Conceptual art - radical or ridiculous?
What constitutes an artwork? Is an unmade bed art? What about a bag of rubbish? Or a pile of sweets?
By Melissa Galley I 4 min read
With the development of conceptual art, suddenly, art was no longer confined to the plinth, the canvas, or the gallery. It was everything and anything, or even nothing at all.
But, as with every art movement that changed the course of art history it has divided opinion. Some laud it as ground-breaking, others as complete nonsense. However, perhaps more than many other movements of the past, conceptual art appears to have created a stark divide between the 'art institutions' and the common people.
A rant by Conservative YouTube commenter Paul Watson illustrates the point:
Modern, or “conceptual art” isn’t art at all. It’s one big circle jerk of pretentious twats trying to make themselves look sophisticated by ascribing meaning to something that’s completely meaningless… Why is it that the most talent-less and vacuous shit gets promoted by the art establishment? Well, it’s partly born out of elitism. If the artistic merit of a bunch of squiggly lines can only be appreciated by a select number of privileged insiders they can sneer at the uninitiated, and justify their own intellectual superiority.
The irony is that the conceptual art movement actually set out to challenge the art institutions. Artists began creating work which couldn't be sold - that didn't conform to the rigid definitions of 'good art'. It was an anti-capitalist, avant-garde movement which marked a complete and utter break with orthodox traditions.
Yet, it seems that the institutions it set out to mock, now love the stuff! In 2010 "Untitled (Portrait of Marcel Brient)" by Félix González-Torres sold at auction for $4.6 million - the piece itself was described as an ever-replenishing pile of sweets, the weight of Marcel Brient.
$4.6 million to purchase a pile of sweets shown in a gallery sounds (rightly) mad to most of us, but is there more to it? Why is conceptual art now in style in the art world and what do the rest of us think of it?
'Untitled' (Candy pile) by Félix González-Torres with painting by Damien Hirst
When we think about traditional art, such as paintings or sculptures from the Renaissance, (think Da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David) it's quite easy to identify the 'art' (the painting/object created by the artist) and the 'value' (the skill of the artist after years of practice and the materials).
These two key terms 'value' and 'art' become a lot more abstract when we begin looking at 'conceptual art', with its use of ready-made objects or its half-formed, half-imagined nature. To find the 'art' and the 'value' it's often better to go right back to the start and examine what the term 'conceptual art' actually means...
'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'.
LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Artforum Vol.5, no. 10, Summer 1967, pp. 79-83
So if the 'art' is the idea, what does this mean for the 'value'? There is no definitive answer for this, and the value attributed to a piece is extremely subjective.
It could be in the influence of the work and it's importance both in the history of art and the history of society. It could be in it's rejection of consumerism or other debated concepts. Maybe it's in it's originality.
The term 'conceptual art' is now used to cover such a vast amount of art that it's impossible to have a generalised view of how to understand it or what it's 'value' is.
Therefore, to understand 'concept-driven art' requires a rough knowledge of the artist, their work and their motivations when making it to begin to understand it. This is often where we turn to the gallery or art critic.
Galleries create a lens through which to view the work through. However, the information supplied by galleries or the artists about the work can often be insufficient or filled with such high levels of art 'jargon' it's impossible to make sense of (a hell of a lot of words saying nothing meaningful at all!).
Often it isn’t the actual artworks which were exasperating, so much as the artists’ convoluted explanations which made them seem pompous or deliberately obtuse.
The more pessimistic might argue that this is on purpose, or is it naïvety by the galleries in presuming that everyone knows how to de-code the jargon?
John Baldessari at the Marion Goodman Gallery
One argument towards presenting the art -and art alone- is that it allows the art to talk for itself and for the viewer to consider and determine their own meanings for it. Often when we are able to read from a critic or authoritative gallery plaque what the work is about we take their interpretation as fact.
I remember hearing from an art teacher that the reason they went into teaching was that, while working in a gallery, they were thrilled every time a school group came in; the reactions and thoughts from the kids would be so different and genuine in comparison to people who 'knew about art'.
Spontaneous and free reaction from an audience, unhindered by fear over being right or wrong, is something many artists love. A key quote from LeWitt reads: 'Once it is out of his hand the artist has no control over the way a viewer will perceive the work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different way'. But is this what these galleries are achieving?
Often this lack of clear and informative writing about the artist and artworks results instead in the gallery space becoming alienating. In a vast white walled gallery it can seem like a huge amount of 'value' has been attributed to a seemingly ordinary object which we do not understand.
This uncertainty has now permeated throughout the perception of art spaces; recently when talking to a security guard at an open studios about the work around us, she repeatedly apologised for not understanding 'art' and for 'not getting it'.
We've now reached a point where for many who don't 'get' art (as in not part of the art world) this is the usual reaction, when the reality is everyone should be entitled to their own opinion or perception of a piece.
'Fountain'  by Marcel Duchamp
Another reaction caused by 'conceptual art' is that it seems to be a joke, putting the viewer off when they feel it's at their expense. The truth, however, is more likely the opposite.
The origins of conceptual art are often traced back to Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain'; a urinal that he submitted to the Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym 'R.Mutt'. The piece was intended to outrage the art society and also make fun of them.
The trend of critiquing the art world through humour and absurdism surged again with Neo-Dadaism in the 1950s leading into Conceptualism in the 1960s. So 'conceptual art' can often be absurd and humorous, but it's more often than not at the expense of the galleries and institutions, not the viewer!
'It was not just the structures of the art world that many conceptual artists questioned, there was often a strong socio-political dimension to much of the work they produced, reflecting wider dissatisfaction with society and government policies' - Tate
By producing ready-mades or works which simply couldn't be sold, such as Richard Longs 'A Line Made by Walking' artists attempted to subvert the institution and reconsider what defined art.
However, as we see the prices for 'conceptual art' drive higher and higher, the intention, the very ideas behind the work become warped and masked.
What once was a movement of critique, rejection of the art market and humour has become a symbol of elitism and commercialism, and with this distortion audiences who the work could engage with in these aims are lost to the austerity and inaccessibility of many of the galleries that show them.
What can change in the future to make concept-based art an open discussion, bringing the work out of the gallery and back into the everyday world?
A Line Made by Walking, 1967, Tate. Purchased 1976. © Richard Long / DACS, London.