In a rather superficial critique of conceptual art, Denis Dutton cites Damien Hirst in his recent New York Times op-ed piece and uses Hirst’s medicine cabinets to draw a distinction between the “technical skill” of representational art and the “lack of craftsmanship” in contemporary conceptual art. The implication being that conceptual art that demonstrates little more than “skill in playing inventively with ideas” has less aesthetic “value” than a traditional art of “painstakingly developed artistic technique.”(1)
Dutton bemoans the continued adulation of “conceptual artists” like Hirst and was dreading an Oct. 16th Christie’s sale of “Post-War and Contemporary Art” that featured Hirst’s medicine cabinet on the auctioneer’s block.
Glancing through the various lots that were sold last week-end at Christie’s yielded interesting bits of news: several Richard Prince “photos” (appropriated) did not sell; while Vanessa Beecroft is still getting $17,000 USD for her ancient “VB-35” soft-core prints. Meanwhile, it helps to be dead, as usual: Martin Kippenberger selling from $1.7 to $3.7 million USD; Jorg Immendorf at $99,000; Jack Goldstein at $80,000.
So we can say that some of the “conceptualists” at least have an exchange value if not an aesthetic one. The Hirst cabinet, by the way, subsequently sold for $187,627.
In his opinion piece, Dutton expresses distaste for the “tradition of conceptual art” that is “admire(d) not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept.” Yet rather than critique the truly “creative” ideas born of 1960s conceptualism, Dutton focuses on a couple of contemporary sham purveyors (Hirst and Jeff Koons) who bungled one of the better “ideas” in the Duchampian oeuvre – appropriation.(2)
Instead of discussing any of the resilient and potent theories and ideas inherent in conceptual art, Dutton seems content to go after the one methodology initiated by Duchamp that metamorphosed throughout the 20th Century to become photo-appropriation (see Prince and Sherrie Levine) or worse still, second-tier copyists (see almost all of the yBa's).
Appropriation is a tough theory; difficult to apprehend and hard to teach. The general public often reacts negatively to works that are “borrowed” because of a knee-jerk response to art that is obviously not “original.” It’s a fair point and instigates impassioned debates on authenticity, simulacra and the authorial imperative that was so ingrained in visual art before Duchamp.(3)
Clearly though, Dutton’s intent was to draw readers in with a superficial attack on a "tricky" idea of conceptualism so he could meander off on his real topic: to speculate on whether prehistoric hand-axes were possibly the first works of art since their blades indicate they were unused. I will not pursue the logic of Dutton’s assumption that disuse equates with preciousness and, thus, that those axes are artworks. What I will do is point out some other ideas that came out of conceptualism that he missed and that continue as strong work by the best postconceptual artists.
Conceptual art questioned the traditional role of the art object as the conveyer of meaning. By exploring the elusive “art object” and its contested importance as a precious, well-crafted thing, conceptual art (and postconceptualism) accomplished its subsequent “dematerialization.” Art “objects” began to be “made” from impermanent materials (string, dirt, inert gases). Artists documented ephemeral experiences occurring in specific places over specific durations of time (spatio-temporality). Information became “art” and the “form” an object took was the result of a process. Conceptualists also made work that was participatory and incorporated the actions of others and even the viewing public.
But these ideas are harder to critique so Dutton went after the easy mark, appropriation. He does not seem to fully comprehend appropriation as a “concept” either, because he mistakenly includes Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” in his attack – Kosuth photographs the objects himself at the site where the object and its dictionary definition will sit.
Undoubtedly, the kind of weak attack Dutton mounted in the New York Times surfaces periodically about contemporary art that is challenging, and certainly the most challenging art these days bears an allegiance to conceptualism. Those visual theories and ideas that were originally posited by some artists of the 1960’s approached significant new ways of dealing with visuality. It is my belief that there are still a few who are extending these ideas to continue its impact as postconceptualism.
1. This and all subsequent quotes by Dutton are from “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?”
2. The only reason I show Hirst’s shark and Koons’s vacuum to my theory students is to emphasize the debt they both owe Duchamp.
3. I have posted frequently on appropriation here and my students have written about it, too. However, my response to Dutton’s piece – indeed, to any attack on conceptual art – is to remind all and sundry that there are more ideas in conceptualism than shopping at the hardware store.