Writing Archive

Conceptualism for Sale: How the Art World Uses Low Standards for Fun and Profit

talk delivered at Winkleman Gallery in New York City, March 19, 2010

First of all, thank you Ed Winkleman, Jen Dalton, and William Powhida for having me today here at the gallery. For the record, I was invited by Jen and William specifically to give a talk at #class about why conceptual art is invalid. Actually, the original wording as it appeared on Ed's blog was a little more elaborate: "There are a vast number of people out there who don't like conceptual art, what Jen and William do, or what Winkleman promotes. Do you think we are bullshit? We'd like to hear from you! We are inviting any formalists, purists, and ideologues with open arms into the gallery for a frank discussion on conceptual art and even #class itself."

I appreciate being thought of as someone who could do justice to that topic, but immediately I saw a problem. I'm not just referring here to the framing of the discussion, pitting conceptual art on one side against purists and ideologues on the other. As if there were no ideologues among the conceptualists, or as if the people objecting to conceptual art were purists of some kind. No, the problem I saw was that nothing would validate the ascendancy of conceptual art in the contemporary art milieu quite like having a supposedly anti-conceptual artist and writer show up at the invitation of a conceptual art exhibition, allow him to vent for an hour, send him home, and afterward continue to operate as if nothing had happened. So, while the original title of this essay was "Conceptualism for Sale: How the Art World Uses Low Standards for Fun and Profit," I'm going to scratch that. The new title, in keeping with the Twitter aesthetic and the overall gestalt of this environment, is "Why Conceptual Art is Teh Awesome OMG!!!!!1"

To start, let me set out a couple of definitions. Conceptual art is art that relies primarily on its conceptual component to succeed. Most and arguably all art has a conceptual component. But you're supposed to think that a work of conceptual art is good because it's interesting to think about. I call the belief that underlies that idea "conceptualism." Specifically, conceptualism is the belief that ideas have value as art. If ideas have value as art, then interesting art is good art.

The first reason that this is awesome is that it gets around the problem of making something beautiful. Making something beautiful, not superficially so but sublime and wondrous, is a hard, hard problem. A little over a hundred years ago, the composer Gustav Mahler wrote, "Interesting is easy; beautiful is difficult." Little did Mahler know that he had mapped out a workaround for the contemporary conceptualist: don't try to make something beautiful - make something interesting and justify the work in terms of that interest. This is much easier, because everything is interesting if you look at it with sufficient attentiveness. Actually, that's not completely true. Sustaining interest over time, over the length of a novel, or even a song, takes a certain amount of craft. But sustaining it for the brief moments required by visual art is a piece of cake.

Hence the second reason why conceptual art is awesome. Because conceptual art is so easy, many more people can become artists than would be possible if beauty was an indispensable requirement. Quality is a distinguishing marker in most fields. I don't have it in me to be a great mathematician by the standards of mathematics. I probably could never be a great surfer by the standards of surfing. But I'm smart enough to figure out the priorities of the art world at the moment and cobble together something that supposedly evokes or addresses or questions them. I might be able to do it with stuff I have laying around my house. You might object that more people becoming artists is not necessarily a good thing. You try telling that to any doe-eyed, crayola-haired freshman enrolling in one of our many university-level art programs operating in this country and around the world. Way to crush somebody's dream, man. Better yet, try telling that to all the professors, administrators, recruiters, and other educational professionals employed by those programs. It's like you're stealing food right off of their plates.

The third reason that conceptual art is awesome is that you can involve a lot more people in the art world, as audience members, than you would ever be able to rope in if participation required having a lot of taste. At one time in history, art was made for a relatively small group of connoisseurs. These people had to have an eye, and having an eye is a relatively rare thing. It's not as rare as having a talent for drawing, but its more rare than, say, being able to read. But if ideas have value as art, and interesting art is good art, you can involve everyone who can read into the art world! That rocks. Nobody should be excluded from the art world. More people involved in the art world means more people in the galleries, more people in the museums, and most importantly, more people to buy artwork. It used to be that art depended commercially on a handful of rich bastards who happened to have a good eye. With that whole eye thing out of the way, your potential pool of bastards increases enormously. Remember, interesting is easy. Chatting up a prospective buyer regarding the assumed importance or intellectual content of a work of art is much easier than hanging out and admiring something with him, and it doesn't necessitate all those long, awkward silences while you wait for him to take in a work of art with his eyes.

Conceptualism accomplished a brilliant reversal. After Impressionism became accepted by the general public, the people who championed Salon-style painting looked like rubes in retrospect. We can forgive them for preferring that technical high realism to the Impressionist style, but the idea that someone would prefer the themes of ancient Greece as their subjects, or moralizing allegories, to the straightforward, here-and-now visuality of later painting makes them seem like they were caught up in their values instead of art. Conceptualism smartly turns that failure of taste into a virtue. With conceptual art, you can engage peoples' values instead of making something beautiful, and instead of their risking getting called out as rubes, they get to think of themselves as high-minded, concerned, aware, right-thinking citizens. The art lovers who stayed loyal to Salon-style painting thought of themselves in exactly the same terms, but they were wrong, and the aficionados of conceptualism are right.

Now even though we've established that conceptual art is awesome, there are always haters who come along and try to ruin the party. Let's look at some typical hater objections and how we can respond to them.

The one that comes up a lot is that beauty is important and we shouldn't just give up on it as far as visual art is concerned. If some eye-rolling and a few well-timed "whatever"s don't dissuade them, you want to take a more dismissive approach. The basic idea here is that just as those Salon defenders look like rubes for looking at art through their values instead of their eyes, you want to treat the self-appointed defenders of beauty like rubes for looking at art through their eyes instead of their values. Be sure to minimize the importance of beauty in any way you can. For instance, you could characterize it as something that Thomas Kincade is striving for, and say that people who love Kincade think of themselves as appreciating beauty. You could point out all the technically beautiful work out there that we don't regard as important art, and remind the defender of beauty that we contemporary art lovers are more concerned with importance. You could insist that he define beauty, which like many other experiential phenomena is not definable, and then express your frustration that he's asking you to value something even he can't define. You could point out that he doesn't necessarily regard the same things as beautiful that you regard as beautiful, so the appreciation of beauty must be some kind of arbitrary phenomenon that's indoctrinated by culture, not passed along by nature. (For bonus points on this last strategy, work in a crack about dead white males.)

Or you could talk about everything in the world that strikes you as beautiful - puppies, flowers, old bridges - and insist that art therefore offer you something more than mere beauty. This has the advantage of making you look like an aesthete, but one with more important matters on his mind. Continuing along those lines, you could claim to favor work that has some token level of craft associated with it, but simultaneously operates from a conceptual platform, thus delivering the best of both worlds. Even if it doesn't, no one will notice. It's not unusual these days for art critics to make claims of virtuosity for artists of decidedly average skill.

Occasionally you hear an objection that conceptual art typically doesn't deliver much of a conceptual experience, instead setting up false dilemmas, vague associations to some topic, or unexploratory political sentiment. Some of it seeks, at most, to instigate conversation or argument about itself. Indeed, art is not a great delivery mechanism for conceptual experiences compared to books, movies, and other language-based mediums. It's no accident that much conceptualist art either incorporates language or relies upon language, in the form of essays or wall text, in order to function at its intended level. It's also no accident that conceptual art is politically confined to a liberal-left worldview. Politics requires rhetoric and the rhetorical powers of art are relatively paltry.

Your salvation here is the fact that the intellectual standards for conceptual art are as low and shallow as a puddle of rain. Writers outside the art world have to construct cogent arguments according to agreed-upon principles of argumentation. Writers in the art world can get away with stringing together snippets of academic language into a lofty-sounding melange. Conceptual artists have it even easier. Memorize the following list of words: address, evoke, explore, invoke, question, challenge, critique, reference, appropriate, reflect, consider, contemplate, interpret, juxtapose. Someone like Philip Roth had to craft hundreds of pages of fiction in order to explore relations between the sexes; you need only claim that your pile of debris, torn piece of paper, or naked photograph of yourself evokes the same thing and you're good to go. For bonus points, use items from that list of words to string together the aforementioned academic language. For instance, see if you can get away with claiming that your work simultaneously questions and appropriates paradigms of sex and the capital-O Other while absurdly invoking performative rituals. Probably you can, at least to people who matter to your career.

If you find yourself utterly cornered, you still have two options available. The first is that if ideas have value as art, conversation is inherently validating. Say this: "If nothing else, this piece has provoked a discussion." Failing even that, claim that you have left the interpretation of your work to the viewer.

There's one more objection from the haters that I should mention. Despite the undisputed awesomeness of conceptual art, some people dismiss the very basis of conceptualism. Some especially hard cases insist that ideas have no value as art. Do not regard these people as capable of reason. Any mechanism for dealing with them, no matter how intellectually dishonest or ad hominem, is acceptable. First, offer to agree to disagree. If they persist, in an online forum, you could claim that you were really saying something else, to someone else, and that extreme reaction you're hearing - whether it was really extreme or not - says something about the person's character. If he makes art, attribute his opinion to his style of art, and then attack the art. Call them a conservative and liken them to a Fox News pundit, or perhaps a fascist dictator. If they're older than you, say that they're too old to get it; if they're younger than you, make note of your greater experience and worldliness. Call them rude and boring just for questioning you; treat the questions themselves as uninformed and impertinent. None of this will decide anything, but at least it will make a productive conversation harder to pursue, and will hopefully put a quicker end to it. Take it from me - I should know.

Thank you for your time.

Word count: 2094

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