Roelof Louw, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) (1967)

Conceptual Art: How The Concept Changed Perception of Art

“The idea is the machine that creates art.”

Sol LeWitt

When you hear “conceptual art” what is the first thought coming to your mind? There is a need for a concept right, but what it would look like if you create an artwork from a concept? Would you follow the way of contemporary art or you adhere to the classics while you create something with a certain idea? It is obvious that conceptual art broke the rules of classics and authorities, plus it affected and changed the perception of contemporary art forever. However, what is conceptual art, how it affected the art world so deeply and… Does it really create art?

What is Conceptual Art?

Conceptual art was a reaction to the art detected by galleries and museums in the 1960s.

It redefined the meaning of artwork because it rejects the idea that the aesthetic value of an artwork is not the main basis for classifying it as an artwork. Rather the real importance in art should be reflecting an idea. It emerged as a need for a newly expressive way for that age. The classical art is not enough for artists to express their individual or social feelings and messages. Therefore a lovely conventional work of art also was insufficient to convey the message to the viewer very well. What did they do to convey an idea through artwork then?

The conceptual art defends that any idea can be art, just like Duchamp stated before. There was a riot against the galleries, curators and the mainstream path of art. Conceptual artists witnessed the monopolization in the museums. The hierarchy among these powers gave no way of expressing the new one. In the early 60s, even if it was ignored by authorities, conceptual art led to a new conversation: What is art? Some defended that it couldn’t be classified as art while some said the opposite. And today the same conversation still goes on.

Challenge Against the Norms 

The voice of conceptual artists was so loaded that it was being echoed in the galleries in the mid-60s. In the process of time, conceptual art started to change the traditional perception that art authorities held on. It was a revolutionary movement because it accomplished to change the accepted definition of art in everyone’s mind. It was both a challenge to authorities as well as the market. Moreover, it was a great challenge to the commodification of art. Until the mid-70s, conceptual art was very popular and seen unusual.

Artist's Shit, Piero Manzoni
Artist’s Shit, Piero Manzoni

One of the best interesting art objects that can be classified as conceptual art is Menzoni’s Merda d’artista. It was made as a reaction to the mass consumption of the artworks. It was also an interrogation to the nature of art. As it is stated on it, the artist put his stool into cans and they were priced in relation to the gold exchange rates of the day. When they gained a huge amount of money from the cans then it is revealed the truth (Clients bought shit of the artist!). Here, the cans are not the only art object but they represent the whole process of buying an artwork and clients also involved. And that gives the idea behind conceptual art.

The Power of Interdisciplinarity: Art, Life and Linguistics  

Conceptual artists needed newly point view to create more layered artworks. So they used the power of linguistics as an interdisciplinary way to create their art. Artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner searched how words represent ideas in the context of visual arts. The main idea was not creating a total work of art but giving the idea behind that. Then it would be possible to make art by giving the concept to make people think about art. 

However, there was a problem for classifying conceptual art as an art because of expressing ideas with words then the importance of the artwork diminishes. Then how it can be classified as an artwork?

One and Three Chairs of Joseph Kosuth
One and Three Chairs of Joseph Kosuth

One of the best and classical examples for it can be One and Three Chairs of Joseph Kosuth. In the work you only see a chair that you can use in daily life at the gallery, there is also the photograph of the chair, and there is another board in which written the definition of the chair. The chair is not made by Kosuth, also a chair cannot be an art object because it is a daily life object. However, as it is stated before you need to look the idea behind the object. What is the idea Kosuth gives the viewer with his work?

There are three forms of the chair. The ordinary chair gains new meanings when it is placed in a gallery. The physical feature of the chair is not important. Even the chair is changed in different exhibitions.

Object, the image of the object and the written meaning of the object. The photograph is the image that comes to mind so it is signified. Three forms of the chair are the physical feature, representative and verbalized version. One meaning of the chair is represented in different forms. It creates an abstract language through the chair, with the photo of the chair Kosuth shows the signifies image when we hear the word chair or read the meaning of the word. Power of linguistics!

The Effect of Conceptualism in Contemporary Art

Conceptual art was not only a movement lived in a very short period because it also shaped the contemporary art of today. What it has done? First of all, it has made possible to use every range of medium in art. So your artwork can be an installation with many different media, performance art, only neon signs with electricity or an item used in daily life can be an artwork. You only need an idea and attempt to convey that idea to the viewer.

However, the main prejudice about conceptual art is that: It is easy to make or create and there is no need any skill to make it. Aesthetics loses its importance whilst creating an art object, too. Moreover, it is possible not to complete the art object because the main idea is not about completing it rather, giving the idea behind. When all of these are considered the problem of “what can be classified as art?” rises.

Work No. 227, The lights going on and off, 2000
Work No. 227, The lights going on and off, 2000
Work No. 227, The lights going on and off, 2000

Another example can be given more recently fromMartin Creed’s Work No. 227: The Lights going on and off (2000). Martin Creed’s work winned the Turner Prize and it also shows that today, conceptual art is pretty appreciated. The idea behind the work was to give the idea that making art without doing anything extra. What does it mean? In the room and the lights are going on and off at certain intervals. View enters the room and sees nothing like an art object. But the room could be the art object giving the idea that there is no necessity for a defined art object to convey the idea.

Douglas Huebler's Duration Piece #6
Douglas Huebler’s Duration Piece #6

Douglas Huebler’s Duration Piece #6 (1968) is also a different approach to conceptual art. In a doorway, he made a cloud of rectangular dust and for six hours he took the photographs of the dust every half hour. the dust is dispersed. Here the art without the art object again. Well, what is the idea behind it? Showing the existence of the objects and their change in time…

Now think about slightly the artworks of today. You can see every kind of thing in the galleries. Therefore there is also another reaction to conceptual art. It can be also abused and a huge amount of money can be gained without really doing art. Only commercial needs and making a profit from art can be only a way to exploiting the resources of art. So it should be highlighted that conceptual art can not be seen only as a revolutionary movement but also as the perishment of it.

Just consider how conceptual art already changed your point of view about art? Could you label it as a liberation from the norms or just another way of making money by diminishing the value of art?

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