Friday, January 14, 2011

conceptual art, anyone?


i'm not sure what you think about conceptual art, but i'm a big fan. admittedly, "conceptual art" as a descriptive term is a bit of a grab-bag, but we can variously frame it like this:
  • Conceptual art is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns (from wikipedia)
  • A genre of art in which the transmission of ideas is more important than the creation of an art object (from wiktionary)
  • Art that is intended to convey an idea or a concept to the perceiver, rejecting the creation or appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting or a sculpture as a precious commodity (from artLex)
  • Art that focuses on the idea expressed and the process of creating the work (from artsConnected)
  • Type of modern art in which the idea or ideas that a work expresses are considered its essential point, with its visual appearance being of secondary (often negligible) importance (from talktalk)
  • Conceptual art is based on the concept that art may exist solely as an idea and not in the physical realm (from absoluteArts)
i'm a big fan of sol lewitt's work, especially his wall drawings (mass moca has a long-term installation you can peruse here). he is a seminal and important figure in the development of conceptual art, and published numerous "manifestoes". here is one that i think has a lot of interesting ideas to contemplate regarding the process of [thinking about] making art, and reception of art works (or the relationship of the art object and the viewer/ reader). whether you self-identify as a conceptual artist or not, i'd be interested in discussing which statements resonate with you, or that you disagree vehemently with, and why.

Sentences on Conceptual Art by Sol Lewitt (1968)
1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
7. The artist's will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His wilfulness may only be ego.
8. When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations.
9. The concept and idea are different. The former implies a general direction while the latter is the component. Ideas implement the concept.
10. Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.
11. Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order. They may set one off in unexpected directions, but an idea must necessarily be completed in the mind before the next one is formed.
12. For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.
13. A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist's mind to the viewer's. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist's mind.
14. The words of one artist to another may induce an idea chain, if they share the same concept.
15. Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.
16. If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.
17. All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
18. One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
19. The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
20. Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.
21. Perception of ideas leads to new ideas.
22. The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
23. The artist may misperceive (understand it differently from the artist) a work of art but still be set off in his own chain of thought by that misconstrual.
24. Perception is subjective.
25. The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.
26. An artist may perceive the art of others better than his own.
27. The concept of a work of art may involve the matter of the piece or the process in which it is made.
28. Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist's mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29. The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.
30. There are many elements involved in a work of art. The most important are the most obvious.
31. If an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one would assume the artist's concept involved the material.
32. Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.
33. It is difficult to bungle a good idea.
34. When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.
35. These sentences comment on art, but are not art.

First published in 0-9 (New York), 1969, and Art-Language (England), May 1969

i'd be very interested in which points stand out to you - whether they ring true and strike a chord, or whether you think they are absolute bunk - and why.

9 comments:

Wenda said...

I like some of these very much, especially #32. I like the notion that ideas can be works of art and now #12 identifies that there are "tailings" and "tangents" in artmaking that can lead to more artmaking or just veer out into the atmosphere.
I don't agree with #6, although I may have to re-read it. I think I try to have dialogue with my work during the process, and if I need to change direction, that's okay with me. I don't think my results are compromised or repetitious...mind you, I will not see what the results would have been if I had continued on the original path.
Some of this rings true for me and other parts seem restrictive for no clear reason...just his opinion, I guess. I like the freedom that is suggested in #25; that of the artist not necessarily understanding his/her own art. I like the notion of the work going beyond what the artist anticipated.
Generally, I'm a fan of conceptual work, BUT I find there is periodically a disconnect between this work and the ability for the idea/concept to be clearly communicated. My experience is that too often the work carries no meaning for me, is inaccessible and uncommunicative. I think of myself as someone with a reasonable visual vocabulary and yet find myself challenged to an unreasonable point with some conceptual work.
I think the artist has a responsibility to ensure that at least some of the ideas or concepts are clearly communicated, whether through titling, artist statements or some other descriptive notation. This doesn't always happen for me and I find it irritating and irresponsible of the artist...self-indulgent, if you will, to make assumptions that the viewers/participants should be able to draw out the concepts when so little is given.
So then I'm left with trying to glean some meaning through the aesthetics of the piece which is often secondary to the concept...
Do I just need to increase my vocabulary? If even I have trouble with a good chunk of this type of work, how can the masses access the ideas or engage this work?
Okay...my soapbox for the day...but you asked for it...sort of ; )

pcNielsen said...

Fascinating.

I could go point by point, but there wouldn't be much point to that and no one has time to read such a response.

A lot of his points are very interesting but a lot of it, I'd argue, is at the same time over-analyzing. Some work will be more conceptual than others, even work done by the same artist.

We need this kind of thought process as we work, but we also need to understand that it can get in the way of just going after an idea. Which, ironically (it seems to me anyway), he eludes to in his list.

Wenda said...

Hey, there's a great article on conceptual art in Canada in the latest Border Crossings.

techne said...

part one
thanks for commenting. personally, there's a lot to engage with here. here are some of my thoughts...

while conceptual art is often thought (sic) to be primarily an interllectual enterprise, i think there is always room for the intuitive and provisional - i don't think conceptual art denies that. in fact, there are numerous conceptual artists who incorporate that as part of the idea. it’s just that conceptual artists often follow something through to a conclusion of sorts in order to see what occurs as they do so. perhaps it’s more process or project based. it’s about conveying an idea (a Truth?) rather than expressing an emotion (which is not to say that emotions can not be part of the work). the idea or concept can be clarified by the choices made as to the use and effect of the various elements whether material, formal concerns, placement or context.

i quite like the idea that “a work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist's mind to the viewer's. but it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist's mind.” this begs the question of whether or not something is a work of art if the communication between object and viewer breaks down. at least, that's my question.

i’m also a fan of the breakdown of traditional hierarchies of importance for certain art forms: ”since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.” it’s a matter of determining what vehicle will communicate the idea.

iI also very much appreciate the understanding of an artwork operating within a context, whether that’s an art historical context or a social/ philosophical one.

and of course “successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions…perception of ideas leads to new ideas.” ultimately, even emotional responses shape our thinking processes, though that may be more [initially] unconscious than conscious. then again, i’m a firm believer that we can discover those underlying motivators, and that artists in particular, must do that in order to be more effective as artists. we're communicators, right?

techne said...

part two
“the artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.” this is, i think, quite an instructive comment. something needs to come to fruition, or incarnation, in order to test its propositions and see how it functions "in the world". it is difficult to read an artwork (and i realize that conceptualism is often characterized as a more literary approach to the art process and object) until you have an opportunity to remove yourself (and your ego) from it. or at least as much as possible. of course, while i believe strongly – very strongly – in the responsibility of the artist to be cognizant of how their work functions and communicates.

it is clear that “the artist may misperceive (understand it differently from the artist) a work of art but still be set off in his own chain of thought by that misconstrual,” that ”perception is subjective”, “the artist may not necessarily understand his own art. his perception is neither better nor worse than that of others” and that “an artist may perceive the art of others better than his own.” i think that is a very real acknowledgement of the slipperiness of the artistic process and our own humanness, in addition to our ability to be aware of those things. there are always “more things dreamt of” etc., etc.

i also appreciate the idea that “the concept of a work of art may involve the matter of the piece or the process in which it is made.” again, that may be part (or all) of its meaning. the joy of repetition. the love of materials. those things speak. preach. sing. therefore, “if an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one would assume the artist's concept involved the material.”

and while i agree that “banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution” – and aren’t we always enamoured by our own work? – i disagree that “it is difficult to bungle a good idea.” i think how one executes an idea (material, scale, genre/ style, etc.) is crucial to how it will be interpreted and engaged with. the work’s materiality, its objecthood (objectness?), is a large part of how it makes meaning.

lastly, i can appreciate his admonition that “when an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.” we need to continually be exploring new materials, visual languages, new ideas. we need to challenge ourselves to say things in new ways, to "sing a new song". after all, most of us tend to pursue the same idea or content. we find our voice and build an orchestra with it.

Wenda said...

I wish there was a "like" button for your last sentence. Thanks for this. It's like having coffee with you. Good.

Josh said...

I don't know art history well enough to know how these ideas sounded at the time. A lot of them are familiar ideas to me, but I had never tried to look for a source. I suppose the connotations of immateriality and questioning rationalism appeal a bit to the Christian mind..

I've always thought that conceptual art would be the only way to make art about faith. Conceptual art encompasses the gesture of art making (the political act of deciding to create something), and can sometimes refuse to accept a form in that it's meaning and value is shaped by changing conversations about it. And it can remove emphasis from the form. This is how Christians think about worship: it doesn't matter if a hymn or (atrocious) Christian-pop-rock song is sung, the heart, the intent, the communication, the concept is what matters. In addition the entire Christian life is an act of worship (Isaiah 58:6 ?), similarly some artists consider their whole life to be art..

Hope this isn't total rambling. On the topic of conceptual art, I am currently working as part of a collective ('Archipelago') on this project:

http://www.cornerhouse.org/art/info.aspx?ID=425&page=0

I'd be interested to hear how unintelligible it sounds from the gallery 'blurb'.

techne said...

@josh

i think the point is that, while the idea is primary, all the additional [formal/ materials] elements focus or amplify or explicate that idea. therefore, the form the idea takes, or how it is incarnated/ manifested, matters. it matters greatly. and in the context of christian worship music, i think that should be a challenge to any songwriter, worship genre or no. the idea isn't enough in and of itself - there is also the matter of its execution.

as for archipelago: to be honest, i have no idea what "Exploring participation in artistic practice and its emancipatory potential, they will create a fabrication of the Director’s office, complete with programming plans for future projects Cornerhouse could or should be working on" means practically...sounds good, though. i'm just not sure what the "emancipatory potential" is here.

and no, it wasn't total rambling...

; )

techne said...

an interesting article over at cardus, ostensibly about the turner prize, but touching on conceptual art: http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2463