Why Is Conceptual Art So Tricky To Explain?

By Google Arts & Culture

La rueda de Marcel Duchamp (1989) by Álvaro BarriosThe Tertulia Museum

Conceptual art is often maligned, and is difficult to describe. Performance pieces, installations, written descriptions, and sculptures have all fallen into the bracket of conceptual art.

Because it's more about the artist's idea than about their skill with a paintbrush, conceptual art is often met with cries of "I could have done that!" To which the savvy artist might reply, "Ah, but you didn't!" Scroll on to understand more about Conceptualism, its history and its most important practitioners.

Fountain (1917 - 1964) by Marcel DuchampLa Galleria Nazionale

Conceptualism's roots lie way back in the early 1900s in the work of Marcel Duchamp. One his most recognizable pieces is Fountain from 1917. The artist called this work and many others like it ‘readymades’, which were typically ordinary, manufactured objects designated by the artist as a work of art and then left to be interpreted by the audience.

It was a porcelain urinal bought by Duchamp and signed with the signature “R.Mutt”. It was submitted for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists but was rejected, despite the rules stating all works would be accepted by artists who paid the fee. Following the rejection, Fountain was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in his studio and the image was published in The Blind Man, an arts journal published in 1917.

Critics have mulled over the piece's meaning for decades. For philosopher Stephen Hicks, the message behind Fountain was a clear, provocative statement:

“The artist is not a great creator— Duchamp went shopping at a plumbing store. The artwork is not a special object — it was mass-produced in a factory. The experience of art is not exciting and ennobling — at best it is puzzling and mostly leaves one with a sense of distaste. But over and above that, Duchamp did not select just any ready-made object to display. In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: Art is something you piss on.”

Fresh window (1920 - 1964) by Marcel DuchampLa Galleria Nazionale

In the 1950s, long after several of Duchamp’s original readymades had been lost, the artist reissued Fountain and many other readymades for the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. This sparked a resurgence of interest in his work, which rekindled a widespread interest in idea-based art throughout the contemporary art world.

Although the term ‘concept art’ had been previously used, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became a fully fledged movement.

Wall drawing #1091: arcs, circles and bands (room) (2003) by Sol LeWittArt Gallery of New South Wales

It was described as a movement first by American artist Sol LeWitt in an article he wrote in 1967 for Artforum magazine...

“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”

Eight-Pointed Stars (1996/1996) by Sol LeWittChrysler Museum of Art

After LeWitt’s definition, which contradicted the theories and work of formalists — those working to prescribed forms, materials and colors — it led to many artists pushing the boundaries even further. LeWitt's own work often took the form of written instructions, in which other people would execute the works following the artist's precise stipulations.

The most extreme example of this though is American artist Lawrence Weiner who in his 1968 Declaration of Intent stated:

“1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. The piece need not be built."

Essentially, Weiner declared there was no need to build something when the idea behind any work of art should suffice, since the artist’s intent remains the same, regardless of whether the work is in physical form or conceptual. In what became his eureka moment, Weiner “delegated the responsibility of artistic interpretation to the viewer, shifting the onus on to the audience”.

The Level of Water (1970) by Weiner, LawrenceSerralves Foundation

While there didn’t appear to be collectives or groups of artists coming together to create work in New York, like with previous movements, in that same year a series of conceptual art exhibitions in the city helped promote the movement.

Shut your mouth - Art & Language (1973/1973) by Terry AtkinsonMUSEION

Across the pond and around the same time in 1967, a collective of British artists formed the group Art & Language while teaching art in Coventry, England. Made up originally of artists Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, and Harold Hurrell, the group was critical of what were considered mainstream modern art practices at the time. The group published a series of journals on their ideas and created conceptual art as part of their discussions.

While there isn’t a specific aesthetic conceptual art follows, during the 60s and 70s there were certain trends and concepts that were widely adopted. What united many conceptual artist was their discomfort over the "institutionalized state of the art world”, with “good” art or “bad” art being determined by the marketplace rather than the makers.

Those that gained from this system were a small group of (mostly male and white) artists and members of the elite social class who sold and collected the work. In the 1960s, there was a shift, a sense that if art catered to this world then it will surely not strive to challenge any status quo. Conceptual artists and theorists looked closely at modern art practices during that time but ultimately found a continuation of abstract and minimalist motifs, rather than anything that pushed boundaries.

As a result in the late 1960s, a form of conceptualism known as “institutional critique" began emerging. Practiced by artists such as Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers, institutional critique continued the notion of idea-based art, but usually in the form of installations that questioned the assumed function of the museum. Many conceptual artists saw museums not as a neutral hall for the exhibition of works to the public, and instead as places invested in promoting certain artists and selecting “important” works whose sales will benefit the trustees and the established art world. The works created to challenge this were often complex though, as these pieces of art were often staged in the very places they were critiquing.

Other artist collectives around the world were political in their focus. The Canadian group General Idea, made up of Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson, embraced ephemeral works and installations while addressing the pharmaceutical industry and the AIDS crisis. In South America, artists found conceptualism as an effective way to express both their creativity and political opposition. It flourished because there was not a definitive style, rather it was a pure form of expression with no frame of reference.

Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) by Ed RuschaHayward Gallery

Aesthetically, the use of text in art, while nothing new, was also adopted by many conceptual artists as a key element in their works. Artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari all used language to “signify itself and an artistic idea”.

Text-based art would often use abstract phrases, often in the form of abrupt commands, ambiguous statements or just a single word to create associations for the viewer. Weiner and Baldessari have continued with this technique and remain active today, but they have also inspired younger artists like Jenny Holzer, and Tracey Emin to adopt the practice of language-based art and play with its boundaries.

Jenny Holzer, MONUMENT (2008) © 2018 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ DACS, London. Installation view: Light Show, Hayward Gallery, 2013. Photo: Marcus J Leith (2013) by Jenny HolzerHayward Gallery

Ultimately conceptual art eschewed craftsmanship in favor of content, an idea that had previously been discouraged. The movement emerged during a period of major social upheaval, and the notion that the idea is paramount allowed for broad application by artists wishing to emphasize diverse social issues.

The movement had limited popularity outside of the art world though due to its seemingly arcane perception. Also, fractures began to develop in the movement by the mid-1970s, leading to the dissolution of the movement.

Nevertheless, the work laid out during that time provided inspiration for future artists who have embraced the language of visual culture and sidestepped traditional artistic production. Artists such as Damien Hirst, Glenn Ligon, and Richard Prince, while they may not necessarily identify as “conceptual artists”, express similar ideas. Beyond these artists, the notions of social and political critique, or institutional critique, continue to be a part of contemporary art as a whole, especially for those working within the realms of installation art, performance art, net art, and digital art.

Untitled (James Baldwin), Glenn Ligon, 1990, From the collection of: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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