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Conceptual Art of the

Press Release,
or
Art History without Art

DAVID JOSELIT

On a recent tour of galleries in Chelsea, I mentioned to my two compan-


ionsa curator and an artistthat in general I prefer to forego reading the
Xeroxed press releases offered to visitors at the front desk until Ive had a good
look at the show. This policy represents a test of sortsboth for myself and for the
art on view. Can I apprehend patterns of allusion and palimpsests of codes without
the cheat sheet? And conversely, does the art, stripped of its discursive apparatus,
hold up? On that day, however, it wasnt long before I was consulting press releas-
esfirst, to learn what a certain mystifying material was in a painting at Hauser &
Wirth, and then, frankly, just to cut to the chase, to move more efficiently through
the ten or so exhibitions we wanted to see that afternoon.
My lapse is trivial but nonetheless central to something disturbing both in art
practice and in histories and criticism of contemporary art. If the equation of art
with information beginning in the late 1960s constituted a profound ontological
challenge to the work of art, now Blouinartinfo.com giddily identifies the 25 Most
Collectible Conceptual Artists.1 As in neoliberal economic theory, where maximal
information is said to make markets more efficient, our Conceptual art of the
press release (in which artworks are translated into text as propositions about
their meaning) makes even difficult art easy to consume. Its my suspicion that this
condition is intensified by the now-standard training of artists in MFA programs,
where learning consists of verbally justifying ones artworks before a cohort of
peers and artist-instructors. The once radical proposal of Conceptual artthat
objects exist in a transactional relation with text (and prosaic photographic docu-
ments)has become business as usual.
Its easy enough to criticize the art world, but we academics are responsible
for an analogous shift. Lets call it a philological turn (to be generous), or, in a
less generous formulation, art history without art. As I see it, this practice, in which
art-historical analysis based on thinking with and through objectswhat Yve-Alain
Bois eloquently called painting as model (but which can be extended to any kind

1. Art+Auction, Taylor Dafoe, Liza Muhlfeld, Meghana Reddy, Sara Roffino, Angela M.H.
Schuster, Danielle Whalen, Deborah Wilk, 25 Most Collectible Conceptual Artists, September 26,
2016, http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1510504/25-most-collectible-conceptual-artists, last
accessed 10/22/16.

OCTOBER 158, Fall 2016, pp. 167168. 2016 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
168 OCTOBER

of artwork as model)is displaced by textiles of citations, the weaving of primary


and secondary sources where artworks serve as little more than illustrations of
rhetorical designs. In my view, this tendency is a perversion of two of the most
important revisionist challenges to art history launched in the 1970s and 80s: the
social history of art and the semiotic turn. In the former, artworks are histori-
cized through a recitation of their many discursive effects; in the latter, they are
theorized by demonstrating their inherent nature as texts. In both cases, resis-
tant matter risks disappearing into a cloud of words.
I have nothing against wordsor history, or theorybut I do think there is too
much faith (whether implicit or explicit) in the transparency of information in both
the art world and academic art history, and too little careful attention (and theoriza-
tion!) of the opacities of painted, molded, enacted, and digitally recorded stuff. This
stuff (i.e., art) is what the Conceptual art of the press release and art history without
art seem to fear. Instead, they adopt a neoliberal ideal of perfect translation from the
status of obdurate objecthood to the much more mobile medium of text, which, like
currency, is easily circulated and consumed. This translation abets all kinds of quick
transactionsfrom my own speed viewing in Chelsea to art-world Instagram feeds to
remote sales of artworks conducted globally.
If youre Edward Snowden, transparency is a good thing, but Im not sure its
such a good principle for art objects. In fact, we might be entering a moment
when the very purpose of art is to slow things down; to afford friction; to refuse easy
translation into information. Perhaps, we are at the end of the era initiated by
Conceptual art, since the astonishingly prescient principle of that tendency is now
the standard operating procedure of global capital. If this is true, arts challenge
(and that facing critics as well) is not to forego engaging with information, but
rather to resist the allure of its transparency in favor of tracking its plasticityin
other words, the shapes of social governance and aesthetic speculation that its
myriad overlapping channels assume.