The Problem of Conceptual Art Vs. Visual Art
There is terrible conceptual art, and there is terrific conceptual art, but the genre as a whole is reviled by the general public. There is a surprisingly simple explanation why this is so. No, it’s not because the people who don’t like it are conservative, anti-intellectual, unsophisticated, anti-progressive, or otherwise behind the pack. It can’t be that people who thrive on contemporary music, fiction, film, architecture, or even philosophy are mentally incapable of coping with conceptual art.
The big problem is the historical stance of conceptual art that it surpasses visual art, and makes it irrelevant, in the same way Einstein’s theory of relatively renders the Newtonian law of gravity obsolete. This presumption fuels resentment and hostility, especially if the conceptual work in question shows no apparent evidence of seriousness or effort, is a readymade/appropriation, or tries to shock us with something revolting.
The sculptural piece below, made up of artfully arranged underwear on the floor, and selling for thousands, typifies the seemingly thrown together strain of conceptual art people object to.
Haim Steinbach’s ready-made cheese graters recontextualized as art don’t likely capture the romantic imagination of the average passerby.
A Thousand Years (1990), by Damien Hirst incorporated a cow’s head, flies and maggots in a simulated endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that may have been less shocking for a lot of people, than simply repugnant.
It is a mistake to think conceptual art supersedes visual art, because the two approaches have different objectives and challenges, and are as dissimilar as music and literature. The conceptual approach is an alternative to art conceived in visual language, not a more advanced and encompassing development.
The origin of conceptual art was anti-art, which was an attempt to destroy visual art, in which case conceptual art can’t be the same thing as visual art. Conceptual art has to be fundamentally different from that which it repudiated, and there’s a painless way to tell the difference between the two genres.
Visual art is intended to be looked at – visually read or savored – in the same way that music is intended to be listened to and literature to be read. It uses structural elements of visual language elaborated over thousands of years, including: color, composition, line, shape, form, movement, texture, pattern, direction, orientation, scale, angle, space, perspective, and proportion. Conceptual art, on the other hand, historically opposed itself to visual language, was meant to be thought about rather than looked at, and defied visual language and being read visually.
Much of the hostility towards conceptual art is simply blowback from people who love visual art, and thus are opposed to anti-art dismissing all of visual language as being mere antiquated “craft”. Visual language is one of our prime sensibilities, and not only has it never been irrelevant, it would be a tragedy to lose it, in which case our capacity for conveying and appreciating our lived experience would be truncated. Conceptual art that displays no more aesthetic deliberation or sophistication than an average household appliance, or vehicle, can not be said to embrace or encompass visual language, any more than a doorbell can be credited as a musical composition, but only to show incidental characteristics of it. To add insult to injury, conceptual artists are held up as the greatest visual artists of the last 50 years (conceptual artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are the richest and most popular living artists), and part of this is due to the extra “radical” or “revolutionary” aura their work accrues when it is presumed to automatically eclipse all of visual art.
A solution to this problem is to disentangle visual art from conceptual art. Neither art form fares well when judged by the criteria appropriate to the other. From the vantage of conceptual art, visual art is perceived as quaint handicraft confined to two-dimensional rectangles; and from visual art’s standpoint conceptual art is visually innocuous, empty novelty, and not even art.
The two art forms can co-exist as separate kinds of creative enterprises, and this would eliminate much of the posturing, resentment, and misunderstanding between the two essentially different practices. [Yes, there are hybrids, as between any two art forms, but because of the confusion between the two, I’d like to focus on the differences for the sake of needed clarity.]
~ Ends part 1.
Here’s what I plan on the next sections to be about. It may change.
- Next up in part 2 is the common misperception of Jackson Pollock’s work, and how that has worked to privilege conceptual art over visual art.
- Part 3 is about the art historical origins of conceptualism (Duchamp’s readymades…)
- Part 4 is about the continued rhetorical subordination of visual art to conceptual art in recent decades.
- Part 5 is about conceptual artist’s recent attempts to make paintings.
- Part 6 is about conceptual artists who I admire, and the conclusion.