Monday 17 May 2021

On ‘Conceptual Art’: Where Ideas Eclipse Aesthetics

Fifteen Plaster Surrogates,

Posted by Keith Tidman


The influential French artist Marcel Duchamp once said, ‘I was interested in ideas — not merely in visual products’. As he put it, work ‘in the service of the mind’, not mere ‘retinal’ art intended to gratify visually. In this manner, conceptual art disrupted the art establishment’s long-held traditional expectation of artist as original creator of handmade objects: a painting, drawing, sculpture, or other. Normalised expectations about the roles of artist, art, observer, display venue, and society in conceptual art are defied; boundaries are both blurred and expandable.


To the point of ideas-centric artistic expression, the presence of agency and intentionality are all the more essential. The aim is to shift the artist’s focal point away from ‘making something from scratch’ to ‘manipulating the already-manufactured’. Hence the absence of the conceptual artist manipulating the raw materials that we might expect artists to conventionally use, like paint, stone, glass, clay, metal, fabric, wood, and so forth. 

Duchamp is regarded as the pioneer and inspiration of conceptual art, whose early-twentieth-century foray in the field included a signed urinal, titled ‘Fountain’. It was a classic example of the avant-garde nature of this art form. Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’, as they got to be called, became a fixture of conceptual art, up to the present day: where artists select, modify, and position ordinary, everyday manufactured objects as thought-provoking artistic expression. An art of the intellect, where objects are ancillary to concepts.

The heart of ‘conceptual art’ is ideas, inquiry, and intellectual deliberation rather than traditional beauty or aesthetic gratification. The objective is to urge observers to reflect cerebrally on the experience. Conceptual art can thus be seen as sharing a bond with other fields, like philosophy and the social sciences. But what does all that mean in practice? 

The central aspiration to spur observers to reflect upon ideas — not to engage exclusively in the ‘retinal’ experience mentioned above — necessitates such agency. The overriding objective of the conceptual artist’s intention is to focus on ‘meaning’ (something with high information content) rather than on the illustration of a scene that’s directed more traditionally toward triggering the senses (something with high experiential content). Art where, as Aristotle once put it, the ‘inward significance of things’ governs.


The meaning that the observer takes away from interaction with the art may be solely the observer’s own, or the artist’s, or the professional art critic’s, or the museum’s, or a hybrid of those, depending on how motivated the observer is. Either way, the art and the ideas conjured by it are linked. Conceptual art thereby sees its commission as philosophical, not just another commodity. Notable to this point, all artworks, including conceptual artworks, are created within a social and cultural context. This context exerts influence in defining and nourishing whatever philosophical theories the artwork is intended to convey.


What conceptual art underscores, then, is that no single core definition of all art applies to it. Even within any one category or movement of art, attempts to define it authoritatively can prove thorny: Examples of artwork, and the artists’ intent, may be quite dissimilar. Definitions, beyond generalizations, may be fuzzy at best; opinions about what does or doesn’t fit within the category may prove fractious. Conceptual art only magnifies these realities about attempts to craft a universal definition. 


A distinguishing factor is that this kind of art rests not only in its provocative appeal to the intellect, but sometimes even more directly to issues that strike at the heart of social and political displeasure. Or perhaps a little less adversarial, the artist’s unapologetic desire to disruptively probe cultural values and norms. Yet, that’s not to say other visual art movements, including those whose primary tradition is aesthetics, don’t have cognitive, socio-political, or cultural appeal too, for some clearly do. 


Indeed, one reward we seek from the experience of art broadly is not only to derive aesthetic joy (a matter of taste), but also to incite thought and to better understand the world and ourselves (a matter of judgment and rationalism). There is philosophical history to this view: Immanuel Kant, for example, also differentiated between aesthetic and logical judgment. To aim for the resulting understanding, the interpretation of conceptual artwork may result in sundry appropriate explanations of the art, or a single best explanation with others ranked in order behind it.


One thing in particular that we might praise about conceptual art is its unorthodox interpretation of, and verdict on, societal, cultural norms — quite often, rebelling against our philosophical keystones. In this way, conceptual art’s zealous pioneering temperament forces us to rethink the world we have constructed for ourselves.


If enlightenment arises from those second-guesses, then conceptual art has met its objective. And if, beyond illumination, action arises to yield social or cultural change, then that is all the better – in the eye of the conceptual artist.



Thomas O. Scarborough said...

'The central aspiration [is] to spur observers to reflect upon ideas ...' This kind of art is therefore defined by its ability to spur such reflection. But does it? What are the ideas which it conveys? Is it not rather something else?

Keith said...

‘What are the ideas [this kind of art] conveys?’ Ideas, Thomas, that are as numerous, and as varied, as anyone freely chooses to conjure from the art. What’s compelling is that there is no single constraining taxonomy of ideas to take away from ‘conceptual art’.

docmartincohen said...

I like the post but I sort of feel conceptual art defeats itself. If something has to be expressed as concepts, it is moving away from being "art". Art conveys meaning and ideas in different ways, in a different visual (or tactile) language. The picture at the top speaks well, to me (admittedly, I helped Keith choose it!). It's "thought provoking" - but gently. I'm not sure it really qualifies as anything as grand as "conceptual".

Keith said...

I agree, Martin, with your point that art is a ‘different visual … language’. In fact, I see ‘conceptual art’ as precisely that: a visual language. Maybe a metaphorical, figurative language, that jars the senses at times — but it’s arguably a powerfully evocative language, nevertheless. In that way, the language of conceptual art seems to me to have legitimacy in claiming its primary objective to be to ‘convey meaning and ideas’, even if in daringly representational form.

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