Friday, 9 October 2009

Conceptual art

In a discussion about how you could place a value on a piece of art, I've been introduced to "conceptual art". This is when the artistic process is of far higher importance than the end-product itself; in fact the end-product becomes almost irrelevant - merely a side-effect of the process being executed.

Sol LeWitt defined Conceptual Art in "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art", Artforum, June 1967, as:
In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.
If assessing how creative a piece of conceptual art is, solely by evaluating the product, then there are two negative consequences:
  1. The primary intentions of the artist are ignored (the artist is more focussed on how the art is made than what the result is).
  2. The level of creativity presented will probably be underestimated, especially if the art results in producing something that might seem commonplace outside the context of that art installation.
For example Tracey Emin's unmade bed, no matter what your opinion of it as a piece of art, was intended to have greater significance than just to picture a dirty bed.

Another example is Duchamp's Fountain (1917): an exhibit of a urinal, entitled 'Fountain', by Marcel Duchamp. With this piece, Duchamp intended the focus to be on how it was interpreted as the choice for this artwork, rather than the physical object itself.

Duchamp submitted the Fountain to an art exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists, where every submission would be accepted and exhibited. Duchamp's submission sparked a debate with the judging panel (of which Duchamp was himself a member!) as to whether this was in fact a piece of art. Eventually the Fountain was included in the exhibition but hidden from sight and Duchamp resigned from the Society board.

Since then though, the Fountain has been judged the most influential modern art work of all time. Who was right, the 500 art experts who made this judgement or the panel who rejected the Fountain as not being a piece of art?

While I don't intend this post to express that the creative process is far more important than the creative product, for me this is interesting evidence as to why process is as important as product.

There is an interesting discussion on the philosophy of conceptual art at Schellekens, Elisabeth, "Conceptual Art", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =


  1. I think Duchamp submitted the urinal as a joke, a backhanded insult at the fact that every submission would be accepted and exhibited. He did sign it as well. As jokes go, it's pretty funny.

    Incidentally, did you hear of the teenager that was arrested for stealing some pencils off a damien hirst exhibit? His ransom note went like this:
    "For the safe return of Damien Hirst's pencilers I would like my artworks back that DACS and Hirst took off me in November. It's not a large demand... Hirst has until the end of this month to resolve this or on 31 of July the pencils will be sharpened. He has been warned."

  2. Nice link!

    There was someone that went and lay down in Tracey Emin's unmade bed as well, and then visited a replica of the Fountain to use it for its intended purpose... (unfortunately I believe the surrounding display case prevented that from working too successfully...)

    Whether Duchamp intended it as a joke or not, certainly it caused quite a bit of friction between him and the other board members, if it caused him to resign from the Society as a result! He later had a few replicas commissioned of the urinal, as the original had been lost - obviously it gained its own particular value for him over the years!