Prompted by Joel Swanson at CU Art Museum
On Medium: “A Conceptualist Walks into a Bar: Thoughts on Language, Art & Absence” by Noel Black, in response to Tilt West’s Roundtable on Art & Language
The way we think, communicate, and experience the world is fundamentally and profoundly shaped by language. Paul Valery said, “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” which is a recognition of the immense power of language to influence perception. As a representational and communicative technology, language plays a pivotal role in defining not only art, but its histories, economies, and ideologies. What role does language play in structuring our relationship to art today?
In 1973, Lucy Lippard published her seminal book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972…. This text played—and continues to play—a significant role in the defining and canonization of Conceptual Art primarily through articulating the relationship of art and language. Artists from this era were interested in the representative, descriptive, and indexical potential of language to “dematerialize” the traditional art object.
While I resonate with most of Lippard’s assertions (foremost being her recognition of women in the history of Conceptual Art) I take issue with her titular notion that the art object was ever dematerialized. This erroneous notion that language is—or can ever be—immaterial is an ideological undercurrent in much of the scholarship on Conceptual Art. Whether virtual or physical, digital or analog, language always has a body, and this materiality shapes the communicative potential of language in subtle and potent ways.
So nearly fifty years later, what has changed? Are language-based artistic practices still relevant or is most contemporary “Conceptual Art” aesthetically and conceptually derivative? Various artistic practices attempt to “dematerialize” the art object in their own ways (Conceptual Art, Performance, Digital Art, Net.Art,, etc.), but what is the ideology of dematerialization? How has language-based Conceptual Art been aestheticized, and what are the implications of this aesthetic? How can artists meaningfully engage in the political use and abuse of language within the echo chamber of social media? Do contemporary digital technologies (Twitter, Emoji, etc.) reinvigorate or reframe any of these questions?
What Was Dematerialization? (And What Does It Mean in the Age of “The Cloud”?), Duffy Owen, ArtSpace, January 7, 2017.
“Escape Attempts” introduction from Lippard LR. Six Years, The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. University of California Press; 1973.
Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, Rosalind Krauss, October, Vol. 3 (Spring, 1977), pp. 68-81.
About the Prompter
Joel Swanson is an artist and writer who explores the relationship between language and technology. His work playfully subverts the technologies, materials, and underlying structures of language to reveal its idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. His work ranges from interactive installations to public sculptures that playfully and powerfully question words and their meanings. Swanson teaches courses on typography, creative coding, and media theory at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. He received his Masters of Fine Art at the University of California, San Diego with a focus in Computing and the Arts.