Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of Conceptual Art

Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of Conceptual Art

Article excerpt

At the tail end of last year, an artist called Peter Goodfellow mounted an exhibition of paintings titled Treason of the Scholars . The works were a garish parody of the signature styles of blue-chip artists including Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Joseph Beuys -- not so much satire as aggravated assault. In terms of nuance, it made the giant inflatable butt plug artist Paul McCarthy had installed in Paris's Place Vendôme in 2014 look subtle. But that, Goodfellow stressed, was precisely the point.

His complaint, he wrote in an accompanying essay, was that the 'charlatans' of the contemporary art establishment had come to neglect his medium in favour of figures possessed of 'no ability, no technique, no intellectual gravity'. Conceptual art and everything associated with it was, apparently, 'unadulterated hubris and self-indulgence'.

In many ways, Goodfellow's is a persuasive argument. Indeed, I'd hazard a guess that even the most hoarse cheerleader for conceptual art might read his essay and, albeit secretly, acknowledge a flicker of truth. From Private Eye 's 'Young British Artists' cartoon strip to the rococo cadences of David Starkey's broadsides against the form, conceptual art has proved an irresistible target.

Because there is often -- but by no means always -- no demonstrable application of skill in works of conceptual art, it is labelled as pretentious, po-faced and devoid of the visual éclat that is surely the entry-level qualification for great art. It is, in other words, excrement packaged up and marketed at a premium to gormless curators and collectors.

Yet on all the counts I have listed above, the basic intellectual reasoning against conceptual art is bunk. On the eve of Tate Britain's new exhibition celebrating the British conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s, now seems as good a time as any to explain why.

The ideas of conceptual art are just that -- ideas. To qualify as a conceptual artwork, whatever object the viewer sees before them must be merely a by-product of a wider intellectual conceit -- in other words, a concept. Easy. This, however, is where the question of 'pretentiousness' comes in.

Don't get me wrong -- as with any art form, there's some terrible stuff out there. The umbrella of conceptualism shelters all kinds of fanciful rubbish, dross that gives you a good mind to go and spit on ur-conceptualist Marcel Duchamp's grave. It is, however, remarkably easy to separate the wheat from this chaff. Whether you still qualify the good stuff as 'pretentious' is a moot point -- and it rather depends on your understanding of the word. If what you mean is that it aspires to be something it can never become, then perhaps you're right.

By this rationale, though, all art that purports to show us life as it is is inherently pretentious in that it can only ever fail to do so. What could be more fruitless than attempting to capture the essence of nature through the graft of drawing? By comparison, conceptual art, with its focus on the workings of language and its distance from mimickry of the real, could seem positively earthy.

The complaint that really baffles me is that 'conceptual art' as the haters imagine it is humourless and obscure. From Duchamp's 'Fountain' onwards, the very idea was one that celebrated absurdity with a sly grin as opposed to a deadpan moue. …

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