Excerpt from my Book: Conceptualism


Brendan Heard

Conceptualism (1960–present): Concepts take precedence over traditional æsthetic and material. Essentially Abstract Expressionism but with even less need to actually make anything.

Abstract Expressionism evolved into a few equally nonsensical children, the most notable being Conceptualism, which suffers from even greater inflated price tags and narcissism. As with all Modernism, it has the same basis of attacking true art, and the official definition of Conceptualism is pretty much the same as Abstract Expressionism, only expanded slightly as follows:

“Intermediate between nominalism and realism, that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality. A doctrine that is concerned with the intellectual engagement of the viewer through conveyance of an idea and negation of the importance of the art object itself.”

This is fairly typical Greenbergian jargon, an empty but colourful use of expensive words — pleasing to those who abhor true philosophy in favour of mysterious, inflated statements. Not completely meaningless but certainly not profound by any measure, it sounds like more rarefied solipsism. The Conceptualist movement is the darling of such hopeless luminaries as the hapless shrieking bag lady Yoko Ono, famous for destroying The Beatles and for her terrifying squawking.

If you ever walk into a gallery room and are confronted by hipsters involved in a happening, dreary Conceptualism might be involved. Conceptualism’s baffling ethos is somehow defined by galleries of strewn litter and preserved fish. Anything, really, that you might imagine – except actual art. They prefer the trippy domain of what is pretentiously coined ‘installation art’, whereby a viewer is supposedly drawn into a piece via some cheesy and contrived ambience. I should not even use the word trippy as that at least suggests an interesting psychedelic experience, whereas these experiences are trite and drab. An example of a Conceptualist piece is Martin Creed’s Turner Prize winning The Lights Going On and Off (an empty room in which the lights go on and off). The meaning of this piece was apparently: “To examine the definition in plain terms.”

Life-changing. Move over, Rubens.

Regardless, Mr Creed was awarded £40,000 for that act of tasteless pugnacity. So what does the definition of Conceptualism really say? Universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality. Pure relativism. This is saying that nothing is guaranteed to exist outside your own thoughts and is essentially solipsism, itself a catalyst behind much of our vapid and narcissistic modernity.

Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist and everything else is relative and questionable — including the existence of other people. Life is a psychotic game and the individual is God: but this is patently nihilistic. And what does this even have to do with painting or visual art? Is it even acceptable as a true or remotely valid foundation for anything, let alone an exceedingly expensive universal art movement? If you are going to be vainglorious and indulgent, you really should have a firmer foundation. For this reason alone, our increasingly shambling art culture should be more widely recognized for what it is: a thing of great embarrassment in the historical sense, producing nothing of value.

Expressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism. It is all the same thing: Modernism, a visual art philosophy whose goal is to destroy European culture itself by redefining art as something nonsensical.

“All of the significant art of today stems from Conceptual art. This includes the art of installation, political, feminist and socially directed art.”
– Sol LeWitt

“I thought conceptual art was a joke.”
– Gian Carlo Menotti


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