Conceptual Art and Text – and what next


Reading through the course material I got stuck with some questions and non-clear thoughts. I decided for a reading around the topics of conceptual art, minimal art, post-conceptual art and what we or the art world, consider as contemporary art.

Some questions (page numbers referring to course material UVC, 2016):

  1. How can we differentiate between conceptual art as genre and as Conceptual Art as movement (p.120)?
  2. Why can we consider as stated in the course materials conceptual art as the ‘last art movement of modern art’ (p.122)?
  3. How does Minimal Art plays a role in that transition?
  4. What is an aesthetic appreciation of art ‘missing the point’ of conceptual or contemporary art (p.126)?  Why is that accessibility of art ‘easily turns to misrepresentation’ (p.131)? Does this mean the more awkward and ugly a work is the better we understand it?
  5. What makes a difference between conceptual art and post-conceptual art, the latter related to contemporary art? Space, literally as well as culturally and metaphorically, is a key aspect in post-conceptual art.

When looking up ‘Conceptual Art’ one can find plenty of term ‘definitions’ on various art site, e.g. Tate, Guggenheim, or at Oxford Art Online or on the website ‘The Art Story‘. Trying to look up ‘Post-Conceptual Art’ is not an easy task as those site do not offer much help.

Conceptual Art:

“Art as Idea as Idea” – Joseph Kosuth

Conceptual art was not new, e.g the painting by Niolas Poussin (1634) The Adoration of the Golden Calf could be already considered as a conceptual artwork. Although, it is still a movable object and from a 1960s/70s perspective a commercial commodity established at the National Gallery. But the starting point for conceptual art was rather the artist’s declaration of art as idea based on Duchamp’s ready-mades begin of the 20th century.

Mid 1960s in the aftermath of Modernist theories of aesthetics and formal appreciation of art as an object, new ideas came up, the world resembled an earthquacke with global wars, student revolts and post-structuralist and deconstructive thoughts (Barthes, Derrida). The denial or absense of meta-narratives as Lyotard stated built the ground for a new sensibility of opposition and a wider exploration of the cultural space beyond objects and materiality.

Another cause of the development of conceptual art was the continuous challenge against modernist self-critical formalism and emphasis on artistic autonomy and priority of aesthetic judgment. Artists were seeking new practical responses to what was around them. The modernist specific art turned into generic art embracing new media (photography, time-based images, performance). Art movement as Fluxus and Happenings made the concept of art of which the material was language.

The world of art became wide open for embracing conceptions. This notion is opposing Deleuze as he placed concepts in the realm of philosophy and considered art as the realm of percepts and affects. The key aspect resides in an overthrowing of art as object by text and language. Without text, art can not be understood. The intellectual and communicative processes in the making are as important as the creation and distribution itself. In this sense one can relate it to Kant’s triadic conception of human faculties: reason, social/ethical, and aesthetic. Greenberg and Fried argued for modernist art as the realm of the aesthetic faculty isolated from social and historical moments. Whereas, conceptual art could be considered the opposition moving towards social and reason. Examples of rejection of aesthetic apprehension of art objects are Rober Rauschenberg (1953) Erased de Kooning Drawing and Robert Morris (1963) Document.

One could see conceptual art also as simple as the perceptual invisible that is materialised, given the example at Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms of ‘the primitive artist who included the backbone in his drawing of a fish because he ‘knew’ it was there, even though it was outwardly invisible.’

“Idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work” – Sol Le Witt

A kind of manifesto of conceptual art was expressed by Sol LeWitt (1967) as an opposition to expressionist art that includes intuition and creativity. The work as an illustration of the mind.

The idea or the concept of art was revised and, perhaps rather Platonic, the mere idea became the dominant aspect for apprehension in conceptual art. Joseph Kosuth stated 1966 ‘art as idea as idea’, and rejecting aesthetics as part of art apprehension due to is subjectivity as well as the purely visual of modernist art. Kosuth considered the role of an artist to question continuously ‘the nature of art’ and redefining their activities (Alberro ed. al.). Kosuth basically defined artistic practice (self-reflective, philosophical, investigative, re-shaping reality) and how it differs from craft (Gutman). He placed the intention as the key element in interpretating and valueing art.

Kosuth’s interrogation of the nature of art as an artist’s idea, was extended or complemented by the Art and Language group around Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin who articulated 1967 as position of ‘language-use of the art society’ (ebid.) with blurring boundaries between work and text. Their approach was not to ‘claim authorship of an ontologically avant-garde artwork [but] to explore the implications of a circumstance in which such issues might arise’. (Harrison, 208:323).

Harrison described conceptual art as a second order of ‘objects of though-concepts’ that are evoked as imaginary or theoretical existence of other kind of objects. He differentiates this from non-conceptual art, modernist or post-modernist, that relies on first order physical characteristics of the work itself, e.g. landscape interventions or markings on body (ibid:320).

Another extreme of idea and language was articulated by Lawrence Weiner in his ‘declaration of intent’ (1968) that art doesn’t need a form. His work could be also see as a ‘radically egalitarian method of art production, distribution and consumption’ as it places signification and the production of meaning into the hand of the viewer. By that it is an example of participatory art that became more dominant in later years.

“Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the received upon the occasion on receivership” – Lawrence Weiner

One key question was how art could be seen as difference in kind or degree to literature. An aspect as old as western history as the fight between poetry and painting described by G.E. Lessing (1887) in The New Laocoon .

Harrision considered the significance of conceptual art in two aspects: 1. the development of generic art and overcoming ‘objecthood’ of art while investigating cultural studies in practice and in ‘social reality’, and 2. as the ‘inescapable evidence’ of the necessary condition of language for any art development. He sees the practising artist as a ‘competent reader of text’ that need to be ‘put in place of a painting’. Joined with a discourse of cultural representation frameworks.

It became apparent that the idea of art could only be realized through language. The difference between art and non-art, which M.Fried distinguished with ‘objecthood’, can only be validated in cultural context and artist’s invention.


Key ideas:

  • Critique of art as object: Art as idea, idea goes first, above formal, visual, physical or aesthetical aspects; it goes before expression and skill, and deconstructing the myth
  • Critique of commodification, commercial object and cultural validation
  • Intention: A notion that all art is basically conceptual as an artist’s declaration (e.g. Poussin ‘Golden Calf’)
  • Dematerialization: to underly the concept, materiality gets reduced, and as opposition to modernist conceptions
  • Deferring artistic subjectivity and signifying practice into the hand of the beholder and thus revealing underlying rules of the institution of art.
  • Non-aesthetical support language required for presentation of artworks (signs)
  • A heterogenous field of artistic practices

One could say that the focus on the idea and linkage with text made it a genre, the historical context after Modernist Art and prior to contemporary art made it a movement. 

The following post- and neo-movements could be considered as part of conceptual art as movement at large:


Guggenheim and The Art Story describe ‘Post-Minimal Art’ as an extension of Minimal Art towards elements of conceptual art, Land Art, Process Art, Fluxus and Installation. One can say the difference between Minimal and Post-Minimal art resides between a rather geometric abstraction and an exploration of process and materiality (Guggenheim).


Guggenheim describes ‘Neo-Conceptualism‘ as a movement of critique and suspicion of Modernisim, authenticity, subjectivity, commodifcation, authority, and ‘late capitalism’s production of desire’. The movement is characterized by postmodern thoughts of post-structuralism, semiotics and pastiche. Also sensibilty for sexual difference and feminst art are playing into that movement. Artists are e.g. Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Philip Taaffe.

 Chart illustrating development from modernist art over minimal art to conceptual art

Stefan513593 - part 5 - conceptual art in difference

Fig. 1: Stefan513593 – part 5 – conceptual art in difference


Conclusion and answers to my questions above

  1. Conceptual Art as genre is characterized by its denial of aesthetic and formal apprehension Conceptual Art as movement is historically based after Modernist art around mid 1960s till mid 1970s
  2. The concept of dematerialization was moving away from art as commodified object towards art as intellectual investigation. It also subordinated the form to an non-aesthetical concept
  3. Minimal Art can be considered as the prime mover and door opener for artist to ‘escape’ the paradigm of inner relationship of art as objects. The exploration of outer space and external relationship in a cultural setting opened the way towards installations, performance and digital culture. Therefore, conceptual art can be seen as a continuation of Minimal art as well as an departure through an art practice that investigates the concept of art as art.
  4. Accessibility: Aesthetic accessibility is, with the conception of Kant, based on feeling and pleasure as interplay of imagination and understanding. It works on the effects. This notion rejects a conscious reasoning and the idea in conceptual art or post-conceptual art. Imaginary images and object-thoughts are not inherent the object’s phyisical characteristics, but are deferred as ‘unstable objects of though-concepts’ (Harrison, 2008). In that sense on could argue that an aesthetic apprehension will not get the point of conceptual art. It would reside in a state of effect and blocked in a chain of deferred signification. It opens the question of artist’s intention versus Barthes’ notion of the ‘death of the author’ (1967).
  5. Language: Presentation of artwork requires a ‘support language’. Conceptual art is deferring signifying practices away from artist’s subjectivity into society. To the extreme, conceptual art is even deferred from form. The artistic investigation is subject to rules of grammar of art.
  6. Conceptual art was extending to an extreme the self-consciousness and self-referentiality of the modernist condition. Instead focusing on one discipline e.g painting, it now looks at generic art, still deferred from a wider social and cultural immanent context. Alongside post-modern theories, conceptual art became blurred into pluralism of heterogenous practices and with a dilution of the art as object in full. In the mid 1970s it was ‘exhausted’ and new practices had to be looked at.


What’s next: I will look further into post-conceptual and contemporary art (next post)

The following images can better express what one can not see alone without a dense reasoning.

Images related to Conceptual and what could be considered as next – collected on my Pinterest board:

[powr-pinterest-feed id=85ba20b9_1510407104]




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