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Thursday, 23 April 2020

The Case Against Conceptual Art

In an impressive piece of recent autobiographical fiction, the narrator of Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking (2017) repeatedly sets herself the task of identifying a work of art - usually a work of conceptual art - which relates to the topic she is currently thinking about. Frankie, the narrator, lists and thumbnails each work in separated paragraphs which always begin with a formulaic phrase on the pattern of Works About Killing Animals, I test myself:

Some of the works are well-known like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) and Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though Baume at the end of her book (pages 303- 307) urges us to go to the works ourselves, I suspect she has actually and accidentally already illustrated a main weakness of conceptual art: you don’t have to see it, or otherwise experience it, in order to talk about it. You just need a description which spells out the idea, the thought, which the work illustrates.

A great deal of what is called conceptual art is illustrative, and that means that as art it is almost certainly weak and banal. Often enough, the realisation of the idea may be elaborate and costly, and sometimes fleeting, but it is all pretty much irrelevant except as an illustration of how easy it is to waste time and money. We can debate the Concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself, if indeed it still exists to be confronted. Frankie/Baume effectively says as much herself:

Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day … I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. (p 181)

We would simply laugh at someone who said of Baume’s novel I have never actually read it from beginning to end. But I love this work. I love the idea.  You can’t love a novel if you haven’t read it, not even if it’s Ulysses, so how can you love a work of art if you haven’t seen it? All you can love is the idea. That’s almost certainly enough; it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it, even from the comfort of YouTube. You won’t need twenty four hours to get the general idea.

Back in 1997, as part of the Turner Prize show, London’s Tate Gallery projected Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes onto a large screen. This is a video in which a group of people are lined up and asked to stand stock still for sixty minutes while they are filmed by a completely static camera. It would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea and then move on. I sat cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for nineteen minutes, outlasting every other visitor in that period by at least seventeen minutes. What would we say about a cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes, after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea? But Gillian Wearing was awarded the Turner Prize for her effort.[1]

Suppose Sara Baume had simply made up the majority of the many conceptual art pieces to which she refers, and in a work of fiction, who could object to that?  There would have been no loss of idea. However, this thought experiment does suggest a way of thinking about possible justifications for the embodied element in actual works of conceptual art.

Since Duchamp’s urinal, the actual work is meant to secure by means of a certain outrageousness both attention and discussion; the embodied side of the work is a provocation of a kind which few of us would be bold enough to offer. One philosopher of art, Elisabeth Schellekens, singles out this audaciousness - nerve and cheek - as a central aspect of conceptual art installations and performances[2]. But in highlighting this aspect, the argument does connect the world of art to the world of pranks though Schellekens herself only makes the link to jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86). Another contributor to the volume of essays in which Schellekens develops her argument, Margaret Boden, does however reference (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the twentieth 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 reflection on the Allais case does allow an understanding of much conceptual art. I think most of it does belong to the broad 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 institution. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be distinguished from the broader category of pranks by two important features: a general humourlessness and the artist’s 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 like Borat seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery. In contrast, conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art, which is also used by other philosophers as justification for treating conceptual art as art - for example, by Dominic Lopes at page 241 of the same collection of essays to which I have been referring. The institutional theory says that Art just is what institutions like art galleries and art dealers say is Art. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

The crossover case would be that of an artist who has a sense of humour and a distance from the institutional world of art. The crossover is perfectly illustrated by Banksy who produces things which are provocative, which are often funny, which are every discussable, and which Banksy tries to keep at a distance from the “art world”, most strikingly in a recent prank at Sotheby’s auction room. One of his works had just been sold for a very large sum, and as the auction participants still gazed at the work, it self-destructed before their eyes - the coup de théatre achieved by a remote controlled device.

But I think my general claim remains generally true. Conceptual art fails as art when it invites us to respond to it without experiencing it. Art is something you have to experience at first hand in order to respond to it appropriately.

Not so long ago, I wrote a critical piece [3] about a painting by a Dutch portrait painter, Simon Maris, which had been re-titled by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; they had changed its title from Young Negro Girl to Young Girl with a Fan. From the museum’s online images, I was able to argue that both titles missed the fact that the “girl” was wearing a plain gold band on the ring finger of her left hand. Though re-titled, with much attendant publicity, no one appeared to have looked at the painting. Several other relevant claims could be made on the basis of the reproduced images. But then I travelled over to Amsterdam to look at the painting itself. As I entered the room in which it was displayed, there was an immediate and fairly dramatic shock awaiting me. What had looked like a cheerful yellow bonnet in all the reproductions now suddenly dazzled as if it was a golden halo. In consequence, what I had hitherto thought of as a fairly formal portrait, albeit an unusual one, suddenly took me in another direction, towards the tradition of what are called “Black Madonnas”, portraits or statues of the Virgin Mary with a haloed black face which are found in several, maybe most, European countries.

The sight of the halo reminded me of my own conviction: a painting has to be seen. It’s meant to be seen and there is really no other way of seeing it - properly, so that we can appreciate scale and the effect of natural light - than by standing in front of it. In Painting as an Art, Richard Wollheim (1987) said that he was only going to write about paintings which he had not only seen but spent time with; he gave a three hours per painting guide figure. That bears some thinking about in a world where a prize-winning sixty minute video in the Tate Gallery holds the attention of viewers for two minutes at most, and Baume’s narrator Frankie can claim to love a work she has never watched from beginning to end.

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 the collection Philosophy and Conceptual Art, from which I have quoted above, 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, which regularly provides satirical material for Private Eye.


Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue.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.

[1] For a long critique, see my “The Turner Prize 1997” at
[2] Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, editors, Philosophy and Conceptual Art (2007)
[3]“Young Girl With a Fan?” in Trevor Pateman, The Best I Can Do (2016)

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