Conceptual art

What's the idea?

Josie Appleton

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Every time the Turner Prize comes around, there is a debate about whether conceptual art is real art.

Reports lament that art students spend their time discussing ideas rather than learning how to paint. 2001’s Turner Prize winner, The Lights Going On and Off by Martin Creed, was greeted with disdainful cries of ‘anyone could do that!’. It is at this time of year that friends and family offer suggestions for Turner Prize entries (my brother’s last one was too disgusting to bear thinking about).

But what is conceptual art – and what isn’t ‘proper’ about it?

Conceptual art is concerned with ideas and meanings, rather than forms and materials. Early conceptual artists of the late 1960s began to stick word-plays on gallery walls and submit plans for events as pieces of art. The making of the art object was seen as a perfunctory affair, that could be assigned to assistants or abandoned entirely.

However, it is hard to see how art can ever be just an ‘idea’; art only really works when it is a visual experience of some kind. Of course, this visual experience represents ideas, but not pure ideas as are found in speech or writing.

In some cases, the conceptual art brief became an excuse for laziness. Rather than develop a piece of art, some artists just seemed to stop at the level of their initial insight. One crossword-style piece by the American artist Bruce Nauman in Tate Modern, produced around the time of the Vietnam War, presents the interlocking words, ‘War’ and ‘Raw’. The fact that ‘war’ read backwards is ‘raw’ is a somewhat interesting insight – but is it really a work of art? Compared to explorations into the rawness of war such as Picasso’s Guernica, Nauman’s work seems embryonic. He stopped where the work should have begun.

Another Nauman work is a piece of paper with ‘Make me think me’ written on it. According to Tate Modern’s labelmeister, this ‘raises a variety of provocative meanings’ – which, I suppose, is one way of putting it. When Nauman develops his insights a bit more, this tends to result in more effective pieces of art. One of his trademarks was to repeat verbs over and over, phrase-book-style, the effect of which is to make activity seem absurd. In one piece, he develops this idea: two actors on TV monitors read phrases – ‘I hate, you hate, this is hate’ – out of sync with each other, becoming progressively more agitated. The effect is disturbing and thought-provoking – unlike ‘Raw War’ it is the sort of thing that you might want to come back to.

In other cases, conceptual artists ‘add’ ideas to objects. Because it is the idea that matters and not the form of the art object, then almost any idea can be added to any object. The forerunner of this was Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 entered a urinal into an art exhibition under the title ‘Fountain’. By giving the urinal a particular title and submitting it as art, said Duchamp, he had ‘created a new thought for that object’.

What Duchamp did at least had the virtue of being original – up until that point, the issue of how we define art had not been questioned in such a dramatic way. Among those who followed him, however, this game of naming art objects became a little tired. Rather than explore ways of representing experiences or ideas, it became a matter of showing up the arbitrariness of systems of naming: presenting a plastic cup and calling it ‘tree’, for example.

Conceptual art refuses to be judged in conventional artistic terms, in terms of the material art object. But nor can it be judged as a pure idea, either. The result is that it occupies a kind of no-man’s land, where it is difficult to judge or hold it to account.

For example, the German artist Joseph Beuys gave some lectures in Marxist economics, and called the blackboards on which he scribbled his notes works of art (some of these are in the Tate Modern). Now, it is unlikely that these blackboards contain any shattering insights into Marxist economics – but because they are ‘art’, and so one-step removed from the person who created them, they cannot be criticised in terms of economic theory.

So there are major problems with conceptual art – with the approach of emphasising ideas rather than art objects. But much of the criticism of ‘conceptual art’ today is levelled at works that are not really conceptual art at all. The label of conceptual art is liberally bandied around, and stuck on to any piece of modern art that somebody wants to discredit. Most of the art in the Saatchi Gallery or the Turner Prize, for example, couldn’t really be described as conceptual. Some of the pieces in the Turner Prize involve significant craftmanship, and most aim to create a striking visual effect. They are less about wordplay or definitions than about shocking or impressive images.

You might argue that the Turner Prize pieces are driven by shock-value, the desire to get across a striking ‘message’ about the degraded state of sex or death. You could say that the piece of art is merely a vehicle for the shocking idea. But if the artists only wanted to shock, then there would be a no-holds-barred rush to shove corpses and live sex acts into the gallery. As it is, the Chapman brothers went to substantial effort to create what appear to be plastic blow-up dolls engaged in fellatio out of bronze – clearly the materials mattered, and the visual effect mattered. It was not just about the message.

In fact, when reduced to the ‘idea’, most modern British art becomes banal. This is a good sign. Mark Quinn’s Self (now lying in the Saatchi Gallery), which involved removing several pints of blood and freezing it in a cast of his head, doesn’t succeed on the level of the idea. The idea is ‘I am my blood’, or something like that. As an idea, it’s worse than alternatives, such as ‘I am my class’ or ‘I am my religion’. Self is impressive as a work of art because of the audacity of Quinn’s chosen material – and because of the haunting effect of the finished product, which seems to have the waxy quality of a death mask. Nauman’s ‘Raw War’, by contrast, would lose little on being reduced to the idea.

There is little point in opposing the art in the Turner Prize with some fixed idea of ‘proper’ art. The Stuckists, who demonstrate outside the prize every year, show how this position easily slips into caricature. Proper art is paint and canvas, they say – which ends up with a ridiculous fetishisation of the medium. It is as if they attribute paint with almost magic qualities, so that you only need take a few brushstrokes in order for it to be real art. The conclusion must be that, while every primary schoolchild produces art, Damien Hirst does not (one Stuckist recently described his work as ‘taxidermy’).

In actual fact, painting is just one medium among many – arguably no better or worse than video art, readymades or installations. At a recent debate, the British artist David Cotterrell said that when he moved from painting to other media, he applied the exactly the same standards of self-discipline. It wasn’t as if when he painted he was serious, and when he began to use video and interventions he started just messing around.

There are major problems with conceptual art, but modern British art cannot stand accused on these grounds. Rather than demonstrating outside Tate Britain calling for a return to painting, it would be far better to head inside.

Read on:

Sex, death (and art), by Tamsin Francis

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