Seven Ways of Thinking About Art
Monday evenings Tate Modern, admission by ticket only
Notes from Session 4.
Art as Conceptual
What is conceptual art? There are at least two answers:
1) A post-Duchamp art movement that reached its zenith in the 1960s and 70s. (see Paul Wood Conceptual Art, Tate Publications or Wikipedia article on Conceptual Art with numerous links to conceptual artists' work)
2) Any art that is predominantly idea-based rather than created mainly for aesthetic appreciation. This is the more colloquial sense of the term ‘conceptual art’.
The main focus of this week’s session was on the second of these senses of ‘conceptual art’. In a broader sense, perhaps almost all art has some conceptual element (think of religious art, impressionism, cubism); but only where this dominates do we usually speak of a work as conceptual.
Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades are usually taken to be paradigms of conceptual art (in both senses above). With works such as Mark Wallinger’s A Real Work of Art (a real racehorse that he bought and put into races, but which he declared a work of art by choice of its name which was not meant to be metaphorical), there may be an aesthetic element: but what you see isn’t what you get.
The best explanation of what is going on with conceptual art is given by Arthur Danto (e.g. in his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace) who wrote about the non-identity of indiscernibles. Just because you can’t tell two objects apart simply by looking at them it doesn’t follow that they express the same emotions, have the same content or meaning. The context and etiology of an object influence its meaing. A urinal on a production line has different proerperties from the urinal that Duchamp dubbed ‘Fountain’, signed R. Mutt and entered for exhibition in 1917.
But how can conceptual art be art? George Dickie’s first version of his Institutional Theory of Art gives one explanation. For him a work of art is an artifact some aspect of which has had the status of ‘candidate for appreciation’ conferred upon it by a member or members of the artworld (by artworld he meant anyone who believed themselves to be part of the artworld, not the social elite of curators, critics, gallery owners, collectorsand well-known artists). These provide necessary and sufficient conditions (pre-requisites and guarantees) that anything is a work of art. But this is a neutral sense of ‘art’: to say that something is a work of art implies nothing about its value. On this theory (which has been much criticised for being over-inclusive) it is very easy to see that, for example the minimal intervention of selecting and signing a urinal transforms it into an artifact, and entering it for an exhibition is an act of conferral of status of ‘candidate for appreciation’ (further reading, including criticism of this approach, Nigel Warburton The Art Question, chapter 4).
1) What about the status of the Idea in Conceptual Art? A challenge: if the ideas expressed in conceptual art are trite or unoriginal (which they often are) does that make the artwork trite? One possible answer is that the idea is an element of the work of art, not its sole purpose: the ingenuity of the way of communicating the idea is part of the work. This might be supported by the notion that if you want to communicate a complex idea writing a philosophy book or paper is usually better than making a work of conceptual art that is likely to be ignored or misunderstood by gallery goers…
2) Should we approach conceptual art with cynicism or charity? Cynicism involves a starting position that most conceptual art deals in alluding to not very profound thoughts that would be better expressed in straightforward ways, and has limited aesthetic appeal by way of consolation. Charity involves approaching these works in a more open way, starting with the working assumption that there is something worth engaging with there to be discovered. Both approaches have their dangers…
In the Gallery
We examined three works by Dan Flavin (1933-96), constructed from domestic flourescent lights. His genius was to take such a simple readily available raw material and turn it into a medium for self-expression, creation of beautiful objects that also have a conceptual element. We examined the works first from a purely conceptual point of view, drawing attention to features such as the links with Duchamp’s readymades, with minimalism (though Flavin himself declared that he wasn’t a minimalist but a maximalist!), the idea that a work could lilterally colour the gallery and spectators, and re-create spatial relations by enclosing or framing parts…and in the specific cases links with Tatlin’s tower or the exploration of ideas about the frame. Underlying the simplest work, a single fluorescent light at an angle, there was the implicit questioning of the limits of what can be art. Then we examined the same works from an aesthetic point of view, drawing attention to the formal elements, the striking use of colour (delivered with an intensity that can leave afterimages), and the pleasures of looking at these works. I took the consensus of our discussion to be that both conceptual and aesthetic elements contributed to the power of these works.
In contrast, Piero Manzoni’s ‘Artist’s Shit’ which is a small numbered can allegedly containing Manzoni’s excrement was a witty primarily conceptual work. The look of the object wasn’t as important as the witty gesture of mocking obsessions with the artist’s Midas Touch, and even the act of making a numbered edition of 90 of these tins is a comment on the artworld’s convention of limited editions (which essentially focus on the rarity value of works). In contrast with Flavin’s works, this work did not invite aesthetic contemplation – the idea or knowledge that the artist had performed this act of selling his own excrement to the artworld, was far more important than the look of the tin.