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OPINION: The Case for Conceptual Art

I’ve done my fair share of critiquing conceptual art. It’s easy to do, I mean, a urinal with a signature on it without an explanation is confusing. About a week ago I came across a TikTok on my for you page (FYP) where two girls were at an art museum standing in front of work they thought they could do. Obviously the video was a joke, and not intentionally trying to be hurtful. However this kind of dismissal of conceptual art is common, and conceptual art often doesn’t deserve the hate it receives, as it's just as valid an art form as any other traditional medium. Oftentime the lack of understanding for conceptual art can stem from a lack of media literacy or just from a place of misunderstanding. 

The history of conceptual art begins with Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. This piece is a porcelain urinal with R. Mutt, Duchamp's pseudonym, scrawled on it. This piece was meant to spark debate about the role of craftsmanship and the artist in art. He submitted this piece to an unjuried salon in New York, of which he was a member, that claimed they would accept any piece of art. When they rejected Fountain on the basis of it not being a real work of art, he resigned. Fountain set the precedent for the Dada movement, and conceptual art at large. 

The validity of Fountain as a piece of art has long been debated, and relies entirely on personal interpretation of what art is and what counts as art. Personally, I do view Fountain as a piece of art, because to me, art is a way to communicate, and Fountain does that. 

My favorite conceptual piece, and one that I believe creates the strongest case for conceptual art is Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. This piece is two battery powered clocks on a light blue background. The light blue is a representation of the color of a perfect memory. The clocks were originally synced together, but over time one clock will fall behind the other until it stops. This piece was made shortly after the artist's partner was diagnosed with AIDS, and is meant to represent grief and love in everyday objects. This same artist created another piece that has grown in popularity over the past year, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). This piece is a pile of candy, the exact weight of his partner Ross who passed away due to AIDS. The candy in this piece is meant to be taken because it represents how the disease slowly consumed Ross. How can we say that conceptual art doesn’t count as “real” art when it's ingrained with such consideration and meaning? 

The issue with the criticism of conceptual art is that it is often compared to traditional art like painting. Conceptual art is commonly pitted against painting, as it is seen as an evolution of painting, that now supersedes it and other traditional mediums. If you approach a conceptual art piece with the expectations you would approach a painting with then you’ll be disappointed and you won’t have been able to interpret the piece as intended. Both traditional and contemporary mediums deserve the same amount of attention and respect. Conceptual art is a kind of modern philosophy that subverts expectations and requires a lot of explaining. The meaning isn’t supposed to be obvious and it requires a level of abstract thinking. 

A lot of hate for conceptual art is the idea that it takes no effort, or essentially, that anyone could do it. It’s true that many conceptual pieces look low effort, which is why it’s easy to dismiss when seeing it somewhere like an art museum. Most people have a preconceived notion of what art is or what it’s supposed to be and a piece like Fountain can really challenge that. My advice to anyone who may be planning a trip to an art museum would be to keep an open mind. Conceptual art has so much value, and you can learn a lot from it if you just let yourself.


By Liese Devine, Features Editor

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