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Conceptual Art: Definition

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: February 26, 2004
Latest Update: February 26, 2004

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GH Hovagimyan,
1994 Conceptual Art presentation, on Biddington's Site on Conceptual Art Definition of Conceptual Art

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, February 2004.
"Fair use" encouraged.

Conceptual art has always been difficult for me, particularly because I associate it with Joseph Beuys. I love some of his drawings, but much of his work goes right over my head. Everytime I think I've got it, it seems to slip away again. But conceptual art matters for us, as I understand it, because conceptual art melds with language to create something more than the commodity of traditional art for which people will pay lots of money. I agree with that principle. I think I understand it. But then when Joseph Beuy's covers a huge room with piles of excrement on the floor, I just don't get it again.

Because much of the visual work we do in sociology is conceptual, that is, the ideas expressed and communicated carry more weight than the work as a commodity (unless it's TV or film, in which case my confusion starts all over again), I wanted to explore conceptual art with you.

Watch the series of images in Hovagimyan's 1994 Conceptual Art presentation (above). The first image is one of alcohol (champagne?), paired with an intro to an inventory or questionnaire. Drinking habits? Followed by a photo of a small rather crudely done sculpture of hands praying, paired with a religious questionnaire. Ethics and morality? Followed by a photo of a family, paired with an inset of a survey on critical population issues. Overpopulation? abortion? family planning? Labor and poverty issues? Followed by a photo of a man hoeing, paired with a Weed Eater questionnaire. Weed Eater? Anything like Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, the poorest of the poor? Emphasized by the question: Weed Eater Questionnaire? against the solid blue background. Heightening the irony with that question, drawing parallels to other art work, famous for drawing such parallels?

We seem to have come through a descending order of status, from a small bottle of Moet champagne, to a small, rough sculpture such as one might find on a shelf at home, through a traditional kind of family photo with two kids and two parents, mother and girl on one side of the survey instrument, father and son on the other. Gender issues? To a worker in the fields hoeing weeds and eating weeds? Poverty?

I'm not getting the feeling of happy thoughts, although champagne and faith and family are generally happy thoughts. They are paired in this art work with vague questionnaires on issues that may be difficult, although we can't read the questionnaires as they are here presented.

The next note is jarring. The pattern changes. Drug of Choice: Purses, as a preceding title page, followed by a Crack Answer Sheet, paired with a photo of coin purses or wallets, and what appears to be a scarf with gold tassles. Crack? Poverty and drugs? Paired with small purses whose task is to hold money and a scarf with gold tassles that could be a designer item? Some use crack? And some keep their money both visible through their rich accoutrements and purses? Both crack and purses are commodities, but commodities appealing to very different markets.

Followed by Drug of Choice: Clocks, as a preceding title page, followed by Heroin Answer Sheet, paired with a photo of expensive looking jewelled watches, with a gold tassle in the mix. One or two may be for males, but still elegantly appointed. First reference to time. The lost time of the heroin user, contrasted with the "valuable" time of the wealthy or middle class conformist? The contrast of two worlds, one in which time has no meaning, the other in which time is all, for time is money and power?

Followed by Drug of Choice: Handbags, as a preceding title page, followed by Needle User Survey, paired with what could be two Chanel handbags, certainly designer status. Needle use? AIDS? The desperate last stand of poverty and exploitation? And again, the reference to showing off not just the commodities bought with our money and power, but the very holders of that money and plastic power.

By now, Hovagimyan has juxtaposed two worlds, one advantaged, one desperate and exploited, with none of the material advantages of the other, in what appears to be a Western society. Now I have to think deeply about this world I'm seeing.

And finally, a man (the artist?) wrapped in an American Flag, paired with a survey at the bottom of which is the title: CHURCH, FLAG, ARTIST, GRANT. In these words, and in the wrapping of self in the flag there are many signifiers brought to awareness. The different worlds we've seen, their juxtaposition, the propriety of each of those worlds in the view of church and flag (and somewhere in here, I noticed that the praying hands, which appear feminine, are wearing a wedding band), and the artist as the one whose task it is to make us SEE these juxtapositions, understand these abiding opposites, and respect the Other and Our Selves as human. But the artist, who must earn his living to ply his trade, is less likely in America of the 21st Century to receive Grant money to support his work if he persists in making us uncomfortably aware of our opposites.

Curious, I enlarged the presentation to see if I could read any of the survey material. I couldn't. The images, the visual, says more than the words? Maybe. What about the use of the surveys or questionnaires? What role do they play if we can't read them? Maybe to point out that asking questions is a poor way to see the world as it is? Could this be a statement of some of the disadvantages of positivism that insists upon the quantifiable and believes in certainty. Are we not forced in this work to rely on the visual?

This is an example of what I would call conceptual art. But remember, I do get confused. Notice that I went back over this piece many times. It made me think. Not necessarily what the author or artist intended to make me think, but think on my own, certainly. And that is the virtue of conceptual art. I think that much of the difficulty with conceptual art, at least for me, is that people like Joseph Beuys were so angry about the distortion of art as a commodity that they were determined that one should have to think, without realizing that many of us have not been exposed to the same concepts. Would someone who did not know that he National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S. has a terrible reputation over censorship, particularly when it goes against the party line have understood this piece so readily? Art, like every language, makes assumptions about the social context. If one is not privy to that social context, the message that comes through may be distorted, or even frustrating.

Joseph Beuys had a fondness for using "fat." Yes, animal fat. So in one of his works there is this chair with "fat" for a seat. I'm sorry. I just don't get it. I have several volumes of art books on Beuys, and one day I'll read them, enormous though they are. Maybe then I'll understand. But meanwhile, in my world of conceptual art, it's making us think that counts. And hopefully providing some means for us to understand the Other's social context as well as our own.

. . .

Joseph Beuys - materials

Marcel Duchamp and the End of Taste Would like to see someone fit the mud flaps issue into this context. jeanne

Getting It about Beuys on Wet Canvas

Marcel Duchamp and The End of Taste Focuses on Duchamp instead of Beuys, but relevant.

Joseph Beuys' Multiples at the Walker Art Museum