Conceptual "Art" – Why?

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In 1917, Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, renamed it “Fountain” and exhibited it as a piece of  art . This was unprecedented at the time, but nearly a century later, galleries are full of similar pieces: Tracy Emin’s bed, Damien Hirst’s shark, Yves Klein’s empty room, Antony Gormley’s smoked filled box. The list goes on.

How can these objects be called  art ? Robert Rauschenberg’s alleged portrait of Iris Clert sums the situation up; the portrait consisting of a telegram containing the words “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”.

Is conceptual  art  really  art  at all? It’s tempting to answer, with gut instinct: no, it isn’t. Saying that fire is cold doesn’t stop it from being hot, and saying that a telegram is a portrait doesn’t make it a portrait. If you can’t paint, or draw, or sculpt, then you’re not an artist. And even if you are an artist, not everything you create is  art .

However, these are mere opinions. My statement that Rauschenberg’s telegram is not a portrait carries no more authority than his statement that it is. To go beyond this, it’s necessary to develop a rigorous definition of what  art  is, and then demonstrate that conceptual “ art ” does not fit this definition.

 Art  is Universal

Firstly,  art  is universal. In the 1860s, when Victorian archaeologists first discovered cave paintings, they immediately recognised them as  art . One archaeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, was even accused of paying a local artist to forge the cave paintings.

While the talent and skill of the cave painters might have been questioned, that they were engaged in the same activity as contemporary painters like (for example) the Pre-Raphaelites was not.

This demonstrates the universality of  art ; i.e.,  art  can be recognised as  art  by all cultures. If the ancient Romans had been shown Australian aboriginal  art , they would have recognised it as  art . If the ancient Olmecs of Mesoamerica, who carved giant stone heads, had been shown Michaelangelo’s David, they would have recognised that they were engaged in the same activity. However, San bushmen or Mongolian nomads would not accept that an upturned bicycle wheel is a piece of  art . Why should we?

The idea that an unmade bed or a pickled shark can be a piece of  art  is completely bound to our culture – to this particular time and place. If our civilisation were to be wiped out, and humans a hundred years from now were to recover the archaeological remains, they would still recognise the contents of The National Gallery as  art ; they would not recognise the contents of the Tate Modern.

 Art  Creates a Sacred Space

Secondly,  art  creates a sacred space. Experiencing a piece of  art  – whether a painting, a film, a book, a piece of music, etc. – involves stepping into a space which is set aside from everyday concerns, and in which strong emotions can be evoked for their own sake.

Our rational minds are built on top of more primitive, animal layers, which operate through emotion and instinct.  Art  is a cognitive gateway which allows us to evoke responses from these lower brain regions. Consider: if there were no  art , music, film, literature, etc., then we would never feel emotions except when they were evoked by events in our own lives.

By doing this,  art  – like dreams – teaches us how to cope with strong emotions. Conceptual  art  does not fulfil this function. It is closer to being a visual riddle than a gateway to passionate emotions; inane, trite and pretentious.

 Art  Transcends the Personal

Thirdly,  art  is about transcending the personal. An artist takes his own personal experiences and distils them to a set of universal, human motifs that the audience can identify with.

Picasso’s Guernica encapsulates a sense of horror, revulsion, chaos, aggression and turmoil that we all instinctively recognise. The historical context of the painting and the personal circumstances of its creation amplify and help place these emotions, but they are not necessary to experience the disorder and violence encoded in the piece. Picasso has taken historical events and his own personal experiences of them, and created something that embodies a universal aspect of the human.

In many cases, it is not necessary to have any contextual information at all. A musician takes his personal experiences and uses them to write a song: about love, betrayal, redemption, tragedy, etc. Millions of people might hear that song and relate it to events in their own lives; it may exactly describe their situation and help them deal with their problems.

The personal experiences of the musician who wrote it are not only irrelevant, they actually detract from this process. They would change the song from being about a universal experience and pin it down to some trivial details of someone whose life the audience knows little about and cannot relate to.

An important consequence of this process – maybe even the function of it – is that the audience gains a sense of catharsis. The message is that you are not alone. Billions of human beings have experienced what you are experiencing, and understand.

Conceptual  art  does not do this. It doesn’t convey universal human themes, or allow the audience to transcend their personal experiences. There is no sense of catharsis to be gained from Rauschenberg’s telegram.

Family Resemblance

 Art  is universally recognisable as  art .  Art  creates a sacred space.  Art  allows us to transcend the personal. Conceptual “ art ” does not fulfil any of these criteria.

The last two points are purely functional, but the first requires more examination. Why is  art  universally recognisable?

The twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated that we cannot give any definition of a word which does not presuppose our ability to use it. The meaning of a word is determined not by its definition but by the context in which it is used; the meaning is contextual, not discrete.

Consider a word like “fire,” which can be used in reference to the actual substance fire, as an exclamation to warn of a spreading fire, to refer to a fireplace in a house which may or may not contain the actual substance fire, as a command (“fire that cannon”), or as an abstract verb (“you’re fired”). The meaning of the word at any particular time depends not on an atomic definition but on the context in which the word is used.

In fact, the only way in which we can convey any definitive meaning of the word fire is through example, as we have done above, or through a comparison with other words which are already able to use; for example, if we say that the word can be used as a noun, we understand this because we are familiar with other nouns. In turn, we understand the concept of a noun because we are familiar with how nouns are used. Although we can provide a definition, the definition follows our understanding of the meaning – it does not provide our understanding.

As an explanation, Wittgenstein discusses the word “game”. We cannot formulate a description which serves to define the class, because any definition will exclude things which we do consider games or include things which are not games. For example, if we say games are characterised by competition, then we exclude games like solitaire from our definition. If we say that games are characterised by physical activity then we exclude games like chess. If we say that games are characterised by play, then we include many playful activities which are not games and exclude games like poker which are not particularly playful.

There is no characteristic or set of characteristics common to all games by which we can define the class. However, just because we cannot give a solid definition of “game” does not mean that we don’t understand what the word means – we do not need a definition of the word in order to understand its meaning. We are familiar with enough games that we can determine which things do and don’t constitute games, based on their similarity or dissimilarity to one another. Wittgenstein termed this concept “family resemblance”.

Implications for  Art 

Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance can be applied to the question of whether conceptual  art  is really  art . We recognise whether or not something is  art  by comparing it, unconsciously, to other things which have had the word “ art ” applied to them.

My functional definitions of what constitutes  art  are abstractions that can only be derived after we already have a working understanding of what the term refers to. Why, then, should we not just say that whether or not something is considered  art  is determined by culture?

The fact that  art  is universally recognisable as  art  implies that it is an innate behaviour with clear (albeit unconscious) parameters, which are stable across cultures and which all human beings can recognise intuitively. Just because we grasp those parameters without being able to fully articulate them does not imply that they are culturally bound or susceptible to change. That Victorian archaeologists recognised 14,000 year old cave paintings as works of  art  is testament to this.

It’s difficult to conclude that the conceptual “ art ” scene is anything more than a modern day, real-life equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes. “This is  art  if I say it is” does not cut it. Does anybody really, honestly believe that Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin are in the same profession as Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Van Gogh?


Source by Dan Haycock

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