Conceptual Art

Artwork that focuses more on the idea or concept rather than the final product


Explaining the confusing and often misunderstood movement of conceptual art is quite a challenge. Unlike other movements, its main focus, as the name suggests, is the works pure concept. For this movement the ideas behind the final outcome are considered more important than the artwork itself, therefore, conceptual art can take shape in any form and does not fall under a specific media of art, such as painting, sculpture or installation. A conceptual artist uses whichever materials and methods they believe will express their idea in the most powerful way. This often includes ways that are often considered more obscure than traditional art forms such as performance art. For example using found objects or a piece of writing.


The movement truly emerged in the early 1960s and became more widely recognised by the end of the decade. However, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, created in 1917, is described as the first ever piece of conceptual art. Duchamp’s use of a found object - a urinal, was an early signal of the popular use of everyday objects in conceptual art. The movement reached peak popularity around 1970 before the art world began to turn more towards post-modern art; however many of the most famous artists today - such as Yayoi Kusama, still create conceptual art today.

Its place of origin is hard to specify as the movement developed almost simultaneously throughout Europe and America. Many artists involved used it as a way of rejecting an increasingly commercialised society and art world. By using methods such as performance to express their conceptual art, it meant that there were often no final products to be bought and sold on. This began to break down the historic norms of the art world.

The bold changes to the historic traditions of art are at the root of the movement. This resulted in conceptual art being met by criticism in some instances. Both at its emergence and in contemporary society, some mock the movement and discredit its authenticity. Understandably, conceptual work is hard to grasp or connect with at times, especially when no ‘finished’ product is produced. People may fail to appreciate the value in the artists ideas, the moments of genius that cannot be taught which lead up to a final piece of artwork. Most artists would agree that the creation and concept is an art in itself and that the final work is a secondary component. Despite this controversy, conceptual artists have gone on to win some of the most prestigious awards in the art world, such as the Turner Prize or represent their country in the Venice Biennale.

Famous Examples:


Photo Credit: Tate Marcel Duchamp 'Fountain' 1917

As explained above, the first notable conceptual artist was Marcel Duchamp. He is famed for using found objects in his conceptual artwork and from this, coined the term ‘readymade’ art. (Aptly named because the objects which are used in the art form are not produced by the artist, they come readymade.) Joseph Kosuth is another artist who pioneered the movement during its emergence. In much of his conceptual art he explores the pure essence of art, stretching the norms of what can be considered a piece of art work.


Photo Credit: MoMA Joseph Kosuth 'One and Three Chairs' 1965

Similarly, Michael Asher also challenged what constitutes as a piece of art. Unlike other artists in this movement, Asher was not fueled by the rejection of societal norms or political influences, but by curiosity and how far he could stretch arts limitations. As well as the artists already mentioned, other famous conceptual artists are John Baldessari, Mariana Abramovic, Joseph Beuys, Damien Hirst, Yoko Ono, and Yves Klein.

Contemporary Context:

The broad label of contemporary art allows it to be linked to much of today’s art work as well work from the 60s and 70s. Damien Hirst is arguably one of the most famous artists of the late twentieth and early twenty first century. His works can be labeled as conceptual given they don't often conform to traditional artistic standards, whilst he often does not actually produce the art himself, he directs others based on his vision. His radical work resulted in him winning the Turner Prize in 1995.

Another Turner Prize winning conceptual artist is Mark Wallinger. He won in 2007 for his exhibition State Britain. It is a recreation of a protest display about the treatment of Iraq, set up by Brian Haw outside Parliament and eventually confiscated by the police. Haw's display contained several hundred items donated by members of the public which included placards, photos of families, banners and posters, such as "Blair Lies, Kids Die!", a banner, "Baby Killers", photos of babies maimed and burnt in missile attacks, a statement that parliament spent seven hours discussing the war in Iraq and 700 hours discussing fox-hunting, and a white teddy bear holding a sign, "Bears against bombs". Art critic Tim Teeman commented that Wallinger created the exhibit not only to bring what he perceives as a dangerous erosion of civil liberties to light, but also to examine whether the installation was art or politics; Teeman concluded that it was obviously both.

When compared to original conceptual art, contemporary examples of conceptual art often brings together interdisciplinary approaches of film, installation, audio, painting, drawing and sculpture and has a focus on audience participation. Political, social and cultural hierarchies are also prominent themes.


Mark Wallinger - State Britain at the Tate 2007 (Photo Credit Mike Smith Studio)


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