The conceptual problem with Conceptual Art

by Dominic Blackwell

When you look at the way art is represented in the media there are two stereotypes which dominate. The first seems to uncritically accept that contemporary art is what Charles Saatchi collects and therefore spends its time trying to explain unmade beds and pickled sharks. The second wishes ‘modern art’ would all go away and people would go back to making accurate representational oil paintings of landscapes and portrait subjects.

However, as is usually the case, the real world is rather more complex than that. What I want to do here is try and understand what is really going on and why despite having an open mind and being able to enjoy a wide range of artistic creations I have never really ‘got’ conceptual art.

To understand this a bit of history is necessary. When you look at the history of western art from a great height it at first looks like the issue where modern art broke from traditional art is representation. On this analysis things started to go wrong when the impressionists gradually broke away from literally representing what they saw, deteriorated further with Picasso and ‘real art’ was dead by the time of Jackson Pollock. Although this is the view of many traditionalists it doesn’t square with my perceptions — I can enjoy impressionism and modernism as much as anything else. Besides the 20th century did not invent abstract art. Fabrics, buildings and pottery had been produced for centuries if not millenia before with abstract designs without any controversy.

Abstract art is also a bit like atonal music. You can write the history of western music in a similar way. The equivalent of the impressionists drifiting away from literal representation was Wagner’sTristan and its successors which blurred tonality further and further. And then the explicit use of abstraction has its conterpart in the Second Viennese School when Schoenberg, Berg and Webern deployed systematically atonal techniques.

However this argument doesn’t really work because atonal music and abstract art are to a great extent straw men. Given the human mind’s capcity to make connections you can’t really make music where all notes are equal or art with no representative basis. Colours and forms cannot help but trigger complex cultural associations. Redness or circles cannot be truly abstract and in the same way listeners to ‘atonal’ music will continually hear patterns based in the centuries of tonal music which came before.

So I think the real place where contemporary art lost me is a development which has been big in the art world but only peripheral in music. This is conceptualism, by which I mean that the point of the artwork is the idea rather than the execution. In music this is a small category dominated by curiosities such as John Cage’s 4’33” a piano piece consisting purely of silence. However in the visual arts this idea has become huge. A huge part of the discussion of modern art is discussion of the concepts behind art rather than art itself. It is the idea of an unmade bed or a pickled shark that is held up as interesting, not whether the object itself was made with any care or skill or communicates anything at all.

Many successful artists now have limited or no skills in representational art. And often they take credit for works where they have not done much of the making, which is done by far less well paid assistants. A while back I saw a documentary on a celebrated contemporary artist. The artist in question had an ‘assistant’ who actually was a very skilled photographer. The artist had the idea of photgraphing mist in a rural location. The ‘assistant’ expertly set up a complex view camera set up with carefully chosen exposure, lens choice and so on. Then the artist looked through the camera, triggered the shutter and had the art displayed under her name. This was portrayed as perfectly normal — not an exposé of anything — this was an officially sanctioned view of how the artists in question ‘made’ her work.

Now as someone who has worked to create art of my own whether with a camera, a pencil, a paintbrush or a graphics tablet this does seem a cheap trick.

But this is not the main problem with conceptual art. The main problem is that if you have a concept it is an idea and deserves discussion as such. If you want to make a post-modern statement you have every right to write it or say it and let people agree or disagree. But by making a piece of visual art conceptual you pull a double bluff. On the one hand because your art is conceptual critics are not supposed to comment on the fact that it looks a mess and the execution is crude beyond belief. Meanwhile because it is art we cannot treat it as an idea and judge on its intellectual merits which may well be a poor as the execution.

And finally as a result of this dishonest trick the conceptual artist gets the audience to do the work of creating meaning. So if you have neither skilfully created your art nor communicated any meaning, what qualifies you as an artist?

And this is why I don’t get conceptual art.

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