For some critics and academics, it is difficult not to use exaggerated and indeed aggressively poetic language to the mythical Conceptual Art movement, Art & Language. In two recent articles by Matthew Jesse Jackson, Art & Language are described on the one hand as “Fucking decent contemporary artists” (article), thus affirming the significance of Conceptual Art in relation to contemporary art, and on the other side as “Fucked up middlemen” suggesting a dissonance between their artistic practice and the dominant world model of social networks. In the press and social media, the recent exhibition of British Conceptual Art at Tate Britain (2016), which gave pride of place to Art & Language, has escaped neither criticisms nor superlatives. The exhibition Art & Language: Mappa Mundi, presenting the latest acquisitions of the Philippe Méaille collection at the Château de Montsoreau – Museum of Contemporary Art, provided an opportunity to interview Philippe Méaille.
Corinne Timsit (ArtPremium): The least we can say is that the work of Art & Language does not leave one indifferent. Between those who worship them and those who despise them, one finds oneself caught between utterly irreconcilable judgments. Would you say that the public is divided between those who have understood their works and those who have not?
Philippe Méaille: It’s a double question, have you ever tried to understand a landscape or an abstract painting? We are in the same situation as with a good joke, perhaps. If it happens that there is indeed something complex to understand – as is often the case with a good joke – the more difficult it will be to explain it without a loss in its comic effect. I believe that the possibility that someone will fail to understand anything at all about Art & Language work is almost nil: it is possible to bring very little understanding to this work nevertheless to engage with it as a matter of participation, discussion, and commitment. I think these powerful judgments (the good ones and the bad ones) about their work come from people who are extraordinarily well informed.
CT: How then can you explain that there is no consensus?
PM: There is rarely a consensus to be found concerning works of art. There has always been a caesura between the good taste world that dreamed of beauty and of prescribing visual values, and the art world that dreamed of a far more intellectually and rigorous approach based on philosophical values. These two worlds still oppose each other and often send contradictory messages. This dialectic explains the exceptional dynamism of contemporary art and the somewhat circular or fugitive nature of most attempts to say what an art object is.
CT: Even if you disagree, your latest acquisitions belong to the category of good taste. They are exceptional objects. Could it be sophistication – an attempt on your part – to reconcile the two aforementioned irreconcilable views?
PM: I guess you’re referring to Mother, Father, Monday: Map of the World and its decorative qualities?
CT: Yes, precisely, I am talking about this vast table containing almost 250 monochrome paintings assembled in the form of a map of the world.
PM: I’m usually not inclined to talk about it because I do not think it is in any way possible or appropriate for me to criticize my acquisitions, either technically, or in terms of their decorativeness, for example. On the other hand, in talking about the work of Art & Language in its totality, I can say that it is indeed one of the highest aesthetic adventures of the twentieth century. This aesthetic aspect of their work is rarely discussed and often underestimated. It still seems more comfortable to talk about how they have revolutionized the production and exhibition models of the artwork, which is what they are famous for.
CT: All the same, an essential part of the work consists only of texts which have largely escaped any visual consideration.
PM: On the contrary, these text works are integral to the visual impact of their works, but one has to understand that there is a big difference between seeing the artwork and reading it. Indeed, these works have so far held criticism in check, and I understand that for the critic, the task is not easy. It is almost impossible to write a text on a text work by making a critical review of the work as a whole and not the content of the text and vice-versa. I could summarize the situation. Art & Language are artists who have built a new system of art values, parallel to the traditional value system. which is:
* Art Work = Art Object (ie: Art Work – Art Object = 0).
In the new value system, we have:
* Art Work = Art Work + Art Object (ie: Art Work – Art Object = Art Work).
This is the Conceptual Art system has created and of which Art & Language is largely responsible. It was not a negation it was an addition, but this seemed impossible in the 1960s. For example, the first reaction of Lucy Lippard, and a very logical shortcut was to write about a dematerialization. These writings about the dematerialization of the Art object made the equation understandable, but the art object didn’t disappear, and it remains unresolved.
CT: It still sounds like a sophistry.
PM: I don’t think it is a sophistry to face up to instability and apparent contradiction. What is at stake is a question and what it creates. One imagines that something else – something radically different – is possible, while knowing it’s a no man’s land and that an entire world would have to be built again. I would compare what conceptual artists did in the 1960s with the invention (or discovery) of the imaginary number in mathematics when someone proposed a way of thinking about the square root of negative one. In this context, it is difficult to say whether there has been a reflexive error or not.
On the other hand, this gesture has given new possibilities and has had concrete developments in and through, painting, music, video, digital art, dance, sculpture, … Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden describe this starting point in a video made by Tate Modern and Bloomberg Foundation: “Does the term Conceptual Art designate something substantial – a shift, a change, a moment, a set of possibilities, or whatever, in art? The answer is ‘Yes’, in some cases, but it also designates farce, false beginnings, and ludicrous impostures”.