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.

Read more »