Conceptual Art Is Not
What It Seems
Dominic McIver Lopes
Hypotheses in aesthetics should explain appreciative failure as well as appreciative success. They should state the general conditions under which people fail to understand and value works as works of art. This stricture is all the more important when the typical response to avant-garde art is incomprehension, resistance, and rejection. Perhaps this typical response is justified and the art in question deserves to be repudiated. Assume this not always to be the case. Then if some art deserves a response that it typically does not get, we should try to explain the appreciative failure. Explaining appreciative failure might require interesting changes to theories about art.
Conceptual art is the poster child of appreciative failure. Much of it leaves its audience, even those who are well educated in art, feeling frustrated, confused, and dismissive. In an entry on conceptual art in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Art, Harold Osborne is openly contemptuous, writing that 'most artists in the field of conceptual art deliberately render their productions uninteresting, commonplace, or trivial from a visual point of view' (Osborne 1981: 122–3). Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, wallows in sarcasm, likening the