What is Conceptual Art?
This introductory text provides a brief overview of Conceptual Art. Terms associated with Conceptual Art are indicated in CAPITALS and are elaborated on in the glossary or by hovering the cursor over the term.
Conceptual Art refers to a diverse range of artistic practice from the late
1960s to the early 1970s, where emphasis was placed on the concept or idea
rather than the physical art object. It also refers more generally to a framework
for creating and understanding CONTEMPORARY ART, which prioritises
a consideration of the idea or concept, and the intergration of context when
encountering the work. The origin and meaning of the term is disputed, as Conceptual
Art defies traditional forms of definition and categorisation, and cannot
be identified by a uniform style or medium.
Conceptual Art emerged during a period of social, political and
cultural upheaval in the 1960s. It was a reaction to the perceived constraints
of MODERNISM and the increasing commodification of the art object. Artists
sought the means to think beyond the medium-specific aspects of traditional
art forms, such as originality, style, expression, craft, permanence, decoration
and display, attributed to PAINTING and SCULPTURE. They used
and TEXT to directly disseminate ideas, demystify artistic production and
negate visuality. Artworks took the form of written statements, declarations,
definitions and invitations. As a consequence, this period has been described
in terms of the 'dematerialisation' of the art object; a notion contested by
some artists who argue that all ideas are accompanied by some form of artistic
material, whether it is a photograph, sketch, instruction or map. Internationally,
Conceptual Art is recognised for its use of both text and ephemeral or everyday
materials, such as FOUND OBJECTS, READYMADES, PHOTOGRAPHY, VIDEO,
PERFORMANCE, DOCUMENTATION and FILM.
Historically, French artist Marcel Duchamp pioneered a conceptual approach
to art with his readymades, pre-empting many questions pursued by Conceptual
artists regarding what is art and who determines it. Conceptual tendencies
can also be found in the 'anti-art gestures' of DADAISM, CONSTRUCTIVISM,
POP ART, MINIMALISM and FLUXUS. But it was Conceptual artists who interrogated
the normative cultural status and perception of the visual art object with
most rigour, believing art could act as a cultural intervention, and that it cannot
be considered in isolation from its social, political and economic environment.
This newly acquired scepticism questioned traditional forms of marketing
the art object as a decorative, visual COMMODITY, challenging the ownership,
distribution and authorship of the art object. The shift in emphasis from art's
material value was a deliberate attempt to subvert the autonomy and power of
the art market, and the GALLERY or MUSEUM as the location, arbiter and sole
representative of art. Central to disrupting the conventional logic of art systems
was the role placed on the audience, who were viewed as active participants
in the dissemination and expansion of ideas and the democratisation of art.
Beholding the idea was to behold the artwork; undermining the private ownership
of art as object and the conventional conditions of spectatorship. Artists
employed strategies from the mass MEDIA, such as magazines, billboards and
television broadcasts, to bypass the museum and gallery and to distribute art
within the public domain. To expand on the critique of art, ideas were sourced
from philosophy, LINGUISTICS, SEMIOTICS and CRITICAL THEORY.
Conceptual Art is hugely influential, considered by some to be the turning
point from Modern to Contemporary Art practice. Its influence can be seen in
performance art, LAND ART, INSTALLATION ART, PARTICIPATORY ART, SITE-SPECIFIC ART, NEW MEDIA ART, RELATIONAL ART and PUBLIC
It replaced an object-based practice with a reflexive preoccupation with the
objectification of art. Artists took on the positions of CRITIC and CURATOR,
and set out the parameters of a debate that art practitioners continue to
address. For some, Conceptual Art is considered an overly intellectual and
anti-aesthetic art form. Within the discourse of INSTITUTIONAL CRITIQUE,
Conceptual Art is considered a paradoxical exercise, in that the very institutions
which were the focus of its critique have now appropriated and instrumentalised
its strategies and methodologies, whilst simultaneously neutralising
its broader social and political impact. Conceptual Art continues to inform
Contemporary Art theory and practice, and has contributed to a revised understanding
of art, radicalising modes of presenting, exhibiting and collecting art.