Arts Essays - Conceptual Art


Discuss arguments for and against the view that Conceptual Art should be regarded not simply as a break withprevious conventions of visual art, but as a category of art - with reference to specific works from the period 1965-75.

ConceptualArt has become the term given to works intended to convey an idea or concept tothe perceiver, in the spirit of resistance to traditional materialist views ofart works as precious commodities.

ConceptualArt was first recognised as a movement in the 1960s. Art objects wererejected entirely, and replaced by analysis - concepts. A new intellectualismwas sweeping through the art world, and art objects alone were no longerenough, a meaning was suddenly imperative. Conceptual Art is so dependentupon its supporting text that the original point of creative work sometimesappears to have been entirely subsumed in textual exegesis. The question is towhat degree works with so little of art about them can still be named, orunderstood, as art. And if we cannot understand them as art, how are we tounderstand them?

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Fried's1967 essay Art and Objecthood will form the backbone of this essay. The seminaland highly controversial work was a kind of riposte to Judd and Morris, who hedecried as literalists, coining the term to describe attitudes in oppositionto his abstractionist interpretation of Modernism. For Fried, its theatricalityhas always represented a symptom of the decadence of literalist works of art, adecadence which establishes a staged relationship between object and beholder. Thetheatricality that so bothered Fried incorporated not only a regrettablymimetic space, but a mimetic time, too. Fried preferences a kind ofModernism that is more authentically abstract: insisting Modern artworks shouldbe abstracted from pretence, from time and from a sense of object. Thepublication of Fried's essay brought to light to divisions within the Modernisttradition, and seemed to indicate that the heart of these divisions lay in thephilosophical conflicts between Idealism and Materialism.

SoFried's dislike of the term Minimal Art or Conceptual Art has caused him torename it Literalist Art. He points out that the ambition of Judd and hiscontemporaries is to escape the constraints of painting: the restrictionsimposed by the limitations of the canvas. Composition and the effort to createa pictorial illusion are never, according to Fried, quite convincing enough,quite original enough, to be satisfying. Donald Judd explained the problem:

Whenyou start relating parts, in the first place, you're assuming you have a vaguewhole- the rectangle of the canvas- and definite parts, which is all screwedup, because you should have a definite whole and maybe no parts

Accordingto Fried and his school, painting is doomed to failure, but perhaps someresolution will arrive with the introduction of a new dimension. He pronouncedconceptual (literalist) art as something novel, a category of modern art forall those barely representative works that required a literary back up. Inpractice, the new dimension brings with it a new focus on the relationshipswithin the work. Judd refers to the relational character of his sculptures astheir anthropomorphism, speaking of the correspondence between the spaceshe creates, and both Judd and Morris are concerned with unity, completeness,creating a perfect shape capable of overwhelming the fragmentary components.

Inmany ways nothing has physically changed in sculpture since the 1960s. Thereseems to be a constant effort to relate parts in Catherine de Monchaux's recentsculpture, although her work, unlike Judd's, is more obviously and shamelessanthropomorphic in its forms. Her structures appear to be based on the humanbody, and her titles are like the titles of poems or fairytales. Wanderingabout in the future, looking forward to the past is virtuallysurrealist, it seems arbitrary to call this minimalist when the emphasis is notclearly on objects declaring the status of their existence, but instead on somefantasy story. Never Forget seems to be about memories, the past, thingsbeing opened up, revealed and mapped out in a symmetrical and rather beautifulway. Both these works are concerned with the impossible project ofre-membering, putting things back together from their parts- and the contrastwith Judd is clear- to the extent that they are about parts being reassembledinto an ideal whole, de Monchaux's sculptures are more like paintings. In manyways, her work resembles Carl Andre's- particularly his Venus Forge.

Theviewer's experience of the work will obviously depend on whether the work isperceived as an object or a subject. This repeats the problem of categorizingconceptual art. From the object's perspective, a new category of art has beencreated through Conceptualism, situating it in a new historical milieu. Fromthe viewpoint of the subjective viewer, perhaps, such categories areirrelevant, but even the layman must be aware of a mute subject matterhinting at a break in convention, thus placing new emphasis on meaning. InFried's conception, the art object becomes animated and serves the holisticaspiration of the artist. But the art work's subjectivity does not elevate theartist- they have created an object capable of representing itself, and, likeFrankenstein observing his monster, are themselves both the observers andobserved.

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IfHesse is, as her diaries suggest, a woman observing herself, then she has animmediate affinity with Judd. Both artists are engaged in a project ofself-replication, where sculpture is an extension of themselves- somethingprojected into space, imbued with some kind of life, in the words of Chav andFried, written into existence. Fried's idea can be read asgender-neutral, but the phallocentric commentaries of feminist writers such asCamille Paglia

Hesse'sfeminist works can be read with a melancholic tone of a woman conscious ofand raging about a sexual debt -but they do not have to be. Paglia finds maleand female equality in Eastern religious traditions: cultures built aroundongoing horizontal natural rhythms, unlike the western male preoccupationwith vertical climax. Hesse's interest in the body is, in Paglia's terms.chthonic- she claimed she wanted to keep her work in the ugly zone, herwork defined by Stallybrass as all orifices and symbolic filthphysical needsand pleasures of thesexual organs. So while Hesse works almost unconsciously asa woman, in the most natural and inevitable way finding affinity with the dirtyreality of natural processes, she does not necessarily work with an agenda toliberate women- at least not through the symbolism she employs. She is notseeking illusory freedom in creating an alternative heterocosm throughsculpture- she is merely expressing what is going on inside her, writing thebody.

Paglia'svision of the wholeness of femininity is irresistibly connected to Fried'semphasis on shape, what secures the wholeness of the object is the singlenessof the shape.In order for a work to qualify as a painting it must, Fried says, hold ashape.Without form, it is experienced as an object. Modernist painting'smission was to stave off accusations of objecthood, and to retain shape-character- persona. Minimalist (literalist, Conceptual) art, on theother hand, embraces its objecthood and strains to project it at everyopportunity. It is not concerned about movements or history, social context orcategorization - merely with the emphatic declaration of its authentic self;its materials; its construction.

Conceptualart, for Fried, is a new genre of theatre and includes the beholder. However,a new genre of theatre, to the extent that theatre is an art, reinforces theidea that Fried is declaring conceptual art as a whole new category of art. Ihave chosen Hesse as an example, because her work spans a period of decadesleading up to the present, and it is important to frame our question in itshistorical context. Watching how conceptual art has (or rather, has not)changed in nature over the past forty years informs our judgement of itsimpact. Hesse has always experimented with conceptual work, and Fried's theoryholds true for her - there is certainly something implacably theatrical about thisartist's sculpture, the in-jokes, the sexual punning, the scale. There is alsoan inescapable recurrence of the void as a symbol. While it's tempting to classall holes as signifiers of feminine anxiety or unsatisfaction, it may notalways be terribly helpful. Hang Up, for example,is not even areal empty canvas- it's been beautifully painted, just all in one colour. Itlurches out at us with its alien grayness, the passage of time and itsmonocrome simplicity lending it an amateur dramatics eeriness, this is nopainting. It is a textbook example of Fried's notion of theatrical sculpture,and an example so clearly handmade that it recalls other hand crafted artworks, and by extension a dozen other women artists- and raises the point thatperhaps Fried's theatricality theory is extraordinarily effective with femaleartists after all. It certainly helps to spin the boy's club character of 60sminimalism- if craft and animation invokes the feminine and can be imposed orunveiled in the most surprising places, due to a theory, then this theory musthave some value as a gender-leveling power. Simplifying the way an object isunderstood Fried does, abstracting the meaning from the object then returningit to it, makes gendered readings impossible. Fried allows art works toproclaim their own meaning, but less esoteric critics, perhaps more Marxistones such as T.J Clarke, never returned the meaning to the art object: theobjecthood in itself was nothing without context. It is these historicistart critics who see all art as abstracted until contextualized - who believeconceptual art is the most extreme and intolerable form of abstraction, and whobelieve it represents a slightly troublesome break from convention but nothingthat cannot be subdued with some thorough historical context.

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Formany, the term Conceptual Art, like Modernism,suggests more of an attitude than a category with strictly defined limits.Minimalism might have been "the last great modernist movement", 1973the year modernism died and post-modernism ushered in, but none of thisreally helps us to understand how to read art, or why certain kinds of objectsare made in certain ways. Ultimately, labelling art as a new category seldomteaches us much more than how to label art. As one commentator stated (ofmusic),

Justbecause something sounds crunchy and angular doesn't mean it is modern.

Yet inone sense he is wrong - modern, like conceptual is a term that can beapplied according to individual interpretation, the subject/object problemagain. There is a strong case for the argument that conceptual art was taggedretroactively by supporters of the literary elite imposition of meaning onabstract works, but there is a more intuitive one still that suggests all artis open to classification as conceptual, nullifying the movement as ahistoricist ploy and returning power to the viewer. Even Fried's extraordinarytheories are somehow conceptual as he asks us to read all art objectsthrough the filter of a vocabulary of objecthood. Similarly which argument one choosesto follow up is, of course, a subjective matter.


Cooper H. (cat)Eva Hesse: a Retrospective, Yale, London (1992)

Gaiger, P. Frameworks for ModernArt (Art of the Twentieth Century Yale University Press, US (2004)

Fried, M. Art and ObjecthoodUniversity of Chicago Press, US (1998)

Harrison C.and Wood P., (eds) Art in Theory 1900-1990, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford(1992)

Lippard,L. Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the object, University of CaliforniaPress, California (1997)

Lippard,L. Eva Hesse de Capo Press, New York, (1992)

Paglia,C. Sexual Personae Yale University Press, London (1990)

Perry,Gill. Difference and Excess in Contemporary Art: The Visibility of Women'sPractice (Art History Special Issues) Blackwell, London (2004)

Serota,N. (ed) Donald Judd Tate Publishing, London (2004)

Wood, P. Varietiesof Modernism (Art of the 20th Century) Yale University Press,London (2005)

[i]Paglia, C. Sexual Personnae p.47