"Conceptual art is not about forms or materials, but about ideas and meanings.
It cannot be defined in terms of any medium or style, but rather by the way
it questions what art is. In particular, Conceptual art challenges the traditional
status of the art object as unique, collectable and/or saleable. [ ] This art
can take a variety of forms: everyday objects, photographs, maps, videos,
charts and especially language itself. Often there will be a combination of
such forms. [ ] Conceptual art has had a determining effect on the thinking
of most artists."1 - Tony Godfrey, 1998
"I will refer to the kind of art which I am involved in as conceptual art. In conceptual
art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. [ ] The
idea becomes a machine that makes the art. [ ] Conceptual art is not necessarily
logical. [ ] The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful
are ludicrously simple."2 - Sol LeWitt, 1967
"Conceptual art, for me, means work in which the idea is paramount and the
material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/
or "dematerialized." [ ] This has not kept commentators over the years from
calling virtually anything in unconventional mediums "Conceptual art." [ ]
There has been a lot of bickering about what Conceptual art is/was; who began
it; who did what when with it; what its goals, philosophy, and politics were and
might have been. I was there, but I don't trust my memory. I don't trust anyone
else's either. And I trust even less the authoritative overviews by those who
were not there."3 - Lucy Lippard, 1972
"Concept art is first of all an art of which the material is concepts, as the material
of e.g. music is sound. Since concepts are closely bound up with language,
concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language."4 - Henry Flynt, 1961
"I chose to work with inert gas because there was not the constant presence
of a small object or device that produced the art. Inert gas is a material that is
imperceivable - it does not combine with any other element [ ] That is what
gas does. When released, it returns to the atmosphere from where it came. It
continues to expand forever in the atmosphere, constantly changing and it does
all of this without anybody being able to see it."5 - Robert Barry, 1969
The quotations which begin this essay establish most of the key themes in
discussing conceptual art: the priority given to ideas; the ambiguous role of
actual objects and materials; the need to rethink the mechanisms of 'display'
and distribution of art; the increasingly important role for language; and the
tendency to trouble core definitions both of 'art' in general and of 'conceptual
art' itself in particular. This repeated play with definitions 'What is the limit of
what can be included under the heading "art"?' 'What is the most reduced and
concise way in which a conceptual artwork can be "given" for the audience to
"experience"?' makes answering the question 'What is conceptual art?' a little
tricky, but also very worthwhile.
Perhaps the easiest way to introduce conceptual art is to consider some
examples of work typically described as 'conceptual'. Robert Rauschenberg
sends a telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert which says: 'This is a portrait of Iris
Clert if I say so' as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits in the gallery,
(1961).6 Stanley Brouwn asks passers-by in Amsterdam to show him the way
to a particular spot in the city using pen and paper, (This way Brouwn, 1961).7
John Baldessari instructs a sign painter to paint the following words on a
canvas: 'Study the composition of paintings. Ask yourself questions when
standing in front of a well-composed picture. What format is used? What is
the proportion of width to height?', (Composing on a Canvas, 1966-8).8 Cildo
Meireles screen-prints subversive messages onto Coca-Cola glass bottles and
re-circulates these so that they are re-used for selling Coca-Cola (Ideological
Circuits: Coca-Cola Project, 1970).9 Joseph Kosuth exhibits a series of blackand-
white photostats of dictionary definitions for words such as 'meaning' and
'universal', (Art as ideas as idea, 1966). Adrian Piper exhibits a short text saying:
'The work originally intended for this space has been withdrawn. [ ] I submit
its absence as evidence of the inability of art expression to have a meaningful
existence under conditions other than those of peace, equality, truth, trust and
Less the medium, more the message
This term 'conceptual art' has become the most widely used name for works
such as these, which form a broad spectrum of experimental artworks and
practices that developed from the 1960s onwards. These new art practices
no longer necessarily depend on the production of discrete one-off physical
objects; nor necessarily use traditional media and techniques like picturemaking
with paint or modelling with clay or casting with bronze or assembling
with metal and wood; nor even demonstrate a specifically pronounced 'visual'
or 'hand made' aspect. Typically, though not without important exceptions, art
making prior to this development had been a matter of working directly within
relatively familiar art forms and media painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking
to produce discrete objects. Conceptual art can make use of these
forms on occasion, but it no longer requires these forms in order to produce
something that claims an audience's attention as an artwork the emphasis
is generally not placed on a specific material artefact nor on hand-crafting or
technical-making processes as such, nor even on the 'expressive' personality
of the artist, but rather on a range of concerns that emphasise the role of
'ideas'. However, such generalisations are really only rough approximations
in many ways the list of works provided above could be used as counterexamples:
for example, Robert Barry's work with inert gases is centrally based
on a material process, the diffusion of the gases into the atmosphere; however,
this process is not available to perception in the usual terms of art viewing. This
play off between percept (what is given in the experience) and concept (what
is proposed as organising the experience meaningfully) is a recurrent feature of
much conceptual art which makes use of the ambiguous interplay of language,
perceptual experience and the conceptual organisation of experience.
When was Conceptual Art?
Most commentators identify the period from 1966 to 1972 as the key phase of
development: a period that concludes with the canonisation of conceptualism
in the controversial international survey exhibition Documenta V in Germany
organised by Harald Szeeman,11 and the first publication of Lucy Lippard's often
cited book that maps conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art
Object from 1966 to 1972, in the US.12 However, this neat packaging of cultural
practices in such crisply delimited movements and periods, with clear beginnings
and endings, is always, to a greater or lesser degree, misleading, although
such periodisations are sometimes useful in summarily introducing complex
cultural historical material.
The key problem presented by mapping conceptual art is the degree to
which it has come to reorient the entire field of modern art, so that producing
an account of conceptual art opens up a whole range of unresolved issues that
continue to vex participants in contemporary art debate.
A rough answer to the question
So as a first rough attempt at an answer to the question 'What is conceptual
art?', we could propose something like: conceptual art, is the name for a broad
tendency to shift the priorities for making, describing, thinking about, giving
value to, and distributing works of art, toward questions of idea rather than
technique. This is a tendency that is strongly evident since the 1960s. This is a
shift from questions of craft process, material artefact, medium, tradition and
virtuosity as primary, to questions of intention, meaning, idea and information as foremost in importance. This broad shift in emphasis is evident internationally
in the work of artists from many countries including Argentina, Australia,
Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the
UK, and the United States, from the 1960s onwards. While some have identified
conceptual art primarily with New York and North America, and thus with an
English-speaking cultural context, others have worked hard to overcome this
bias by exploring the rich and culturally diverse examples of conceptualism
Problems with this answer
But one of the problems with this answer is that it seems to isolate conceptual
art from a broader set of developments in post World-War II culture, such as
pop art and minimalism, as well as wider developments in literature, poetry,
theatre, performance and mass media. Part of the problem here is the way in
which the academic discipline of art history, especially in its popularised form
in glossy publications and television programmes, likes to talk of 'styles' and
'movements' and to anchor these notions by describing the visual appearance
of, and techniques used in producing artefacts such as paintings and sculptures.
Clearly, when artists begin to prioritise ideas and begin to use ideas from a wide
range of sources science, philosophy, sociology, literary theory, media and
communications studies, cybernetics, ecological activism, and counter cultural
politics for example the old art historical conventions of 'movements' and
'styles' potentially become obstacles to establishing a broad and rich sense of
a wide-ranging re-orientation of the global art system. (Of course another problem
of academic art history can often be its preoccupation with being 'correct'
and exact in its use of terms, which can lead to a lot of hair-splitting and angels
dancing on the heads of pins, so let's not lose too much sleep over our rough
answer to the question 'What is conceptual art?')
One important dimension of conceptual art (which it is difficult to address
in an answer like the one given above), is its relationship with counter-cultural
tendencies and with various forms of international cultural politics such as
feminism, the anti-war movements, and various forms of activism and dissent.
A key work of the 1970s and critically important for the development of feminist
cultural practice and debate is Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document,
which is in part a reworking of conceptual art approaches to the exhibition
as 'system' and a use of the archive as a medium of display (presenting images,
diagrams, documents, artefacts in a systematic manner).14 The exhibition as
'system', refers to the use of cybernetics and systems thinking in various conceptual
art projects and in the rethinking of the function and role of exhibition
and display.15 This is not to say that all conceptual art manifested a countercultural
tendency: this was not the case.16 This is to make a claim for the broadening
effects of conceptual art in terms of themes and methods in art making
which enabled (not caused) the emergence of new cultural practices and
debates which foregrounded questions of identity, gender, and class.17
Conceptual art and the knowledge economy
Another dimension of conceptual art, which is not fully addressed in this definition,
is the ambiguous and complex relationships between conceptual art and
changes in the contemporary art market. Some commentators like Lippard
emphasise conceptual art's 'dematerialisation' of the art object and identify
this with attempts to resist the commercial logic of the art market. Other commentators
foreground the role of conceptual art in reshaping the dynamics of
the art market and the nature of what can feasibly be bought and sold. Seth
Siegelaub, a key New York gallerist and curator since the 1960s, has written:
'The economic aspect of conceptual art is perhaps most interesting. From the
moment when ownership of the work did not give its owner the great advantage
of control of the work acquired, this art was implicated in turning back
on the question of the value of its private appropriation. How can a collector
possess an idea?'18 Of course this talk of a new economy of ideas has a familiar
ring for contemporary ears, and indeed some writers have identified a connection
between such 1960s radical art ideas and twenty-first-century notions of
'knowledge economy' and 'cognitive capitalism.'
In the 1990s, French sociologists argued that there is a relationship
between the kind of creative and imaginative idea-based work proclaimed by
1960s artists and activists as progressive and transformative for society, and the
kinds of 'flexible' 'creative' 'idea-generating' and 'immaterial labour' proclaimed
by more recent champions of information capitalism and 'flexibilisation' as
economically progressive and transformative.19 This is a very controversial
matter, suggesting as it does that in some way work that sought to be socially,
politically and culturally progressive in the 1960s has become taken-over as
economically instrumental thinking by a new form of capitalism that seeks to
exploit ever more totally our creative and social being.20 Others go right back
to the 1960s and identify a connection between the new art ideas of conceptualism
and the new marketing cultures of corporations. Alexander Alberro has
argued that: 'The infusion of corporate funds was a major element in the expansion
of the art market during the mid-1960s. [ ] Many in corporate practice [ ]
imagined new, innovative art as a symbolic ally in the pursuit of entrepreneurship.'21
This is just one way in which conceptual art continues as a live controversy
for contemporary art practice and cultural debate.
Conceptual art now
For some commentators the rise of conceptual art has been nothing less
than the betrayal of the visual arts by overly literary and anti-visual cultural
practices.22 For other commentators conceptual art has generated the basis
on which current practice proceeds and, for them, it has established the basic
problems and themes with which artists must continue to work. Arguably,
conceptual art continues to be the key background for a number of important
debates in contemporary art: the role of the curator; the functions and limits
of art institutions (galleries, museums, exhibitions); art as exemplary economy
of the 'dematerialised'; the meaning of 'public'-ness in art; the appropriate
role and limits of mediation, publicity and explication in contemporary art;
the inclusions and exclusions that operate in the circuits of global culture;
and the relationship between art practice and knowledge.
In the most simple and everyday terms conceptual art has given rise to a
new criterion in judgements on art. Encountering a work of art, instead of the
question 'Is it beautiful?' or 'Is it moving?' we now find ourselves more often
than not, first asking ourselves, 'Is it interesting?'
Sol LeWitt, 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', Artforum, June 1967.
Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972,
U niversity of California Press, 1997. [Orig. 1973].
Henry Flynt, 'Essay: Concept Art.' in An Anthology of Chance Operations, La Monte
Young and Marion Zazeela (eds.), 1963. See [http://www.ubu.com/historical/young/
Robert Barry in Meyer, 'Conversation with Robert Barry', 12 October 1969. See [www.
See Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary
Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. University of California Press, 1995, p. 804.
Susanna Heman, Jurrie Poot, and Hripsime Visser (eds.), Conceptual art in the
Netherlands and Belgium 1965-1975. Amsterdam: NAi Publishers/Stedelijk Museum,
2002, p. 124.
See Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism:
Points of Origin 1950s-1980s, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999, p. 59.
See Lucy Lippard.
From 1961 to 1969, Harald Szeemann was Curator of the Kunsthalle Bern, where in
1968 he famously gave Christo and Jeanne-Claude the opportunity to wrap the entire
museum building in an emblematic work of the period. Szeemann's important 1969
exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, at the Kunsthalle, introduced European
audiences to artists like Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and Lawrence Weiner.
It is often cited as a key moment in the emergence of the modern figure of the
'curator' as indeed has Szeemann's practice in general. See Hans-Joachim Muller,
Harald Szeemann: The Exhibition Maker, Hatje Cantz, 2006. Documenta V took place
in 1972 as the fifth in the series of major survey shows of international art, which
began in 1955. Curated by Szeemann, it provided a broad representation of European
and North American conceptual art and sparked controversy because of the strong
authorial input of Szeemann into the project. Documenta V has become a key
reference in debates about the nature of the curator's function in contemporary art.
L ippard's book prioritises New York and emphasises the 'dematerialisation' of the
artwork. This is a matter of some contest and debate. Jon Bird and Michael Newman
have argued: 'Lippard's term implies a logic of subtraction as the materiality of the
art object is systematically reduced or redefined, and the concept 'art' and the context
increasingly carry the burden of meaning. No single term can adequately describe
the various formal and theoretical investigations pursued by artists during this period.'
S ee their 'Introduction' in Rewriting Conceptual Art, Reaktion, 1999, p. 4. See also
Michael Corris's 'An Invisible College in an Anglo-American World', the introduction
to his edited anthology on Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice, Cambridge
U niversity Press, 2004. Corris cites Art & Language's disparaging perspective on this
position, whereby they asserted that 'most of the 'dematerialisations' of the time were
absurd reifications of discursivity, perfectly formed for co-option' (p. 1).
L uis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism: Points
of Origin 1950s-1980s. Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999. But this has by no
means become the dominant approach. There is a notable preference still to prioritise
east coast American artists and their associates from Europe in accounts of
S ee Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document, University of California Press, 1999. The work
was first exhibited in 1976 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, where she
showed three of the six 'Documents' from this extended project. The book version was
first published in London in 1983.
Michael Corris notes that: 'The concept of a 'system' which became part of the
lingua franca of the 1960s, was not destined to remain the exclusive property of a
technologically minded elite of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. In the
hands of intellectuals, artists, and political activists, it would become an essential
ideological compnent of the 'cultural revolution'. Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and
Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 189. For an online version see [http://
Indeed, Gregory Battcock specifically critiqued an important New York show of conceptual
art, 'Information' at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, precisely because
it lacked political vitality. See Gregory Battcock , 'Informative Exhibition at the
Museum of Modern Art', Arts Magazine, Vol. 44, No. 8, 1970, p. 27.
Adrian Piper's trajectory is interesting in this regard. See her Out of Order. Out of Sight.
Vol. 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art: 1968-1992, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
Seth Siegelaub, in Michael Claura and Seth Siegelaub, "L'art conceptual," Xxe siecle,
41 (December 1973) reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, (eds.),
Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999,
p.289. (Cited also in Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity,
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 1.)
See Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Gregory Elliott, The New Spirit of Capitalism,
Verso, 2006. [Orig. ] While Boltanski et al., do not specifically cite 'conceptual art',
they refer to a broader 'artistic critique' which correlates strongly with key themes
in conceptualism and with the cultural dissent associated with '1968'. They ask: 'Must
we not ask [ ] if the forms of capitalism which have developed over the last thirty
years, while incorporating whole sections of the artistic critique and subordinating it
to profit-making, have not emptied the demands for liberation and authenticity of
what gave them substance ?'.
Victor Burgin's pronouncement from 1988 is revealing here: 'The original conceptual
art is a failed avant-garde. Historians will not be surprised to find, among the ruins
of its utopian program, the desire to resist commodification and assimilation to a
history of styles'. See Victor Burgin, 'Yes Difference Again...' in A. Alberro & B.Stimson
(eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999, p. 429.
Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press, 2003, p. 13.
For an entertaining read in this vein see Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1975.