Paul Crowther is a man looking for an argument, an approach I admire. He kicks off by criticising art historians, curators and theorists generally for electing themselves the "managers of meaning". He goes on to name and attack Victor Burgin and Rosalind Krauss and Griselda Pollock for their "semiotic idealism". By the end of the first half, his anger appears to subside but not before he has also attacked, quite absurdly, John Golding and John Nash, from different angles, for standing in the wrong place next to Cubism. What follows, at a slower pace, is an attempt to mix and match 20th-century artists with philosophers.
Like a neo-scholarly dating agent, Crowther works his way through an eccentric selection of artists discussing how they have used or anticipated philosophical ideas as both a starting point for new work and as a means of achieving "objectively significant meaning". This inventory and the consequent discussion provide the point of the book. The list goes roughly like this: the cubist Braque fits with Merleau-Ponty, the futurist Marinetti with Bergson, the suprematist Malevich with Ouspensky, the surrealist Breton with Hegel, the modernist Mondrian also with Hegel, the sublime Newman with Burke and the pop artist Warhol with Baudrillard.
It worries me that such a considerable amount of the evidence put forward by the author in arguing his case derives from artists' writings, not his interpretations of their paintings or sculptures. I do not wish to play down the importance of establishing an artists' intentions as a way of beginning to understand their work. But I do question the degree to which artists achieve their written goals. Artists are people who try their hand at writing, not people who live by it. Joseph Kosuth is an interesting example of a relatively obscure artist, known best for his writings, who looms large in this book, stealing pride of place over Marcel Duchamp.
Crowther's reading of Kosuth leads us to an understanding of him as an artist who rejects "self-expression". This is a dubious conclusion and anyone who has met Kosuth, seen his exhibitions and fingered their way through his books and catalogues will be sceptical. Kosuth is a very powerful personality, a controller of people and spaces. He has placed a minimal, and at times wilfully opaque content within a stylish package. His work vaunts absolute cool and total self-absorption; it is not a rejection of the importance of self.
At the core of this publication there is an (unfashionable) argument that revolves around two big words: "iterability" and "reciprocity". Iterability, borrowed from Jacques Derrida, is "the possibility of repeating, and therefore of identifying, marks and is implied in every code, making it a communicable, transmittable decipherable grid that is iterable for a third party". Reciprocity is both coined and explained by Crowther as "how the world is structured and how we negotiate it through the unified operation of all senses". Crowther appears to be arguing for the value of both the intuitive and the rational and for the importance of words in our engagement with art. Yet the meat of the book fails to develop this theoretical mainframe through a committed interpretation of art. As I approached the end, I found myself increasingly aware of the prevalence of a connoisseurship at work. The author's likes and dislikes occupy centre stage.
Jeff Koons and Christian Boltanski are dispatched in a few lines for their banality and theoretical weakness. I was surprised to see how little space was given to one of this century's most influential artists, Joseph Beuys. In Crowther's world turned upside-down, David Mach, Cornelia Parker and a few other contemporary players take the lead roles.
Rather like John Ruskin's Modern Painters, this book sets out with the admirable goal of championing a very personal set of ideas, likes and dislikes and aims at empowering the non-specialist. Unfortunately, despite the author's passion and breadth of knowledge, it lands firmly as another difficult-to-read text for students of art history and philosophy.
Stephen Farthing is Ruskin master of drawing, University of Oxford.
The Language of Twentieth Century Art: A Conceptual History
Author - Paul Crowther
ISBN - 0 300 07241 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 240