Conceptualism leaves us two legacies. The first may be understood as a major history—a status quo proclamation or common sense intuition. It has become conventional to hear how the lasting legacy of the conceptual moment is the availability of all art objects for commerce. In other words, the avant-garde movements of the sixties and seventies marked a failed stand against the commodifiability of art. The major status of this argument hardly requires (and, indeed, often forsakes) citation; it is treated as self-evident, invoked bitterly and uncritically.
The second or minor history of conceptualism is the availability of all art objects for and as discourse. This is, to a degree, self-evident as well. The production of artwork in the present “postconceptual” moment is always accompanied by the production of context through didactics, public programming, and curatorial statements. And yet we venture that this minor legacy of conceptualism is, itself, negatively dialectic. Conceptual discourse is bifurcated. Its own major strand is apolitical, its minor political. By this we mean that conceptualism introduced not only an availability of all objects or gestures as artworks within the new terms where an artist nominates rather than produces a work of art—but a simultaneous necessity for artworks to argue for their artistic status, marking the collapse of previous traditional criteria.
The apolitical discourse is a supplicative form of argumentation: namely, it comprises those forms of writing which are compelled to chase after state-funded grants, philanthropic support, curatorial attention, and otherwise professionalized forms of affirmation. It is, again, well-documented that conceptualism came to fruition at the beginning of neoliberalism, entailing the manipulation of bureaucratic aesthetics in concert with the interpellation by administrative forces. Even if art’s entanglement with commercial markets remains exceptional, failing to completely adhere to the strictures of capitalist economy, the various codes of value persist through social and symbolic production. Under these conditions, art is not immanently exceptional to the political economy of the sign (understood here as a labour of consumption). To put it bluntly: if the major legacy of conceptualism is the infinite exchangeability of artwork as commodities, then the major legacy of conceptual argumentation is the infinite exchangeability of artwork as discursive consumption. Everything becomes merely metaphoric, fungible entities that remain subservient to value production in both economic and symbolic realms. The CV becomes the primary text of artistic production.
What then remains of the political form of conceptual discourse? Artists who write and produce arguments for modes of art-making have occupied a strange place in this history. On one hand, the production of manifestoes throughout the twentieth century was a crucial (irreducible) aspect of widening the virtual capacities of artistic practice. On the other, artists who write are perceived as overworking their work, removing interpretative possibilities, valourizing the author above all other contiguous subjects. We will overlook that these accusations more accurately describe the non-meaning latent within normative pursuits of social capital—the opaque, speculative production that guarantees infinite discursive exchangeability along a single paradigmatic axis—and instead note that arguments by artists provide a refusal of the terms of service to state- or curator-generated discourse. Such accusations mistake the audience with the presumption that argumentation ought to make practices available to gatekeepers rather than to the virtual field populated by peers and to-be-actualized entities. Within the latter, art obtains the capacity to crystallize multiple vantage points and struggle over the quilting points of master signifiers without recourse to metaphor, as art proves capable of operating beyond the limits of linguistic argumentation. In order to “open up” the artwork’s interpretive horizon, arguments must first close or recuse the capitalist paradigm whose only possibility is “self-valourizing value.” Such an operation results in a difference of meaning, an alien intimacy, a line of flight away from the spectacle in which every opaque object is interchangeable with one another.
It is here that we identify a third bifurcation, a minor–minor–minor history in which this publication endeavours to situate itself. Given that political art in the postconceptual moment is compelled to take up a more or less materialist position in order to address the blind spots of structuralism, and given that the “material turn” moves through both contemporary artistic and philosophical discourse, then the crux of this third bifurcation comprises art’s philosophical capacity.
If new materialist philosophy relies heavily on empirical and otherwise rational resources to open philosophical thought, then this discourse misses out on mediating the real and symbolic by treating social and semiotic relations as a glitch in realist ontology. This is not to say that ontological arguments are contingently apolitical, but rather that, because new materialist philosophy in this historical moment has tended to “use” discourse to make matter real, then artists are given a venue in which to perform a complementary rather than supplementary role; that is, to “use” matter to make discourse tangible. Such a movement acknowledges the signifying capacities of all objects and flows, and antagonizes the severance or foreclosure of otherwise contiguous relationships by the numeraire of exchange. For the sake of brevity, we can assign this minor–minor–minor position the term “conceptual materialism.” Through the re-publication of archival materials and the commission of new texts by artists, our project aims to embolden a “conceptual materialism” that makes a claim for the political and philosophical status of art without having to resort to activist, journalist, or populist conceptions of activity. Accordingly, by revisiting historical trajectories that were cut short in the fashionable turn from one avant-garde to the next, our project seeks to both propel and reclaim these minor strands of artistic argumentation by working this term “conceptual materialism” through to its logical consequences.
–Leigh Tennant and Steven Cottingham, October 2018