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Essay On Conceptual Art

Duchamp, Manzoni, Lewitt, Craig-Martin, Gilbert and George

Conceptual art, an art form which established itself in the 1960s but saw its roots back in the early twentieth century with the dada movement and Marcel Duchamp. But why did it take so long for the movement to come to complete fruition? Easy answer, the timing was not right. The artists who moved to the states from Europe in an attempt to flee World War One were interrupted by a new wave of artists who fled Europe from World War Two. With this came the rise of abstract expressionism and pop art. Both of these were very important in the creation of a movement that would change the art world forever. After world war two, America was in a state of feeling victorious and powerful over the world, of course it was the beginning of a new world power. With this confidence grew a thriving for more knowledge and a desire to enhance the nation that had done so well in the two previous wars. All cultural activities were to delight in more money being spent on their development, and the critic world which we know today was born. One critic, Clement Greenberg was so influential he split the art world, dividing it into its medium genres. Painting being dominant at the time was given much more attention than the less popular sculpture. Because of this, painting became incredibly self-reflective and self-referential. It formed into a formal action, mainly counting on its aesthetic value to get it any publicity.

At the same time a group of artists was forming under the term fluxus. These artists were not interested in the traditional ways of expressing oneself but were into more unconventional methods such as dance, performance art, music amongst others. Although these had been seen before, never had they been considered art in a gallery format. With this came the questioning of the purpose of the gallery and a wish to break away and elude the art market. Conceptual art was born. The artists were not first interested in making paintings but decided on whatever materials and form was appropriate to the concept. This overcoming of medium and the task of putting the idea first is the origin of conceptual art. Although the art was growing in popularity around the early sixties, the term wasn’t coined until Sol Lewitt wrote “Paragraphs on conceptual art” were he explains the type of art he was generating. This was published in the June, 1967 edition of ArtForum Magazine, a significant international art magazine still around today.

So let’s begin with Marcel Duchamp, who can be considered as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. His controversial work and stunning concepts behind the work took the art scene by storm and turned it upside down, he raised questions about the aesthetics of art, the importance of the craftsmanship of the artist, the idea that the artist did not even need to make the work and maybe the most important of all he questioned what is art? What was its purpose in modern day society?

            Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887 into an incredibly creative family. His older brothers were to become famous artists themselves; the sculptor, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and painter, Jacques Villon. At an early age, Duchamp worked in a fauvist style, being inspired by painters such as Andre Derain and Matisse but eventually moved onto a more cubist approach. His depiction of cubism was very different to the other examples of work under the movement’s umbrella, it concentrated mostly on time, similar to a long exposure of a camera setting. In his selection of works, “Nude descending a staircase” is perhaps the most well-known, having a great composition, backed up by the strong, confident use of line and colour. This was seen as a step in the wrong direction for cubism and was rejected by the community. Duchamp was of course disheartened, but did not give up on art. In fact, this can be seen as the most important turning point in his work.

The artist began to produce ready-mades as artwork, found objects which formed the basis for the dada movement. The union of objects and the juxtaposition of them against one another is a reaction to the First World War, a form of protest art, and also something that rebelled against the boundaries of art. In some respects it can be seen as anti-art in its concept. This can be seen as an attempt to react against the society which did not agree with his earlier work and which had settled neatly into a predictable cubist world. In 1915 he moved to New York along with other artists who were both fleeing the war and this conventional groove. Possibly the most famous of his readymades was constructed during his time in New York.

In 1917, an artwork which was certainly never appreciated at the time and caused controversy throughout the art scene, Fountain was entered into an exhibition showcasing the avant-garde of new work in the New York area. It was discarded and disallowed by the panel, pushing Duchamp and his companions out of the increasingly popular art world. This piece is, without a doubt, one of the most significant pieces of art not only in the twentieth century, but ever. It paved the road for the legacy of Duchamp, who soon became one of the most respected artists in New York. Duchamp and his close friend Man Ray wrote New York Dada, a compendium and manifesto to what the movement meant, which was hugely influential to artists at the time, and many artists flocked to the new epicentre of art. Amidst the prowess and thriving art scene in the states, Duchamp focussed on what he considers his most important work “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” which he worked on for eight years, and then his final twenty years were spent working on a 3-dimensional version of the piece. It is so incredibly important because of its connection to the artist. Just imagine how much effort the artist put into the work. Duchamp overlooked this point though as it was unimportant to the final piece, instead he centred on the concept behind the art. The bride is isolated from the nine bachelors in the bottom screen, this can be interpreted as two things, one they are working for her, attempting to please her, this would mean it’s a satirical work were the female has complete power over the male gender. The second is that it is a kind of experiment, the removal of women from the world could lead to disastrous consequences, as males would have nothing to work for. Either way, the piece is without doubt strong. I believe the artist’s choice to think of this as his most vital work to be because of his connection with it and the effect and control the work had on his life (it did take him 28 years).

In all of his works, including the early works, he has asked the question what is art? He has questioned how art is viewed and how artists should approach making their artworks. Duchamp was the key player in the evolution of art towards its conceptual climax in the 1960s. He died in 1968 just outside Paris.

Continuing on from Duchamp’s idea, Piero Manzoni is an infamous artist who dealt with the growing celebrity trend by creating mass-produced items inspired by himself. He was born in Italy in 1933 and started working in white monochrome paintings during the early 1950s influence by Yves Klein’s work in the same way, but eventually moved on to what he is considered to be so important for. “Artist’s Shit” talks about the artists role in the art world, dealing with the artist itself. It portrayed the art to be a futile act which was nowhere near as imperative as the artist. The tin was simple with the label reading “Artist’s shit,” the simplicity being crucial to the audiences understanding of the concept, the brutal wording emphasising the vulgarity of the work. This piece was a follow up to the successful “Artist’s breath” a balloon blown up by the artist. It, of course, has the same concept as the offensive tin. Jars of Angelina Jolie’s and Brad Pitt’s breath were recently sold in 2005 for $15099 on ebay. Maybe Manzoni was warning us of this impending celebrity obsessed culture we live in today. It also may have been a precursor for the skyrocketing art market in the nineties with art collectors such as Saatchi buying piece just for the sake of owning a piece by an important artist. He became a member of Milan’s Galeria Azimut, a meeting place for avant-garde artists which provided the art scenes daily dose of provocative and controversial works. The mundane becoming very valuable is a theme seen in the work of the Dadaists and Duchamp.

Although Manzoni was inspired by the past, he was fascinated with developing art and worked mostly in the sixties to form a base for the rest of conceptual art to bounce off of. Works such as his living sculptures piece, allowed the viewer to step on and become art. This was obviously a huge inspiration to Gilbert and George, who describe themselves as living sculptures. The artist was early on the art scene and unfortunately died before Sol Lewitt published his paragraphs on conceptual art, but yet he is still considered a conceptual artist. Why? Because of his clever use of humour in his works, his aspiration to break the boundaries between art genres, and of course his strong clear concepts. Mazoni died in 1963, and had created a ledge were other artists could continue his legacy.

Sol Lewitt, one of these artists which used Manzoni’s work as a grounding, was born in Connecticut, 1928. He worked as a graphic artist for, a now internationally renowned architect, I.M.Pei. As a young boy he was inspired by De Stijl and Bauhaus, influenced by its straight lines and design purpose. His earlier works were mostly of cubes organized in a structural arrangement until he saw the potential for furthering his art and moving into the conceptual world. He made up serial systems which provided ideas for his work, it systematically worked through all the outcomes with the inputs provided. This is especially true for “49 Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes,” where he experimented with three different kinds of cube (open, closed, and half open) and found how many variations he could create with this.He published his findings of this new kind of art in his paragraphs on conceptual art in ArtForum, 1967:

“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.”

This extract resembles very closely how Lewitt worked with his art, he was extremely isolated from it. This involved even getting other people to produce his work for him, while he wrote the plans. This was particularly evident in his wall drawings phase where Lewitt would compose a set of instructions and give them to a draughtsman who would then follow the plans to his best of knowledge and thus the artwork would be created. This ingenious form of working allowed Lewitt to produce vast amounts of clever systematic pieces, which like his work before used a logical pattern to attain its final state. This serial method may have been inspired by the repetition of tanks and soldiers from the Vietnam war and the mass produced objects in the consumerist market that existed at the time. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol had already looked into this, much like Manet had done during the late nineteenth century, and now Lewitt was, but in a much more conceptual way, obscuring it beyond the obvious. Lewitt worked from the late sixties into the modern day with large concrete structures resembling his earlier work. However he died recently in April 2007. He was extremely important in the expansion of conceptual art, not just for his findings but how he highlighted the work behind the art is just as important as the final piece. Knowing this, he placed his plans beside the work as to give them equal credit. He was also significant in continuing on Duchamps ready-made idea where the artist does not have to produce the actual work.

Michael Craig Martin, another conceptual artist who regarded Duchamps ready-made idea as hugely crucial to the development of art, has been a hugely influential artist in the ways in which he approaches his concepts. He was also in later years a lecturer of Goldsmiths, where the Young British Artists originated from. He was born in 1941 in Ireland but moved to America at an early age and studied painting at Yale University. Whilst in America he would have been influenced by the American art scene, which was flourishing with all the migrant artists from Europe. This hub for art would be incredibly important in Craig-Martin’s interest in art. Upon completing his degree in 1966 he moved to England where he still works. In 1973 he taught as a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths college, London, where he had huge influence over students during the 1980s and 90s. His part was pivotal in the forming of the YBAs, publicising the Freeze exhibition and guiding the artists into their proper directions. His work, although conceptual in content, is very inspired by minimalism. His simple use of simple, household objects can be seen as a modern equivalent of Duchamp’s ready-mades. Possibly the most famous of these works is “Oak Tree” a glass of water on a shelf, with a plaque next to the piece dictating the artists argument that the glass of water on the shelf is in fact, an oak tree. His reasoning is that because he is the artist, he can change the glass into an oak tree. This brought up questions of how the artists intent was an extremely important issue of the time. Because of his use of domestic items, the art is relatable and reads easily and correctly, having conceptual lucidity.

The artist did not constrict himself to these pieces and worked on installations, sculptures, paintings, wall drawings and many others. Craig-Martin remains a very famous and influential artist, working mostly in screen prints and large painted wall murals. These pieces can be seen as a kind of modern pop art. In one of these works entitled “History” the artist juxtaposes scale and objects to create a nonsense which although can be seen as unorganized comes across as graphical and neat in appearance. This clinical sense may be implying something about our organized society or how history is portrayed in the present. Despite what it actually means, his work can be seen as very contemporary, even though it heavily references pop art and its mass production. It is extremely difficult to use a technique that has been used before and have it emerge looking new.

Two artists which have applied this technique to Manzoni’s living sculptures are Gilbert and George, a united duo, who work together. They are made up of Gilbert Proesch who was born in Italy, 1943 and George Passmore in Devon, 1942. Although nothing has ever been openly discussed over their relationship, it is widely considered that they are a couple. They met at Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 1967 after it turned out George was the only one who could understand Gilbert’s poor English. Their studios consist of a room entirely dedicated to subject matter. In it are boxes and boxes of things, filed in order in A4 sized boxes. In another room is a computer studio devoted to the creation of sketches on the computer. This clinical setting is very similar to the way in which the artists function. All of their pieces are entitled as sculptures, even if they are 2-Dimensional (this maybe a reference to Duchamp’s attempt to break down the barriers of the genres). They work in mixed media with photographs mostly with a trademark format of a rectangle or square broken down into a grid. But their degree show piece for Saint Martin’s was not dissimilar to Manzoni’s living sculptures idea. Gilbert and George dressed up in suits and stood on a podium like base, depicting themselves as living sculptures. In the film “A portrait of the artists as young men, 1970” the artists are filmed doing nothing for seven minutes. The concept behind this work was the same as the living sculptures idea. This developed into their entire body of work, and everything they do is now an extension of the personas they have created for themselves. The two appear in suits whenever in public and very rarely are seen apart. These guises, are the vital part to their work as everything they do stems out from it, they are the central them of their work. Although moving into their later work, the artists included religion, sexuality, alcohol, class, nationality, death, identity and politics as themes in their work. In “The Naked Eye, 1994” the artists are depicted without their iconic suits, completely naked but still hiding behind their hands. This can be seen as a portrayal of the loss of character that the two feel when they are not in character.

In 1984 the pair were nominated for the Turner Prize only to lose to fellow artist, Malcolm Morley. They did win in 1986 however. They have been very important artists throughout their careers broadening the horizons of what art is and how it is portrayed to the public. They drew the art away from the actual art and more towards the artist, a technique used by Piero Manzoni in his work. The artists believe firmly that their art breaks down the social barriers of society, and I believe this too. Because of their light heartedness and almost confessional work they really appeal to me.

Although many people do not like conceptual art, it must be argued that it has been one of the most dramatic and important turns in art. The expansion of art makes it easier for an artist to work in whichever way he or she feels comfortable. It was crucial to what art has become nowadays, and I shudder to think what would have happened if the movement had not occurred.



Marcel Duchamp

Nude descending staircase no2, 1912

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923

Fountain, 1917, all pictures supplied by

Piero Mazoni

artist’s shit, 1961, supplied by

artists breath, 1960, supplied by

Sol Lewitt

Both wall drawings supplied by

49 Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes(1967–71) – supplied by Allen Memorial Art Museum online

Michael Craig Martin

Oak Tree, 1973, supplied by

History, 2001, supplied by

Gilbert & George

Still from a portrait of the artists as young men, 7 minutes long, supplied by

Naked Eye, 1994, supplied by

Gordon Douglas 16th February 2009

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"Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical."


Conceptual art is a movement that prizes ideas over the formal or visual components of art works. An amalgam of various tendencies rather than a tightly cohesive movement, Conceptualism took myriad forms, such as performances, happenings, and ephemera. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s Conceptual artists produced works and writings that completely rejected standard ideas of art. Their chief claim - that the articulation of an artistic idea suffices as a work of art - implied that concerns such as aesthetics, expression, skill and marketability were all irrelevant standards by which art was usually judged. So drastically simplified, it might seem to many people that what passes for Conceptual art is not in fact "art" at all, much as Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings, or Andy Warhol'sBrillo Boxes (1964), seemed to contradict what previously had passed for art. But it is important to understand Conceptual art in a succession of avant-garde movements (Cubism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, etc.) that succeeded in self-consciously expanding the boundaries of art. Conceptualists put themselves at the extreme end of this avant-garde tradition. In truth, it is irrelevant whether this extremely intellectual kind of art matches one's personal views of what art should be, because the fact remains that Conceptual artists successfully redefine the concept of a work of art to the extent that their efforts are widely accepted as art by collectors, gallerists, and museum curators.

Key Ideas

Conceptual artists link their work to a tradition of Marcel Duchamp, whose Readymades had rattled the very definition of the work of art. Like Duchamp before them, they abandoned beauty, rarity, and skill as measures of art.

Conceptual artists recognize that all art is essentially conceptual. In order to emphasize this, many Conceptual artists reduced the material presence of the work to an absolute minimum - a tendency that some have referred to as the "dematerialization" of art.

Conceptual artists were influenced by the brutal simplicity of Minimalism, but they rejected Minimalism's embrace of the conventions of sculpture and painting as mainstays of artistic production. For Conceptual artists, art need not look like a traditional work of art, or even take any physical form at all.

The analysis of art that was pursued by many Conceptual artists encouraged them to believe that if the artist began the artwork, the museum or gallery and the audience in some way completed it. This category of Conceptual art is known as 'institutional critique,' which can be understood as part of an even greater shift away from emphasizing the object-based work of art to pointedly expressing cultural values of society at large.

Much Conceptual art is self-conscious or self-referential. Like Duchamp and other modernists, they created art that is about art, and pushed its limits by using minimal materials and even text.

Most Important Art

One and Three Chairs (1965)

Artist: Joseph Kosuth

A physical chair sits between a scale photograph of a chair and a printed definition of the word "chair." Emblematic of Conceptual art, One and Three Chairs makes people question what constitutes the "chair" - the physical object, the idea, the photograph, or a combination of all three. Joseph Kosuth once wrote, "The art I call conceptual is such because it is based on an inquiry into the nature of art. Thus, it is...a thinking out of all the implications, of all aspects of the concept 'art.'" One and Three Chairs denies the hierarchical distinction between an object and a representation, just as it implies a conceptual work of art can be object or representation in its various forms. This work harks back to and also extends the kind of inquiry into the presumed priority of object over representation that had been earlier proposed by the Surrealist Rene Magritte in his Treachery of Images (1928-9), with its image of a pipe over the inscription "Ceci n'est pas un pipe" (This is not a pipe).

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Conceptual Art Artworks in Focus:

Conceptual Art Overview Continues Below


One of the most important precedents for Conceptual art was the work of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, who in the early twentieth century established the idea of the "Readymade" - the found object that is simply nominated or chosen by the artist to be a work of art, without adaptations to the object beyond a signature. The first and most famous true Readymade was Fountain (1917), which was nothing more than a porcelain urinal, reoriented ninety degrees, placed on a stand and signed and dated under the alias "R. Mutt." Duchamp described his Readymades as "anti-retinal," and dismissed the popular conception that works of art need demonstrate artistic skill. In the 1950s, long after several of his original Readymades had been lost, Duchamp re-issued Fountain and other Readymades for the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. These acts sparked a resurgence of interest in his work, which not only brought the emergence of Neo-Dada led by John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, but also rekindled a widespread interest in idea-based art throughout the contemporary art world.

Fluxus and Minimalism to Conceptualism

While the late 1950s witnessed modern art's progressive shift from Abstract Expressionism to Neo-Dada and Pop, the late 1960s witnessed a similar shift, only this time from Fluxus and Minimalism to Conceptualism. Fluxus began in the early sixties, and has many affinities with Dada. Embracing "flux", or change, as an essential element of life, Fluxus artists aimed to integrate art and life, using any found objects and sounds, simple activities and situations as stimuli. George Maciunas, Allan Kaprow, and composer John Cage are important Fluxus figures who impacted Conceptual art.

Adding to Conceptual art's diverse genealogy, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris and other Minimalist artists who emerged in the mid-1960s extended modernist abstraction by embracing repetition, formal simplification, and industrial fabrication of their artworks. Judd and others rejected much that was traditional in creating works that occupied space differently, often on a scale too large for a pedestal or home, and usually made of nontraditional artistic materials like bricks or sheets of steel, the production of which was outsourced. A number of burgeoning artists during this time paid close attention to the paradigm shifts inherent in Fluxus and Minimalism, seeing that a so-called work of art was not dependent upon the object/work itself, and that it could therefore exist chiefly as an idea. Most saw their works in direct defiance of the art market, with its promotion of artistic personalities and rare and original "masterpieces."

LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art"

In 1967, Sol LeWitt published "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" (considered by many to be the movement's manifesto), in which he wrote: "What the work of art looks like isn't too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned." The notion of placing concept before object, and the value of realization over any aesthetic concerns importantly contradicted the theories and writings of formalist art critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Their work rather focused chiefly on the examination of objects, materials, colors and forms - had helped to define the aesthetic criteria of the preceding generation of artists.

Wiener's "Declaration of Intent"

Conceptual art was taken to the extremes of art as idea by Lawrence Weiner in his 1968 "Declaration of Intent," which declared he would cease the practice of creating physical art, citing no need to build something when the idea behind any work of art should suffice, since the artist's intent remains the same (or should, ideally), regardless of whether the work is in physical form or merely conceptual.

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Conceptual Art Overview Continues

The Formation of the Movement

While conceptualist artists forever remained a disparate, international group harboring a great many ideas about contemporary art, by the late 1960s it was somewhat evident that a loose movement was coalescing. In 1968 a series of Conceptual art exhibitions vigorously promoted the movement in New York, put together by the dealer and curator Seth Siegelaub. In 1969, New York's Museum of Modern Art gathered a number of artists from the movement for an exhibition titled "Information." This event was not to be taken without a grain of salt, since Conceptualism was largely critical of the institutional museum system and its market-driven interests, the system within which they exhibited.

Artist Collectives Emerge

In 1967, a collective of British artists formed the group Art & Language while teaching art in Coventry, England. Through a series of published journals the group showed an outspoken distaste for entanglement of modern art and the marketplace. Over the next several years many would join the group, whose rotating membership would reach approximately 50 artists before its dwindling in the late 1970s.

Other artist collectives were similarly political in their focus. The Canadian group General Idea had a small membership of three artists, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson, who embraced ephemeral works and installations. Active from 1967 to 1994, in the 1980s their works addressed the pharmaceutical industry and the AIDS crisis. In South America, artists found Conceptualism an effective pathway to creativity and political opposition. Conceptualism was particularly appealing there as it was not an imported style per se, but rather a means of expression with no single frame of reference, whether cultural, aesthetic, or ideological. Artist collectives provided anonymity, and thus protection from prosecution by oppressive authorities, and the opportunity to make strong social statements. The Chilean group CADA (Art Action Collective) and the Peruvian group Parenthesis exemplified this trend.

Concepts and Styles

Conceptual art was conceived as a movement that extended traditional boundaries, and hence it can be difficult to distinguish self-conscious Conceptualism from the various other developments in art of the 1960s. Conceptualism could take the form of tendencies such as happenings, performance art, installation, body art, and earth art. The principle that united these developments was the rejection of traditional ways of judging works of art, the opposition to art being a commodity, and the belief in the essentially conceptual nature of all works of art. Because it circumvented aesthetics, it is difficult to define conceptual art on stylistic grounds other than a delivery that seems objective and unemotional. While a conceptual work may possess no particular style, one could say that this everyday appearance and this diversity of expression are characteristics of the movement.

Art as Idea

Among the first to pursue the notion of idea-based art to its logical conclusion was Joseph Kosuth, who evolved a highly analytical model premised on the notion that art must continually question its own purpose. Advocating his ideas most famously in a three-part essay entitled "Art after Philosophy" (1969), Kosuth argued that it was necessary to abandon traditional media in order to pursue this self-criticism. He questioned the notion that art necessarily needed to be manifested in a visual form - indeed, whether it needed to be manifested in any physical form at all. Many, like Lawrence Weiner, similarly stated the need to relinquish the practice of creating physical works of art. By striving to minimize the materiality of art, artists strove to remove aesthetic criteria and the commodity status out of the artistic equation. The "dematerialization of art object," as the art critic Lucy Lippard described the tendency in the chronicle of Conceptualism (Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object), thus had a subtle political undercurrent. Conceptual art ideas often evoked dispersal (instead of formation), and voiding (instead of creation), and many of the Conceptual artistic ideas were open-ended propositions that lacked foregone conclusions. For instance, Lawrence Weiner's "Statements" of 1968 include "A field created by structured simultaneous TNT explosions" and "One standard dye marker thrown into the sea," and epitomize the open-ended and hence anti-authoritarian stance of the movement. As Wiener explained in his "Declaration of Intent" (1968-9), "Art that imposes conditions - human or otherwise - on the receiver for its appreciation in my eyes constitutes aesthetic fascism."

Language as Art

Although the use of text in art was nothing new by the 1960s - text appears alongside other visual elements in Cubist paintings, for example - artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari adopted text as the chief element of a visual work of art. Unlike their predecessors, this generation had pursued college degrees, which in part accounts for their intellectualism and the influence of recent studies in linguistics. The language used was meant to signify itself and an artistic idea. Text-based art would often use abstract formulations, often in the form of abrupt commands, ambiguous statements, or just a single word to create associations for the viewer. While first-wave conceptualists like Weiner and Baldessari remain active today, they inspired younger artists from Jenny Holzer to Tracey Emin to continue the practice of language-based art and to push the boundaries of art and its definitions.

Anti-commodification and Institutional Critique

If Conceptual art had a central tenet that united all artists under one banner, it was surely their shared discomfort with the institutionalized state of the art world, as arbiter of constituted "good" vs. "bad" art. The artistic gatekeepers had been guided largely by market concerns since the mid-ninetieth century, such that "good" art was marketable, and "bad" art was not. The beneficiaries of this system were a small group of (mostly male and white) artists, and members of an elite social class who sold and collected the work, or who participated in the administration of museums. In the 1960s, there was the sense that if art catered to this world then it will surely not strive to challenge any status quo, or be avant-garde. Conceptual artists and theorists looked closely at modern art practices and trends during the 1960s and early 1970s, seeking forms of radical theory or aesthetics, but found largely a continuation of abstract, post-abstract and minimalist motifs. "What can you expect to challenge in the real world," wrote Burn in the pages of Artforum in 1975, "with 'colour', 'edge', 'process', systems, modules, etc. as your arguments? Can you be any more than a manipulated puppet if these are your 'professional' arguments?"

The late 1960s witnessed the emergence of a form of Conceptualism that has come to be known as institutional critique, practiced by artists such as Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers. Institutional critique continued the tradition of idea-based art, but usually in the form of installations that implicitly questioned the assumed function of the museum--i.e. preservation and exhibition of masterpieces - by providing a view to its greater role within society at large (eg. as arbiter of taste, as investor, as tax shelter, and gatekeeper to artistic success). The museum is not a neutral hall for the exhibition of works and education of the public. Rather, it is invested in promoting certain artists, in selecting "important" works of art, and in shaping the economic reality that benefits its trustees and the established art world. The inherent complexity of institutional critique is that it was often staged within the very institutions that artists were critiquing, as with Hans Haacke'sMoMA Poll (1970). At times, the success of a particular work relied on the participation of viewers, thus demonstrating that the work, like the "art world" includes viewers as well as artists and the institutions that host them. Thus it is important to note that rather than simply negating or rejecting the institution, these artists often implicated themselves, and sought to bring awareness to complex fabric of social and institutional relations.

Challenges to Authorship

When Marcel Duchamp nominated a urinal as a work of art and reissued later editions of his Readymades, he delivered clear blows to the West's collective notion of artistic creativity. In keeping with this model, Sol LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" advocated the idea that the work need not necessarily be fully 'authored' by the artist. "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." This idea of an automated or machine-like execution of the art-idea is symptomatic of Conceptualism at large. For instance, in Vito Acconci'sFollowing Piece (1969), the artist subjected his vision to an outside force: the random movements of strangers that he followed on the street until they disappeared into private space. The parameters of the work (the goal, the documentation method) were decided in advance by Acconci, but the resulting path traversed and subjects (the exact people, number of photographs, specific locations, etc.) occured based on the decisions made by randomly selected individuals and were thus exempt from Acconci's agency.

This denial of the artist as "master" and sole creator of the work also translates to many posthumous works with which the artist's name is associated, but where he/she is not the fabricator. LeWitt in particular, who passed away in 2007, was survived by a number of unrealized sketches for sculptural and other works of art, which to this day are often created anew by teams of fabricators and assistants, thus allowing brand new LeWitt works to be made even while the artist is dead. Such fabrication in the name of the artist echoes prior modern art practices, particularly in sculpture (the estate of Auguste Rodin is a well-known example of posthumous artistic production). While authorship is, strictly speaking, a component of LeWitt's posthumously issued works, the practice flies in the face of traditional notions of craft and mastery.


Photo-conceptualism is a persistent trend associated with Conceptualism. Conceptual artists often relied on documentation of their ideas, and photography was a convenient means to this end. Photography could be integrated into the concept or system that the artist devised, just as a diagram or a text could illustrate it. In this sense, the documentation is the work of art, and vice versa, and because of this the usual hierarchical distinction between "work" and "document" - where the former is considered more important than the latter - is undone. In counter distinction to many photographers, Conceptualists were not concerned with photographic quality, whether determined by the print, composition, lighting, or editing. Furthermore, their dryly objective approach resulted in photographs that prevent access to the artist's personality, and which prevent a strong emotional response from the viewer. Edward Ruscha's matter-of-fact photographs of "Every Building on the Sunset Strip," which he methodically produced with a camera strapped to his pickup truck exemplify this artistically anti-expressive approach to creating photo-conceptual works.

Later Developments

Although the model of Conceptual art promoted by Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language might be seen as the epitome of the movement - others explored avenues that were arguably as influential. Conceptual art sidestepped conventions of craftsmanship and style to an extent that it could be said to place renewed emphasis on content, which had been largely banished under critical emphasis on form. Emergent during a period of major social upheaval, Conceptualism's central tenant - that the idea is paramount - found broad application by artists wishing to emphasize diverse social issues. The social issues addressed by international artists such as Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Jenny Holzer, Luis Caminzer, Alfredo Jaar, and Ai Weiwei, include labor and gender relations, museum stewardship, and poverty and censorship.

While the movement often emphasized the social construction of the work of art, Conceptualism was not populist and had limited popularity outside of the art world due to its arcane perception. Furthermore, fractures began to develop in the movement by the mid-1970s, leading to the dissolution of the movement. Still, it eventually became inspiration to subsequent post-Conceptual artists, many of whom embraced the material basis of art and the langue of visual culture, such as the so-called Pictures Generation led by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Others continued to sidestep traditional artistic production through Performance art or installations. Thus, many of the concerns, and something of its austere style and tactics endure to this day in the works of a wide variety of artists, including Andrea Fraser, Tino Seghal, Gabriel Orozco, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Glen Ligon, and Damien Hirst.