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Conceptual art. Can only an idea be a work of art?

Conceptual art. Can only an idea be a work of art?

ArtWizard, 30.07.2018

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that the concept is the most important aspect of the work and not the finished object. It refers mostly to an art movement in USA and Latin America in the sixties and seventies when some of those artists began experimenting with their works. Among the most commonly renown works from this movement is the work One and Three Chairs of Joseph Kosuth (1965). It represented a chair in three different formats: an ordinary chair, a photograph of a chair and a dictionary definition of a “chair”.

By demonstrating how an object can differ its meaning and format as object, image and words, the artist demonstrated how an idea could exist independently from the object it represents, and how one meaning can be represented in different forms.

In another artwork, some of the conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt initiated a series of wall drawings that went with instructions for others to execute them. As these instructions could be carried out by anyone, anywhere and at any time, the wall drawings looked different depending on who was implementing the instructions and the shape of the space used.

Another famous and somewhat well invented concept of art was also created by Yoko Ono in her Snow Piece, where she physically made the painting, but she left instructions to the viewers of how to read it. She said: “Think that snow is falling. Think that snow is falling everywhere all the time. When you talk with a person, think that snow is falling between you and the person. Stop the conversation when you think the person is covered by snow”.

This re-evaluation of the accepted definitions of art and of the value placed on it emerged at a time where the artists where seeking to challenge the authority institutions and the market had at the time. It meant that art is not anymore, an object that can be bought and sold. Art no longer had to be made up entirely of objects that can be collected at home, but it meant that it becomes a personal experience, something that has a different meaning to the different viewers and it is in this way unique and even more valuable, as it cannot be repeated. It was opened in this way to everything – from musical scores to advertisement to be considered on an equal footing with painting and sculpture. In this way, art became something much more than the object we see, as the meaning of this object, the experienced of it and what is vested in it mattered as art.

A beautiful example of such artworks is the series of nineteen untitled artworks made by the American artist Felix Gonzales-Torres, known as the Candy Spills. It portrayed a pile of 80 kilograms of multicolored wrapped hard candies heaped at the corner of a room as an ode to the artists partner who has an AIDS related illness. The visitors were allowed to take candies from the exhibited pile and each piece of candy that visitors take away served as a reminder of the weight loss of his ill partner.

Such conceptual art is most controversial due to the latest concept that even the author may not be “authored” entirely the whole work of art but only the idea – concept of it. This is even more true in today’s market where after Marcel Duchamp nominated a urinal as a work of art and reissued later editions of his ready-made works, he delivered some clear blows to the West's collective notion of artistic creativity. In keeping with this model, Sol Le Witt'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 the engine that makes the art." This idea of an automated or machine-like execution of the art-idea is very symptomatic of the Conceptualism. For instance, in Vito Acconci's “Following 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 and the documentation method) were decided in advance by Acconci, but the resulting path traversed and subjects (the exact people, the number of photographs and specific locations) occured based on the decisions made by randomly selected individuals and were thus exempt from Acconci's concept of making art.

This denial of the artist as a "master" and sole creator of the work also translates to many works with which the artist's name is associated, but where he/she is not the fabricator. Le Witt in particular, who passed away in 2007, was survived by a number of unrealised sketches for sculptural and other works of art, which to this day are often by teams of fabricators and assistants, thus allowing brand new Le Witt 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 Le Witt's posthumously issued works, the practice flies in the face of traditional notions of craft and mastery.