In Conceptual art, the concept or idea that a work conveys are considered its vital point, with its visual quality being of secondary, often slight importance. It cannot be characterized in terms of any medium or style, but rather by the way it questions what art is. In particular, Conceptual art challenges the conventional status of the art object as unique, collectable or saleable and claims that the process, materials and end product are redundant. Given the Conceptual work of art does not take a traditional form, it calls for a more active reaction from the viewer, so it could be argued that the Conceptual work of art merely exists in the viewer's rational engagement. As the concept or idea are of most important significance, Conceptual art can take a variety of forms including perhaps a written proposal, documents, photographs, everyday objects, maps, videos and especially language itself. For instance, some works of the artist Sol LeWitt, sometimes called installations, may be constructed by anyone by following a set of written instructions. This know-how was key to LeWitt's own definition of Conceptual art, one of the first to be published:
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. (S.LeWitt, n.d.).
The formation of Conceptual art can be extended back to Marcel Duchamp, who beginning with the second decade of the twentieth century produced a mixture of iconoclastic pieces in which he questioned traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the late 1960s when Conceptual art become an acknowledged movement. It then became well-known, successful as other concurrent movements, such as Land art, Arte Povera and Performance art, that tried to break away from the commercialization of the art world. Works of Conceptual art, as with those other genres have, as a matter of fact, proved to be commercially valuable. Conceptual art had passed its heyday, declining in popularity by the mid 1970s, but gained a strong revival of interest in the 1980s. The term neo-conceptual is every so often applied to work of this later phase.
Surrounded by much debate and controversy, Conceptual art has a tendency to cause intense and possibly utmost reactions in its audiences. Subsequently, whereas some critics find Conceptual art inspirational and the only kind of art that is pertinent to today's world, many others consider it distasteful, outrageous, skill-less, or not art at all. It appears that Conceptual art is something that we either love or hate. As a movement, Conceptual art creates dissonance in society, making the viewers rethink their traditional understanding of art. Searching for a deeper meaning in a Conceptual work of art helps the viewer understand an important statement about society.
Goldie and Schellekens (2009) demystify Conceptual art and justify how it is impelled by ideas instead of the manipulation of physical materials; how it challenges our knowledge and understanding of what we know as art, as well as our standard ideas of beauty.
But what is the difference between conceptual art and other art? Or isn't art conceptual in the first place? Tony Godfrey (1998), affirms that Conceptual art questions the nature of art, a notion that Joseph Kosuth (1969, Art after Philosophy) elevated to a definition of art itself in his seminal, early manifesto of Conceptual art. Through its association with the Young British Artists and the Turner Prize during the 1990s, Conceptual art came to denote all contemporary art that does not practise 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.
Conceptual art is first and foremost an art of questions. Since its apogee and crisis in the years 1966-72, has not only influenced all subsequent art but has made a major contribution to the history of ideas. As this text evidences, today's Conceptual art maintains to raise fundamental questions not only about the definition of art itself but about the media, politics and society.
This dissertation brings forward the most recent critical examples of Conceptual art - such as the inclusion of work produced outside of Europe and the USA, in China, Russia and Eastern Europe.
Irony, contradiction and wit permeate the life and work of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), a French artist whose work is most often associated with the Cubist, Dadaist and Surrealist movements. In 1913 he mounted a found bicycle wheel on a stool (Bicycle Wheel), thus inventing the readymade and, with it, one of the great artistic revolutions of the twentieth century. Throughout his long-standing career Duchamp argued for an art of ideas rather than images or objects. The development of post-World War I Western art was influenced by Duchamp's output. Duchamp challenged conventional thought about art marketing and artistic processes, not so much by writing, but through radical actions such as dubbing a urinal art and naming it Fountain.
Speaking of his readymades in an interview by G.H. Hamilton, R. Hamilton and C. Mitchel, New York and London, 1959 (Audio Arts, 1974) Duchamp states that everybody can make a readymade and that he doesn't attach any value - commercial, or even artistic - to it.
That is a very difficult point, because art first has to be defined. Can we try to define art? We have tried. Everybody has tried. In every century there is a new definition of art, meaning that there is no on essential that is good for all centuries. So if we accept the idea of trying not to define art, which is a very legitimate conception, then the readymade comes in as a sort of irony, because it says, 'Here is a thing that I call art, but I didn't even make it myself.' As we know, 'art', etymologically speaking, means 'to hand make'. And there it is ready-made. So it was a form of denying the possibility of defining art, because you don't define electricity. You see the results of electricity, but you don't define it.
It is only with Duchamp and his readymades that we arrive at an art that consistently put itself forward as art while at the same time questioning exactly what 'art' was. Fountain, the most notorious of readymades, whose history is well documented, was submitted by Duchamp to the Society of Independent Artists to be exhibited in an annual exhibition under the pseudonym R Mutt. The Society, in a true democratic spirit they decided that there would be no jury and no censorship: that any artist who paid the fee of six dollars could exhibit. In spite of that, arguments started and a vote was taken not to exhibit the work. Duchamp, who was also a director of the Society, intended to see whether the organizers would stick to their principles, which they had not. After the incident, Duchamp handed in his resignation.
The purpose of the work was to test standards and the behavior of the Society's directors. It was meant to initiate a debate. Ultimately the debate is of far more importance than the actual object. We must ask who Fountain was meant to shock, how it was meant to shock and why it was meant to shock. Duchamp was questioning the very nature of art and culture.
John Baldessari is an American conceptual artist. He has created thousands of works that demonstrate and, in many cases, combine the narrative potential of images and the associative power of language within the boundaries of the work of art.
Fig. 1: John Baldessari Kiss/Panic, 1984
During the 1970s Baldessari began to make use of other peoples' photographs in his work rather than his own: 'What got me interested in found imagery was that it was not considered art, but just imagery, and I began dumpster diving in photo shops.' (John Baldessari, http://www.deutsche-guggenheim.de, accessed 25.05.10). Finding that film stills, as well as publicity shots and press materials, were readily available, Baldessari gathered images in abundance.
Understanding how these photographs could suggest narratives, Baldessari began to use film stills more and more. By bringing together related or dissimilar photographs, he produced work from sequences of these found images, occasionally in a grid, sometimes in linear or freely arranged compositions, but always with some structure or concept underscoring the arrangement.
Whilst a lot of the images are dull and meaningless on their own, by placing them together, Baldessari is capable to assemble narratives, highlight a specific viewpoint or emotion, and push different ways of looking at the world.
In Kiss/Panic (fig.1) a halo of guns radiates from two central scenes of group chaos and an intimate kiss, offering two extremes of human emotion: fear and passion. However the threatening mood, enhanced by the display of guns, predominates and connotes a certain concern about intimacy. Or, as interpreted by the art historian and critic Thomas McEvilley:
The kiss-panic images form a central icon likeâ€¦ an image of liebestod, or love-death. The periphery around these two conjoined images consists of ten panels of guns pointing outward, as if the iconic scenage in the middle has to be defended against a profane outside worldâ€¦ The kissing mouths comprise the only panel with color, suggesting a warmth of human feeling characterizing that one frame alone, in the midst of panic and aggression. (J. Morgan, L. Jones, 2009, p.55)
Martin Creed is a Glaswegian conceptual artist. He won the Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227, the lights going on and off, which was an empty room, where the lights went on and
Fig. 2: Martin Creed Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, 2000
When his entry for the Turner Prize exhibition was unveiled at the Tate Britain in London, it met with a mixture of incredulity, attempts at deep philosophising and plain outrage. Several visitors walked out, saying the exhibit was unfit to be considered for the most celebrated prize in the art world while Sir Nicholas Serota, insisted that Work 227: The lights going on and off (fig.2) had qualities of "strength, rigour, wit and sensitivity to the site".
Martin Creed had warned that people should not look for too much meaning in his Work 227: The lights going on and off. Enthusiasts had called it a statement against the clutter and consumerism in the world.
He has said of Work 227: The lights going on and off that "it activates the whole of the space it occupies without anything physically being added and I like that because in a way it's a really big work with nothing being there".
Yves Klein was a French artist considered an important figure in post-war European art. New York critics of Klein's time classify him as neo-Dada, but other critics, such as Thomas McEvilley in an essay submitted to Artforum in 1982, have since classified Klein as an early, though enigmatic, postmodernist.
Fig. 3: Yves Klein Le Saut dans le Vide ("Leap into the Void"), 1960
Yves Klein's most renowned work is undoubtedly his "Saut dans le vide" (Leap into the void) (fig. 3), a photograph by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender he presented in his artist's book (a faux newspaper) "Dimanche" dedicated to his exploration of the void, on 27 November 1960. The photograph apparently shows him jumping off a wall, arms outstretched, towards the pavement.
The title of the image had a sensational tone: "A man in space! The painter of space throws himself into the void!" More precisely, as he explained in the legend accompanying the photo, he was attempting by this action to come as close as possible to space.
I am the painter of space. I am not an abstract painter but, on the contrary, a figurative artist, and a realist. Let us be honest, to paint space, I must be in position. I must be in space.