Almost a century ago, the artist Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal 90 degrees on its side, signed it ‘R. MUTT 1917’ and submitted it to New York’s Society for Independent Artists for exhibition. The piece entitled ‘Fountain’ was unanimously rejected by the board, from which Duchamp resigned in protest. His intention had been to redefine the significance of art in terms of its interpretative value rather than physical craft. He had reacted against the contemporary notion that ‘People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we took ourselves very seriously. A great deal of modern art is meant it be amusing’. But his light-hearted stunt sowed the seeds for an artistic revolution which monopolises today’s gallery.
The idea of ‘conceptual art’ carries a surplus of different meanings. By and large it refers to art which is inherently interrogative of its own artistic nature, where the ‘concept’ behind the work is more important than the appearance of the work itself. As a result, it has often been lambasted as a form that habitually pushes the boundaries of convention for the sake of novelty, particularly by more traditional schools of art.
Owing to the controversial exhibits of artists such as Tracey Emin, whose famous – or indeed infamous – My Bed displayed crumpled bedsheets and the detritus of sexual activity, the term ‘conceptual art’ has become one of scorn. Ivan Massow, Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art, notably referred to it as ‘pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat’. Though all artistic movements might be viewed as the voice of a reactionary generation, conceptual art has had a particularly extreme, divisive impact.
In attacking both the commodification of art and the modern irrelavance and inaccessibility of formal mediums, it has made that age-old question even more impossible to answer: what is art? Joseph Kosuth stated in 1969 that ‘All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually’. The problem for some, then, is the extent to which conceptualism is in fact a form of deconceptualism; that Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ paved the way for a principle whereby anything, when exhibited in a certain fashion, constitues art, rendering all art meaningless.
There is, of course, a validity within all of these arguments, but they are not the whole story. When I toured the contemporary collection at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris last Christmas I ended up with something of a headache. I hastily attributed this to the garish and disorientating quality of the works displayed – whether art should embrace or reject beauty is another debate in itself – but I soon realised that this was irrelevant. The experience had been mentally stimulating and creatively provoking; though I might not have admired the work in the same way one would a Renaissance painting, I was certainly more engaged and immersed.
Amidst the eye-catching spectacle of exhibits at the Pompidou, my attention was momentarily drawn to a short quote written at the bottom of a wall: ‘Conceptual art is a symptom of globalism and is the first really international style’ (John Perreault, 1971). The line summed up my particular fascination with the conceptual art, which is at times difficult to clarify. It seems to inhabit a universe quite separate from other artistic modes of expression, and speak its own language – one that encompasses a more universal culture of ideas and philosophies. Of course, it must be thoughtfully and purposefully executed to achieve this effect.
The art world often feels threatened when it needn’t. People will always choose to hang Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in their homes over Damien Hirst’s Skull, but to me this boils down to more than a matter of taste. It seems to me that conceptual art is less of a genre of art than a new mode in itself – that is, we have painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, and now conceptualism, which operates through its own mediums and aesthetics. Perhaps a greater acknowledgement that conceptualism is adding to rather than effacing these traditional modes of art would make people much more appreciative of it – at least, until the rise of the next movement.
Works featured: Marcel Duchamp‘Fountain’ – Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’ – Marc Fornes/THEVERYMANY ‘Y/Surf/Struc*’ – Kader Attia ‘Ghost’ – Yaacov Agam ‘Agam Room’