Art & Language

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A loose organization of mainly British artists and art theorists operating since the late 1960s. Through their journal Art-Language, the first issue of which was published in Coventry in May 1969, and through exhibitions, they have explored the linguistic and social dimensions of art. Their activities can conveniently be classified as a form of Conceptual art, but, at least in the early days of their activities, they regarded it as a question still to be decided as to whether they were producing art at all. The original members were Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge (1941– ), Michael Baldwin (1945– ), and Harold Hurrell (1940– ). Joseph Kosuth soon joined as American editor of the journal, and in the early 1970s membership rose to about 30; it then fell rapidly, however, with only Baldwin remaining of the original members by 1977. Since then, the main figures involved, along with Baldwin, have been Mel Ramsden (1944– ) and the art historian and critic Charles Harrison (1942– ). They have worked from a combination of linguistic philosophy— especially Wittgenstein—and Marxism. They reject the idea that they should make immediately accessible political statements—indeed some of their work is more or less impenetrable to outsiders. The 1981 essay ‘Art History, Art Criticism, and Explanation’ (Art History, vol. 4, no. 4) provides a useful entry point to their preoccupations for those who feel more confident in their knowledge of art than of philosophical and political theory. Since about 1979 members of Art & Language have produced paintings, but not in order to celebrate a return to tradition, rather to continue their intellectual explorations. The theoretical basis is that what a picture is ‘of’ has to be understood in terms of a work of art's causes rather than in terms of what it looks like or might make a spectator ‘feel’. It needs to be emphasized that the idea is not just to reinstate ‘the artist's intention’ or ‘artistic personality’ as the core of meaning but to examine the resources and competences which are brought to a work by artist and viewer. An example is Portrait of Lenin with a Cap in the Style of Jackson Pollock 1 (1979). At first sight this appears as very efficient pastiche of a Pollock drip painting. Without the title it would probably remain as such for most viewers. Even with its aid, Lenin is hard to detect. The work brings together apparently opposing political and artistic traditions in a single image, not to reconcile them, but to question assumptions about the ‘expressive’ and ‘communicative’ functions of art. In 1991 Harrison published Essays on Art & Language.

Subjects: Art.

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