By Tomass Stepins
Delving into a subject of which I cannot proclaim myself to be an expert is more often than not restricting and even awkward, however, the reader can view this short article as an open contemplation/investigation and a series of questions to which I am looking for some answer in order to quench my curiosity. Therefore, I invite the reader to share their views on the matter as this article serves a selfish therapeutic purpose.
The thoughts and questions which I will layout were provoked and unbridled after a certain exhibition, yet I would argue that they have been accumulating over the past few years and reached their apotheosis with this specific event.
The last disclaimer that I feel is in order is that by no means am I an opponent of art, as my life has always been directly and indirectly tangled with it; I’d rather label myself a mere curious observer in need of some understanding on the matter.
The idea of not comprehending art is quite new to me. Not because of some innate clarity, but rather because I haven’t often thought of art as something that has to be solved, comprehended, unraveled. This, obviously, begs the question of the purpose of art, and I must say I want to avoid falling into the abyss that is trying to find an answer to it. Many far more educated and intelligent people have come forward with multiple theories in this matter and I don’t want to be distracted by them in this article. Yet, I have to lay out some presumption of the purpose of art, otherwise, I won’t have a basis on which I can build my questions or critique. Therefore, I propose that art is something that is created with the intention of being classified as an object of art and with the aim of generating emotions in the agent. The first part, I feel, is necessary unless we want to assign the potential of being recognized as art to everything, which I deem counter-intuitive. The second part, however, directly pertains to my question.
An object of conceptual art more often than not (not always, though), is an aesthetically glorified sign which denotes the concept, hence the label of conceptual art. One may argue that any artwork, as a matter of fact, is no more than an eloquent, visually impressive sign, which is irrefutable to some degree, however, non-conceptual art through its form appeals to the viewers’ emotions in various different ways. This is supported by some definitions of conceptual art which state, that in conceptualism the idea or the concept precedes the form. It seems strange to me that an artwork, being made with the intention of being one, as aforementioned in my fill-in definition of art, is essentially there to convey a message or an idea that preceded the work itself. I fall into the temptation of taking up an extremely naïve position and pointing out that conceptualism is an inconvenient way of delivering a message. It is inconvenient in the way that it proposes a riddle to solve, a code to crack, a metaphor to unravel only to reward the viewer with a “eureka” moment, a sense of having understood something, which mostly seems pleasant and flattering. Yet I do not see how the flash of comprehension could be viewed as equally enjoyable as the array of emotions that non-conceptual art aims to provide. Isn’t the artwork of conceptualism a container of information? And if so, why does it have to be?
To me, the art of concepts seems almost poster-like. Its form is but a tool at the artist’s disposal, which primarily serves the purpose of information conveying. The creator of the artwork usually has an idea in mind beforehand, as explicated previously. It is curious, though, that with being made available for viewing, the bonds between the artists intention and the work itself become fragile and misty, the object strives for independence and freedom of interpretation in the eye of the viewer, thus abandoning the original idea, intention behind it and defeating its own purpose in order to become something else and autonomous. It is a curious process, yet it is often thwarted through the use of descriptions and little annotations which bond the original premise with the artwork very tightly. The description of the original idea cancels any possibility of independent causation, generation of new interpretations, that way the artwork is assured its status of being a container of a strict idea.
An additional question that draws my interest, although it could very well be misplaced, is the nature of the concepts that are being expressed through this art. I have often encountered objects, that carry within them a widely know idea, catchphrase, slogan, essences of some popular movements or ideologies. I would not claim that there is something wrong with this, yet it seems weird whenever I visit an exhibition, that I am so often reminded of these concepts that are already well known and widely introduced years ago through various different means besides art. The esteemed artworks often carry within them messages about the absurdism of war, about the injustices of sexism, the problems of climate change and many more that are extremely relevant to our society, yet they have been and are being talked and written about actively. One might argue that this state of things takes away the originality of the concept of the artworks which convey ideas related to popular subjects, which, in turn, is problematic, as the idea is more prevalent than the form in a work of conceptual art. Besides, are textual or verbal forms not much more suited to spark and maintain discussions about the subjects which are so vast and require whole baggage of information, which seems impossible to load into a single work of art?
The more I engage with this subject, the more I develop a feeling that I am approaching it from the wrong angles, and I am missing the whole point. This short text is a mere expression of my incomprehension of conceptualism in art, an open letter of sorts, an attempt to have some light shed on my perception of the art of ideas, which I do not, but very much would like to enjoy and admire.