credit Mark Kaswan via Flickr

Conceptual art: profound or elitist?

By Zinny Donovan

Conceptual art gets a bad rep, but maybe we shouldn’t write it off just yet.

Conceptual art, as a movement, genre, or idea, is inherently hard to pin down, not least of all because so many conceptual artists deliberately attempt to work in opposition to boundaries or rules. The origin of conceptual art is generally considered to be Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, a work that deliberately attempted to subvert convention and cause outrage. The Fountain was a porcelain urinal that the artist lay on its side, signed with a pseudonym, and submitted to an art show that supposedly had a no rejection policy; despite this, Duchamp’s piece was denied a spot in the exhibition. In doing so, Duchamp began a conversation about what exactly defines art, seemingly suggesting that the presence of an artist is all it takes for objects to become artworks.

The term “conceptual art” only began to be used in the 1960s, however. It was first coined by New York artists such as Joseph Kosuth, who prioritised ideas and processes over their final products, contrasting them to the increasingly commercial art world of pop artists. Kosuth, for example, simply photographed the dictionary definitions of various concepts (e.g. water, meaning, idea), for his piece Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), with each of these photos accompanied by an un-displayed certificate noting that each photo could be recreated by anyone for exhibition purposes. An artwork with this added clarification therefore becomes a reproducible idea rather than a single object made by an artist, thus attempting to remove the artwork from Duchamp’s centred idea of the artist. Both The Fountain and Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) can be defined as works of conceptual art despite their different definitions of what constitutes art. They both wrangle with concepts beyond the literal object but in completely different ways. Perhaps the easiest definition for the genre, therefore, is that conceptual art is anything made by someone calling themselves a conceptual artist.

It is exactly this sort of evasiveness that makes so many people run screaming from conceptual art or brand it as an ‘elitist’ genre that elevates thinking over simple appreciation. Whilst these artworks may seem to have obtuse goals, similar accusations have been made toward now-lauded art movements. The impressionists are now widely celebrated for, among other efforts, aiming to create artworks that captured the nuances and immediacy of changing light. They were derided for these forward-thinking ideas and the term “impressionism” was even drawn from a negative review of one of Monet’s works. Genres such as cubism and fauvism faced similar backlash. 

Many artists continue to paint impressionistically despite the movement’s provocative effects having long passed and its total absorption into mainstream appreciation. Similarly, a work like Comedian (which you may know as “banana-taped-to-wall”) did nothing new, even though it caused anger. It merely repeated the thought experiment of The Fountain, which is that: Object + Artist = Artwork. Perhaps we should all be more discerning in which conceptual art we label “elitist” or “obtuse,” an impressionist work can still be affecting and so can conceptual art.

At the Venice Biennale in 2022, artist Delcy Morales presented a work called Earthly Paradise that was entirely made of dirt. This seeming rejection of aesthetic ideas may seem to be in the same vein as The Fountain or Comedian, attacking artistic sensibilities. In actuality, the soil was imbued with sweet-scented substances to reflect an ancestral Argentinian tradition of making offerings to the earth. Morelos said, “My desire and intention are for the spectator […] to enter the dimension of the sacred, of gestation, of fragility.” This was not an act of self-satisfying elitist rebellion, but an attempt to bring indigenous ideas into the Western art world.

For many, art can only be understood through its aesthetic value. In the sitcom 30 Rock, wealthy CEO Jack Donaghy declares: “We know what art is; it’s paintings of horses,” reflecting a conservative but alluring understanding. Art limited to the scope of representational works that hold beauty above all. For many this is an attractive concept—admiration is the most important emotion for art to inspire in a viewer. But would sad songs or comedic films be improved if they prioritised beauty above all else? Why, then, should an artwork not prompt anger as in The Fountain? Is it elitist to suggest the viewer should appreciate anger as a human experience? Is the tension between the seeming lack of beauty in Earthly Paradise and its sacral quality not beautiful in its own way? Just because some conceptual art such as Comedian is lazy or uninspired, we shouldn’t write off the entire genre. Many people hate Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s contributions to impressionism, but do we therefore write off Monet and Seurat too? Conceptual art should be given the same considerations. For me, conceptual art is successful when it attempts to connect to viewers’ emotions and not just their thoughts. The Fountain was effective because it invoked anger, and Earthly Paradise asked the viewer to reckon with its heritage. The conceptual artist Rodney Graham once said that “even though you fight against [them] […] and conceptual artists seem to fight against emotional issues, I think you shouldn’t be afraid of them.” I find this sentiment to be a precise articulation of the emotional resonance I look for in conceptual art. Your criteria for appreciating these works may vary, but to simply throw the word “elitist” around limits the conversation.


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