Shades of Grey

By Patrick Armstrong

Seth Price’s essay “Grey Flags,” putatively a work of art, serves as the press release for two eponymous exhibitions. One put up at Friedrich Petzel in July of 2005 and the other at Sculpture Center about a year later, the two ‘Grey Flags’ exhibitions do not include any of the same pieces and share solely Price’s essay.

In “Grey Flags” Price reminds us how far we have come from the age when mankind defined itself with dolmen, monoliths, and other structures of brute indication of existence. One senses something of the mesh of fear and regimentation and suffering and bloody sacrifice from which civilization was meant to escape.”[1] Price argues that the term ‘architecture’ is an unfit classification for these monumental structures. He prefers ‘faith embodied,’ or better still ‘magic.’ As something both privy to and dependent on “the most advanced technologies at hand,” these monumental embodiments or ‘magic’ serve to make tangible the spark of inspiration -the unfathomable idea, only fully understood once its construction is completed. Arguably, ‘magic’ is just a rubric definition of any pre-modern, extra-labor pursuit. Art and music, as well as architecture historically occupied a place of super-human achievement. They held an alchemical mystery. And while there are entire departments of universities dedicated to investigating the creation of these ‘magic’ apotheoses (they are producing tenable theories, of course), it is doubtless easier to imagine how a serf toiled in the fields or how a shopkeeper tallied in his ledger.

The ‘magic’ of the contemporary age is, in Price’s eyes, images. “[A] thickening web of images that amounts to a magic circle through which citizens of this age have passed, never to return.”[2] This is true, yes. We have passed through the portal. We sift through slide shows daily. We reach for our camera phones at every opportunity. The anecdote is dead without its supporting documentation. If this is not entirely true now, it will be in five years. But how does this really relate to contemporary art?

Price’s definition of contemporary ‘magic’ spotlights a dependency on images (specifically documentation, or the posterity-problem) that was confronted by the last Avant-Garde 50 years ago. Price himself acknowledges this in his ongoing essay “Dispersion,” citing Dan Graham in the 1960s: “‘…if a work of art wasn’t written about and reproduced in a magazine it would have difficulty attaining the status of ‘art.’”[3] This quotation is interesting because it seems disingenuous. Graham and his contemporaries sought to push art into the linguistic sphere, to strip off everything but meaning, and to make definition paramount to understanding. But during this valiant advancement of art, conceptual artists realized their own dependency on images. Think of the famous photograph of Kaprow’s Yard or the many images of Charlotte Posenenske’s Series DW in various configurations. This unfortunate discovery burdens all art forms succeeding it with the need to acknowledge their dependency. Ironically, images became increasingly important to our understanding and experience of art as a result of a movement that tried to eliminate them.

Couldn’t Graham’s clichéd frustrations as a dealer really be a jab at “The Irascibles” and their ceaseless features in Life magazine –an image dependency of a very different sort. Movement away from canonized forms of art was the crux of conceptualism. It was a methodology that sought to abolish any previous paradigm from the creation of art. Therefore, isn’t Graham’s failure as proprietor of John Daniels Gallery exactly the reason he took it up in the first place? Whether intentional or not, Graham’s gripe exposes conceptualism’s willful burden, that of being the misanthropic smart guys. Where’s the fun in conceptual art if you don’t get to be the one to point out its intelligence? And what’s the point of an image if you can’t be the one to define it’s meaning for an audience? And so, thanks in no small part to Graham and the conceptual movement, the bounds of medium were eventually tossed off forever. Now the shopkeeper’s ledger could be art, and in the March, 1968 issue of Harper’s Bazaar it was.[4]

By 2004 or 2005, when Price was writing “Grey Flags,” an artist could perform a détournement on the universal recycling symbol[5] without worrying about how radical the gesture was, but rather how the piece should be fabricated and how it should lean against the wall. It is not difficult to picture how this work of art was conceived or created. The systematic reduction and elimination of the ancient type of ‘magic’ from the definition of art, which we understand to have begun with Modernism and concluded with the art of the late 1960s, continues into the present, engulfing new technologies and new approaches. Artists’ methods are continuously classified in order to make them commonplace and pallet-able. This is strikingly parallel to the way in which capitalism subsumes its dissenters –each movement has been simplified and co-opted. I’m talking about hippie bohemianism, punks, and even Russian constructivism. But to Price, this is the new Utopia.[6] One in which art is so inextricably tied to free market capitalism that it operates as its pastiche. Think of Art + Auction magazine as the mini Wall Street Journal.

“With the expansion of the former cultural sphere to encompass and include within itself everything else in social life (something that could also be thought of as an immense commodification and commercialization, the virtual completion of the process of the colonization by the commodity form begun in classic capitalism), it becomes impossible to say whether we are here dealing any longer with the specifically political, or with the cultural, or with the social, or with the economic — not to forget the sexual, the historical, the moral, and so on. But this conflation, which surely presents some signal disadvantages in the realm of thought and action, uniquely intensifies the signifying power of this work that, rotated on its axis, can be said to comment on any of the above, virtually inexhaustibly.”[7]

All of this in mind, the obligation of the vanguard artist in Price’s eyes has become that of image mediator, one who gets between the retinal image and its meaning. This is the last remaining frontier in the march of linear art history, halting progression in the name of reexamination. If there are virtually inexhaustible scenarios of meaning, there ought to be a brave soul to put forth a definitive one. Or if not this, there ought to be a brave soul who at least points out the hermeneutic boundlessness of every image’s interpretation. There exists a field of thought that seems to have ruled over all of the work in ‘Grey Flags’: With a boundless number of images in the world (we have passed through the magic circle), it is my duty and my good fortune to be the one to come up with a meaning for them. Or if not this, it is at least my duty to make apparent this image’s infinite subjective interpretations. “What a time [we] chose to be born!” The artists participating in ‘Grey Flags’ have become the captioners and re-framers of images rather than their creators (or even owners)!

No longer does ‘magic’ manifest itself in the singular monument; today’s ‘magic’ trails endlessly in the wake of human existence. Its function has been turned completely. ‘Magic’ does not serve to embody ideas, but rather it functions as the root of their inspiration. Effortlessly saved and catalogued at our own self-important behest, this wake of images serves as a map of culture. It has become fodder for the sleight of hand conceptualists of Price’s cadre.[8] But is this really all there is? In “Grey Flags,” Price fixates on history’s squalor and primitiveness –literally its “suffering and bloody sacrifice”—only to praise our current, “golden moment,”[9] one which we have had to crawl through the mud to arrive at. Ours is a revisionist and preoccupied moment. At what point can we look past the portion of the historical timeline that seems bent on reiterating itself ad nauseam and onward to something novel?

[1]Seth Price, “Grey Flags” (2005)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Seth Price, “Dispersion” (2002-) p.2

[4] Dan Graham, Figurative, 1965

[5] Kelly Walker, Untitled, 2005

[6] Seth Price, “Grey Flags” (2005)

[7] Fredric Jameson, ­ The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Indiana University Press, 1995) p26

[8]Most interestingly in the SculptureCenter iteration is Walid Raad’s I Only Wish That I Could Weep (Operator #17), 2000, which is a cache of supposedly classified video footage from Lebanon, and least interestingly is Kelly Walker’s Untitled, 2006, which is a to-scale offset print of a photograph of the wall that the work hangs on.

[9] Seth Price, “Grey Flags” (2005)