The paradox of (some) conceptual art

by Dave Maier

All art is “conceptual” in the sense that it has a cognitive aspect: if it engages our senses but not our minds, it is mere eye or ear candy (not that there's anything wrong with same, but it's not “art” in the relevant sense). A work of art is usually called “conceptual art” if its sensory aspect is much less important than in conventional art, or even entirely irrelevant to it. In Sol LeWitt's definition (1967), for example, Wikipedia tells us, “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.”

That last part of LeWitt's definition seems specific to his own aims, as if we take the first part to be the essential part, there are plenty of other sorts of conceptual art besides his. More typical (as Wikipedia rightly goes on to note) is the idea that conceptual art is a particularly potent way for art to “examine its own nature.” This idea has arguably been an aim of art since the beginning, at least implicitly, but in conceptual art it comes to the foreground and indeed pushes everything else off the stage entirely.

Stuckists_Death_of_Conceptual_Art_demoAs much subject to Sturgeon's Law (“90% of everything is crap”) as anything else, most conceptual art is good for a chuckle at best, or maybe a “huh.” So it's not surprising that the lesson about the nature of art that most people draw from conceptual art is that conceptual art = lousy art. Even – especially – when we are trying to fair to it, it can seem that to appreciate conceptual art properly, we must ignore as irrelevant any (not surprisingly unexciting) sensory properties it may have, in order better to grasp its message about how to see or hear in artistically significant ways. For example, Tracy Emin's My Bed looks exactly like what it is (i.e., her bed), but to complain that it is not much to look at (which is true enough) would be to miss its point. However, if conceptual art is to comment on conventional art rather than replace it, it will at least sometimes need to leave in place the default idea that even when our concern is art's cognitive features, we approach it through experiencing its sensory qualities.

The paradox of conceptual art, then, is that in forcing us to think about the nature of art rather than simply enjoying it, it can shift our attention away from the very things we need to see or hear if we are to draw its conceptual lesson properly.

Emin-My-BedI'll try to explain how this paradox works with respect to a particular example, for which this shift is virtually impossible to avoid. First, however, I need to acknowledge that it cannot apply to all kinds of conceptual art (which itself strengthens the paradox where it does apply). In some cases, for example, a work forces us away from its sensory aspect not, as in My Bed, by ignoring it, but instead by not having one in the first place, or at least not of the expected modality (as any artwork has to engage my senses at some point if I am to learn about it at all). The most famous example of this sort is John Cage's silent piece of music, 4'33″, which really deserves a post of its own (you have been warned). Here the point is that since the work has no musical content at all, we are forced to look (or listen) elsewhere.

Similarly, LeWitt's very definition of conceptual art, above, suggests that even when art is not (seemingly) musical, the conceptual core of conceptual art lies not in its actual manifestation, but instead in the instructions it provides for others. These instructions can be very specific (if not specific enough to result in a single perceptual image); but sometimes they are so open-ended that no conceivable set of sensory experiences, however varied, could possibly be identified with the work itself. Many 60s-era “compositions” are like this: Karlheinz Stockhausen, if memory serves, has one where the performer is ordered to go meditate silently for 3 days without food, after which he/she is to go directly to his/her instrument (of unspecified type) and do whatever seems appropriate. Pauline Oliveros and Lamonte Young have many similar works. And we cannot overlook works which, while the sound of a perfomance would be all-too-easily imaginable, one fervently hopes and believes were never performed (I speak here of Philip Corner's One antipersonnel-type CBU bomb will be thrown into the audience).

The 60s are over, but in the visual arts at least conceptual art has gone mainstream, and much of this is old hat nowadays. It's clear in this context that nothing would be easier than to regard the following work as yet another such self-indulgent (and by now utterly derivative) trifle, whenever it was “composed” (my source [David Cope, New Directions in Music, p. 104] does not indicate the date, nor (shock, horror) does Google). Here, in the “composer's” own words, is his explanation:

When I was asked to compose a piece for orchestra, I had no idea what they wanted, except an experience of some kind. I wrote and asked for a complete list of the other works included in concerts of the series, and when I discovered that the concert preceding the night of my premiere included Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, I made up my mind. I insisted that my work be unrehearsed (there wouldn't have been much anyway, as these things go) and that I would bring score and parts the night of the concert. Imagine the shock when the conductor and players opened their music to find the work that they had performed the night before … but they performed it, much to the anger and horror of the audience and reviewers. They were angry, of course, not at the sounds but at my plagiarism (legal, according to copyright laws) but few realized they listened to the sounds in an entirely new way—something very good, very creative, in my way of thinking. No, I did not receive money for my endeavor! (The work, by the way, was titled Symphonie Fantastique No. 2.)

This work seems to have all the elements of the 90% of conceptual art which falls under Sturgeon's Law: lazy, smartass composer, self-righteous about money, dictatorial, elitist, self-congratulatory, and boring as hell. Been there, seen that, spurned the t-shirt as ridiculously overpriced and ugly to boot. And this was indeed my first reaction, as well as several subsequent ones. But then (as intended?) I started to think about it.

Like 4'33″, Symphonie Fantastique No. 2 is intended (let's be charitable and take the composer at his word) to get the audience to “listen to the sounds in an entirely new way”. But what way is that? My suggestion here is that we put aside for a moment our understandable assumption that to describe this work just is to grasp its point (which leads us, inevitably, to dismiss it as trite). We do this because we assume, as seemingly intended, that the sensory aspect of the work is irrelevant, as, after all, those sounds would be identical to (a performance of) an entirely different work, one which may be quite familiar to us – the by now all-too-common lesson of conceptual art.

Hector_berlioz_1863But this cannot be right, as we can see if we actually spend some time imagining, and thinking about, what it might really be like to attend a performance of this work (at least, at its premiere), and actually sit there listening to it. So there you are, ready for this new work. It's called Symphonie Fantastique No. 2, which you either do or do not recognize as a reference to the Berlioz work. Let's say you do, and like most orchestra-goers, are very familiar with the old warhorse. So you are surprised and, yes, as the composer relates, angry when you hear the familiar opening measures of the original work, made all the more familiar by your having attended the previous night. This isn't what I paid for!

But as the music continues, doubt creeps in. It certainly sounds like Symphonie Fantastique; but how well do you know that work? For all the title tells you, this version could be different in any way at all, from an extra note in the woodwind theme to a doubling of the second violin line to an extra repeat before the development section. You search your memory, and focus your attention on any possible novelty. Maybe the composer is doing to Berlioz what Mahler did when he conducted Beethoven, modifying it as he sees fit. Or maybe he's trying to recompose the work in his own idiom (as you check to see if the composer hasn't listed his name as “Pierre Menard”).

As the first movement ends and you wait for the second to begin, you realize that a change may happen at any time. For all you know you are about to hear the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony – and then, with a start, you see that your position is in some ways like that of those present at the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique itself. You simply do not know what you are going to hear next. As it happens, the second movement begins in the familiar way. You exhale, but the original problem persists. You like the symphony, but for you the middle movements simply do not stick in the memory as do the first and last. You redouble your efforts at concentration.

You are still perturbed that the composer is pulling a stunt; but that melody in the second movement is really very nice, and what difference should it make whose name is on the program if what you are hearing is the same? For a moment you are angry at yourself, and perhaps it is this that is the composer's point. But no, surely his point is just the opposite, as you originally thought. Your attention returns to the music as the strings swell in harmony. Did they play it that way last night too?

Hector_berlioz_1863rThis question turns out to be harder to answer than you thought. Last night you were hearing a famiiar work and concentrating on the performance; but here you are not even sure what you are listening to, even when (as you surmise) it is the same thing. What would count as a “good” performance of this work? Would an ideal performance sound the same as one of the original? Or might one be able to tell them apart? After all, accompanying one's perception of every note of the new work is the lingering possibility that the next ones will be not Berlioz's at all, as well as the relief and satisfaction of hearing the actual notes as expected instead of what could very well be cacophony.

And what do the orchestra, and the conductor, think about all this? Will the rude surprise, and the feeling that whatever they do tonight, they cannot be accused of slaughtering Berlioz any more than the “composer” himself has, mean that they will simply mail it in? Or will the conductor take extra care that tonight, at least, will not suffer from last night's shaky performance from the percussion section? (“NOW!”, his gestures say, “not a half-beat later!”) Or will they perceive a newfound freedom in the release from conventional expectation? Maybe tonight they will be able to make the old chestnut sound fresh and new – not simply by playing it (i.e. the same way) in these new circumstances, but by playing it with new emphases: here, isn't this crescendo exciting, this melody entrancing, when you hear it with fresh ears?

For a moment you wonder what this is like for those who do not know the work as well as you, or at all. Maybe it will seem to them like a work in the retro-symphonic mode, as George Rochberg and others have attempted. Its “extra” movement may strike them as an interesting innovation – which of course it was at the time! For they will have no worries as you have had, and may even praise the work as a welcome relief from the Beethoven 'n' Brahms which is all they know. Or perhaps they will hear it as boring, not in its identity to a familiar work, but instead in its difference, as Mozart is the only classical composer they ever liked, and this new thing is too weird for them. Is their naiveté to be pitied or envied?

As the work moves toward its apocalyptic conclusion, the repeated Dies Irae theme takes on a new significance. Was it a coincidence after all that yesterday's symphony was the inspiration for this one? Or is there more to it than that? The conceptual-art aspect of the work strikes you all at once with the force of the trombone's death knell. The orchestral tradition is a walking zombie, it says, however full of borrowed life we have made it seem tonight. Nothing can ever sound the same after this. How can we sit there night after night knowing exactly what we are going to hear? It seems so very pointless. We may as well ascend the scaffold.

However, that feeling soon passes, replaced by excitement at the approaching climax (and yet again with the recurring worry, only slightly diluted by the preceding movements, that the rug may yet be pulled away). The urge to demand a refund, so strong a mere forty minutes ago, now seems faintly ridiculous, even as the feeling of being played for a sucker remains hovering in the background. I wouldn't want to do this again! But again you start, with the realization that even if Symphonie Fantastique No. 2 appears once again on the subscription list, you at least will no longer be able to hear it again even if you wanted to. It will lose its distinction, and be only hearable as the same old Berlioz work it always was. In fact if you wanted to hear this orchestra play Berlioz again next year (perhaps to hear if they will ever iron out the kinks in those percussion entrances), you might as well come see them do Symphonie Fantastique No. 2.

And you are less sure than you were before that you know what conceptual art is.