Conceptual Art

ART AS IDEA—IDEA AS ART

At mid-century, the question of what is art? was raised again for the first time since Emmanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Judgment in 1781. Starting in the mid-fifties, Neo-Dada art and Minimal Art challenged the presumed Modernist definition of “art,” as channeled through Clement Greenberg’s theories. Neo-Dada artists did not create, instead they borrowed and appropriated already available imagery. Pop artists mocked the pretensions of “high” art with their mimicry of “low” art. Minimal artists did not make works of art, they arranged encounters for the audience. If there was no difference between art and life, if there was no difference between the object and the spectator, if there was no such thing as independent art, if there was no sacred art space, then what was art? and why was this object designated as “Art?”

By the end of the Sixties, the art world was splintered and fragmented between the lingering effects of Modernism and the continuing tributes to Abstract Expressionism and new challenges to the hegemony of European high Modernism and to the aging Greenberg himself. Anti-modernist Pop Art and Minimalist Art and Fluxus and pro-modernist Post-Painterly Abstraction existed side by side, but in 1970, Conceptual Art emerged out of Duchampian-based interrogations of Modernism. As a movement that generated works of art, Conceptual Art might have been less important for its disdain of objects than for the fact that it presided over the final act of Modernism.

In 1964, it was a suite of Brillo boxes re-fashioned by Andy Warhol that stopped critic Arthur Danto in his tracks at the Stable Gallery. Clearly, a new theory of aesthetics—a new definition of “art”—had to be conceived. In his 1964 essay on The Artworld, Danto pondered this state of affairs:

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art…

Independently, philosopher George Dickie began to refashion aesthetic theory and in 1974 something new emerged: the Institutional Theory of Art, which states that “art” is legitimated by institutional processes. Art does not exist on aesthetic grounds and has no inherent or intrinsic properties. Art is an object “annointed” by the art world. The new functional analysis of the suitability of a candidate for the designation as “art” takes place within the institutional frame and destroys any possibility of the nominalism established by Greenberg.

Questioned by the intellectuals and attacked by artists, formalism collapsed. By 1968, Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth completed the destruction of Modernism by revealing that the “quality” upon which high art was based was nothing more than “taste,” and the taste of Clement Greenberg himself—one man with a good eye for art. “Above all,” he wrote, “Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgment, with those judgments reflecting his taste.” In addition, Kosuth pointed out, the “condition” or definition of art rested upon “morphological” grounds—physical attractiveness. In contrast to the formalists who did not question the received concept of art, the role of the artist was to question the very notion that art had to be an object.

Although Kosuth would be connected to Conceptual Art, his essay is a definitive re-positioning of art. Based upon Marcel Duchamp’s criticisms of “retinal art,” Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Philosophy,” 1969, was a definitive art critical end to Greenberg’s Modernism. Kosuth suggested that an act of art was an act of language.

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context ± as art ± they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist¶s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.

TRANSITION TO POSTMODERNISM

The late 1960s and the early 1970s is a time marked by an artistic withdrawal from the established art rules and by a distaste for making saleable objects. Conceptual Art was the first important gesture against the highly profitable art market, attracting artists who refused to make things anymore and/or who had a more intellectual bent. Sol LeWitt was an important transitional figure between Minimal and Conceptual art, and many Minimal artists drifted towards Conceptual art. According to LeWitt’s well-known dictum, “The idea is the machine which makes the art.” The term “conceptual” Itself had been around since the early 1960s, meaning art, which was not sufficiently expressive or personal. The German art movement, Fluxus, was considered “conceptual,” but Sol LeWitt’s 1967, essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” gave the term its first theoretical exegesis. By 1969 the term referred to the works of Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Thanks to the first exclusively Conceptual exhibition, January 5 – 31, 1969, arranged by Seth Siegelaub, their dealer, Conceptual Art announced itself. The object had been eliminated in favor of the idea.

Art became Philosophy. Art was now understood to be an idea that could be expressed in language and did not need to become an object. The Art-Language group in London published “Art and Language Point of View” in Art-Language magazine in 1967, stressing the fundamental role of language in the development of art. This group consisted of Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Howard Hurrel who worked with Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden. Conceptual artist from London to Tokyo to New York began to foreground the mental processes of the artist and to present, not works of art, but ideas about art in the form of declarations, statements and documentations of artist’s activities. As Raoul Noortmann wrote in 2012,

It can be argued that Art & Language is the most interesting expression of the resistance of conceptual artists against an alleged oppressive discourse in this decade. Their journal stood as an independent force within the artworld of this decade.

Written material, such as artist’s books and dealers’ catalogs, were presented as evidence of the mental activities of the Conceptual artists. Following the lead of the Minimal artists, these Conceptual artists took an active part in art writing. The writing of Conceptual Art was not intended to be either a work of art or of art criticism but an artist’s idea, which takes the place of a now-unnecessary art object. In contrast to Minimal art which had emphasized the perceptual experience of an object, Conceptual art re-located art in the mind of the artist and in the mind of the spectator. Supported by the austere philosophy of British analytical philosophy, particularly that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Conceptual Art represented a total withdrawal from object-ness into a discourse about the philosophical nature of art. As Kosuth wrote in “Art After Art Philosophy,”

It comes as no surprise that the art with the least fixed morphology is the example fromwhich we decipher the nature of the general term art. For where there is a contextexisting separately of its morphology and consisting of its function one is more likely tofind results less conforming and predictable. It is in modern art’s possession of a language with the shortest history that the plausibility of the abandonment of that language becomes most possible. It is understandable then that the art that came outof Western painting and sculpture is the most energetic, questioning (of its nature), andthe least assuming of all the general art concerns. In the final analysis, however, all of the arts have but (in Wittgenstein’s terms) a family resemblance.

Post Minimal Art or Conceptual Art changed the notion of abstraction in that the art no longer refers to reduction of form only but to Abstraction as an idea for it’s own sake. 1966- 70 was a watershed year in American art, as options derived from Minimalism, from the elimination of the object—Conceptual Art—to an expressionist revival of painterly issues as seen in Process Art which is a break with Minimalism. Process Art restored the non or anti-object resulting in “the de-materialization of art,” as Lucy Lippard said. Both Conceptual Art and Process Art reject the physicality and the literalness of Minimalism. Conceptual Art completely eliminates the object in favor of texts and language. Kosuth produced a series of Photostat texts-as-art, “Art as Idea,” consisting of definitions of, for example, “red” or “water” or “art” as propositions.

Influenced by the analytic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kosuth saw art as a proposition, that is, a statement of reality put forward to be analytically understood. A proposition “creates” the event or the object and comes out of an a priori concept. “Art” is a proposition that must precede any “art object.” If that is the case, that art is, a priori, a proposition, then there is no need to produce the object. All one needs is a text that defines “red,” and there is no need for a red painting. The viewer is intellectually activated far more than s/he was with Minimalism.

As Sol Le Witt expressed it, “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” When one reads one of Weiner’s enigmatic phrases, such as “…the joining of France and Germany by a rope…” written on a gallery wall, one is forced to “think” or “conceive” of what this “joining” would look like. When Robert Barry announces that he is presenting a photograph of a mile high column of air, one must attempt to envision such a column in the mind. The stress on art and language meant that art and language are interchangeable concepts.

Although any account of Conceptual Art must discuss Marcel Duchamp as a precursor, Duchamp was essentially an artist of the object. Duchamp’s main contribution to the end of the Modernist definition of art was to expand meaning beyond the object. “Meaning” in art was no longer inherent in the object or as an art meaning. Duchamp’s work suggested that meaning is multivalent, that meaning exists as a surplus, spilling over the supposed bounds of the object. In contrast, Conceptual Art was not concerned with meaning per se. Meaning is an externality that is of little interest. What concerned the Conceptual artist of the seventies was the tautology that is art. If Art is a Linguistic System and if Art is Information, then Art is Language.

Conceptual Art opened the door for artists who were writers, such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Kruger and Holzer installed a form of communication or speech-making in galleries and museums, directly addressing the audience who “reads” directives and exhortations. “Your body is a battleground,” as Kruger asserted, was not an analytical Wittgensteinian proposition, but a political statement. Kruger was a designer who stamped out slogans. Holzer wanted to write simple sentences. Had these artists begun their careers twenty years earlier, they would have been expected to paint, but after Conceptual Art, the two women had the art world’s “permission” to turn words into objects.

As Holzer stated in her Truisms, A SENSE OF TIMING IS THE MARK OF GENIUS.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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