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Date: 22 Sep 2010
Time: 12:24:14 -0500
Take the assertion ‘The tautological strategies of Conceptualism, in its emptying of art of materiality and traditional ‘content’ had reached the cul-de-sac of its a-historical destiny’. This isn’t Buchloh verbatim, but it’s just as wayward and laughable. Let’s work our way through this howler, phrase by phrase. What were the so-called ‘tautological strategies’ of Conceptualism? A tautology is saying the same thing in paraphrase, a reflexive or necessarily true statement, usually considered a fault of style (as glossed in the C.O.D.). Is this true of Conceptual Art? Is this true only of Conceptual Art? Are the performances of Fluxus and Beuys, for instance, tautologies? How? Are the texts (strictly, scripts or scores) of Bochner, Barry, Kossuth or LeWitt tautologies? How? Are the site-specific events or durations of Christo, Heizer, Oppenheim or Matta tautologies? How? Are the documentations of Dan Graham, Richard Long or Vito Acconci tautologies? How? Is self-reference necessarily a tautology? And is self-reference restricted to Conceptual Art? No, on both counts, actually. All of these trends actually begin much earlier than the 60s, something Buchloh is loath to consider, simply because he’s too in love with his own time. Tautology is inadequate as a description of Conceptual Art because it’s too broad. Conceptual Art is too broad to be confined even to self-reference, let alone tautology. Buchloh is unconcerned with these details of stylistic precision (or coherence) because his is essentially a social or cultural programme, interested only in seeing art as a symptom of some grand historical design (one for which he is conveniently in the box seat). In short, he is a continental philosopher at heart, a Frankfurt School Marxist by inclination, not given to close scrutiny of the works themselves, to technique or materials. Does Conceptual Art ‘empty art of materiality and traditional content’? Let’s take materiality first. Buchloh is by no means the first to take this view of Conceptual Art. Because such works mostly project beyond the plastic arts, to matters of performance or duration, script or score, they are commonly understood to be ‘de-materialised’ or purely a matter of concept (hence the name). But this is misleading. More accurately, identity for a work projected beyond the plastic arts encounters other issues. Some works are classified not by number of instances, variation and material but by compliance with rules of a language, as in literature, or notation, as in the performing arts. A poem, whether handwritten, typed or published remains the same work, as long as it complies with the rules of the language of the first instance. A music score remains the same work when performed as long as the performance and instruments comply with notation and other directions of the score. Equally, the script or score constitutes a work, even when unperformed or un-performable, unpublished or un-publishable. The difference between literature and performances on the one hand and painting and printing on the other, also means that paintings and prints may be forged in a way that performances and copies cannot. The recording of a performance by means other than script or score, by photo and electrical means, presents a similar but more recent extension of identity for a work. Recordings in this sense are rarely of a single or uninterrupted performance, but typically comply with a score or script, or where this is absent, for example in improvised or folk music or tales, with such performing and recording practices in most other respects. A copy of a recording may contravene copyright but where standards of recording are sufficiently maintained, so too is identity of performance and script or score. It is a pirate or bootleg recording, but not a forgery of the work. Identity for a work outside of the plastic arts is thus a graded or attenuated affair, from only script or score, to all copies that comply with original language or notation of script or score, to all compliant performances, or those from which a single script or score may be derived, to all recordings complying with script, score, performance or recording practices, and various combinations thereof. Furthermore, translations, transcriptions, adaptations and transmissions or broadcasts, by radio, television and the internet disperse identity still further, although hardly arrive at anything as vacuous as a work of ‘pure’ concept. Thus works hardly abandon materials or ‘de-materialise’ in requiring extension to the plastic arts, rather confront practices in adjacent branches of the arts, exchange materials and facilities. So I jettison the notion of Conceptual Art as strictly de-materialised. But nor is it correct to think of Conceptual Art as superseding painting or printing, or the plastic arts. On the contrary its appearance opens new possibilities within the plastic arts – spurs painting and printing in new directions (and it is hardly accurate to then call this ‘Conceptual’ painting). And nor has Conceptual Art emptied itself of ‘traditional content’. What is ‘traditional content?’ Even self reference and tautology has content, if in an uncomfortable form. And formalists in all branches of the arts are as old as the classics, at least. To have form, as German art historians have often reminded us, is just what ‘traditional’ means. So the notion of non-traditional content looks pretty suspect. One speaks of genres shifting, for instance, importing content from other sources, moving to new variations (which of course, entails finding new underlying templates or forms upon which to insert such content) but there is no way to absolutely discard tradition, find something unrelated in every way to accepted practices - without, of course, then rejecting it as useless! This may seem some distance from an outright condemnation of Buchloh, but I think it demonstrates the kind of rigour and care one has a right to expect of criticism and art history, if they are to hold any respect.