When I reviewed Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking on this blog ( 22 April 2018) it got me thinking again about conceptual art, something I hadn’t really done for twenty years – my last serious engagement, a long piece I wrote in response to the 1997 Turner Prize exhibition, the prize won by Gillian Wearing:
So now I wrote a short essay setting out my principal (and non-original) objection to conceptual art, that you don’t need to experience it first hand to talk about it – a fact which makes all the expenditure of time and effort and use of (expensive) gallery space seem rather pointless. A version of this essay appears in the bi-monthly Philosophy Now (Issue 129, December 2018/January 2019).
Then I thought I ought to find out what others had been thinking since I did my thinking in 1997 and Amazon pointed me towards the 2007 book I am now reviewing. For a collection of essays by professional philosophers, it’s really quite readable. Most contributors proceed charitably, trying to find a way or ways to accommodate conceptual art (whether narrowly or loosely defined) within the traditions of mostly gallery-based visual art. If anything, they bend over backwards to give it legitimacy.
If it is accepted that conceptual art is an art of ideas, then for example it’s possible to argue that the ideas have aesthetic value rather in the way that a mathematical proof can be elegant or a chess move beautiful – this is an argument developed by Elisabeth Schellekens (page 85 for the specific examples I have given). But this leaves the question open, Why do we need anything more than the ideas? Why do we need the installation or the performance, the bit that costs money and takes up our time and a gallery space?
Schellekens uses the word “boldness” and another contributor speaks of the audaciousness of conceptual art. The founding work for conceptualism, Duchamp’s Fountain (a male urinal) is endlessly talked about, even now, because it took nerve and cheek to put the urinal into an art gallery, and nerve and cheek often get us talking. Lots of people could have had the ideas which conceptual art occupies itself with; very few people would have dared do anything about them in the fashion done by conceptual artists. So the embodied bits of the ideas are provocations, though it may be very unclear what they are meant to provoke. In contrast, an anarchist who throws a bomb or a terrorist who plants one usually has a clear idea of what they want to provoke.
The invocation of boldness and audaciousness is meant to give point to the installations and the performances. But Schellekens realises that this move effectively links conceptual art to things like jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86) and Margaret Boden references (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the 20th century, already in the 1880s exhibiting a canvas painted entirely white and titled Anaemic Young Girls Going To Their First Communion Through a Blizzard.
I think the Allais case allows a different take on conceptual art. I think most of it belongs in the broader category of Pranks. Pranks usually involve someone in quite a lot of prior thought, maybe mixed in character and motive, and are realised by means which are intended to discomfort or shock some individual, group or institutition. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be grouped into a distinct sub-category of pranks by two important features:
(2) A sense of entitlement to public funding and/or access to public exhibition space
So Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is a contemporary prankster but not a conceptual artist because he aims to make people laugh. And only as a prank would a prankster seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery, but conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art , which is also used several times in this volume as justification for treating conceptual art as art (for example, by Lopes at page 241).
The obvious counter-example to my claim (1) would be Banksy’s recent auto-destructive prank at Sotheby’s which was indeed very funny. But that is in great contrast to most of the stuff the contributors to this book are labouring over.
My puzzlement about conceptual art dates back to the early 1970s when Michael Corris and a colleague from the US Art & Language group visited me in my rural Devon cottage and solicited a contribution for their new journal The Fox of which three issues appeared and are now collectors’ items. Well, I didn’t really have anything which I felt appropriate but I mentioned a draft study of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which would have been my cover story for a second year in Paris as a student with Roland Barthes had I stayed on after my first year. But I had decided to return to England and a job, and so it had never been worked up or shown to Barthes though a version in French existed. Anyway, to my surprise it was accepted for The Fox and appeared in issue 2 with small editorial additions which irritated me. But for the life of me I did not understand how my essay fitted into their project.
That digression does lead to a final point. Perhaps the core weakness of most conceptual art is that the links between ideas and embodied work are so weak or so opaque, and the ideas themselves so often confused, that really all we are offered (in most cases) is an invitation to free associate. So I think it likely that I got an essay published in The Fox for no good reason because there was no editorial clear thinking about what they were about and free association was the order of the day.
It is notable that in this collection, even though contributors have been asked to reference at least some among a number of selected works of conceptual art, that no one attempts a serious, say, thousand word piece of criticism which brings to life and understanding a particular piece of conceptual art in its specificity. It’s my belief that most works of conceptual art could not bear the strain of sustained critical reflection and that is a main reason why it does not happen. Of course, there is plenty of humourless prose produced around conceptual art, some of which ends up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.
Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue what they are doing. For an artist, not quite knowing what you are doing is not such a bad place to be. It can mean that you are in the middle of some genuine exploration. Part of my problem with conceptual artists is that I'm not convinced that they are not quite knowing. Either they know exactly or they don't know at all.