As the point at which various artistic movements blur and collapse in service of a global, interconnected art market, postconceptualism can be understood as a mode of circulation rather than one of production or consumption. Unlike preconceptual paradigms, where material becomes symbolic through traditional forms of mimesis or representation, postconceptualism means that all material is already symbolic: all material can be considered conceptually manufactured even if it acts as raw material in a new arrangement. But symbolic material is not automatically art. Material must be discursively nominated (rather than materially crafted) in order to become artistic. This means that context usurps technique as the defining feature of postconceptual art. Anything can be art, provided it is labelled as such through context. What do we mean by context? We point to the infrastructure that permits art’s circulation: the curated exhibitions, fairs, biennials, and other gatekeeping systems that distinguish art from non-art. When all material can be symbolic, then the way we look at postconceptual art is not by wrestling with its symbolism, because symbolic qualities are no longer unique to art under capitalism. Instead, we look at postconceptual art with reference to the qualities that allow it to pass through the gatekeeping systems to become legitimated as art. These qualities are more or less reducible to the curatorial gaze, the career of the artist, and the institutional mandate. As viewers, we cannot help but triangulate these signs of legitimation or professionalism within the postconceptual art object.
Whereas the discursive production of artists was historically comprised of manifestoes and self-organized societies like the Surrealists, Constructivists, and Situationists, the paradigm shifted to academically-defined movements like Abstract Expressionism, Arte Povera, and Minimalism, and finally to a system of themed biennials and curated art fairs where distinctions are made between markets rather than movements. Given these shifts, we ask: are the organizing tactics of historical artists now politically depleted? Or are they merely out of style? Today’s artists almost exclusively practice discursive production in the form of grant-writing, CV-updating, and professional correspondences. We have termed this kind of discursive production the supplicative discourse—a mode of address always oriented toward gatekeepers. The supplicative discourse forces the author to live speculatively, in the future, hoping that submissions are accepted or proposals approved as they seek permission to enter into artistic discourse. In this way, the language of professionalism is present not just as a tool for getting support, but as an intrinsic aspect of contemporary artistic subjectivity. Because postconceptualism relies upon curatorial distinctions between objects, an artwork is not recognizably artistic until it has been legitimated. The artist is therefore inseparable from their biography or human capital in the form of their CV. The CV documents all their professional achievements, and acts as a portfolio of speculative assets to elicit future opportunities. The task of writing the CV, elongating its text, is the dominant mode of discursive production today. This state of affairs would be unremarkable if we were content to view art simply as a vocation. But the “job” of artist so rarely comes with the remuneration of employment. What, if not a wage, turns artists into bureaucrats?
Conceptual materialism, as the name suggests, equates the discursive and material aspects of an artwork. We look to writing as a form of organizing, a commitment to thinking through ideas, and allowing their engagement as text. Through writing we not only clarify our own positions, but also provide inductive entry points for potential audiences to hold in common. This is crucial because art has no a priori public, it is autonomous from any definition of the public or mass culture. Art produces its own public only when its discursive attributes are made explicit and therefore common. No object or symbol alone is ever wholly self-evident (surfaces belie substances), and self-evidence is never radical. I emphasize that art has no public because there is no “public” anywhere, certainly not in the neoliberal age of corporate welfare. Only through the organization of thought as writing can art speak to its public and, in this way, break the silent status quo that withholds argumentation in favour of circulation. This is not done in order to limit a public’s ability to interpret, but rather to enable the concept of a public itself. Writing does not suppress interpretation, only assumption. Without attaching arguments to artworks, art becomes an empty signifier, pure exchange value, reduced to normative readings and reactionary biases—just like any commodity meant to circulate “freely” through capitalist economy. In pursuit of professionalism and legitimation, one’s practice becomes state propaganda or a tax write-off. But our address is not just to artists, the producers of art; it is also to the consumers, who participate in the meaning-making process alongside the author. Each contributing to the general intellect, and each expanding their capacity for thinking a world beyond this one. This is what we mean when we advocate for truly critical thought: the ability to imagine something other than what exists, in order to contrast it with what is.
–Steven Cottingham, January 2020