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Excerpts from The Grammarian (1970) (1968)
Ian Burn / Mel Ramsden


1) It is too often blandly supposed that artwork will go on developing through changing the material or denoted subjects of its propositions while resting on a mandatory and functionally “given” framework. This entails that the formal aspects of the propositional function persist, while the properties of the propositional subject become more and more diverse. The argument here advanced is that the meta-structure of this proposition, its operation or its modality, is able to be transformed or, more simply, that specific propositions can be replaced by formative rules that lay down modes of operation.

The contention is that the formative premises through which an artwork can occur are of greater consequence than the effect of such premises (e.g., artwork may not need to be a denoted physicality and may be a study of the premises governing this denotation). It is certain that the kind of methodology that needs to be instigated in order to examine such a contention will entail shifting the general functional area of artwork into talking about the formation of premises rather than just operating upon such premises; – in other words, examining the language without projecting physicalities through the language. If the above entails an inquiry into the nature of our artwork, it also entails some rethinking about the function of Conceptual inquiry with respect to artwork in general vis-à-vis the manner in which this artwork may be stated to be artwork.

2) The material object has provided a convenient focal-center for numerous Conceptual schemes; although this point of reference is customarily tantamount to space occupancy and mass, our first posit here is that this focal-center may be redefined and that the format of an art proposition (artwork, etc.) be considered in abstraction from what this proposition designates (i.e., its application). By translating material focal-centers into abstract place-holders we may continue by arguing that there is a radical break in mode between the abstract or propositional “grammar” of an artwork and the artwork’s physical structure.

Our strategy is to maintain that this work, i.e., the arguments maintained in this paper, not be simplistically a member of the aggregate artwork, but rather that it be an inquiry into the mode of these arguments vis-à-vis their status as artwork. Such a strategy may hold forward some expanded notion of the function of artwork.

3) Since it is being held that an artwork may not endure contingent upon application – i.e., through nonpropositional supports – something should be said about the limits of such supports.

Application is tantamount here to the use of materials. Materials are customary for artwork but there is no basis for their being mandatory. However, if materials are used, this use per se dictates the function of the artwork. A length of rope and a six-foot steel cube, both within an art context, are different in disposition though not in function. The same goes for the profusion of operations upon the premises of application including (e.g.) heaps of “dirt,” melting ice, (etc., etc.) – as well as the more traditional ones like permutations of shape, area, color. The essential point being that, even though the intent may not be addressed toward materials and may ostensibly be in the “realm of ideas,” the function is occurring through application and is, in all instances, equivalent since it is contingent upon nonpropositional supports. All material things are made up from states of matter. Matter, unlike material things, which are composites, is undifferentiated and diffuse, and exists in three basic states: gas, liquid, and solid. Some recent work has made use of steam, areas of liquid, and even bodies of atmosphere and, although the use of such states may alter certain assumptions about the boundaries of application, such usage is functionally no different from the conventional “mass” – i.e., art-object. In other words, one cannot change the function of artwork by tampering with the designated materials or internal structure of that work. A transition from a solid, which is bound internally in all directions, to (say) a gas, which has no internal boundaries, is a permutation simply in the structure and disposition of application. Such permutations are functionally straitjacketed since they are a priori contingent upon a nonpropositional (i.e., a “dumb” material) state. This is by way of stating that an allegedly singular subject, term X, is being treated rather than the proposition “this is an X.” The functional break must therefore take place outside of the permutations of application. It remains to be seen whether what has not, strictly speaking, put forward the conventional bid for membership in the aggregate of artwork can still come into an expanded notion of artwork.

4) The arguments here advanced are the result of an interest in the “grammatical” potential of artwork and how the elaboration of such a potential can cause the “break in mode” referred to in part (2). Such a break is radically distinct from “de-materialization” or from merely curtailing the contingency of the artwork on application.

Artwork is at once a formal body of terms with determinable internal relationships, and relations between those terms and objects, as well as between terms and those who produce, receive, or understand them. Some of the confusions present in the employment of many of the art terms may be at least partially overcome by carefully assessing the role of those terms that are traditionally operative within this ambit. We must, for example, decide whether the meanings of the traditional terms are derived essentially from their application. On the other hand, growing out of genuine puzzlement about this application may be a form of semiotic analysis, whose validity does not depend solely on the multi-permutations of application but on the interrelated observance of the field of connections (propositional formats, e.g., “. . . is an artwork”). This may constitute a kind of meta-art or, we could deem it,the art of art.

The examination of certain key terms therefore need not be seen as a pedantic interest in these terms per se: these terms can be seen as modal analogues and, as such, critical if we are to break with the artwork’s current modus operandi, with all its well-defined moves, roles, penalties, and rewards.

5) A coherent methodology of inquiry into the function of these arguments as an artwork must be preceded by determining some definite conceptual relationships. Since there is a word “art,” many assume that there must also be a corresponding entity “art” whose ontology we can then question. The deceptive part of this reasoning lies in the fallacious question “what is this entity” and we shall take up this point later. Now, continuing the thread of our arguments, artwork is a propositional factor rather than a nonpropositional entity, so in the proposition “. . . is an artwork” we can argue that: (a) there is no mechanistic relation between such a proposition’s linguistic and nonlinguistic constituents, and that (b) the linguistic term “artwork” is therefore an attribute that (c) does not require that the subject of attribution possess the characteristics of “art-ness.”

Some expanded notion of artwork could be held forward by making (a), (b), and (c) exponible. Rather than trying to pin down factors in isolation, we can examine the collocation of such factors to see how they work grammatically as assertions, substantives, attributes, relations, etc.

6) This inquiry into the function of the propositional factor artwork entails that such an inquiry occur in a different status than is customary in an artwork. Certainly the seemingly natural desire to reify many of the terms of our language facilitates and is analogous to the interpretation of artwork in the sense of a material object, discrete, and static. But what of the status of an artwork outside of nonpropositional physicalities? It is no longer embedded in the supports of the physical-thing language so explicit stipulation of such a status may now come through formulating a theoretical account of the rules governing its use.

Restating, a demarcation can be made between an artwork’s material supports and its propositional “grammar.” This adds up to a fundamental difference in intent: the former upholds the artwork as a singular and nonpropositional entity whereas the latter weds it to its function as an abstract collocation of subjects, attributes, relations, etc. It is to be observed that, although the former alleges the application of a concept, the latter is concerned with a concept’s terminology or, more clearly, with formulating ways of stating this concept. (And this may ultimately prove to be the deciding factor between applied art – i.e., the construction of edifices – and Conceptual Art, i.e., a “meta-art” or a strictly abstract art.)

Application has formerly meant that artwork has maintained nonpropositional contingencies. Formulating ways of stating one’s artwork may mean that propositional aspects such as abstract relations, predication, etc., be taken into account. So we may continue and argue that artwork is a “factor of the second order” (i.e., a semiotic factor) whose character and function proceed solely from its collocation within a proposition in which case this whole proposition may call for separate explication.

In translating the artwork from a nonpropositional application into a propositional statement, we make what is known as a “semantic ascent”: a translation is made from the “material mode” to the “propositional mode.” After this ascent, artwork may be largely contingent upon getting one’s language straight. Consequently it may be formalizable: i.e., one of the functions of Conceptual Art may now be to sort out some basic semiotic guides or rules.


10)1 There is a philosophical distinction between the grammarian and the lexicographer that may be helpful here since it exemplifies contrasting spectator capacities. The concerns of the grammarian are dependent upon making sense of the notion of significant sequence, whereas the lexicographer’s task is to make sense of the notion of synonymy (e.g., between forms within the same language).

Now such a notion of synonymy entails the enumeration of constructs that are alike in application. Such constructs must therefore be nonpropositional since they are outside any intent except the intent to act explicitly (to take up an earlier argument) as members. In the study of plants a member is that part of a plant that is considered with regard to structure and position (morphology) rather than function. This is analogous to the conventional roles of artwork, which are developed as structurals rather than as strict functionals.

Synonymy evolves through changing the internal structure of members by degree; the notion of significant sequence is, on the other hand, primarily developed with regard to the function of a proposition and this is the grammarian’s task. Members are nonpropositional since their function is governed by meeting and abiding by the conditions of membership. It was maintained earlier that, in stating artwork, it is at least prima facie a predicate. As such there is no mechanistic relation between it and any corresponding entity. In other words there’s nothing mandatory about the semantics of artwork.

The credited status or subsistence of this predicate and the act of predication (i.e., the nature of the relation between what is predicated and the predicate) is an ambiguous one (particularly when there’s no ontological justification for such a predication, for example, maintaining that this text is an artwork). In this respect a part of the Conceptual program may be in rigidly demarcating the manner in which these terms are related and introduced.

11) A coherent and operative framework will be contingent upon establishing certain semiotic guides or ground rules. The gap-sign in the proposition “. . . is an artwork” will tolerate an infinite number of fillers that may be broadly divided into materially contingent fillers and propositionally contingent fillers. We could take the terms “what” to exemplify the former and “why” to exemplify the latter. There’s no immediate sense of modal impropriety with even the most bizarre term; still, if we make our “line of business” known, then “what is an artwork” and subsequently “what is art” are category mistakes since they are not questions but assertions that presuppose that we deal with entities.

Even though “what’s” may include anything all the way from an atomic to a supergalactic scale, such spatiotemporal constituents restrict maneuvers to an ostensibly singular “ . . . ” But the whole format and not just single factors is critical. Therefore a propositionally contingent filler is required, that is, one that does not introduce modally incongruous first-order entities into our line of business, which is essentially of a second-order “sense of significant sequence.” The “what” is an achievement term and as such it isolates the artwork from its proposition. Previous inquiry (cf. Proceedings, text 32) has maintained that the “why” can provide a genuine exit from the material mode by enabling the whole examining methodology to make a “semantic ascent” into the propositional mode. Hence the elaboration of such an ascent through the “sense of significant sequence” (i.e., syntactics, and to an extent pragmatics and semantics) may be regarded not merely as a cerebral diversion for artists, but rather as “the art of art,” an exegesis of the artwork as an artwork.

12) The conditions governing nonpropositional constructs may turn out to be the bid for membership (i.e., synonymity). Our contention is that the reasons (why’s) for the predication of artwork may be radically distinct from the properties of membership (what’s); – that whereas members are structurals in the material mode, artwork may be stated in the propositional mode. Furthermore, questioning why this proposition functions as it does is not the same as questioning what can constitute an artwork, in other words, what can constitute an artwork and why this artwork is an artwork are questions of radically distinct intent.

Without trying to put forward quick or comprehensive retorts, we do hold it tenable that there is a distinct incompatibility between the evincing of artwork that is alike in function and the evincing of those that may be said to be functionals. Conventional artwork has been more concerned with the ramifications of morphological likeness than in determining the kind of relationship these constructs may have with the predicate artwork simply because of the persistent constriction of these constructs to first-order physicalities. Such constructs cannot be a factor within the proposition.

To restate: there’s a break between the application and the stating of artwork that corresponds to the break between nonpropositional and propositional constructs. The stating of artwork demands an account of the whole proposition, i.e., “this is an X,” without merely zeroing in on the components of that proposition, i.e., “X.” This is by way of maintaining that artwork is an artwork due to its collocation within that proposition – and Conceptual Art may fall within the sphere of indicating such collocations.

To inquire into the premises of “why an artwork is an artwork” one’s methodology must first be made straight. This paper has initiated one type of inquiry in that, in continuing to use the term “artwork,” we may have to provide a theoretical account of the rules for its use. It has reflected upon certain problematic features in the artwork’s operation – viz. in maintaining that this present text counts as an artwork.


First published: “Stating and Nominating,” VH-101, No. 5 (May, 1971).
1 Parts 7, 8, and 9 have not been included.
2 Published in Art-Language Vol. 1, No. 3 (1969).