Chairs, urinals and text: Understanding conceptual art

Chairs, Urinals and Text: Understanding conceptual art

With a rich and impressive history that spans six decades, conceptual art is a movement that is still going strong to this day, but it is not without its critiques. Conceptual art, by nature, is intended to provoke and question the very notion of art itself. Conceptualists often get a bad rap (Shia LaBeouf anyone?) and artworks from this movement are often ridiculed.

If you’re one of many who find conceptual art hard to explain, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Trying to define the movement can be difficult, but conceptual artist Sol LeWitt put it best: “In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work…the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” Not bound to any materials in particular, conceptualists generally use any mediums to express their ideas, from found objects and documentation, to text and video.

As it’s loosely defined, conceptual art often has gallery audiences exclaiming, “I could have made that!”. This is because a conceptual artist may simply display a chair and call it art, because it’s the idea behind this choice that is what is meant to be debated and consumed, not the chair itself.

A notorious art movement

It’s hard to speak of this genre without mentioning Marcel Duchamp, as his 1917 artwork “Fountain”, a urinal simply signed R. Mutt, paved the way for “ready-made” or “found object” art and set the foundations for conceptualism. As with many conceptual artworks, there has been a lot of dispute about whether “Fountain” should even be considered art.

“Fountain” became one of the most highly-disputed artworks of the 20th century, with even the Society of Independent Artists having rejected it. Duchamp’s urinal was, contrary to popular belief, not chosen at random; rather it was chosen for its ability to challenge thought around art itself. It was a mocking intended to nudge artists into thinking strategically about their own field.

Instead of paintings and sculptures, art became ordinary objects, placed on display in galleries. As philosopher and author Damon Young states, conceptual art presents us with an interesting concept: “A work of art that isn’t really a work of art; an everyday object that is not just an everyday object”. Conceptual art is a shift away from aesthetics and toward thought.

It is perhaps this loose definition of the movement that causes confusion among audiences. Some feel that this implies a lack of concern over the execution of the artwork itself, which results in a loss of craft. On the other hand, isn’t all art created because of an idea or concept? Even experts struggle to answer this.

Andrew Wilson, curator of Tate Britain’s exhibition Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979 stated of conceptualism, “It’s not a movement, it’s not a style, it’s a set of strategies”. This may be a pretty accurate description, but it’s one still met with dubious faces.

How to consume conceptual art

The best way to view conceptual art is by not comparing it to visual art. When judged based on this criteria, conceptual art has no way of faring well.

What unites many conceptual artists is their push against the art institution, whereby the market judges whether certain art is “good” and certain art is “bad”.

Artists across Europe and America banded together on a mission to expand the meaning of art. Artists found conceptualism as a way to express their frustration not only with art, but with political oppression as well. Conceptual art flourishes in part because it doesn’t have a definitive style — it is simply a form of expression.

Text, too, is a common component of conceptual artworks, with artists often incorporating language into their objects. Artists such as Joseph Kosuth and John Baldessari would use language to further signify an idea behind their artwork. Baldessari, in particular, used humour in text to first make the audience laugh, and then make them think. A clever tactic, Baldessari’s work was often very clear and he used text and photographs to convey his message, which the audience resonates with well.

Pushing the traditional boundaries

Conceptual art’s legacy is to abandon traditional approaches and to change society’s view around what we actually consider as “art”. Challenging the status quo has always been at the forefront of many conceptual artists.

Often politically charged, conceptual artworks scrutinise and take inspiration from events happening in the real world, depicting work with themes ranging from feminism, to governments and elections.

For all of its critiques, conceptual art truly captures audiences, whether they love it or hate it. It encompasses and tackles current issues of time, identity, and ownership. Without the groundwork laid by conceptual artists in the 1960s and 1970s, one has to wonder if the art world would truly be as diverse and expansive as it is today.

Cover image via Gary Sheridan

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