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.

This artfully arranged grouping of underwear, by Adriano Costa, (represented by Sadie Coles Gallery) sold for $3,500, at Art Basel. It’s not really fair to judge this piece separate from other of his works in an installation.

Haim Steinbach’s ready-made cheese graters recontextualized as art don’t likely capture the romantic imagination of the average passerby.

Untitled 1990, by Hain Steinbach. This can seem too easy to the casual viewer and the seriously delving critic alike.

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.

A cow’s head from Hirst’s “A Thousand Years” with blood, flies, and maggots, could offend delicate and hardened sensibilities alike.

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.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4



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.


9 replies on “Why People Hate Conceptual Art: Part 1

  1. Can’t wait for Part Five. And isn’t it crazy how some of us think we have to choose one type of art over another? That happens all the time with music — my classically trained friends think certain genres are useless, beneath them.


  2. Excellent man. As a traditional artist, I loathe conceptual art. The most pretentious conversations I’ve heard, and the most pretentious wank I’ve seen; have been conceptual. My biggest problem; is that the ‘fine-art’ establishment is institutionally-inbred [something I argued over and over during my art-theory essays, something I’m still surprised I got away with]; guess I was lucky to have a lecturer who felt as I did about conceptual and anti-art; the late and great Dennis Dutton. It’s the same ‘teachers’ guiding ‘students’ away from mere ‘figurative art’. As a figurative artist, I can take any roomful of conceptual artists-a hundred at a time; and paint all of them combined under the table. If they accepted that craftsmanship mattered, I wouldn’t have a problem and there would be peace. But these talentless, pretentious twats actually have the nerve to think their ‘art’ is superior and has left-behind such quaint notions as skill and technique. It also annoys me that every gallery I know that displays figurative art, at least displays non-figurative art, wereas galleries that display conceptual and ‘modern’ art; will not show anything that’s ‘merely’ figurative.
    I blame Dada personally; for opening the floodgates to all the talentless hacks. I tried studying 20th century art-for two yrs running at uni; but got an ‘e’ both times; as I just couldn’t hide my contempt and lack of interest.
    I’m listening to what you write, because you get it and aren’t trying to tell me why I should love and accept it; most-people HATE conceptual art-have done so for over a century and that will never ever change. Why? Because the emperor has no clothes. In any other profession, from music to making a cup of tea; skill and mastery are things to appreciate-and are even expected. Only in the artworld; could it be sneered at and dismissed. But at the end of the day, I’d rather be me than them. Most modern and esp conceptual artists arrive at a midlife crises when, in a rare moment of lucidity they realize; they can’t actually paint to save themselves, and that most people regard them piteously or as a joke-something an artist who’s done the time to develop, you know, an actual skillset; will never have to worry about. “Technique is everything”-Daubigny. What else is there? Composition?? Pfft; most first-yr art students can pull off a halfway decent composition, and most can also draw-but NONE of them can paint. Not one. It took me 23 yrs to teach myself-since my first completed oils; because there was no one to teach me [thanks Dada]. Bitterness? A little. But it’s mostly the fact that, if someone can’t play an instrument, or can’t play it well; we don’t call them a musician-or we judge them as a bad musician. Conceptual artists aren’t even bad artists. And yet the artworld revolves around them; WTF? Here’s a good article;


    1. Hi Zaron:

      Glad you liked my article. I do think much of the problem has to do with the either/or binary of traditional visual art and conceptual art. I like to use the analogy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. If we see them as doing completely different things, we can like what both do. John is a traditional musical artist, and Yoko, of course, is a conceptual artist. However, if we see Yoko’s art as transcending John’s, and rendering it obsolete and reactionary, then there’s a problem, and there will be a backlash. And this is what happened with contemporary art – we were told that Duchamp “checkmated” centuries of painting. He did no such thing. He did something else altogether, that is as different from painting as Yoko’s conceptual pieces are from the music of the Beatles. Comparing Duchamp’s readymades to Van Gogh’s paintings, and saying they are better, is like saying pizza is a superior form of hamburger. If Yoko’s work is seen properly as a completely different category of creativity than John’s, I find some of it whimsical, clever, or amusing. But if her work is pitted against the Beatles, in that either/or binary, I’d say it sucked. Ironically, conceptual artists like Jeff Koons don’t apparently listen to conceptual music. He claims to love Led Zeppelin, which is as far from balloon dogs as you can get.

      I’m not a big fan of conceptual art, either. I prefer music to conceptual art. In fact I may prefer music to visual art. Conceptual art is simply another genre, and not one I’m terribly interested in. There’s nothing wrong with loving visual art (art that actually uses visual language). It’s the same thing as loving music (with things like melody, harmony, and rhythm) as opposed to “sound sculpture”, “sound collage” or some other experimental use of sound.

      I pretty much had to do conceptual art in college, and I did it well enough. My thesis project was an installation. I’ve also done performance art. Those things require creativity and imagination, of sorts, but have as much to do with painting as does theater, science club, or MMA. If I had it my way, I would have stuck to painting in an environment that was supportive and qualified to mentor me at it. I didn’t get that. I got PC art ultimatums.

      The only way to connect conceptual art and painting is to put both of them under the rubric of “art about advancing art” – you know, this leads to that, and that to that more advanced thing, and so on. All of that, however, is complete tripe. Art should be enjoyed for its intrinsic worth, if it is to be enjoyed at all. People who think art is about one-upping the art that came before just don’t get it at all. It’s like thinking that this or that musical style rendered another irrelevant. But serious music aficionados don’t think like that at all. They see the merit in multiple musical genres, and are grateful for them.

      So, in order to actually enjoy conceptual art, we need for it’s false position as superior to traditional visual art to be dissolved, and properly recognize it as something unrelated.

      After being indoctrinated into the PC/conceptual art framework, I’ve rejected the graft and gone back unabashedly and unapologetically to what I love = image-based visual art. To declare such art moribund is as stupid and counterproducting as claiming music is obsolete.


      1. Good reply man, I think I agree with all of it too. If everyone thought like that-as visual art and conceptual/installation being seperate to, and not a binary this-leads-to-that oneupmanship; then there would be peace. It would be a fragile peace-requiring everyone to trust that one side won’t try to destroy the other, but it would become more stable over time.

        My question though is, you might be enlightened; but how many conceptual artists think like you? How many actually believe the shit they’re taught; which is that Duchamp checkmated painting??? The main problem, similar to what we’re seeing with the rise of Trump and Sanders in the U.S; is that the high-art institution is institutionally-inbred and that also is driving the reactions and making people dig trenches. It’s these teachers and gallery owners-who can’t paint and have no interest in craftsmanship; who are pulling the strings, teaching the next generation of e.g gallery owners to also turn their noses up at traditional art, excluding artists who just want to paint e.g landscapes; making them and the public angry. So the public near-universally loathes conceptual art and buys landscapes, yet the establishment pushes the former-and only that.

        I’ve also read somewhere, that most viewers only spend 5 seconds looking at a typical conceptual artwork, which is inline with my observations of attending conceptual art openings; I’m convinced almost no one’s interested in what they see and they ‘like’ it only because they think they should. But, ‘ya know; free wine is free wine. This is an insular world full of people who want to fit in, so say nothing bad. Once you step outside it; you hear the true reactions-and they’re pretty much universally never pretty.

        But yes, some conceptual art can be interesting and I would truely hate an artworld full of nothing-put portraits and landscapes. As I see it, e.g landscape painting will only remain relevant-so long as there are good landscape artists. That same philosophy should apply to any art form.



        Liked by 1 person

      2. There’s the art that’s meant to be looked at, and the art that’s meant to be seen. Much contemporary art is meant to be seen but not looked at, which is like music that’s meant to be heard but not listened to. It’s startling that people can’t see this difference. And the great flaw of conceptual art, when it poses as replacing visual language art, is that it offers nothing to look at, in which case if you want something to look at, you’re not going to find anything. This is probably why anti-music never took off – nobody is going to want to actually listen to it. Do conceptual artists even really like art that is intended to be lookd at? I’m sure some do, but if they REALLY like to look at it, they can’t then be against it.


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