Originally conceived as a catalogue intervention for an important exhibition of Conceptual art, The New Art, held at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1972, Trouser - Word Piece was finally realised in its present form at the time of Arnatt’s solo exhibition, Rubbish and Recollections, at the Photographers Gallery, London in 1989. It consists of two abutting photographic panels containing text and photograph. On the right is a photograph of the artist standing with a placard hung from his neck, bearing the words ‘I’m a real artist’. On the left, under the artist’s name and the work’s title, a paragraph of text quotes from the writings of the British philosopher John Langshaw Austin (1911-60) published under the ironic title Sense and Sensibilia in 1962. In common with contemporaries working in his field, Austin placed his emphasis on an analysis of the subtleties of ordinary language. He believed that by investigating and cataloguing the most commonly employed grammatical constructions, a philosopher might discover the practical distinctions which create nuances of meaning. In Sense and Sensibilia he applied these principles to perception and illusion. Arnatt had attended a course in Moral Philosophy at Oxford University in 1959, focusing on the philosophy of language, and had begun to draw parallels with his own artistic investigations. In Trouser - Word Piece he employed Austin’s linguistic analysis as a satirical meditation on the nature of the real, using the devices of philosophical enquiry to mock the notion of artistic celebrity. The section of Austen’s text asserts that it is only in the negative, i.e. in knowing what is being posited as not real, that the assertion that something is real may be understood; thus ‘it is the negative use that wears the trousers’.
During 1972 Arnatt had himself photographed wearing the same placard in a number of urban locations, including in front of Newport Museum Art Gallery. In the same year, he inscribed the assertion that ‘Keith Arnatt is an artist’ on the wall in an installation at the Tate Gallery as part of the Seven Exhibitions series. The analysis of what constitutes the ‘real’ reflects a particular climate of enquiry in the early 1970s, when artists were consciously using ‘real’ materials in ‘real time’ and ‘real space’. At the same time art was being forensically examined and unravelled to its most basic component parts. The artist has commented that Trouser - Word Piece was also directed at those colleagues in the conceptual art world who wanted to become famous and who, he felt, were becoming increasingly egocentric (David Alan Mellor, Chemical Traces: Photography and Conceptual Art, exhibition catalogue, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull 1998, p.5). Arnatt had already made ironic reference to artistic egocentricity in an earlier photo-documentation work, Self Burial (Television Interference Project) (see Tate T01747), in which the artist apparently but implausibly disappears into the earth. Other works made during the same period, such as Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969-72 (Tate T07647), similarly play on notions of the real in relation to photographic illusion taking the artist’s characteristic quasi-mocking tone. Arnatt later said, ‘I have never been quite sure whether my attitude, then, was one of bemused attachment or bemused detachment’ (quoted in Live in Your Head, p.39).
Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art, London 1998, reproduced p.172, fig.102
Keith Arnatt: Rubbish and Recollections, exhibition catalogue, Oriel Mostyn, Llandudlow and Photographers Gallery, London 1989
Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-75, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2000, pp.2 and 38-9, reproduced p.39