The Meaning of Conceptual Art, (a response to What the hell is conceptual jewlery?)

If we agree that conceptual art is any media in which the concept(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns, we leave ourselves open to a much broader platform for such an art. That platform would include works that, on the surface, appear to fit the standard definitions of visual art.
Let us consider Sol LeWitt's definition. "In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art." This description can easily fit what most of us do when we make a work of art. The idea or concept is the initial act in any work of art, regardless of how original it might be. Once the idea is accepted as the stimuli for making a work of art, other planning and decision-making are put into place. This can include working out such things as scale and composition, the selection of tools and materials, and anything else vital to the outcome of the work. Now the actual process of making the piece can take place. During this period the artist is free to make alterations as intuition dictates or to realize that some aspect of the work requires change. Here is where spontaneity and intuition play a valuable role in the process. The final product is now open to definition and criticism. What is it? How good or bad is it? Is it trite or deeply intriguing? Is it art? If it is art, what kind of art is it? I do not think it is conceptual art, as LeWitt would have it. I think that LeWitt has simply described all art forms. I do agree with him that the idea is the machine, the driving force, which makes the art.
My definition of conceptual art is much simpler. Conceptual art is driven by the idea or concept and it is evaluated only by the concept rather than anything else. In this case, any color, scale, composition, materials, object, space, or setting are subject to the idea. If they do not make the concept apparent, the piece fails as conceptual art. Most importantly, if we try to judge the work on the visual end, we are taking the wrong view.
On the reverse side of the coin, what we refer to as typical visual art, painting, sculpture, jewelry, pottery, printmaking, photography, and so forth, we can judge that work by taking the wrong view. Who wants their painting to be viewed as an object that covers an unwanted space on a wall? Who wants their painting to be viewed as something that goes with the decor? When looking at a piece of jewelry, for example, we look at it for a number of legitimate factors. They include function, aesthetics, decorative enhancement and creativity. If that work has the intention to be more sculptural than functional, therein lies a middle zone much like that of the world of pottery vis-a-vis clay sculpture. Here is where crafts and arts tend to merge. If the image is based on jewelry but not intended to be worn, it falls into the category of sculpture. If the image is based on pottery but not intended to be used, it has moved into the arena of sculpture. There is also that region in the craft world where the object can still function as a craft item, but its function is limited, special or simply difficult. Many crafted works that are made for special occasions have this quality, then the aesthetic and creative elements are considered before function. Personally, the best crafted item can be aesthetic, creative and beautiful while functioning at a level of comfort and ease.
Those art works we place in the category of fine arts, function only in the aesthetic sense rather than the utilitarian sense. Here is where the creative freedom of the fine arts is not defined by function as in the world of craft. Persons working in the crafts are often torn between wanting to be more fine art oriented and still maintaining a connection with their craft. The choice is up to each individual and there are no rules that say one cannot explore any avenue of any art form. The problem often lies within the definition of the art form. We have a strong desire to give everything a name and put it into a category. When something new shows up on the art scene, it has to be talked about and, to make things easier, it has to be given a name. If it cannot fit into any existing category, a new category is established. Finally, as time moves on, these names and categories often lose their power of clarity and get confused with more recent developments in the arts. So, we find ourselves writing papers that try to clarify the status quo.
Conceptual art is no exception to how new art forms have muddled the definition. In relation to jewelry and conceptual art, I wear it every day. The halo on my head is conceptual, the aurora around my body is conceptual, and my soul is conceptual. If I choose to use my halo, aurora or soul as a piece of conceptual jewelry, that is my choice. How I do it is also my choice. How the public understands it, categorizes, defines or likes it, is out of my hands. Whatever the creator produces under the guise of jewelry will be given a name, category or definition. That can come from the artist or it can come from other sources such as gallery directors or art critics. We can persuade the viewer to understand our work more precisely and deeply; but, in the final outcome, the viewer has the right to come up with his or her own response. Why worry? Everyone does not always read the artist's intent in the same way.

Tom Supensky
7 January 2010

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