Conceptual art

In the 1960s came ‘conceptual art’. One of its founders was Sol le Witt. He wrote 35 sentences and about half as many paragraphs explaining what the term meant. The Sentences are better known but the Paragraphs are much clearer. He makes the following main points.

The idea – and the processes by which the artist develops them – are more important than the final product. Once the development of the idea is complete the conceptual artist specifies the work so fully that ‘execution is a perfunctory affair’ and can be done by others. Thus the artist need not be a craftsman. As for the work itself’, its ‘physicality’ is almost an obstacle, since interest in such things as texture can be deterrents to the understanding of the all-important idea. The conceptual artist ‘wants to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry’.

Notice the word ‘therefore’ in the last sentence. It tells us that Ie Witt believes that emotion is incompatible with mental interest. He goes on to say that if people are bored by his work it can only be because they miss ‘the emotional kick’ that they are used to getting from expressionist paintings. The interesting thing about this is that the phrase ’emotional kick’ is itself emotional. It’s a sneering remark that reveals the strength and nature of his feelings.

It’s clear from the Paragraphs as a whole that Ie Witt accepts without queston the belief that thought is strong and admirable while emotion is weak and worthless. This is a crude notion based on poor understanding of the human mind.

In the first place it fails to take account of the fact that both our thoughts and our emotions come in many different kinds. When a comparison is made it’s common to find that advanced thought is being compared to primitive types of emotion. But this won’t do, for it’s not a comparison of like with like.

Secondly there’s the fact that, in nearly all we do, thinking and emotion are combined, often inextricably. Einstein said of himself: ‘I have no special gift. I am just passionately curious.’ (Italics added.) Some emotions are incompatible with science, others are necessary for it. The same goes for art, though the specific emotions may differ.

Such objections were not widely noted when le Witt was making his case. Conceptual art caught on and became a very powerful movement. In the following decades the term was used in a variety of ways but the notion that the artist and the artist’s ideas were more important than any visible work was generally retained.

Many artists found this attractive. There was an agreeable freedom about it which gave scope for much that was playful and entertaining in a light- hearted way. No special skill was needed, and no great effort – just a kind of boldness, as when Rauschenberg sent his famous telegram to Iris Clert, who owned a gallery in Paris. Clert had invited submissions for an exhibition to be composed entirely of portraits of herself. Rauschenberg’s entry was a telegram which had her name and address on it, followed by the words: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”. You have to laugh. The telegram was hung in the exhibition.

This kind of environment let some artists flourish, but it was not good for visual art. And at the same time there was another influence tending in the same direction: the power of media attention.

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