Sezgin Boynik

Corrected Slogans is the title of the album recorded by Art & Language with Red Krayola in 1976. It is their first collaboration and the result is the pop music about the history of imperialism and communism. That the slogans should be corrected was discussed by Lenin in 1917, during the spontaneous revolt of the workers in July of that same year. By noticing that political slogans have their lifetime, Lenin observed that “every particular slogan must be deduced from the totality of specific features of a definite political situation.” This in the case of the revolutionary Russia meant that the slogan calling for “the transfer of all state power to the Soviets” was valid only between February 27th and July 4th. After 4th of July the call for “transfer” was ridiculous, because the state has used most aggressive means to prevent the existence of the Soviets. In the new situation, only the equal measures taken by the working class (i.e. armed insurrection) could be the answer.

In 1967 Carl Andre came up with the slogan summarizing the then actual discussion on the social and political status of conceptual art: “art is what we do; culture is what is done to us.” This is a clear separation of art from the cultural assimilation. It is a declaration against ideological constraints of the cultural materialism. In 1973 Art & Language corrected this optimistically slogan by claiming that “art is what we do; culture is what we do to other artists.” It was this question of contamination that pushed the conceptual art group to question what their status in the world of art was.

After their participation at Documenta 5 in 1972, Art& Language was seeking the ways how to use the collective working as a heuristic device for learning and research. The heuristic possibilities of working as a collective were understood as something genuinely against mediation of institutions. According to Art & Language, the curators and art critics, as best examples of institutional mediators, cannot introduce anything new to our understanding of the contradictions of the art practices. As Charles Harrison once wrote, “when management speaks, nobody learns.” Accordingly, the operations of Art & Language were not divided between exhibiting, theory, criticism, and activism. These were all understood as the question of the practice, and they were all operating in the strange state of equilibrium. As a result, Art & Language practice was at the same time involving theory production (some sort of wild combination of analytical philosophy and Marxism), exhibitions (including exhibitions in commercial galleries), criticism (or as they called “naming and shaming” of mainstream art journalism), and political activism. This last aspect of the A & L’s practice was the most troublesome, and the most extreme outcome of this aspect took place in the beast of the belly, in New York City. What happened is that the group of people involved in New York section of Art & Language aimed to utilize the group’s practice by conceiving the model that would allow for others that are not part of the collective to use the possibilities of the heuristic model of indexing. The outcome of this was simplifications of referential contradictions (i.e. lessening the conceptual pandemonium), which led to the widening of the group’s structure of organization. This meant that after 1973, or precisely after the Blurting in New York project, the social dimension of conceptual art practice became more evident. In the history of Art & Language, this meant the collaboration with other art collectives such as AMCC (Artist Meeting for Cultural Change) or AICU (Artists Union for Cultural Change) that led to the inner contradictions and fractions. By introducing elements that were foreign to its practice (Maoism being principal case), Art & Language unleashed the unforeseen contradictions that ended up by few of them abandoning art altogether for a unionization work (Karl Beveridge and Carole Conde in Canada, Ian Burn in Australia, Michael Corris in New York, David Rushton in the UK).

We can’t understand this unfolding of conceptual art practice into the politics without grasping the fact that at the very core of the radical practice of Art & Language lays the uncompromising detachment from the institutions. The main driving force for the Art & Language, and for most of the other conceptual artists, was the struggle against the institutional administration of art practices. The real core of conceptual art was never its style of grids, tautology, dematerialization of art, and the aesthetic of administration. Art & Language did everything to oppose the bureaucratization. Their momentary union with AMCC and AICU was not an arbitrary addition of politics into the art; it was the logical outcome of their artistic practice.

When in 1975 some members of New York section of Art & Language (Michael Corris, Jil Breakstone, Andrew Menard) visited Belgrade and attempted, together with Yugoslav conceptual artists, to index the language used in discussing the self-management in socialism, they wanted to double these contradictions. The main topic of this project was a critique of “cultural imperialism”, but more forcefully it was aiming to open up the space for art that is not mediated by any state institutions. On a global scale, the blurting of self-management (the project that was never finalized) undermined the ideological postulates of Cold War policies that the artists from the US and the artists from Yugoslavia are communicating through the channels of state institutions. In Belgrade, in October 1975, this project had an immense influence not only on conceptual artists (especially to Zoran Popovic and Goran Djordjevic), but also to theoreticians of self-management who in the heyday of questioning the bureaucratization of culture turned to the writings of artists published in The Fox journal (especially to Mel Ramsden’s “On Practice”). This aspect was especially strong since one of the fundamental postulates of Yugoslavian self-management state was based on the idea of withering away of the state.

On another hand Art & Language, after the episodes with Yugoslavian self-management socialists, Australian national museums, and New York Maoists realized that they can’t claim both for the uncontaminated art practice and for the organization of culture. In this moment of dissolving of the core idea of Art & Language (the so called “monstrous détente”), the group went through the retrospection whose lessons are still active today. They could correct the slogan of conceptual art once more in 1976 by saying that “art is what we do; culture is what we organize together.” Art & Language never did that. The section which wanted to do art went to galleries and made paintings; the other group that sought to organize the culture have dissolved into the union activism and designing the banners. The strongest moment of the former was the painting in 1980 called The Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock; the latter never produced a masterpiece but gave clues how to “go-on” in the art without exhibiting at all.