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Is it art, or is it cost-efficient? My problem with conceptual art

The death’ of conceptual art

5 minute read
Nauman's 'One Hundred Live and Die': What else is new?
Nauman's 'One Hundred Live and Die': What else is new?
In her recent BSR review of Bruce Nauman's "Notations" at the Art Museum, Anne R. Fabbri declared that she believes conceptual art— that is, art whose concepts or ideas take precedence over traditional aesthetic concerns— to be dead. Given the often nihilist, in-your-face, shock-your-socks-off content of much conceptual art, this comment may amount to no more than wishful. What was said of Mark Twain, I suspect, is also true of conceptual art: Rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.

Plenty of artists are still making it. Teachers in the academies are teaching it, and students are learning its rudiments in the classroom. It consumes excessive amounts of energy on the part of practicing artists. It hogs copious amounts of gallery space, too.

Bruce Nauman, a living artist, gets two whole rooms for his current Days/Giorni sound-installation "exhibit" at the Art Museum. How cost-efficient, in these tough economic times, to use two large rooms just to house some speakers and some metal stools! The crowds don't seek to cram into these spaces, because the regimented "voices" emanating from the speakers send the average visitor flying out the door. Nauman's pieces are designed to disturb, and they do.

It's no surprise, then, that Nauman's marketing techniques are studied carefully at art schools today. Far from dying, conceptual art has become mainstream in the art world. It's popular with the culturati. But as Fabbri remarks, its style has been beaten to death. It can be shocking art, but we've become inured to it— the opposite reaction from what the artist intends.

Swimming against the tide

In any case, whether a fashion in art is dead or alive is beside the point. Almost a generation ago, remember, the culturati declared painting to be dead. But some artists, as we well know, continued to paint. Fortunate we are that some chose to swim against the tide, for how paltry our visual world would be without the Vincent Desiderios, the Jane Pipers, the Fred Danzingers, just to mention a few among the many who have labored patiently, often without compensatory fanfare, in Philadelphia's artistic vineyards.

Artists continue to create work today as they always have, but their influences resist categorization. I find this cause for celebration, as I prefer the individual voice (or eye) rather than the collective or herd response to style. Art should be judged on its own merits, regardless of the materials used, or whether those materials are in fashion at the time the art was created. How many great artists are unknown to the public or even to art historians today, merely because they worked outside the trend of their time?

And how many artists are lionized not from the exercise of sheer talent but merely because they rode the popularity tide? We assume that the best work will always float to the top of our consciousness, but the reality is that some great artists will always remain unknown to the wider public.

Matisse without Barnes

The world might never have known the work of Matisse, Cézanne or Soutine had Philadelphia's own Albert Barnes not chosen to collect this work and assemble it at the Barnes Foundation. Critics and culturati at the time called these "insane" and "degenerate." It took the bullish persistence of the good doctor to alter the course of our art history.

Albert Barnes complained of the academic sameness of work produced in the art schools of his day. He challenged artists to find their own particular styles in painting, rather than mimic the current academic style. In this way, conceptual art is "academic" art today.

Yet already, emphasis on the conceptual style of art is shifting. The old-fashioned, once "academic" concerns of drawing, painting, and craftsmanship are again in vogue with students.

Changing majors

At Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where my daughter is a student, the crash of the art market last year prompted a large shift of fine arts majors to the illustration major. So much for the anti-materialist spirit among young art makers!

More important, it's heartening that these students recognize and embrace that, as illustration majors, they'll be required not only to master drawing, but also to engage with the viewing public.

The author and art critic Tom Wolfe remarked back in 2003 that the annual published by the Society of Illustrators "has been better than all the catalogues of contemporary art shows in New York put together." Wolfe predicted that art historians 50 years from now "will look back upon the illustrators as the great American artists of the second half of the 20th Century." Most everything else in today's art world, Wolfe contended, "is just etiquette and fashion."

Fear of Norman Rockwell


No doubt Wolfe's comments have disturbed some fine arts lovers, for whom the term illustrator conjures up thoughts of Norman Rockwell. But I would argue that a whole other world of artistic endeavor is happening now— one that will supplement what we've traditionally defined as the "fine arts."

So fashions do come and go, but some things are timeless. Drawing and painting are the foundation disciplines of all visual arts, and should remain a constant in artistic education.

The trouble with so much emphasis on the conceptual is that some practitioners too easily garner fanfare without exercising any perceivable artistic skill. That's not to say we should wish for the death of conceptual art. When it's witty, it can be fine— though not as fine as, say, a Titian or a Winslow Homer. I just wish there weren't so damn much of it.♦


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