Keith Arnatt

Art as an Act of Retraction


Not on display

Keith Arnatt 1930–2008
11 photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper on board, 1 text sheet printed paper on board
Displayed: 527 × 4390 × 31 mm
Transferred from Tate Archive 2010


Art as an    Act of Retraction 1971 consists of eleven black and white photographs showing the artist in the    process of eating pieces of paper with a different word printed on each one. These words are listed as a column of text in the final, twelfth, element of the work where they form the subtitle or explanation of    the work: ‘eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words’. The    tension here is between utterance and retraction – the eating of words made    literal as the taking back of something already said; and yet Arnatt is not quite    eating his own words but is ‘about to eat’ them. Retraction would ordinarily involve the withdrawing of a statement perhaps because of its falseness or inappropriateness, but here it marks the completion of the creative act. Identifying art and the creative act with disavowal creates an artwork that cancels itself, and by being about to eat his own words, Arnatt portrays a moment prior to this cancellation. In this respect, by using the figure of the artist as    creator, art is retracted before it has been completed, putting the    creative act into question.

In 1970, Arnatt admitted that he was ‘more interested in the decision to “act” in a certain way than in the actual outcome of the act’ (Keith Arnatt, ‘Decay’, Interfunktionen, no.4, 1970, p.30). Art as an Act of Retraction is one of a number of works that take as their subject the act of making, where the realisation of that act places art in a fragile state of disappearance or non-being. In some of these works, the creative act becomes an act of not making art, as with the catalogue text Is It Possible for Me to Do Nothing as My Contribution to This Exhibition? 1970 (published in Idea Structures, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 1970, unpaginated) or Art as an Act of Omission (Tate P13144). Such works question the creative act through definitions of intentionality and decision, a strategy also deployed by the decision not to make art for a specified period, as declared in a typewritten postcard that Arnatt sent to the critic Charles Harrison in 1970: ‘10.9.70. 8.25pm. THE DECISION TO DO NO ART WORK FOR AN INDEFINITE PERIOD OF TIME IS THE WORK (the work ceases to exit upon production of a subsequent work).’ (Charles Harrison Papers, Tate Archive, TGA839.12.1.11.)

The horizontal sequential arrangement of Art as an Act of Retraction, with each photograph featuring an individual word caught in the act of being retracted, and each word contributing to a sequence that becomes a sentence that describes the act of being retracted, is concluded by the textual list of the pictured words. This does not act as a list, caption or explanation for the work, but its position as the right-most panel emphasises how the work might be viewed – not as individual elements, but as a singular act.

Art as an    Act of Retraction is one of a group of existing materials that were proposed by Keith Arnatt at the time of his    participation in Seven Exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, London in 1972. Other works that were exhibited alongside it included Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist 1968 (Tate P13145), Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969–72 (Tate P13143), Art as an Act of Omission 1971 (Tate P13144), I Have Decided to Go to the Tate Gallery next Friday 1971 (Tate P13142, exhibited with the title Tate Work), Rejected Proposal for the Peter Stuyvesant ‘City Sculpture Project’ (For Cardiff City) 1972 (Tate P13141), Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969 (Tate T01747, exhibited with the title The Disappearance of the Artist), 2448000–0000000 1969/1972 (described as ‘an “exhibition” of the duration of the exhibition by the following means: a digital count-down system will count down the duration of the exhibition in seconds’), Type-Token 1970, Art and Egocentricity – a perlocutionary act? 1971 and Tate Gallery Staff Exhibition 1972. The content of the exhibition changed during its run. Because of widespread power-cuts at the start of the exhibition, 2448000–0000000 was initially replaced by Tate Gallery Staff Exhibition, though this – a presentation of the staff cards of all employees of the gallery – was removed after three days and it is thought that 2448000–0000000 was activated on the seventh day of the exhibition. In their    range, the works brought together as Arnatt’s presentation for Seven Exhibitions illustrate the move in his work from the making of situational    sculptures to a documentation of actions that question – through a    linking of philosophical text with image – the status of art and the role and    identity of the artist, whom Arnatt shows to be in different states of    disappearance. This work was transferred from the Tate Gallery Archive in 2010.

   Further reading
   Seven Exhibitions, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1972.
The New Art, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1972.
I’m a Real Photographer: Keith Arnatt Photographs 1974–2002, exhibition    catalogue, Photographer’s Gallery, London 2007.   
Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2016, p.76, reproduced p.77.

   Andrew Wilson
   May 2010
Revised February and July 2019, December 2020

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