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Understanding Conceptual Art

Is it the object of the chair that makes us think it’s a chair?

By Anik Marchand

We are often perplexed, and even a scintilla irritated, when we view a Jackson Pollock painting. The thought has crossed many minds that anyone can throw paint onto canvas, however, what we fail to understand is the art– its form, its intention, and the intention of the artist– is the result of the artist’s rendering of a concept or a process, (a philosophy if you will), which ultimately manifests as a visual representation of that idea or philosophy. Simply put, conceptual art is the thinking, learning, and creative process of the artist, a reaction or commentary to their environment or a movement.

Conceptual art was mostly practiced in the late 1960s and in the 1970s but continues to influence all forms of art, from performance art, sculpture or readymades, to language art and video installations. The Tate Museum says that Conceptual art is able to permeate so many forms of expression because “unlike a painter or sculptor who will think about how best they can express their idea using paint or sculptural materials and techniques, a conceptual artist uses whatever materials and whatever form is most appropriate to putting their idea across.”

Taking refuge under the massive umbrella of Modern Art, Conceptual Art began as early as 1917 with Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-Made, Fountain (1917). The ordinary, white porcelain urinal, placed upside down and signed R. Mutt, revolutionized our understanding of what we knew as “art”. Duchamp introduced prefabricated objects, or readymade art, to galleries and museums, challenging how we view and interact not just with aestheticism and beauty, but also with consumerism culture, our ability to subjectify and personify objects, and our penchant for imposing meaning on the mundane.

Art by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Kosuth

Contemporary art also migrates the focus on form from the human body to an exploration of industrial and commercial material. This notion of aestheticizing a concept behind an object was the focus in Duchamp’s Fountain rather than glorifying the object itself.

The basis of the movement, according to Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, is that   “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.”  The artist has already played with the concept in his mind, has already made the blueprint for this work: the blueprint is made and the artist has already imposed their theology on the object, so that when they are creating the art,  “the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” The idea or philosophy behind the creation is primordial to the art, and not the finished product itself.

Joseph Kosuth, a conceptual artist whose odd works emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, stated that it was necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions rather than ideas. His key ideas were to eliminate any trace of aesthetics in his work in order to convey only the idea or philosophy or his work (Box, Cube, Empty, Clear, Glass – a Description, 1965). This meant that no obstacles could blur the vision of the viewer: they could see the true “art”, the idea behind what was created, rather than just the facade, the beauty and aesthetic of the piece.

Kosuth explored relationships between words and readymades as well as titles of objects and how one relates to the other. In his installation One and Three Chairs (1965), Kosuth explores the meaning of the word “chair” and what it truly represents. A dictionary definition of the word “chair” sits next to a real wooden chair, which is situated next to a picture of the wooden chair. Is it an image of a chair that we understand as a chair? Is it the object of the chair that makes us think it’s a chair? Or was the word chair created first and was then applied to this concept of a wooden seat?

Artists like Henry Flynt, Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari, Sol LeWitt, Jenny Holzer, Mel Bochner, Jan Dibbets, Hanne Darboven, Agnes Denes, Hans Haacke, On Kawara, Les Levine, and Lawrence Weiner are amongst the many figures who actively participated in the movement. They have fabricated an art theory that enabled the viewer to see past aesthetic means, and granted creative and intellectual liberties for the artists themselves. They instilled in their art that it should not solely be based on aesthetics but rather ideas and philosophies, making art intelligent.

Art by Sol LeWitt