The Case for Conceptual Art

Walking through an art museum can be a beautiful experience, but it can be equally confusing. One and Three Chairs(1965) by Joseph Kosuth is a picture of a chair, a chair and a piece of paper with the definition of a chair. Damien Hirst put a shark in a box, and Walter de Maria put a kilometer long brass rod vertically in the earth then covered it back up with a sandstone piece. This may seem like a prank but there’s a reason behind it, conceptual art.

Since man invented language our thought has been limited to only to what we have the words to describe, conceptual art tries to create thoughts more than words ever could ever describe. In 1999 Tracey Emin’s created the piece My Bed(1999) which took the bed out of her room, garbage and all and placed it into a gallery. She didn’t paint a scene, she didn’t use a picture; she merely brought in the bed she laid in during a one of the roughest times of her life for the public to see. She doesn’t claim the bed to be her masterpiece; instead, the masterpiece was bringing the world into her room. She could have easily taken a picture of it, or even could have made a painting of her in the bed, using blues, and neutral tones so you can understand what the room felt like. However, neither of these would have gotten the mood across as powerfully as actually standing in her room would. My Bed(1999) wasn’t sculpted with clay, but created over several days as Emin’s sat in desolation. This could of not been more powerful if it were created any other ways, you could never describe to someone a similar scene without living it first.

On the other hand there’s One and Three Chairs(1965) which may seem like nonsense or a prank when you first see it, but there’s more to it than that. Kosuth brought into question the chair itself: the chair was obviously a chair, but what about the picture of a chair is that still a chair? This isn’t a completely new concept either. The treachery of Images(1928) by Rene Magritte was a painting of a pipe that read “this is not a pipe” in french. Both of these are an artistic expression of Plato’s theory of forms, which boils down to the idea that for everything you can think of there’s a perfect form for it. Conceptual artist aren’t out to create a beautiful work of art, they use the art as a vessel for their ideas. Mel Bochner said the ideal conceptual work could be experienced through description alone and can be recreated indefinitely. Such as a work by Robert Barry which was a simple phrase

All the things I know

But of which I am not

At the moment not thinking -

1:36 PM, June 1969

This is not a visual work at all, but is an idea. He brings up everything we know but we can never access it all at once. Just like all art it isn’t completed until we consume it. We don’t analyze this by its composition or colors, but by its meaning.

As normal can’t talk modern without bringing up Marcel Duchamp. His work questioned what was more important in art: the visuals or the ideas? He wanted to make art that wasn’t retinal, or aesthetically pleasing. He believed that the idea was the most important part. If you’re ever lucky enough to see one of his paintings in person he typically wrote the name of his work right on the front. The name was so important to the meanings of his work he wrote it on the canvas. He eventually created The Fountain(1917), 3 standard Stoppages(1913), and several other readymades. The readymades were found objects claimed as art because he framed them as such and they were no more than expression of a concept. This paved the way for many artists after him, such as Koons, Hirst, Rauschenberg, and even many Abstract Expressionists to focus on meaning more than aesthetic. But Duchamp was not the first conceptual artist. It was actually daVinci who left many works unfinished. This wasn’t because he was lazy, but because he had ideas that were so advanced he couldn’t possibly create the forms he saw in his head. The conceptual artist today have just done what they can to represent the ideas in their head.

Weather or not conceptual art is good or now isn’t a question I could answer, that is up to you. But to say that conceptual art is not real art is an oversimplification. Conceptual art is meant to get the viewer, to not only participate, but also question the world around them. The job of the conceptual artist is to shine a new light on the world around us. I challenge you to find a conceptual work that makes you ask yourself a question you’ve never asked yourself before. It may take some time and research, but you just may find something you love.