What’s the Deal with Conceptual Art?

By Shantay Robinson 

Absolut Power, Hank Willis Thomas, 2003 Inkjet Print on Canvas Sizes Vary, via artist website. Represented by Jack Shainman Gallery

Conceptual art is often misconstrued as being easy and something anyone can do. It may be looked at as if anyone can sign their name to an already assembled object and call it art. Marcel Duchamp is considered the forefather of conceptual art, as he signed his name onto a urinal, called it Fountain, and entered it into an art exhibition it was rejected from. The artworld has come to know Duchamp’s artwork as art because he conceptualized it as art and placed into an art exhibition space, even if it was submitted to exhibition only to test the limits of an organization. While Duchamp might not have conceptualized Fountain past his signature on the urinal, conceptual art emerging in the 1960s began to think of everyday items and the activation of the everyday in ways that enacted concepts. According to Tate Modern, “Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the 1960s to the mid 1970s.” 

So, while conceptual art might be easy on the eye as familiar and digestible, the engagement with the art requires work on the part of the viewer. Whereas traditional forms of art replicate and enhance reality, although sometimes mythologized, most art pre-modern looked like something the eye could capture and interpret. The 21st century was a time when art underwent significant change. Due to Clement Greenberg’s championing of Modern art, artists became more concerned with the formal qualities of painting like color, line, and shape. Conceptual art is a reaction to modern art, as it rejects the formal qualities of painting and does so with a sort of rebellion toward the confines of the canvas. 

It is the idea that counts. And the idea often lives on after the artwork is created and discarded. 

Artist, Sol Lewitt, remarked, “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work when an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and discussions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” A conceptual work of art needs not be experienced. There are artists who create conceptual art without viewers at all. They may document it through photographs or writing, but it is ultimately the fact that the concept was enacted that gives life to the artwork. Though conceptual art is designated as a break from tradition, and deemed art because the artist says it’s art, the production of some conceptual art doesn’t necessarily need witnesses to the original artwork or the artists who created it once there are instructions for its reproduction. Once the art is created and instructions are designated for its reproduction, any set of artists with permissions can reconstruct the artwork long after the artist is gone. 

In contemporary journalism, art that is not figurative is often all lumped together as conceptual art. The term conceptual has become a blanket term to describe any contemporary art. While there is good and bad art, not all contemporary art is conceptual art. Just because an artwork is difficult to understand doesn’t make it conceptual. There has to be some understanding or consolation about the artwork; there has to be some meaning behind it. To create conceptual art requires thought. And yes, there might be some effort required on the viewer’s part, but that is where conceptual art becomes meaningful. The concepts used in conceptual art are oftentimes interesting. Important issues rendered in contemporary conceptual art are about climate change, the refugee crisis, and gender identity. These concepts are interesting because they make statements on our present-day conditions. And when black artists engage in conceptual art, many times they are reflecting on the conditions of black existence.

When we really think about it, all art is conceptual art. The artist might have an intention in mind that they want to get across to the viewer. But within conceptual art the idea is more important than the actual artwork that is created. So, an artwork can be a chair in the context of some type of understanding or a urinal with a signature assigned to it. Joseph Kosuth created an artwork that included a picture of a chair, an actual chair, and a text-based definition of a chair placed on the wall. Whatever the artwork is, the artist wants the viewer to actively think about and engage with the artwork to come to some understanding of our culture.  Conceptual art is not concerned so much with the beauty of an object but the meaning it contains. What does a chair really mean if it’s not sat in? Is it still a chair? In the Kosuth artwork, he’s asking that we think about what a chair actually is. When a chair is no longer functioning as a chair, is it still a chair, even as much as a picture of a chair or the text-based definition are?

Scarred Chest by Hank Willis Thomas, 2004 Lightjet Print Sizes Vary, via artist website. Represented by Jack Shainman Gallery

Among contemporary black artists, figuration is the penchant. Placing black bodies in the annals of the art institutions seems to be more important than other ways of engaging with viewers in the contemporary moment. But while the most talked about artists might be figurative renderers, conceptual art still plays a part and has been a part of black art traditions. Although Hank Willis Thomas is a photographer, his photographs are largely conceptual for the ideas put forth in them. In 2003, Thomas created the B(r)anded Series in which he uses photography and graphic design to brand the black male body with a Nike swoosh. His work is less about the aesthetics of the photograph and more about the body that is branded. In the series it is the black male who is branded by the sports performance for his athleticism. A brand being a kind of harsh measure of ownership onto the body, as is evidence in slavery or on animals is brutality inflicted on bodies. Although the graphic design and the photographs are aesthetically appealing, Thomas’ idea is more important than the aesthetics itself. Thomas is reported as stating to the Brooklyn Rail that series depicts “how slaves were branded as a kind of ownership, and [how] today we brand ourselves.” A tangential meaning to these images might be the idea that black bodies can be owned in these contemporary times by athletic companies, as well as sports organizations to earn billions of dollars for the actual owners. The images are made to make us think. 

I Am A Man by Hank Willis Thomas, 2009 Liquitex on Canvas 55 1/2 x 228 x 2 1/4 inches [Installation View] via artist website. Represented by Jack Shainman Gallery

When Thomas takes protest placards and remixes the wording on them, how is that art? In particular, Thomas took the protest placards from Civil Rights protests claiming, “I Am A Man” and changed the wording into several iterations including “I Be A Man” “Who’s the Man” and “You the Man” among other phrasings. How is this art when each iteration is just text on a white background? Many of the phrasings are sayings that are prevalent in the black community that derive from notions of manhood. I’m not saying it took Thomas a lot of time to come up with these phrasings because it might not have (it also could have taken a lot of time); though the rendering seems simple, it is created for effect. The important concept is that he took the protest placard that affirms the notion of manhood of the protestors who used them and manipulated it for an understanding of what it means in contemporary times by taking popular phrases and contextualizing them with the original placards.  It is an artwork not only because it is placed in art exhibition contexts, but because the concept behind it is original and lends itself to contemplation. The aesthetics of the artwork are simple. He took the same font found on the original protest placards and used new phrasings. But he did this to contextualize the additional phrases and tie them back to the original use of the placards. 

Some of Thomas’ installations have been large scale in major public spaces like Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport, the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Highline in New York and Portland Art Museum. Many of Thomas’ works have been public artworks available for the public to appreciate. Taking popular icons and signs and relating them to contemporary themes important to black life, Thomas manipulates concepts for art to relate them to contemporary phenomenon like racism or gun violence in this country. Thomas has used his art to bring awareness to U.S. fatalities of gun violence, as he claims there are few, if any, memorials dedicated to all of the fallen victims of gun violence in modern day times. While his artwork 14,719, is banners with as many stars, that alludes to the flag of the United States, it’s actually an artwork reporting the number of gun-related fatalities in the U.S. in 2018. The use of the stars from the U.S. flag and the navy-blue color speak to these tragedies in this country in particular. 

 So, though conceptual art might not be readily accessible to all viewers and may seem like anyone could create it, a lot of thought is actually put into these artworks (at least the good ones). But engaging with conceptual art requires that the viewer participates and attempts to figure out the concept or idea the artist is attempting to convey. 

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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