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Series 1:
1970–NOW
Series 2:
1900–1970
Series 3:
MATERIALS & METHODOLOGIES
 —   Modern and Contemporary Art
 —   Conceptual Art
 —   New Media Art
 —   Participatory and Relational Art
 —   Installation Art
 —   Public Art
 —   Performance Art
Introduction   |   Essay   |   Resources   |   Booklet

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 LANGUAGE 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 ART. 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.


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