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What is Conceptual Art?

Wed Nov 11th, 2015

IMMA invited Mick Wilson, Dean of the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (GradCAM) to contribute an essay entitled What is Conceptual Art?, which considers the relevance of Conceptual Art both as an influential art movement during a particular period of time but also, more broadly, as a framework for creating and understanding art which remains relevant to Contemporary Art practice.

“Conceptual art is not about forms or materials, but about ideas and meanings. It cannot be defined in terms of any medium or style, but rather by the way it questions what art is. In particular, Conceptual art challenges the traditional status of the art object as unique, collectable and/or saleable. […] This art can take a variety of forms: everyday objects, photographs, maps, videos, charts and especially language itself. Often there will be a combination of such forms. […] Conceptual art has had a determining effect on the thinking of most artists.”1 – Tony Godfrey, 1998

“I will refer to the kind of art which I am involved in as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. […] The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. […] Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. […] The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple.”2 – Sol LeWitt, 1967

“Conceptual art, for me, means work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/ or “dematerialized.” […] This has not kept commentators over the years from calling virtually anything in unconventional mediums “Conceptual art.” […] There has been a lot of bickering about what Conceptual art is/was; who began it; who did what when with it; what its goals, philosophy, and politics were and might have been. I was there, but I don’t trust my memory. I don’t trust anyone else’s either. And I trust even less the authoritative overviews by those who were not there.”3 – Lucy Lippard, 1972

“Concept art is first of all an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of e.g. music is sound. Since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.”4 – Henry Flynt, 1961

“I chose to work with inert gas because there was not the constant presence of a small object or device that produced the art. Inert gas is a material that is imperceivable – it does not combine with any other element […] That is what gas does. When released, it returns to the atmosphere from where it came. It continues to expand forever in the atmosphere, constantly changing and it does all of this without anybody being able to see it.”5 – Robert Barry, 1969


The quotations which begin this essay establish most of the key themes in discussing conceptual art: the priority given to ideas; the ambiguous role of actual objects and materials; the need to rethink the mechanisms of ‘display’ and distribution of art; the increasingly important role for language; and the tendency to trouble core definitions both of ‘art’ in general and of ‘conceptual art’ itself in particular. This repeated play with definitions – ‘What is the limit of what can be included under the heading “art”?’ ‘What is the most reduced and concise way in which a conceptual artwork can be “given” for the audience to “experience”?’ – makes answering the question ‘What is conceptual art?’ a little tricky, but also very worthwhile.

Perhaps the easiest way to introduce conceptual art is to consider some examples of work typically described as ‘conceptual’. Robert Rauschenberg sends a telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert which says: ‘This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so’ as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits in the gallery, (1961).6 Stanley Brouwn asks passers-by in Amsterdam to show him the way to a particular spot in the city using pen and paper, (This way Brouwn, 1961).7John Baldessari instructs a sign painter to paint the following words on a canvas: ‘Study the composition of paintings. Ask yourself questions when standing in front of a well-composed picture. What format is used? What is the proportion of width to height?’, (Composing on a Canvas, 1966-8).8 Cildo Meireles screen-prints subversive messages onto Coca-Cola glass bottles and re-circulates these so that they are re-used for selling Coca-Cola (Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project, 1970).9 Joseph Kosuth exhibits a series of blackand- white photostats of dictionary definitions for words such as ‘meaning’ and ‘universal’, (Art as ideas as idea, 1966). Adrian Piper exhibits a short text saying: ‘The work originally intended for this space has been withdrawn. […] I submit its absence as evidence of the inability of art expression to have a meaningful existence under conditions other than those of peace, equality, truth, trust and freedom,’ (1970).10

Less the medium, more the message

This term ‘conceptual art’ has become the most widely used name for works such as these, which form a broad spectrum of experimental artworks and practices that developed from the 1960s onwards. These new art practices no longer necessarily depend on the production of discrete one-off physical objects; nor necessarily use traditional media and techniques like picturemaking with paint or modelling with clay or casting with bronze or assembling with metal and wood; nor even demonstrate a specifically pronounced ‘visual’ or ‘hand made’ aspect. Typically, though not without important exceptions, art making prior to this development had been a matter of working directly within relatively familiar art forms and media – painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking – to produce discrete objects. Conceptual art can make use of these forms on occasion, but it no longer requires these forms in order to produce something that claims an audience’s attention as an artwork – the emphasis is generally not placed on a specific material artefact nor on hand-crafting or technical-making processes as such, nor even on the ‘expressive’ personality of the artist, but rather on a range of concerns that emphasise the role of ‘ideas’. However, such generalisations are really only rough approximations – in many ways the list of works provided above could be used as counterexamples: for example, Robert Barry’s work with inert gases is centrally based on a material process, the diffusion of the gases into the atmosphere; however, this process is not available to perception in the usual terms of art viewing. This play off between percept (what is given in the experience) and concept (what is proposed as organising the experience meaningfully) is a recurrent feature of much conceptual art which makes use of the ambiguous interplay of language, perceptual experience and the conceptual organisation of experience.

When was Conceptual Art?

Most commentators identify the period from 1966 to 1972 as the key phase of development: a period that concludes with the canonisation of conceptualism in the controversial international survey exhibition Documenta V in Germany organised by Harald Szeeman,11 and the first publication of Lucy Lippard’s often cited book that maps conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, in the US.12 However, this neat packaging of cultural practices in such crisply delimited movements and periods, with clear beginnings and endings, is always, to a greater or lesser degree, misleading, although such periodisations are sometimes useful in summarily introducing complex cultural historical material.

The key problem presented by mapping conceptual art is the degree to which it has come to reorient the entire field of modern art, so that producing an account of conceptual art opens up a whole range of unresolved issues that continue to vex participants in contemporary art debate.

A rough answer to the question

So as a first rough attempt at an answer to the question ‘What is conceptual art?’, we could propose something like: conceptual art, is the name for a broad tendency to shift the priorities for making, describing, thinking about, giving value to, and distributing works of art, toward questions of idea rather than technique. This is a tendency that is strongly evident since the 1960s. This is a shift from questions of craft process, material artefact, medium, tradition and virtuosity as primary, to questions of intention, meaning, idea and information as foremost in importance. This broad shift in emphasis is evident internationally in the work of artists from many countries including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States, from the 1960s onwards. While some have identified conceptual art primarily with New York and North America, and thus with an English-speaking cultural context, others have worked hard to overcome this bias by exploring the rich and culturally diverse examples of conceptualism globally.13

Problems with this answer

But one of the problems with this answer is that it seems to isolate conceptual art from a broader set of developments in post World-War II culture, such as pop art and minimalism, as well as wider developments in literature, poetry, theatre, performance and mass media. Part of the problem here is the way in which the academic discipline of art history, especially in its popularised form in glossy publications and television programmes, likes to talk of ‘styles’ and ‘movements’ and to anchor these notions by describing the visual appearance of, and techniques used in producing artefacts such as paintings and sculptures. Clearly, when artists begin to prioritise ideas and begin to use ideas from a wide range of sources – science, philosophy, sociology, literary theory, media and communications studies, cybernetics, ecological activism, and counter cultural politics for example – the old art historical conventions of ‘movements’ and ‘styles’ potentially become obstacles to establishing a broad and rich sense of a wide-ranging re-orientation of the global art system. (Of course another problem of academic art history can often be its preoccupation with being ‘correct’ and exact in its use of terms, which can lead to a lot of hair-splitting and angels dancing on the heads of pins, so let’s not lose too much sleep over our rough answer to the question ‘What is conceptual art?’)

One important dimension of conceptual art (which it is difficult to address in an answer like the one given above), is its relationship with counter-cultural tendencies and with various forms of international cultural politics such as feminism, the anti-war movements, and various forms of activism and dissent. A key work of the 1970s and critically important for the development of feminist cultural practice and debate is Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, which is in part a reworking of conceptual art approaches to the exhibition as ‘system’ and a use of the archive as a medium of display (presenting images, diagrams, documents, artefacts in a systematic manner).14 The exhibition as ‘system’, refers to the use of cybernetics and systems thinking in various conceptual art projects and in the rethinking of the function and role of exhibition and display.15 This is not to say that all conceptual art manifested a countercultural tendency: this was not the case.16 This is to make a claim for the broadening effects of conceptual art in terms of themes and methods in art making which enabled (not caused) the emergence of new cultural practices and debates which foregrounded questions of identity, gender, and class.17

Conceptual art and the knowledge economy

Another dimension of conceptual art, which is not fully addressed in this definition, is the ambiguous and complex relationships between conceptual art and changes in the contemporary art market. Some commentators like Lippard emphasise conceptual art’s ‘dematerialisation’ of the art object and identify this with attempts to resist the commercial logic of the art market. Other commentators foreground the role of conceptual art in reshaping the dynamics of the art market and the nature of what can feasibly be bought and sold. Seth Siegelaub, a key New York gallerist and curator since the 1960s, has written: ‘The economic aspect of conceptual art is perhaps most interesting. From the moment when ownership of the work did not give its owner the great advantage of control of the work acquired, this art was implicated in turning back on the question of the value of its private appropriation. How can a collector possess an idea?’18 Of course this talk of a new economy of ideas has a familiar ring for contemporary ears, and indeed some writers have identified a connection between such 1960s radical art ideas and twenty-first-century notions of ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘cognitive capitalism.’

In the 1990s, French sociologists argued that there is a relationship between the kind of creative and imaginative idea-based work proclaimed by 1960s artists and activists as progressive and transformative for society, and the kinds of ‘flexible’ ‘creative’ ‘idea-generating’ and ‘immaterial labour’ proclaimed by more recent champions of information capitalism and ‘flexibilisation’ as economically progressive and transformative.19 This is a very controversial matter, suggesting as it does that in some way work that sought to be socially, politically and culturally progressive in the 1960s has become taken-over as economically instrumental thinking by a new form of capitalism that seeks to exploit ever more totally our creative and social being.20 Others go right back to the 1960s and identify a connection between the new art ideas of conceptualism and the new marketing cultures of corporations. Alexander Alberro has argued that: ‘The infusion of corporate funds was a major element in the expansion of the art market during the mid-1960s. […] Many in corporate practice […] imagined new, innovative art as a symbolic ally in the pursuit of entrepreneurship.’21 This is just one way in which conceptual art continues as a live controversy for contemporary art practice and cultural debate.

Conceptual art now

For some commentators the rise of conceptual art has been nothing less than the betrayal of the visual arts by overly literary and anti-visual cultural practices.22 For other commentators conceptual art has generated the basis on which current practice proceeds and, for them, it has established the basic problems and themes with which artists must continue to work. Arguably, conceptual art continues to be the key background for a number of important debates in contemporary art: the role of the curator; the functions and limits of art institutions (galleries, museums, exhibitions); art as exemplary economy of the ‘dematerialised’; the meaning of ‘public’-ness in art; the appropriate role and limits of mediation, publicity and explication in contemporary art; the inclusions and exclusions that operate in the circuits of global culture; and the relationship between art practice and knowledge.

In the most simple and everyday terms conceptual art has given rise to a new criterion in judgements on art. Encountering a work of art, instead of the question ‘Is it beautiful?’ or ‘Is it moving?’ we now find ourselves more often than not, first asking ourselves, ‘Is it interesting?’

© Mich Wilson, 2011


  1. Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art, Phaidon, 1998.
  2. Sol LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Artforum, June 1967.
  3. Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, U niversity of California Press, 1997. [Orig. 1973].
  4. Henry Flynt, ‘Essay: Concept Art.’ in An Anthology of Chance Operations, La Monte Young and Marion Zazeela (eds.), 1963. See [ AnAnthologyOfChanceOperations.pdf].
  5. Robert Barry in Meyer, ‘Conversation with Robert Barry’, 12 October 1969. See [www.].
  6. See Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. University of California Press, 1995, p. 804.
  7. Susanna Heman, Jurrie Poot, and Hripsime Visser (eds.), Conceptual art in the Netherlands and Belgium 1965-1975. Amsterdam: NAi Publishers/Stedelijk Museum, 2002, p. 124.
  8. See [ Composing-on-a-Canvas].
  9. See Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999, p. 59.
  10. See Lucy Lippard.
  11. From 1961 to 1969, Harald Szeemann was Curator of the Kunsthalle Bern, where in 1968 he famously gave Christo and Jeanne-Claude the opportunity to wrap the entire museum building in an emblematic work of the period. Szeemann’s important 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, at the Kunsthalle, introduced European audiences to artists like Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and Lawrence Weiner. It is often cited as a key moment in the emergence of the modern figure of the ‘curator’ as indeed has Szeemann’s practice in general. See Hans-Joachim Muller, Harald Szeemann: The Exhibition Maker, Hatje Cantz, 2006. Documenta V took place in 1972 as the fifth in the series of major survey shows of international art, which began in 1955. Curated by Szeemann, it provided a broad representation of European and North American conceptual art and sparked controversy because of the strong authorial input of Szeemann into the project. Documenta V has become a key reference in debates about the nature of the curator’s function in contemporary art.
  12. L ippard’s book prioritises New York and emphasises the ‘dematerialisation’ of the artwork. This is a matter of some contest and debate. Jon Bird and Michael Newman have argued: ‘Lippard’s term implies a logic of subtraction as the materiality of the art object is systematically reduced or redefined, and the concept ‘art’ and the context increasingly carry the burden of meaning. No single term can adequately describe the various formal and theoretical investigations pursued by artists during this period.’ S ee their ‘Introduction’ in Rewriting Conceptual Art, Reaktion, 1999, p. 4. See also Michael Corris’s ‘An Invisible College in an Anglo-American World’, the introduction to his edited anthology on Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice, Cambridge U niversity Press, 2004. Corris cites Art & Language’s disparaging perspective on this position, whereby they asserted that ‘most of the ‘dematerialisations’ of the time were absurd reifications of discursivity, perfectly formed for co-option’ (p. 1).
  13. L uis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s. Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999. But this has by no means become the dominant approach. There is a notable preference still to prioritise east coast American artists and their associates from Europe in accounts of conceptual art.
  14. S ee Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document, University of California Press, 1999. The work was first exhibited in 1976 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, where she showed three of the six ‘Documents’ from this extended project. The book version was first published in London in 1983.
  15. Michael Corris notes that: ‘The concept of a ‘system’ which became part of the lingua franca of the 1960s, was not destined to remain the exclusive property of a technologically minded elite of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. In the hands of intellectuals, artists, and political activists, it would become an essential ideological compnent of the ‘cultural revolution’. Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 189. For an online version see [http:// mation-Knowledge-and-Technology].
  16. Indeed, Gregory Battcock specifically critiqued an important New York show of conceptual art, ‘Information’ at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, precisely because it lacked political vitality. See Gregory Battcock , ‘Informative Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art’, Arts Magazine, Vol. 44, No. 8, 1970, p. 27.
  17. Adrian Piper’s trajectory is interesting in this regard. See her Out of Order. Out of Sight. Vol. 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art: 1968-1992, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
  18. Seth Siegelaub, in Michael Claura and Seth Siegelaub, “L’art conceptual,” Xxe siecle, 41 (December 1973) reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, (eds.), Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999, p.289. (Cited also in Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 1.)
  19. See Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Gregory Elliott, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, 2006. [Orig. ] While Boltanski et al., do not specifically cite ‘conceptual art’, they refer to a broader ‘artistic critique’ which correlates strongly with key themes in conceptualism and with the cultural dissent associated with ‘1968’. They ask: ‘Must we not ask […] if the forms of capitalism which have developed over the last thirty years, while incorporating whole sections of the artistic critique and subordinating it to profit-making, have not emptied the demands for liberation and authenticity of what gave them substance…?’.
  20. Victor Burgin’s pronouncement from 1988 is revealing here: ‘The original conceptual art is a failed avant-garde. Historians will not be surprised to find, among the ruins of its utopian program, the desire to resist commodification and assimilation to a history of styles’. See Victor Burgin, ‘Yes Difference Again…’ in A. Alberro & B.Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999, p. 429.
  21. Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 13.
  22. For an entertaining read in this vein see Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

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