Conceptual Art and Philosophy.1

My recent adoration and interest in Marina Abramović’s performance piece “The Artist is Present” has encouraged a lot of personal research about conceptual and performance art, and in particular, “feminist” and queer performance art. “The Artist is Present” has received a lot of blog/internet attention, deservedly. I think a lot of people feel that it is important, seminal, beautiful. A post on performance art will come later (I’m trying hard to avoid always reading works from a Lacanian perspective; maybe I should just give up and start calling myself a post-Lacanian feminist). In the meantime, I’ve been prompted to revisit conceptualism so that I can actually form educated arguments about it instead of whining, as per usual. I’ve been awake since 5.30 furiously reading a book called “Philosophy and Conceptual Art.” The following are some notes concerning problematic issues and my general responses.
Firstly, there seem to be two main camps of conceptualists: the first and the most “true” (i.e. Lippard straight from the 1966-1972 period) promotes the dematerialization of the [art] object; implies that the “idea is king” and that conceptual art should be non-perceptual (and thus, has a linguistic correlative so that description can be substituted for perception). This view also considers conceptual art to be “non-aesthetic” and a radical break and subversion of modernist codes, incorporating elements of banality, kitsch, repulsion, etc. The second is a little bit less radical. It suggests the work of art is not primarily an “object for viewing,” although sight is still a necessary part of experiencing the work. Basically, the perception of the art work is inferior and necessarily informed and guided by cognition. There is no “essential” or unified meaning to be worked out; all interpretations are legitimate and work art can/should provoke diverse responses.
First off, no work of art can be non-aesthetic, or non-perceptual. Part of what defines art is the fact that it is presented (even an empty room as “art” is a presentation of absence, a negation of space that is presented as something more that the thing in-itself, as something that provokes a response). As Lamarque notes in his essay Perceiving Conceptual Art, art can be anti-aesthetic, but never non-aesthetic. If the purpose of conceptual art is to subvert traditional modes of aesthetics, it does this not by abandoning aesthetics, but by creating an entirely new code of aesthetics in dialectical opposition. This is why, in my opinion, conceptualism is obviously an extension of, rather than a break from, modernism. Danto says, for example, that a work of art is only a work of art in that it is in some way distinguishable from the “mere real thing,” and thus, the work always has an “end” in sight realized through aesthetics as the means. Aesthetics are not confined to “harmony and beauty,” aesthetics can equally provoke less unified and traditional responses. I would argue that conceptualist aesthetics are the new normative guide for what counts as “good” or “bad” art. Conceptualism is responsible for the establishment of a new set of aesthetic “guides” appropriate to the time, place, historical period, etc. We’ve seen this time and time again – new codes subverting old ones that subsequently become standard.
It is also an illusion to think that conceptual art can be non-perceptual. Especially taking into consideration the fact that a lot of conceptual art depends on the re-contextualization of common objects situated in controlled environments to produce a certain experience. This experience is necessarily both cognitive and phenomenological, involving the body of the viewer in relation to the space. As a big Merleau-Ponty fan, I would argue that nothing is purely cognitive, and our experience of art depends on a specific mode of being-in-the-world. Reading a description of a concept-art work may invoke similar cognitive responses, but the sensory experience of the work in its specific environment will change the viewer’s experience, and most likely their intellectual experience of the work. In this case, I feel like conceptual art is equally “perceptual” (albeit, in a totally different way) as, for example, an 18th-century painting. Often the ideas are produced from the perceptual context, and not vice versa. Repositioning the art object or placing a work in a museum or other space is not an act of removing narrative; at most, it is an act of changing what counts as narrative, and creating a new perceptual space/relationship. And the desire to do this reflects the ideologies of post-modernity as much as modernist paintings reflect the oft-hated ideologies of that time.

And finally (for now), there is an illusion of subjectivity and the denial of normativity. Curry writes:
“The idea is that the process of engagement with the work, while it essentially involves knowledge not made available by vision alone, is a directed process: directed, that is, towards a visual engagement with the work. Works are intended to be looked at, but they should be looked at in the right way, with a proper understanding of the work’s circumstances. It is not, on this account, the agglomeration of the looking and the knowing that constitutes a proper engagement with the work: there is also a relation of priority that holds between them. The knowing is the necessary means to achieve the properly informed looking.” (Curry 42)
If this is true, then there is present in conceptualism a biased prioritization of the cognitive, the “knowing” quality over the “looking” that looks a lot like the modernist prioritization of the “looking” over the “knowing.” I guess that is pretty straightforward. But, this also implies that the conceptualist’s alleged support of completely relative interpretations is an illusion – as soon as you establish a hierarchy of experiential modalities, you enforce a normative way of looking, knowing, experiencing the work. The modernist extreme is replaced by the conceptualist extreme, and both enforce at least some degree of objectivity by privileging one type of interpretation over its opposite. The alleged encouragement of unlimited subjective responses to a conceptual work is undermined by this privileging of one kind of interpretation/experience over another.

I was ready to apologize for the length before I realized – this is my blog, and if you want to read, read. If not, that’s okay, too. As much as I appreciate readership support (I really do!) I sometimes miss not having to worry about writing for an “audience,” however loving and unintimidating the audience may be. And yet, I still post this, because I am interested in what people (if any) have to say in response. My next post will be a [shorter] take on (de-) historicization, conceptualism and Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Are you all signed up on MUBI (formerly The Auteurs)? I’m obsessed.


  1. I imagine there's a definite lack of true encouragement for "unlimited subjective responses to a conceptual work" ultimately because an artist (by which I mean and assert, a person) has their own impression of their work and wants to be "right" in their impression. To have others say they "get" what they were trying to say for the sake of vindication and acceptance.

    Only the best and truest artist is able to truly dissociate from their work, to let it stand on its own for interpretation(s). When that happens it's almost like the work came into being on its own- in fact, it did come into being on its own because the work is the unique agglomeration (new word yay) of the piece and the interaction and interpretation of the piece.

    Unfortunately, I am NOT that best and truest of artists- I've always got a "true" meaning, at least at the back of my head, whether I'll admit to it or not.
    Maybe I'm just projecting my own inability onto the creative masses, but I doubt it.