Conceptual art, sometimes simply called Conceptualism, is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Many of works of conceptual art, sometimes called installations, may be constructed by anyone simply by following a set of written instructions. This method was fundamental to LeWitt’s definition of Conceptual art, one of the first to appear in print:
|“||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. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.||”|
Tony Godfrey, author of Conceptual Art (Art & Ideas) (1998), asserts that conceptual art questions the nature of art, a notion that Joseph Kosuth elevated to a definition of art itself in his seminal, early manifesto of conceptual art, “Art after Philosophy” (1969). The notion that art should examine its own nature was already a potent aspect of the influential art critic Clement Greenberg‘s vision of Modern art during the 1950s. With the emergence of an exclusively language-based art in the 1960s, however, conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and the English Art & Language group began a far more radical interrogation of art than was previously possible (see below). One of the first and most important things they questioned was the common assumption that the role of the artist was to create special kinds of material objects.
Through its association with the Young British Artists and the Turner Prize during the 1990s, in popular usage, particularly in the UK, “conceptual art” came to denote all contemporary art that does not practice the traditional skills of painting and sculpture. It could be said that one of the reasons why the term “conceptual art” has come to be associated with various contemporary practices far removed from its original aims and forms lies in the problem of defining the term itself. As the artist Mel Bochner suggested as early as 1970, in explaining why he does not like the epithet “conceptual”, it is not always entirely clear what “concept” refers to, and it runs the risk of being confused with “intention.” Thus, in describing or defining a work of art as conceptual it is important not to confuse what is referred to as “conceptual” with an artist’s “intention.”
The French artist Marcel Duchamp paved the way for the conceptualists, providing them with examples of prototypically conceptual works — the readymades, for instance. The most famous of Duchamp’s readymades was Fountain (1917), a standard urinal basin signed by the artist with the pseudonym “R.Mutt”, and submitted for inclusion in the annual, un-juried exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York (it was rejected). In traditional terms, a commonplace object such as a urinal cannot be said to be art because it is not made by an artist or with any intention of being art, nor is it unique or hand-crafted. Duchamp’s relevance and theoretical importance for future “conceptualists” was later acknowledged by US artist Joseph Kosuth in his 1969 essay, “Art after Philosophy,” when he wrote: “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.”
In 1956, recalling the infinitesimals of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, quantities which could not actually exist except conceptually, the founder of Lettrism, Isidore Isou, developed the notion of a work of art which, by its very nature, could never be created in reality, but which could nevertheless provide aesthetic rewards by being contemplated intellectually. Also called Art esthapériste (‘infinite-aesthetics’). Related to this, and arising out of it, is excoördism, the current incarnation of the Isouian movement, defined as the art of the infinitely large and the infinitely small.
In 1961 the term “concept art,” coined by the artist Henry Flynt in his article bearing the term as its title, appeared in a Fluxus publication. However it assumed a different meaning when employed by Joseph Kosuth and the English Art and Language group, who discarded the conventional art object in favour of a documented critical inquiry into the artist’s social, philosophical and psychological status. By the mid-1970s they had produced publications, indices, performances, texts and paintings to this end. In 1970 Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, the first dedicated conceptual art exhibition, was mounted at the New York Cultural Center.
The critique of formalism and the commodification of art
Conceptual art emerged as a movement during the 1960s. In part, it was a reaction against formalism as it was then articulated by the influential New York art critic Clement Greenberg. According to Greenberg Modern art followed a process of progressive reduction and refinement toward the goal of defining the essential, formal nature of each medium. Those elements that ran counter to this nature were to be reduced. The task of painting, for example, was to define precisely what kind of object a painting truly is: what makes it a painting and nothing else? As it is of the nature of paintings to be flat objects with canvas surfaces onto which colored pigment is applied, such things as figuration, 3-D perspective illusion and references to external subject matter were all found to be extraneous to the essence of painting, and ought to be removed.
Some have argued that conceptual art continued this “dematerialization” of art by removing the need for objects altogether, while others, including many of the artists themselves, saw conceptual art as a radical break with Greenberg’s kind of formalist Modernism. Later artists continued to share a preference for art to be self-critical, as well as a distaste for illusion. However, by the end of the 1960s it was certainly clear that Greenberg’s stipulations for art to continue within the confines of each medium and to exclude external subject matter no longer held traction.
Conceptual art also reacted against the commodification of art; it attempted a subversion of the gallery or museum as the location and determiner of art, and the art market as the owner and distributor of art. Lawrence Weiner said: “Once you know about a work of mine you own it. There’s no way I can climb inside somebody’s head and remove it.” Many conceptual artists’ work can therefore only be known about through documentation which is manifested by it, e.g. photographs, written texts or displayed objects, which some might argue are not in themselves the art. It is sometimes (as in the work of Robert Barry, Yoko Ono, and Weiner himself) reduced to a set of written instructions describing a work, but stopping short of actually making it—emphasising that the idea is more important than the artifact.
Lawrence Weiner. Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole, The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2005.
Language and/as art
Language was a central concern for the first wave of conceptual artists of the 1960s and early 1970s. Although the appearance of text in art was by no means novel, it was not until the 1960s that the artists Lawrence Weiner, Edward Ruscha, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, and the English Art & Language group began to produce art by exclusively linguistic means. Where previously language was presented as one kind of visual element alongside others, and subordinate to an overarching composition (see for example Synthetic Cubism), the conceptual artists used language in place of brush and canvas, and allowed it to signify in its own right. Of Lawrence Weiner’s works Anne Rorimer writes, “The thematic content of individual works derives solely from the import of the language employed, while presentational means and contextual placement play crucial, yet separate, roles.”
The British philosopher and theorist of conceptual art Peter Osborne suggests that among the many factors that influenced the gravitation toward language-based art, of vital importance for conceptualism was the turn to linguistic theories of meaning in both Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and structuralist and post structuralist Continental philosophy during the middle of the twentieth century. This linguistic turn “reinforced and legitimized” the direction the conceptual artists took. Osborne also notes that the early conceptualists were the first generation of artists to complete degree-based university training in art.
Conceptual art and artistic skill
“By adopting language as their exclusive medium, Weiner, Barry, Wilson, Kosuth and Art & Language were able to sweep aside the vestiges of authorial presence manifested by formal invention and the handling of materials.”
An important difference between conceptual art and more “traditional” forms of art-making goes to the question of artistic skill. Although it is often the case that skill in the handling of traditional media plays little role in conceptual art, it is difficult to argue that no skill is required to make conceptual works, or that skill is always absent from them. John Baldessari, for instance, has presented realist pictures that he commissioned professional sign-writers to paint; and many conceptual performance artists (e.g. Stelarc, Marina Abramovic) are technically accomplished performers and skilled manipulators of their own bodies. It is thus not so much an absence of skill or hostility toward tradition that defines conceptual art as an evident disregard for conventional, modern notions of authorial presence and individual artistic expression (or genius).
The first wave of the “conceptual art” movement extended from approximately 1967 to 1978. Early “concept” artists like Henry Flynt, Robert Morris, and Ray Johnson influenced the later, widely accepted movement of conceptual art. Conceptual artists like Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, and Lawrence Weiner have proven very influential on subsequent artists, and well known contemporary artists such as Mike Kelley or Tracey Emin are sometimes labeled “second- or third-generation” conceptualists, or “post-conceptual” artists.
Many of the concerns of the conceptual art movement have been taken up by contemporary artists. While they may or may not term themselves “conceptual artists”, ideas such as anti-commodification, social and/or political critique, and ideas/information as medium continue to be aspects of contemporary art, especially among artists working with installation art, performance art, net.art and electronic/digital art.
Controversy in the UK
In Britain, the rise to prominence of the Young British Artists (YBAs) after the 1988 Freeze show, curated by Damien Hirst, and subsequent promotion of the group by the Saatchi Gallery during the 1990s, generated a media backlash, where the phrase “conceptual art” came to be a term of derision applied to much contemporary art. This was amplified by the Turner Prize whose more extreme nominees (most notably Hirst and Emin) caused a controversy annually.
The Stuckist group of artists, founded in 1999, proclaimed themselves “pro-contemporary figurative painting with ideas and anti-conceptual art, mainly because of its lack of concepts.” They also called it pretentious, “unremarkable and boring” and on July 25, 2002 deposited a coffin outside the White Cube gallery, marked “The Death of Conceptual Art”. They staged yearly demonstrations outside the Turner Prize.
In 2002, Ivan Massow, the Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts branded conceptual art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat” and in “danger of disappearing up its own arse … led by cultural tsars such as the Tate‘s Sir Nicholas Serota.” Massow was consequently forced to resign. At the end of the year, the Culture Minister, Kim Howells (an art school graduate) denounced the Turner Prize as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit”.
One of the criticisms of recent conceptual art in the UK is that the concepts or ideas have been weak. Writing in The Jackdaw magazine in 2013 the art theorist Michael Paraskos suggested that current conceptualist art retains the forms of historic conceptual art but is almost devoid of ideas. For that reason he suggested a new name for this kind of art, deconceptualism. Deconceptualism is, according to Paraskos, conceptual art without a concept.