A Conceptualist Walks into a Bar: Thoughts on Language, Art, and Absence

  • Noel Black

Originally appeared on Medium, in response to Tilt West’s Roundtable on Art & Language

A conceptualist walks into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll it be?” The conceptualist points to a person drinking at the other end of the bar and says, “I’ll have what he’s having, but over here in this context.”

I like that joke because it gets at something I intuited about language long before I’d read Derrida—that language, which almost all of us have, is always about what’s absent (differánce oui?), that it points to what’s missing as its way of meaning, and that context is perhaps all we can ever have at any given moment. Bottoms up!

When I think about art and language, I think about who was missing from the context of art in the mid-20th century—mainly women, people of color, and queers. What better way to point to absence itself than in the material of what’s missing? Critic and conceptual art theorist, Lucy Lippard, understood this. The abstract expressionists had reached the apotheosis of absolute materiality of painting, but they conveniently ignored the context: their white maleness. Lippard was simply pointing it out via dematerialization, i.e., the emperor’s new clothes.

The emergence of women artists like Martha Rosler, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Yoko Ono wasn’t an accident. The dematerialization of art was a decidedly feminist move, and an ingenious one. Abstract expressionism hadn’t just taken art to its purest form of materiality, its presence as product in the total obliteration of meaning was hewn from the metaphor provided by the A-bomb’s obliteration of everything. Though there have been several excellent revisionist reconsiderations of the abstract moment’s gender problems (the Denver Art Museum’s 2016–2017 Women of Abstract Expressionism to name one), the heroes at that moment were all white men. That was the context to which Lippard and Co. pointed in the language of absence—white male supremacy as embodied by the new hegemony of the ultimate exportable conceptual product: American capitalism. (Is it any surprise that the abstract expressionists’ works were used by the CIA as Trojan Horse ideological exports deployed to undermine Soviet propaganda? The genius of capitalism is its ideological triumph over the state, i.e., who needs state propaganda when you already own everyone’s minds?) By dematerializing art and its practice, Lippard and Co. managed to point all of this out in a new language: language—the most democratic, if least marketable, medium this side of dust. It leveled (for some) the art landscape, if not the art market, and centered those at the margins. As Lippard writes in Escape Attempts, her memoir of the times:

The inexpensive, ephemeral, un-intimidating character of the Conceptual mediums themselves (video, performance, photography, narrative, text, actions) encouraged women to participate, to move through this crack in the art world’s walls. With the public introduction of younger women artists into Conceptual art, a number of new subjects and approaches appeared: narrative, role-playing, guise and disguise, body and beauty issues; a focus on fragmentation, interrelationships, autobiography, performance, daily life, and, of course, on feminist politics. The role of women artists and critics in the Conceptual art flurry of the mid-sixties was (unbeknownst to us at the time) similar to that of women on the Left. We were slowly emerging from the kitchens and bedrooms, off the easels, out of the woodwork, whether the men were ready or not — and for the most part they weren’t.

I saw the exhibition, Materializing “Six Years”: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art, at the Brooklyn Museum many years ago, and it wasn’t hard to imagine how un-ready men were for it. It was still strikingly mundane in its anti-aesthetic—like some museum of fetishized Stasi bureaucracy: index cards full of instructions, documents documenting performances of boredom, labor, domestic rituals, etc.—all still so vital and exciting in their middle-fingers to the preciousness and apartness of the male art that preceded it.

(Brief aside: Dematerialization is of course native to language, which makes it surprising to think that conceptual writing [see: Vanessa Place’s Gone With the Wind Twitter project; and, speaking of context, Kenneth Goldsmith’s deeply fucked up reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report] didn’t really come along until the early 2000s, more than a quarter century after Conceptual art. Aside from the fact that the movement was—and is—[conceptually] redundant, it was also almost a century late to the game. Argentine writers Macedonio Fernandez and Jorge Luis Borges had already popped the balloon of “authorship” as the ultimate expression of capitalist context in the early 20th century [but hey, what’s new?]. And what, after all, could belong to anyone less than language? [see: Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”] Unless, of course, we’re talking about computer languages — Python, etc. — in the context of the techno-priesthood Latin of Silicon Valley, the manufactured scarcity of codes.)

And yet, there it was in the Brooklyn Museum. In other words, capital C Conceptual art was as much Python as it was vernacular, as much abstract expressionism as abstract expressionism once the velvet ropes had been moved to let the women, people of color, and queers in. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek: just because the avant-garde pointed out the structures of capitalism doesn’t mean it wasn’t recreating the structures of capitalism. The paradox (and perhaps the problem) is, and always will be, that you can’t let everyone in without letting in everyone you don’t want as well. The context is, was, and always will be, power. Once you remove the ropes altogether, the context that is power looks a lot like what may be the ultimate conceptual art project of all time: Twitter. Is it any surprise that Twitter is Donald Trump’s context, that he learned the lessons of the avant-garde and took them all the way to the end of the fence, or the velvet ropes, or the wall he’s always pointing toward in hopes he might keep the next group out with the greatest re-materialization since Tara Donovan? It might just make him the greatest artist of our time.

Here’s to him, over here in this context, where I’m still (and always will be) waiting for my drink to arrive.