« No Saviour | Main | Aftermath by Jennifer »

History of Conceptual Art

In bare terms, conceptual art is any sort of art that has a theme or a meaning, whether it be implied or directly referred to. This is a retrospection on the history of conceptual art and all its forms.

One could say that before the Dada movement came along, art was about aesthetics. No-one had ever really questioned the cornerstones on which art was founded. It had a rigid definition that no-one ever strayed from, lines that one never really thought of crossing. It wasn’t to have an academic meaning, just an element of beauty.

Dada came after the outbreak of World War II. It was allegedly a response to the cornerstone of “logic” that brought capitalist society to war with the rest of the world - the chaotic nature of Dada countering the logic of modern society. Fashioned as “anti-art”, it swept many forms of media, including visual art, literature, poetry, the spoken word and music. This is the first discernable appearance of conceptual art in culture

A part of the Dada movement was Marcel Duchamp. After creating conceptual works such as The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even and 3 Standard Stoppages, he created an artwork that would change the world. Named Fountain, it consisted of a typical urinal, with    R. Mutt signed in permanent marker. It was refused to be shown at an art show (ironically, the show in question was designed to be a free-thinking show displaying even the most avant-garde artworks).

Fountain questioned and therefore destroyed the notion of fine art by making it into a commodity. For anyone with any level of artistic expression could do what Duchamp did, take a commodity and call it a masterpiece - which, by consciously doing this and acknowledging the upside-down urinal as a commodity, it became the masterpiece he spoke of.

While this work was a conceptual artwork, the plethora of artworks it inspired such as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Donald Judd’s Untitled series were not conceptual and became works of minimalism, which often had no meaning or theme.

In 1917, after Duchamp created Fountain, conceptual art was still in its very early stages and the term had not been used yet. However, modern art was in full swing, with artists such as Picasso and Dali challenging the aesthetics of art. Meanwhile, other groundbreaking schools of thought, including Bauhaus, Cubism and Futurism had begun to emerge and influence the art world, each with a list of philosophies.

In 1956, renowned artist Isidore Isou coined the philosophy of an artwork that didn’t exist physically but mentally, that had no way of existing but the idea of it being an artwork in itself. By this time, contemporary art became a movement in itself and video art, mixed media and minimalism had found its roots. The world was one step closer to conceptual art.

Then, in 1961, the term “concept art” was coined as a term to describe a work in any medium that doesn’t focus on aesthetics or such, but the social, political and environmental issues behind it. This term didn’t directly refer to visual art until later on in the Sixties, when the conceptual art movement began.

Many artists grew tired of others only seeing the value in rare and valuable “masterpieces”  on the art scene. The movement formed out of groups like Minimalism and Fluxus, contemporary art groups who had previously hinted at such a movement but never started it.

A member was Sol LeWitt, the famous artist that was also a leading pioneer of the conceptual movement. In 1967, he published Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, a piece in which he described the motives and the beliefs of the movement. The beliefs of LeWitt were known to almost directly contradict those of most art critics, who valued formalism over iconography, conceptual value and historical significance. This later became the conceptual manifesto of sorts.

This time was a hub for conceptual art. Joseph Kosuth created One and Three Chairs, presenting the concept of a chair in three ways - a physical chair, a picture of a chair and a definition of a chair. Yoko Ono wrote Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings, describing mental ways of creating art. Meanwhile, in New York, “alternative exhibition spaces” were created for those who couldn’t present art commercially.

To this day, conceptual art has been a primary form of contemporary art, next to perhaps minimalism and abstract expressionism. Nowadays, it is most often politically or environmentally themed. It has taken many forms, from painting to performance, sculpture to video, sound to photography. Contemporary artists of today include Marina Abramoviç, Joseph Kosuth and Jenny Holzer.

Without conceptual art, our political and social standpoints would not be the same as they are today. From the days of Duchamp to the current era, the movement was and will always be strong and have a profound influence on art as we know it.

by Sam C - 6C


Conceptual art - Wikipedia

Dada - Wikipedia

Marcel Duchamp - Wikipedia

Fountain - Wikipedia

MoMA - The Collection

Conceptual Art - The Art Story