QOQQOON (cocoon) is a webzine for writing by artists. We also republish hard-to-find pdfs online. In our current issue (#6), we are thinking about how to be an artist? Submissions are welcome. Edited by Leigh Tennant and Steven Cottingham. Published on unceded, traditional, and ancestral Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territories (Vancouver, Canada) since 2018. ISSN 2563-4364.

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QOQQOON//In defence of conceptual art (A still too small (s)crap of being)

In defence of conceptual art (A still too small (s)crap of being)

Over the last decade we have witnessed a supposed re-materialization of the “dematerialized art object”1—a trend we’ve seen emerge in contemporary art that can be tracked alongside the shift from the linguistic turn in cultural theory to what has been named the material turn.2 This essay will explore how returns to material practice often collapse back into an artisanal–expressive model of the artist motivated by what is merely a moral idea of “natural necessity”3 at the expense of the possibilities for thought that the  gap in “reality” opens up. However, appeals to “good Nature”4 must be exchanged with a risky venture—an effort to push the disappearance of social and cultural meaning beyond the logical consequences of our common belief systems—in order to construct new worlds out of the void without merely repressing the truths that have been unveiled by the destruction of stable world-meanings within capitalist homogenization.

In this essay I will outline some of the ways material practices are entangled in the problematics of production rather than facing up to the challenge therein, which is to find a singular solution to a lack of meaning without resorting to essentialism.5 I will take some strategies from conceptualism and from material practice in order to delineate a conceptual materialist6 mode of practice that already exists but hasn’t yet been differentiated from other forms the return to material practice has taken.

To begin, we turn to the antagonism that Benjamin Buchloh outlines between conceptual art as the rigorous elimination of the last traces of traditional aesthetic experience and the “violent restoration of traditional artistic forms and processes”—a conflict that obviously still exists between conceptualism and material practice.7 Buchloh describes conceptualism as an assault on the status of the (art) object in bourgeois culture, “its visuality, its commodity status, and its form of distribution.”8 Beside this critique inherent in conceptualism, I, like Buchloh, am also interested in the modernist aspirations of conceptual art, such as the aggressive submission of art to a structural analysis of language and a formalist study of representation. However, despite his original enthusiasm, Buchloh is quick to dismiss the historical significance of conceptualism, which he believes was usurped by what he calls the “aesthetics of administration” and the “institution of critique.”9

Although Buchloh draws our attention to the similarities between conceptual art and the administration and service work common to post-Fordist economies, he doesn’t really go into the details of post-Fordist labour. Although I agree with Buchloh—particularly as it pertains to the institutionalization of critique—the significance of post-Fordism cannot be reduced in toto to the dystopian figure of the “totally administered world.”10 In order to go beyond the idea that conceptualism merely failed and then disappeared, leaving only institutionalized critique and aestheticized administration as its legacy, I turn to Paolo Virno, who provides a more detailed investigation of post-Fordism that takes us beyond Buchloh’s mostly cynical prognosis regarding the legacy of conceptualism and the various “returns to order” that have occurred since the original conceptual movement.11

My goal is to think through conceptualism as an affirmative instance of general intellect, which Virno argues has become the primary mode of production in post-Fordist economies. Although general intellect12 is put to work in the production of value and has mostly delivered new forms of hierarchy, domination, and even evil,13 I believe general intellect is capable of subtracting itself from the gigantic stupid immediacy of the contemporary word.

Virno describes post-Fordism as a break-down in Aristotle’s classic division of human experience (labour, politics, and thought).14 He elaborates this concept in his thesis that post-Fordist labour has absorbed attributes of politics, becoming a fusion of politics (praxis–public actions) and labour (poiesis, sphere of production).15 Through this lens, post-Fordist labour is dependent on the linguistic and cognitive faculties required for communication between social actors that have made work far too political while politics has become far too much like work, which he argues has crippled political action. Through this lens, the re-materializations of the art object mark the recoupling of labour to its pre-crisis outcome, producing products with some sense of value that can be registered in terms of labour. This kind of “re-materialization” should appear somewhat circumspect and begs the question, rather than recoupling artistic practice to the production of products, how can artistic practices de-link its political skills from what is at this point unnecessary labour? This transformation within the terms of an artistic context is a question at the heart of conceptual materialism.16

As was said earlier, the discursivity of conceptual art aligns neatly with the public character of post-Fordist labour defined as it is by its political attributes.17 As opposed to any assumption regarding art’s economic exceptionality, Sabeth Buchmann problematizes the sign-value of art, noting that the publicness created by art is thus a “stage for private principle of work.”18 Although her criticism rings true, I think it’s a mistake to reduce art’s meager publicness entirely to the “principle of work” and to skip over the necessity of salvaging the publicness created by art and other forms of life from the mere exchange of sign values.19

Another problem that has emerged for material practice can be located in how the materials begin to function self-sufficiently as objects of visual–phenomenological experience (generally motivated by the aesthetic pleasure we glean from weird circumstances), totally overshadowing the gestures’ status as analytic proposition (this part has become vague). The problems we face in artistic practice as far as our materials go are, of course, the same problems that the alienated consumer faces20—wherein the subject’s capacity for subjectivization and intellect is obscured by being subjected to an overwhelming system of objects, affects, and signs. This subjection is at the heart of the artisanal-expressive model of the artist, best exemplified by the abstract expressionist painter, the graphic dance of the pathological subject.21

Sans expression, returns to the artisanal also reinstitute a conservative evaluation of art’s value, as a certain understanding of technical skill22 still (despite the dominance of conceptualism in the cultural avant-garde) dominates the art market and culture industry and is never sufficiently explored.23 Craft revival obscures the necessity of dissolving the man of political economy, “man as needs and labour power,” himself.24 Or, in Virno’s terms, craft obscures the necessity of a move away from the ancient alliance between intellect and labour to a new alliance between intellect and political action.25

Consider this in opposition to the formal and material choices of a “deskilled” practice which refuses the necessity of work (to which skilled craft can’t escape) and instead operates under the sign of “very-little-work.” In these practices, skill and value are not immediately apparent and instead require the viewer to do some interpretive study beyond what is immediately in front of them. This form of art—and the audience effect it produces—is crucial to the conceptual materialist demand that art exceed the logic of “functional aesthetic enjoyment,” i.e. that art is discursive.

Deskilling is one way to avoid the reinstitution of the sign of labour, while still conducting moves with meanings and materials that might exceed the mere ephemera we associate with conceptual art’s original style: a style dominated by performance art and its reliance on photographic documentation, or institutional, legal, and administrative aesthetics. Conceptualism provides a set of strategies to ward off the tyranny of the object-sign, by providing limits and constraints on artistic activity, which is otherwise at the whims of the infinite virtuality of meaning. For example, comparing Blake Rayne’s de-skilled painting to Brent Wadden’s extremely labour-intensive and monumental mode of supposed de-skilled textile production evidences a limit on consumption while the other does not; one demystifies the sign of painting and the other propagates it.

Rayne is interested in the material conditions of painting, and yet the paintings lack any sincere form of manual skill or material plenitude. The object is a sign of and for painting as cultural-historical institution (a particular set of sign-values), not significant of any real investment in painting as a material of unique instance of visual-phenomenological experience. His exhibition Folder and Application (2010) explores the administrative bureaucracy of everyday life for the artist, potentially literalizing and then exaggerating Buchloh’s premise regarding the aesthetics of administration, or in Virno’s words the “authoritarian coalescing of general intellect in administration.” His sad, droopy felt As in Cover Letter (2010) provide a matheme for the material remainder of the gaze, that which is historically mediated by the social-symbolic content of painting. The painter’s cover letter, objet petit a. Mike Kelley’s is another practice to consider. His engagement with craft discourses in work like More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987), is both deskilled and downright grotesque. Much of Kelley’s work with craft was set in motion to resist and de-literalize the dominant code that had subsumed sexual antagonisms into a contest over representation within the terms of a value differential between art/craft.

And finally, as far as conceptual materialism goes, Gareth James’ deskilled bike tubes—a cheap and easy replacement for a minimalist neon light-work—simultaneously instantiate a graphic contour line and remind us (as in his quotation of Mallarmé, “the flower absent from all bouquets”) that the production of meaning (reliant as it is on metaphor and metonym) is predicated on lack and loss of the referent; a kind of deflated/emasculated minimalism. The act The fourth of three things (2009) marks a reference to Lévi-Strauss’ notion of “zero-institution”, or the “mark with no determinate meaning, since it signifies only the presence of meaning as such, in opposition to its absence”;26 the mark of lack, the fourth of three things. The bike tube is necessarily an allegiance to Duchampian ready-made within the terms of struggle over founding this mark.27 Finally I include Constanze Ruhm, not so much for her engagement with deskilling, as she works in film and not necessarily in a deskilled manner, but for her work with the concept of rehearsal—useful in thinking about modes of practice that avoid finality or end product, demonstrated in her works X Characters, X Nana, and X Love Scenes (variously 2003–2007). An explicit marking of the heart of otherness and difference with an X, “the X comes to stand in for the real, the real which cannot be captured by the image of the signified.”28 For example, in X Love Scenes, the love scene trope is explored as a traumatic restaging of an asymmetrical relation to the signifier of desire, a truth denied (and therefore doomed to repetition) by the imaginary closure at the heart of Hollywood cinema but also the image.29

All of the above artists could fall within the conceptual materialist platform and its concern with expressive capacity of materials beyond the absolute dissolution of the object that was characteristic of conceptualism’s original moment. However, the expressiveness of the material is its discursivity, and must be navigated and limited within the terms of the conceptualization in order to preclude remaining a mere object within the affective and associative flow of aesthetic reality.

Conceptual materialism evidences a kind of Baudrillardian intervention into Virno’s challenge; that is, general intellect’s capacity to assert an autonomous public sphere “only if its bond to the production of commodities and wage labour is dissolved.”30 However, he doesn’t say what that bond is. Therefore, I would assert that the bond is the code of signification—even though the bond produces needs, it is not a bond of needs at this point in advanced industrial nations, given the material infrastructure that has been revolutionized by that very code. This code also comprises post-Fordist labour, where the crisis in labour society is masked by excessive–competitive–political labour for the privileged minority and servile labour, poverty, unemployment, and alienation for the rest.

Having discussed and created a context for conceptualism in relation to the resurgence of the artisanal–expressive model of the artist in the material turn, let’s return to the goal of this essay and disentangle the interesting aspects of this so-called return to material practice from the repetition of critical errors that preceded the shift to conceptualism in the first place. It should be clear by now that returns to material practice have the tendency to ignore the potential radicality of crises in labour society in their renewal of obsolete modes of production under the sign of sensuous labour, which corresponds more to the art market’s continued demand for luxuriant signs and to the supplication of politics by environmentalism than to any irrecuperable intervention into contemporary forms of life.31

As I’ve made clear, I act in allegiance to the original conceptualist platform, in particular the sentiments expressed by Sol Lewitt that contradict conceptualism as a mode of instrumental rationality. I do not accept the idea that a concept is something beneath or beyond the object: my argument will try to make clear that the concept or analytic proposition is dependent on the forms and materials of the particular act (a skilled conceptualization will be formally inscribed by the meanings and materials). This is not to say that an act could be read entirely at the immediate formal level, that is without any other information that you may not have access to in a direct formal read. The concept is still an important aspect of the act, but the conceptual materialist artist is open to the disruption of the concept by the material segment of signification at play. For these reasons the artistic concept is dependent on the material segment of the real, even if this dependence is often of an arbitrary nature—which is why conceptual materialism might find the idea that motivates a certain process is radically different than what is delivered to perception when the act is complete, the contingencies of signification might deliver a new combination.

All meaning is produced through the combination of signifiers which renders our conception processes reliant on material-signifiers. Although the material and concept are related in an arbitrary manner, the material is productive of meaning and not merely a passive support for meaning. Let’s clarify something, material doesn’t resist integration with form because material is itself a concept (our favourite concept of and for the real). It is the real that does resist integration, but the real (being beyond metaphor) cannot be symbolized. This doesn’t mean that it’s the outside of our symbolic and imaginary mediations, on the contrary, it’s actually immanent and acts as the radical opaque kernel which condemns the symbolic and imaginary to incompleteness.

In conclusion, the phases of conceptual materialism proceed in this manner: the process starts with a concept, “a pure semblance that ‘subjectivizes’ objective reality.”32 The concept which “subjectivizes” or maps “objective reality,” is set in motion against actual “objective reality” guided and limited by the terms of the original concept. After the procedure is completed, there are stages of “symbolic construction.”33 Symbolic construction is a retroactive process where the gap between subjective and objective reality can be grasped in a refracted manner, by comparing the procedure and it’s outcome to the original concept. With the goal of course being to get as close as possible to the real at the expense of the imaginary and symbolic, in order to revolutionize the imaginary and symbolic. Finally, the whole system is predicated on the productive discrepancy between the real “out-of-place” object and the above symbolic and imaginary mediations.34 This much has been claimed by the various returns to material practice, with the crucial error of foreclosing the semiotic mediation of the real by the imaginary and symbolic which can only over mark a relation, not a meaning, to the real of material contingencies. However, through the process of conceptual materialism—which may include multiple waves of diachronic and synchronic making—a different relation to the real might be registered.

The original interventions that conceptual forms of practice made into art are as relevant today as they were in the sixties, because the artisanal–expressive model which comprises “mere subjugation to material” and/or the “sign” of labour is back with a vengeance. Material practices often recouple intellect to labour motivated by the idea that this is an alternative to the problems and challenges of our current exchange relations. However, in so doing, they disavow the possibilities unleashed within this specific historical era by confusing social wealth, that is the general intellect, with its processes and products. The question isn’t one between abstract and concrete labour—or between industrial and agrarian society—but rather a question of the possibilities unleashed by thought and their subjugation. Transformative material practices are allied to the central tenants of conceptualism but investigate a larger cross section of material-discourse while also attending to the questions and problems pertaining to materialist theories of language, which I have barely even begun to introduce. In conclusion, the conceptualist practice I want to affirm is highly focused on the potential contingencies of the system, mutations, novelty, and expressions of material being in which our subjectivity is a heteronomous, heterogenous small (s)crap as processes of new potential subjectivizations, rather than merely executing a pre-conceived idea in a closed system.

–Leigh Tennant, October 2018

Image: Constanze Ruhm, detail from the film X Love Scenes, 2007.


  1. The title was inspired by a passage from Alastair Renfrew’s book Towards a New Material Aesthetics: Bakhtin, Genre and the Fates of Literary Theory (Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Pub., 2006), 94. Renfrew references Pavel Medvedev’s concept of finalization, “Individual subjectivist conceptions of expression have conceived of everything exterior to consciousness as merely ‘passive material’ but the process of externalization of consciousness involves the energizing organization of one material entity in a similarly material external form. … This is in fact the underlying meaning of finalization, consciousness ceases to be a fiction … its operation ceases to be ‘a still too small scrap of being.’”
  2. “Dematerialization” was theorized by Lucy Lippard (and others) in her now canonical writing, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (London: Studio Vista, 1973). Dematerialization—an infamous, and yet problematic concept—has become a convenient straw-man in this so-called return to material practice, which has made a fetish out of “materiality” at the expense of form and certain aspects of the conceptualist legacy.
  3. Jean Baudrillard, “The Structural Limits of Marxism: Separation from Nature Under the Sign of Production – Marxist Anthropology and the Domination of Nature,” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 1 (January 2007). Natural necessity provides a set of powerful moral-ideologies (a stable set of significations) in a time when everything has become unstable, hollow, capitalist tautology. I am referencing here Baudrillard’s critique of the function of nature within political economy. As fundamental ideological terrain of the western world order, “the idea of ‘natural Necessity’ is only a moral idea dictated by political economy, the ethical and philosophical version of that bad Nature systematically connected with the arbitrary postulate of the economic. In the mirror of the economic, Nature looks at us with the eyes of necessity.”
  4. Ibid. “This operational finality is arbitrary in such a way that the concept of Nature it forgets resists integration within it. It looks as if forcefully rationalized Nature reemerges elsewhere in an irrational form. Without ceasing to be ideological, the concept splits into a ‘good’ Nature that is dominated and rationalized (which acts as the ideal cultural reference) and a ‘bad’ Nature that is hostile, menacing, catastrophic, or polluted. All bourgeois ideology divides between these two poles.”
  5. Baudrillard’s argument is set in motion here, any appeal to nature is merely an appeal to a “dominated essence.”
  6. Conceptual materialism has some affinities with what chief propagandist Aleksei Gan called intellectual materialism.
  7. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (1990): 105–143.
  8. Ibid., 107.
  9. Ibid., 128.
  10. Branden W. Joseph, “Interview with Paolo Virno” Grey Room 21 (September 2005), 31. Paolo Virno makes an excellent argument that backs up the above idea that Buchloh focuses on the wrong things when it comes to the culture industry, that the culture industry precipitated post-Fordist labour rather than a collapse of culture into the homogeneity of Fordism; meaning that more emphasis needs to be placed on these emergent conditions of labour and, with it, intellectual labour. He circles back to Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” and the easily understood premise that technological reproducibility corresponds to all experiences today, against what should be the singularity and or uniqueness of all situations. We need to shift the emphasis away from the analysis of the destruction of aura, towards the possibilities of “uniqueness without aura,” or, in Adorno’s words, “thought without identity.”
  11. Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (New York: Semiotext(e), 2010), 67. Virno actually has a name for the increased emphasis on administrative bureaucracy that Buchloh is associating with post-Fordism and conceptualism, “hypertrophic growth of the administrative apparatus,” which Virno outlines is the effect of the peculiar publicness of the intellect deprived of its own true expression, “an authoritarian coalescence of general intellect.” Point being, it’s a perversion of intellect, not its only outcome. Virno’s argument utilizes Karl Marx’s text “Fragment on Machines” to analyze current labour conditions, which have otherwise been called “immaterial labour,” and from which this term general intellect is lifted.
  12. Ibid., 66. Virno defines general intellect as “literally as intellect in general: the faculty and power to think, rather than the works produced by thought.”
  13. Ibid., 40. As Virno outlines, “If the publicness of the intellect does not yield to the realm of a public sphere, of a political space in which the many can tend to common affairs, then it produces terrifying effects. A publicness without a public sphere: here is the negative side—the evil, if you wish—of the experience of the multitude.”
  14. Ibid., 52.
  15. Joseph, “Interview with Paolo Virno,” 26–37.
  16. Ibid., 33.
  17. Sabeth Buchmann, “Under the Sign of Labour,” Art After Conceptual Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). 179. Buchmann sets out to differentiate what is otherwise inextricably entangled; contemporary art and post-Fordist labour, both of which appear as “forms of communication that generate publicness.”
  18. Ibid., 180.
  19. Owen Hewitson, “What Does Lacan Say About… The Signifier?” LACANONLINE.COM (June 2010). We can define the sign as “the equivalent to the code in the animal kingdom. It is a complete equivalence of thing and meaning that allows for no ambiguity.” In “For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign,” Baudrillard defines sign value as “the stage where the commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as a sign-value and where signs are produced as commodities.”
  20. Baudrillard, “The Structural Limits of Marxism.” Consumer society can be defined here “as a system of sign exchange value.”
  21. I should note my criticisms come from my own ongoing and long-term struggle with the forces that pacify intellect, not from some easily achieved disinterested position.
  22. John Roberts, “Art After Deskilling” Historical Materialism 18 (2010), 93. Before we go any further in this discussion about “craft” or “skill,” we should take a look at an important caveat made by John Roberts as it pertains to the concept. “Skill is definable through the quality of this process of conceptualisation and the intellectual acuity the artist brings to art’s material or immaterial forms.” Here, skill is not definable as mastery over a technical or artisanal-expressive process, but rather through the quality of the conceptualization process which renders the most sophisticated artisanal, industrial, and or digital techniques “deskilled.” Thus, skilling, deskilling, and reskilling should be thought through the question of manual/intellectual division of labour (it should be noted that he makes this argument for how it corresponds to a gendered intellectual division of labour in the arts), and the techniques available to us from different technological eras should be considered for all intents and purposes equal. I say equal because the skill is defined through the quality of this process of conceptualization, not through or by the tool’s ideological merit. By this I mean they ought to be seen as equal and available for use within the context of a particular conceptualization.
  23. Buchmann, “Under the Sign of Labour,” 179. Buchmann corroborates this critique, noting craft-based production values are problematic because they are crucial to claims concerning authorship and the sign of “work.”
  24. Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (Candor, NY: Telos Press, 1975), 30. “The functionality of Nature structured by labour, and the corresponding functionality of the subject structured around needs, belong to the anthropological sphere of use value described by Enlightenment rationality and defined for a whole civilization (which imposed it on others) by a certain kind of ab­stract, linear, irreversible finality: a certain model subsequently extended to all sectors of individual and social practice.”
  25. Joseph, “Interview with Paolo Virno,” 32.
  26. Slavoj Žižek, “The Real of Sexual Difference,” in Interrogating the Real (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 375.
  27. Ibid., 378.
  28. Ibid., 376.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Paolo Virno, “General Intellect,” generation-online.
  31. The problem with environmentalism is that it often remains within the terms of scarcity, utility, labour, need, and production that are central to political economy.
  32. Žižek, “The Real of Sexual Difference,” 378.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.