concept or object?

23/02/2011

I decided recently to do some reading about conceptual art, because I see the term applied in so many different ways.  I used it myself recently to describe some of Griggio’s work (his containers), and although it was a correct descriptor, I realised I didn’t understand the term to my full satisfaction.

So I started rummaging around on the internet in an attempt to correct this inadequacy, and found a modicum of enlightenment along with an even larger number of questions.

Basically, “conceptual” is an approach to “art” that believes art is of the mind rather than the perceiving senses–the art-ist (hyphen intended) is a thinker engaged in a process that supercedes the making of objects.  Conceptual art replaces the illustrative or representational with the semantic:  the thoughts and knowledge used in creation are of greater consequence than a finished “product”.

One and three chairs, J. Kosuth, 1965

Conceptualists reject the materialist, consumerist approach of traditional art–ie, using various media to produce a “focus of appreciation”–in favour of the reflective process itself as the act of creation.

In the words of early conceptualist Sol LeWitt, “(when) an artist uses a conceptual form in art, it means all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair”.

The roots of conceptualism trace back to the Dadaist movement and artists like Merrett Oppenheim, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, who declared that any object imbued as such becomes art.  Duchamp’s famous urinal is the icon, if you like, of this belief.  Conceptual art is also closely allied to Minimalism and New Minimalism, but I’ll let you look those up yourself.

This is all quite interesting, and certain sectors of my brainpan go all fizzy just thinking about it.  But as a working painter whose activity is, in effect, nullified by the precepts of conceptualism, I find myself rejecting a lot of these notions–and not just out of fear of redundancy.

photo by Keith Arnatt

So:  if the idea of and knowledge about a proposed work of art are the art itself, then why ever show your work?  Doesn’t the belief that every thought, person, event or process is “art” render the category of art itself moot?  Isn’t this more of a philosophy than a taxonomy of artistic creation?

And yet conceptual artists do make things–they exhibit and sell their work, they hire themselves out, sometimes for staggering amounts of money, they win prizes for their efforts.

Many working artists I know operate to a certain extent on instinct–the kind of instinct that is enhanced and reinforced by training and experience, but also an impulse toward understanding through representation.  The need, desire, and ability to do this is what leads them to become artists rather than, say, bricklayers or insurance salesmen.  Intellect is a tool in the process rather than the goal of the process.

Theory has nothing to do with a work of art.  Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.  A picture presents itself as the Unmanageable, the Illogical, the Meaningless.  It demonstrates the endless multiplicity of aspects;  it takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and name.  It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view”.  Gerhard Richter, 1964

I’m with Gerhard on this one… while I appreciate the conceptual approach as a purely intellectual conundrum, making art is, to me, a physical act that gives substance to a concept, an idea, an analogy, and in the process heightens our perceptions.  I don’t believe that this part can be skipped over and rejected as “consumerist”.  The ideas, the knowledge, the technique and the execution are all essential parts of the whole.

Could conceptualism be used as a dodge by unscrupulous individuals who like the idea of “being an artist” but aren’t willing or able to put in the time and considerable effort it takes to actually learn the trade?  I’ll let you answer that one.  What is it about art that fosters these kinds of movements, anyway?  How seriously do you think anyone would take a conceptual bricklayer:  my idea of the wall is more important than the building of it?  Is it the sheer subjectivity of art that allows such pretensions?  Do you ever hear anyone say “I don’t know anything about nursing, but I know what I like”?

What do you think?

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3 Responses to “concept or object?”

  1. gigi said

    what a joy to wake up and find this new post.
    it’s sparkling my brain like a cold glass of orange juice sparkles the tongue.
    i have become lazy.
    your post is both inspiring and convicting to me.
    as i stand at the threshold of beginning a new body of work,
    i’m fighting with my self to get through the doorway.
    the conflict being this very thing.
    how can i get a point across without being so obvious or cliche.
    i have even considered painting obvious cliches in their own conceptualization.
    haha! just to make a point!
    i remember the thrill of observers asking “what does that mean?”
    or hearing their own thoughts and interpretations.
    i remember reading somewhere that once a painting was exibited, it was no longer the artists conception..
    or something like that.
    art is a very subjective thing and i think it’s amazing how many opinions there are about what art IS.
    is it realism? masterful? free? lovely? disgusting? frightening? “i could do THAT”?
    i’m not sure i have any answers, but you have made me think deeply and again i thankyou for your time
    and willingness to share your research and wisdom.
    i adore you. xxoo

  2. gigi said

    one more thing.
    i remember a number of years ago, joe’s sister was visiting. she is the professor of photography at the university of illinois. it was the first time i met her and she was talking about conceptualization.
    that one day artists won’t even have to use a camera or a paintbrush. that we will have technology that will allow us to conceptualize for the sheer delight of doing it.
    i was aghast! no brushes? no smell of turpenoid and oil paints. no stretch of the canvas. no challenge to hand or eye? i guess ultimately to be as gods. minimalism at it’s epitome. (soft e. soft i. long o)
    beam me up scotty.

  3. dart said

    yes that is what bothers me about it… the lack of appreciation for the execution, which I think for a lot of us is where the joy comes in… watching something take shape, manipulating materials, dealing with surprises. I told a young artist recently, “I’m just a jobbing painter” and he looked aghast and said “I hope that never happens to me”. What conceptualists are missing is that this IS a job, a trade, a skill. It’s not all about what happens in your widdle head (and not to put too snarky a point on it, but tell me what concepts a 24-year old middle-class kid can have that will surprise and amaze? OH: society is materialistic and restrictive: I never knew that!). It’s kind of an ultimate ego trip: my thoughts are art. I do wish they’d call themselves philosophers and have done with it. They’re taking up all the gallery space (ha). love yew.

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