Conceptual Art: Why Is It So Difficult To Understand?

Barbara Kruger, Belief+Doubt, 2012. © Barbara Kruger Photo: Cathy Carver

If you haven’t quite grasped what conceptual art is, don’t be too hard on yourself. Defining it is one thing, understanding it is something else and difficult, even for those who frequent the art circles.

Conceptual art or conceptualism is art that has moved beyond traditional aesthetics or even materials. Conceptual art has been widely criticized for being the bucket in which certain “art” falls into when no one can make sense of it. If it did not meet the standard genres or categories of art such as figurative, abstract, portrait or landscape etc. and presented particularly challenging interpretations, it conveniently fell into the realm of conceptualism.

Despite being dismissed as real art by many experts, conceptual artists claim that their art is based on the essence of art as an idea or concept, existing despite often the absence of a material presence. This angered many artists who felt that this then meant that anyone could deem themselves, artists. Throw a pile of rotting Autumn leaves in the gap between a burnt tire and give it a name and suddenly, it was art. Voila!

Tracey Emin’s provocative installation My Bed (1998) has returned to Tate Britain after first being exhibited there in 1999 Photo credit: Tate

It appears that conceptual art rose as a form of rebellion by those who didn’t want to be limited by the confines of contemporary art. Or perhaps, as some have suspected, conceptual art was intended to poke fun at the masses who were easily deceived when presented with a completely new concept that was so beyond description and understanding yet easily convinced it was art; reducing conceptualism to a social experiment.

However, conceptual art does have a rather strong following particularly for those that feel that art, conceptual or not, is meant to be philosophical. Art needs not be beautiful, fall into a category, follow a technique or even have a name! Art is an open-ended question and meant to make you feel something and simply communicate with us. So whether conceptualism is met with admiration, disdain, or confusion (often than not); it’s done its job as proper art to render a reaction from its audience.

Fountain or Not

Perhaps to best understand conceptual art at this point, it is a requirement to familiarize oneself with the so-called father of the movement. Marcel Duchamp who is best known for his 1917 work titled Fountain, a porcelain urinal that he allegedly found at a plumbing supplier which he signed “R.Mutt 1917”, is said to be the catalyst for conceptualism. Visceral extreme and its symbolic meaning and challenges posed as art from the readymade object, Duchamp’s Fountain is regarded as the father of avant-gardism and a major landmark in 20th-century art. Critics dismissed Fountain claiming it was a practical joke, one that had successfully fooled the art community to be a well-thought-out expression.

Replica of 1917 Marcel Duchamp Fountain (1950), Photo Source: The Times UK, photograph by Felix Clay

In an article by the Telegraph UK, it was described that Duchamp greatly valued humor, “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 to be amusing.” And in what would seem to be a move to push his point further, he submitted Fountain for a spot in the Society of Independent Artists exhibition outraging many of the board members and exciting the press with the controversial piece or art that was quite simply a “bathroom appliance.”

Duchamp’s Fountain, practical joke or well-conceived art, or perhaps even a well-conceived practical joke, was the first of many forms of conceptualism who pushed the boundaries yet stayed true to the definition of conceptual art at the same time. Because, despite all we know, the question remains:

What is conceptual art to you?


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