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The effect of the conceptual art movement on how art is seen and taught

Writing: Isi Williams

Illustration: Isi Williams

And is there meaning behind it?”, my art tutor asked me as he sat looking at a large circular piece of weaving I had just finished that morning. It was a question I have learnt to expect, and normally I welcome it with a lengthy explanation of my thought process and intentions behind the work. But today I did not welcome the question. I have grown weary of this expectation put on me as an artist to have something interesting to say. “What if I don’t have anything to say?”, I want to cry out, “some art is just meant to be beautiful.”

My favourite piece of conceptual art is Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’*. It is easy to see why so many people hate this piece of art, as it is very simply a urinal. Context is everything, however, and at this point in history no one had ever dared to do something so avant-garde. It ended up pissing off a lot of people. At the time ‘Fountain’ was conceived, the highest art was put into salons and assessed by art critics, the rich, and royalty. Duchamp completely questioned this whole system and what the word ‘art’ really meant. It was revolutionary.

The Dadaists were a fringe group who thrived on the chaos that the First World War brought and created little artist havens in Zürich, Berlin, and New York. Within these groups, conceptual art was born. It was a movement founded by people who felt like the ‘art world’ was alienating, elitist, and taken too seriously. It now seems quite odd and sad that those things are what many people associate with conceptual art instead of the humorous, rebellious, and chaotic movement that it once was. Barbara Kruger puts this into words, saying: “I remember going into galleries and seeing this thing called conceptual art, and I understand people’s marginalisation from what the art subculture is because if you haven’t crashed the codes, and if you don’t know what it is, you feel it’s a conspiracy against your unintelligence. You feel it’s fraud.”

I should emphasise that I don't by any means hate conceptual art or any conceptual artist, as I myself am one and most of the work I make is born from ideas instead of aesthetics. But what the conceptual art movement did is start by questioning and rebelling against elitist art and the exclusive art scene, before slowly rising through the ranks to become what it hated so much. Now art that is simply aesthetic is often seen as inferior, shallow and frivolous.

This impact can be seen across schools of art. It is easy to see how art teaching has been transformed by the conceptual art movement. I am part of a school of art and have never felt pressure to further my skill or technique. I have often made sculptures out of whatever I could find, as my belief was that the message I was putting across was the most important part of the artwork. This of course helps to create a level playing field for artists from less wealthy backgrounds as they don't need to buy the most expensive materials because artwork can be made out of anything. Art could simply be some words on a piece of paper. But the downside that comes with all this is that technique is put second to concept and beauty put second to the idea.

As views of conceptual art are on a downturn, I believe that there should be a balance struck between the value we place on conceptual art and aesthetic art. They should be taught with the same merit, and we should learn to appreciate the beauty that can come with skill, technique, and taking time just as much as the ideas behind them. *Duchamp’s name is in air quotes because there is some debate as to whether his work was actually conceived by Baroness Elsa (one of the greatest performance artists of the early 20th century).

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