those coordinates whose axes chart contemporary artistic practice and significant critical discourse.”60 The editorial placed contemporary art on more than equal footing: artistic practice, taken broadly, and the relations between the arts in particular would serve as the source of inspiration and justification for October’s own interdisciplinarity against the Greenbergian model of modernism. While, among the founding editors, Krauss and Michelson were critics, the British-born Gilbert-Rolfe was a painter and a product of a British art school, the Tunbridge Wells School of Art.61 In “The French Disease,” Gilbert-Rolfe, who would soon afterwards leave the editorial board, was singled out for particular scorn: “Le Monsieur [Gilbert-Rolfe] sometimes says he’s a painter, sometimes a writer. He interdisciplines alone, but not exclusively (you can do it with consenting adults)” (FD 31). From The Fox’s point-of-view, contemporary artists and art were being co-opted. Because this represented a trend that would only spread, it was important to call out the offenders by name. “The French Disease” concluded with a list of figures, all formally addressed in French as “Mademoiselle” or “Monsieur,” who “sustain[ed] and fortif[ed] the aimlessness of University Art” and were “beneficiaries, collaborators or executives of October (sic)” (FD 34). Among the artists listed were Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, Mel Bochner, Richard Tuttle, Richard Serra, Dorothea Rockburne, Lynda Benglis, Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, Peter Campus, Robert Rauschenberg, Michael Snow, and Victor Burgin. The dispute between Art & Language and October could be classified as a typically PMC battle for professional autonomy and status between, and among, artists and critics. Initially fought on the terrain of art criticism and art theory, the battleground eventually shifted to art history.
In 1977, the Ehrenreichs would define the “radicals-in-the-professions” as those who attempted the “demystification” of their professions. But the goal of the October writers, inherited from Barthes, became the “demystification” of society in general through cultural criticism.62 This represented another strategy altogether, with its own set of assumptions about how the critic, uniquely, was intellectually able to enlighten and liberate the reader from the alienation and deceptions of life under capitalism. While the old formalism of Greenberg, derived from the New Criticism, had been empirical, focusing on the close analysis of individual artworks, and whereas the work of early British Art & Language was theoretical, drawing upon the formal logic of analytic philosophy, October was formalist and theoretical, insofar as it was influenced by structuralism and relied upon formal analysis. While October initially advocated interdisciplinarity against Greenbergian modernist disciplinarity—including in the formulation of the theory of critical postmodernism by Krauss, Crimp, and others during the 1980s—by the mid-1990s, Krauss found herself defending the discipline of art history, especially the importance of the discipline-specific skills of connoisseurship and formal analysis, in response to the rise of visual and cultural studies.63 Demystification à la Barthes had paradoxically always depended upon special skills and knowledge, though. As the editors from The Fox remarked in “The French Disease”, “contract[ing] the French Pox” could only be “a result no doubt of … especially fine breeding,” as it demanded the bourgeois ability to read French literature, criticism, and philosophy (FD 31).
Like Lenin in “What Is To Be Done?” (his autocritique of “our Movement”), the Ehrenreichs emphasized the importance of theory and the necessity of the intellectuals to the success of the revolutionary movement. But, the Ehrenreichs argued, Lenin’s theory of the Party as the vanguard of the proletariat in the end had produced “a dictatorship of the PMC,” rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat, in the U.S.S.R. (NL 19). What remained to be done then, and remains to be done still, is the construction of a union between the PMC, or its equivalent, and the working class. What Lenin, the Ehrenreichs, Art & Language, and October stressed to this end was the development of theoretical thought. The temptation might be to view their political and artistic experiments as failures and therefore instead advocate, and practice, political engagement and community activism in the manner of the dissidents of October and Art & Language in New York. “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,” cautioned Lenin. “This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”64 Today, theory has fallen out of fashion once more, but one wonders when it will be needed again and, in the interim, how far the current trend for social and political activism in art can take us.