Conceptual art is when . . .


We all know them when we see them.  Works of art then when you look at them create a kind of inner ‘what the?’ question, and which only begin to make sense when you read the little essay provided by the artist.  Or worse yet, where one comes away with the distinct impression that the whole purpose of the exercise was not to create an arresting image or object, but to let you know just how clever the artist was in coming up with that essay.

The thing is, we know it when we see it, but apart from applying the rather vague catch all of ‘conceptual art’ we often can’t work out what exactly it is that would make one want to say that Michael Craig-Martin’s oak tree is not good art, whereas Marcel Duchamp’s readymades are.  There is a terrible risk of falling into the ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ trap, and arbitrarily consigning whole movements to the dustbin without justification.

So, in this essay I’m going to have a go at defining a fragment of an aesthetic theory in the hope that it might be able to disinguish good conceptual art which I see as pieces where a concept is used to create good art, and bad conceptual art, where the art itself is incidental to the concept.  My approach is going to be first, to put together a tentative definition, and then to explore it using a highly selective and random selection of pieces.

Aesthetics for conceptual art


What is conceptual art?  This question is surprisingly hard to answer.  Dictionary and encyclopedia definitions are far from helpful.  Wikipedia defines it as art in which the concepts or ideas involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns.  That sounds good, but there’s the problem that in fact it could be taken as applying to quite a lot of art that is definitely not considered to be conceptual.  So, for example Kasimir Malevich’s suprematist works are actually the working out on canvas of a very sophisticated theory, and the theory drove the composition, not notions of aesthetics.  So is this conceptual?

Malevich Yellow and Black

The obvious answers are yes, by the definition, and no, because it is traditional painterly art and, moreover, it stands alone: one does not need to know anything about suprematist theory to appreciate it.

And this is the problem.  Even naive art, indeed, especially naive art, has a concept that over-rides traditional concepts of aesthetics.  For example, what distinguishes Alfred Wallis from the endless bad seascapes painted by enthusiastic amateurs is that his vision, his determination to represent the reality of his inner eye rather than the mundane reality of the empirical world, is communicated so vividly in his work.

Wallis St Ives

So, once again, according to the definition, Wallis is a conceptual artist, but in any other sense he is a very traditional artist, who represents the world as he sees it, that not necessarily being the same as how we would see it.  And carrying on along these lines, we might as well say that Goya was a conceptualist, for often it seems that traditional aesthetics were the last thing on his mind:

Goya Saturn  

So that definition doesn’t work very well.  I am going to try to replace it with a definition which will, I hope be a bit more precise, even if it cannot be expressed so succinctly.  

It seems that the key point should be that the artist has an idea or concept.  This idea may be formal, in the sense of being a way of mustering materials to create a thing, or it may be expressive, in the sense of being an idea that the artist wishes to use art to illustrate.  But in either case, the idea drove the creation of the art; the artist followed the idea wherever it led, even if the result was not conventionally beautiful.  So, while traditional art may be driven by the urge to express an idea, more often than not the artist will force the idea to accommodate to conventional ideas of aesthetics, that does not happen here.  

In other words the art is theory-laden, in that it is the working out of a theoretical idea, whether that be formal or expressive.  So, in a sense, there is an element of detachment of the artist from the work, in that it is not an immediate outflowing of the unconscious mind, but a result of deliberate artifice, knowingly constructing the art work according to theoretical principles.

This is, I believe, a reasonable definition.  Clearly Goya and Wallis painted straight from the unconscious, unfettered by theory.  Malevich is more difficult, and I suspect that it may be impossible to rule his suprematist work out from any reasonable definition of conceptual art.  But that is not necessarily a problem, and so, having now a reasonable understanding of what conceptual art might be said to be, let us move on to constructing aesthetics for it. 

Conceptual aesthetics

Art does not work by appealing to the intellect.  Good art is art which speaks directly to the viewer’s unconscious mind in a way that makes them see the world in a new way.  Going back to Alfred Wallis, he makes the viewer see houses and ships not as nicely laid out items with proper perspective, but as complex things, whose features he sets out in detail, which interact with each other and the world as wholes, and so buildings are not partially hidden or distorted with perspective, but are set out as the forms of buildings, and one perceives St Ives as more than just a place, but as a community.  So he expands reality and changes our view on it.

But this is, I think, a critical point.  If one has to look at a piece of art, then ask oneself ‘but what does it mean?’, that is to say, if one has to engage with it intellectually, can it be said to have succeeded?  I think the answer is no.  If there is no unconscious, visceral factor to the piece, so the only engagement is intellectual, then it is essentially either a technical demonstration of the means of production, in which case it is no different from a technical drawing, or it is pure narrative, in which the use of a visual form to convey it is purely incidental.  In other words, the means of production, or the intended message, obtrudes between the art and the viewer.  Instead of a process of self-discovery resulting from communion with the art work, the viewer finds themself being told what to think by the artist. 

And so I propose this form of aesthetics for conceptual art.  The key to whether it is successful as a piece of art (no qualifying adjective) is that it succeeds on its own.  The viewer does not need to understand the concept (formal or expressive) to appreciate the piece.  In other words, the artist may have been driven by the concept when creating the art, but the end goal was to create a work of art, not to illustrate an idea.  And that is a crucial idea, so I will say it slightly differently: great art uses an idea, bad art illustrates an idea.   

Applying the theory

Let us see how this theory works out in practice.  I’ll start out with some examples of good conceptual art, and then progress to what one might term the ‘silly’ examples, the things that we recognise as being bad, but can’t quite say why.

Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’

The obvious starting point is with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, which are about as conceptual as you can get.  Now the reading of these that one hears too often is that Duchamp was essentially playing a game, whereby he found random objects and put them in galleries with the intention of saying, as it were, ‘Oh aren’t I clever for telling you that a urinal is art?’

Duchamp Fountain

But Duchamp’s motivation was more complex.  It was well put by Beatrice Wood:

Whether Mr Mutt (Duchamp originally submitted the piece under the pseudonym ‘Mutt’) made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object

Duchamp was interested in showing that ordinary objects could be objects of aesthetic value in themselves; that even the mundane things could be art.  So we are not meant to look at the urinal and see Duchamp, we are meant to look at it and see a thing of interest and beauty in its own right.  It stands alone, independent of the viewer’s knowledge of Duchamp or his aesthetic theories.  All it asks, indeed all that Duchamp asked, is that one views it without preconceptions.

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley’s work (especially her early work) has to be labelled as conceptual, as very often an entire piece emerges from rigorous working out of one or more formal ideas involving (nearly) repeating geometrical structures.  And yet they have an impact far in excess of what would be expected if that was all they were:

Riley Cataract 3

There is an almost vertiginous feeling to her work, making one, as it were, fall into the painting and creating the illusion of structure that simply isn’t on the canvas, but is created by our unconscious minds.  So Riley’s art is very much more than just the formal idea she used to create it, and indeed, by virtue of the way reaction to it is caused by how it interacts with our brains, our reactions are entirely outside of her control.  She provided the conduit, but the message is entirely our own.

‘Silly’ conceptual art

Here I’ll mention two fairly controversial examples.  First one that can be dismissed very quickly.  Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ constitutes a half-full glass of water.  To quote from the Tate Gallery description of the piece:

 While this appears to be a glass of water on a shelf, the artist states that it is in fact an oak tree. Craig-Martin’s assertion addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the power of the artist. The work can be seen as an exploration of Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that any existing object can be declared a work of art. In his accompanying text, Craig-Martin provides the questions as well as the answers, allowing the simultaneous expression of scepticism and belief regarding the transformative power of art. 

Oak Tree

This is the artist obtruding between the piece and the viewer with a vengeance.  Without the explanation, the piece is meaningless.  One is tempted to suggest that the purpose of the exercise is not to create a sense of discovery in the viewer but rather to create the idea that Michael Craig-Martin is very clever.

Now on to an even more controversial piece, the infamous ‘Piss Christ’.  To summarise, Andres Serrano photographed a small crucifix submerged in a yellow fluid; the controversial bit was thay the yellow fluid was his own urine.

Piss Christ

Over the years artists have used any number of strange and often unpleasant media to create their work, so if Serrano had used urine because he wanted that precise visual effect that only it could provide, then that would have been fine.  But instead he decided to share the fact with the world, and at that point, inevitably, the artist and his technical means took centre stage.

Now, what makes this different from ‘An Oak Tree’ is that actually the image is visually interesting.  The play of light across the cross, combined with its penetration into the fluid creates a curious lambency that is artistically effective.  And so, ‘Piss Christ’ could stand on its own as a viable piece of art.  Unfortunately, the artist chose to turn it into an example of the ‘look at me’ school of conceptualism, and as such ensured that his artistry will forever be hidden behind his technical means.


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