No Fries with That: Why Conceptual Art Was Never Any Fun

Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-79 Catalogue image
Catalogue Image, Conceptual Art In Britian
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of  The Jackdaw

 It hailed facts all day long so very hard, and life in general was opened to her as such a closely-ruled cyphering-book, that assuredly she would have run away…. Charles Dickens, Hard Times.

Perhaps you have noticed the prudish distaste that conceptual art has for any form of pleasurable aesthetic experience. It’s acceptable to be improved by a work of art or to be informed, but one should try not to enjoy the experience. Above all, one must not ask for that infamous quality that can mislead us all – beauty. Conceptual Art In Britain 1964-1979 at the Tate Britain until 29thAugust offers an opportunity to revisit this intensely puritanical movement.

A suspicion of the sensory is not novel. Plato and Aristotle famously disputed as to whether true knowledge was to be found in the material or the immaterial world – in objects or ideas. Descartes told us thinking was akin to being, and the Romantics replied that intuition and emotion held the key to understanding. Just over one hundred years ago the Aesthetic movement held sway, now we live in the airless atmosphere of concepts. History is full of these swings of the pendulum.

The real difference in our time is the attitude to beauty. Although the stand- off between the mind and the senses has been played out in many forms, it has always been the case that both sides made claim to beauty. A mathematical idea could be as beautiful as a Grecian urn –but now it is no longer a virtue. When conceptual art took root as a reaction to formalist abstraction, all aesthetic content was declared superfluous, henceforth art could only exist as proposition:

What is the function of art, or the nature of art? …a work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art, as a comment on art. Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy, 1969

When Kosuth says the work comments on art, he wasn’t interested in a Picasso still life influenced by Cezanne. His model was Duchamp, whose readymade Fountain, 1917 made the ‘proposition’ that art could be anything, and had nothing to do with an individual maker. However unlike Duchamp, Kosuth had little tradition left to subvert: he was writing in the 1960’s – after decades of modernist experimentation and in the midst of social revolution.  In keeping with his time he was armed with a new philosophy, and an urgent desire to change the world. His great hope was in a new linguistic theory (based on Wittgenstein’s theories of signifiers and relations)which he thought could expand art’s reach and result in a kind of art that ‘intervened’ in the world. Strangely, this lofty intervention didn’t need the participation of the public. It was of no concern to conceptual artists that a great many people had never heard of Wittgenstein. Incredibly entire swathes of society had gotten by without him.  Perhaps they had been busy with other things such as not being late for work, or putting the bins out. Kosuth found this separation of art from society no problem:

That the language forms that the artist frames his propositions in are often “private” codes… is an inevitable outcome of art’s freedom from morphological constrictions; and it follows from this that one has to be familiar with contemporary art to appreciate it and understand it. Likewise one understands why the “man in the street” is intolerant to artistic art…

Exhibitions became displays of inscrutability. Ironically although they were often about language (or linguistic strategies), they failed utterly to communicate. Slabs of text will greet you at the Tate exhibition, as dense and unyielding as any of Mr. M’Choakumchild’s  facts were to Sissy Jupe. The conceptual artists of the Art and Language group are a great loss to the bureaucracy of Britain. The only way to read these works is as an ironic statement about the impossibility of communication through language, yet they seem to want to be taken seriously as extending language. They are Dada with a poker face.

The unhinging of any physical attributes (‘morphological constrictions’) from idea is exemplified in Michael Craig-Martin’s An oak tree, 1973. The work consists of a glass of water on a shelf and a wall text. The text would be hilarious read by Rowan Atkinson, but presented in an art gallery, boredom is the predominant emotion. Craig-Martin assures us that he has transformed an oak tree into a glass of water. No, he is not a wizard. This work is supposed to be about belief: I am an unbeliever.

But to return to aesthetic content; Kosuth’s proscription of the beautiful was based on the – clearly true – idea that sensory experience is always personal. From our individual experience, we make personal judgements about what we find beautiful – there is no independent standard.  From this, he concluded that those judgements were baseless as they were mere opinion – or what he called taste. And art was more important than that, so its content must lie outside the aesthetic realm and in the realm of idea. Aesthetic content was a distraction, it must be discarded.

The annihilation of the individual as either maker or viewer is at the rotten core of conceptual art. Meaning becomes as unattached as a Tinder user.  Equating the personal with the trivial is both dangerous and foolish. We can only experience the world personally. While sensory experience is always personal, it does not follow that subjective judgement is always trivial.

We use our judgement all the time – most importantly to decide what is valuable to us. Although these judgments are personal, we give them the status of independence. A principle is right, an object is beautiful – these are statements of value. We speak as though the virtue is a property of the idea or object, not a property of our perception. Conflating value with taste, the conceptualists threw the baby out with the bathwater. Values are the stuff of humanity, the core of character. To decide what we value is to navigate the world. Aesthetics and ethics are kin and neither is trivial. Beauty is powerful because we have an infallible inclination to equate it with the true.

The moral suspicion cast on the senses and on individual experience by the 1960’s conceptual movement is a puritanical reprise of which we still feel the effects in contemporary art, although today you are less likely to get Wittgenstein’s linguistics and more likely to get one of the contemporary creeds – globalisation, climate change, gender issues, post-colonialism, identity et al. But the ban on beauty has stayed in place and it retains Kosuth’s disdain for the viewer. So don’t be concerned if you don’t ‘get it’; it may be a private code, or you don’t like it; your personal judgement is irrelevant. Art is at work, proposing, foregrounding, and intervening. It’s still hailing dubious facts hard.

This exhibition is timely. It throws into sharp relief a world which is disappearing from view – a value free zone contemptuous of anyone without an arts degree, in which all ideas are deemed of equal merit and are therefore pretty much interchangeable. This exhibition demonstrates conceptual art’s complete symmetry with emerging post modernism. It’s clear that the world has changed since the 1960’s. Value judgements are back with a vengeance, and beauty so closely allied to value, cannot be far away.

Alexandra Sasse © 2016

Tate Britain