'cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit'
These are the words used by culture minister Kim Howells to describe works in the 2002 Turner Prize exhibition. This inflammatory comment added another layer of debate to both the media spectacle surrounding the show, and to the already well-worn assumption held by many that contemporary art is synonymous with conceptual art. It also reaffirmed, in some people’s minds, the view that conceptual art is questionable art. But why? And how can we define it?
‘Conceptual art’ is a term that emerged in the 1960s to describe art in which the idea, and the process of making, take precedence over the finished object. The artwork does not have to take on a finished physical form: it’s the idea that counts. By giving primacy to the idea, concepts and thoughts become the artist’s medium. As Richard Wentworth says ‘ideas are my material’. Often, the ideas are presented simply as a set of instructions, text or written notes (e.g. Art and Language, the 1960s British movement), as an action by the artist (Action or Performance Art), by photographs and documents (e.g. Land Art), or film and video.
So we have a starting point for conceptual art - but where does it end? Its influence has been longstanding in the sense that for many artists today, it is still the idea of the work that is most important. As a result, much contemporary art is generalised as ‘conceptual’. In the tabloid press in particular, ‘conceptual’ is used as a blanket term to describe any contemporary art, often in a derogatory fashion.
But is it merely a case of bad press and lazy terminology, or has the Turner Prize played its part in creating a bias towards conceptual art? A quick trawl through the last twenty-odd years of nominees shows that there has been as much emphasis on, for example, the work of installation artists, sculptors, video and filmakers. The problem area seems to lie with the confusion caused by definitions. Often, when artists use non-traditional materials in new ways - cows cut in half and sheep (Damien Hirst), wire mesh lockers (Mona Hatoum), rubble (Richard Long) or rubbish (Tomoko Takahashi) - they are branded as ‘conceptual’.
‘Conceptual art’ is also used to label work which makes us think or challenges our assumptions about what art is or should be. So is the real problem that contemporary art does not fit neatly into people’s ideas of what art should look like (something based on craft and skill, that can be hung neatly in their living room perhaps?) and so is dismissed as conceptual, and by association not worth the effort? Rather than reacting against the conceptual and the contemporary with a knee-jerk reaction of ‘But is it art?’, we should celebrate the possibilities that have been opened up so that artists - and viewers - can tackle ideas and issues and engage in debate. Is it not better, and more exciting, to leave preconceptions behind and look with a fresh eye and an open mind?
Of course, this is easier said than done. Art in general, does not speak for itself. It requires effort on the part of the viewer. There are very real barriers when tackling ‘conceptual’ art - barriers which can be applied to much contemporary art. For example, there is the issue of elitism. Do we feel conned or threatened if we ‘don’t get it’ when looking at Martin Creed’s light going on and off? Is it something we think we have to understand in order to engage with it, causing disdain for others who claim to uncover its mysteries? Are we embarrassed to say what we really think? There is the issue of craft and skill (the desperate cry of ‘but I could do that!’) and the question of whether conceptual artists’ ideas are actually any good. (Of course, not all art is good).
Craft, skill, ideas, originality are all valid criteria for looking, but they are not the only ones. We need to apply a critical sensibility and the willingness to reject tabloid headlines. It is the role of the viewer to at least allow some reaction time beyond the first impression, to give some consideration of the issues that may arise. For example, whilst Tracey Emin’s bed and Damien Hirst’s pickled animals may at a first glance seem obvious examples of so called ‘sensation’ tactics, they are not there just to shock, but to cause us to pause for thought. Hirst’s work asks us to consider the big questions in life - about death and mortality - while Tracey Emin takes us on a confessional journey through an unstable part of her life which we all, in some way, can relate to (either through disgust or familiarity). They also address aesthetic values and our ability to find beauty in the everyday.
But whatever our criteria for looking, there is no right or wrong answer. It is a two-way conversation based on what ‘baggage’ we bring to the gallery. Art should encourage us to delve inside these locked cases and dare to make connections - from our individual experiences, our interests and our previous knowledge and exposure to different kinds of art. These will shift and change depending on our mood and the context in which we see it. We don’t have to like it, in fact hating it can be a thrill, but all reactions are valid and can lead to interesting debate. And isn’t the point of the Turner Prize to encourage awareness and discussion about contemporary art?
As the 2003 winner Grayson Perry says :
‘The trouble is that people now look at all art as if it is conceptual art, which it isn’t. I think it’s about time that people started to bring their senses into play more and trust their bodily reactions to work - become more willing to say, ‘Wow! That is really lovely. I love that!’, rather than looking for the meaning of it all the time’.