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Conceptual Art: Challenging Traditional Notions of Art-Making

Sometimes art is paintings, sometimes it is a sculpture and sometimes it is simply a chair. In this reading, we shall be answering the question which has riddled the art community for what appears to be the longest time – ‘What is the Conceptual Art?’

Consider encountering a picture of a chair, an actual chair and a dictionary definition of a chair in an art institution, this artwork; one of the prime examples of Conceptual Art is by an Ohio-born artist Joseph Kosuth called ‘One of the Three Chairs’ (1965). In the years preceding this artwork, the arts and artists were questioning the traditional method of making and understanding art. Other conceptual art examples, such as Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field’ (1965) narrate the power of conceptual art. Conceptual art paintings aren’t simply pieces that are hanging on the walls, they are immersive experiences that are invading your space.

Joseph Kosuth ‘One of the Three Chairs’ (1965).
Courtesy: Artland Magazine

What Is Conceptual Art

When Conceptual Art in the contemporary art period emerged with Pop Art and Minimalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the definition of the arts saw an expansion. But how do we define Conceptual Art? Conceptual Art is characterised by its emphasis on the idea or concept behind the artwork, rather than the visual aesthetics or technical skills required to produce it. The Conceptual Art movement challenges traditional notions of what constitutes art and shifts the focus of art-making from the object to the idea. It allows artists to explore a wide range of themes and issues, including politics, identity, culture, and social change, often using non-traditional materials and techniques to create their work. Conceptualism Art movement also provides a platform for artists to engage with audiences in new and innovative ways, inviting them to participate in the creative process and contribute to the meaning and interpretation of the artwork.

Conceptual Art Artists

Usually, in conceptual art pieces, the idea becomes the machine that makes the art. Sometimes people were the machines, for Vito Acconci’s 1969 Conceptual Art photography, ‘Following Piece’, he followed random passersby until they reached their private residence and he covered that movement in his photographs. Conceptual Art also often involves the use of performance, installation, and other non-traditional art forms. For example, in Yoko Ono‘s Conceptual Performance Art, ‘Instructions for Paintings,’ (1961- 62) the viewer is invited to imagine a painting, rather than see one. Ono’s artwork challenges traditional notions of what art is and what it can be.

Vito Acconci ‘Following Piece’ between October 3 and 25, 1969.
Courtesy: Khan Academy

In Kosuth’s rendition of the chairs, Kosuth is pointing out the existence of pieces in a particular time and place which is reminiscent of Rene Magritte‘s ‘Treachery of Images’ in 1929. The artwork invites the viewer to consider the relationship between the object, its representation, and the language used to describe it. Magritte’s 1929 painting is a prime example of conceptual representation art.

The contemporary Conceptual Art movement finds its origins in the artworks made by the likes of Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. In 1913, he attached a bicycle wheel to a wooden stool and called it a readymade work of art, Kosuth’s rendition is similar, he places a mundane simple object within an art frame or art context. Another definition of Conceptual Art prescribes the rejection of traditional notions of craftsmanship and technical skill. In Conceptual Art, the idea behind the artwork is often more important than the physical object itself. For example, the artist Sol LeWitt’s Conceptual Art drawing, or rather a series of drawings consisted of instructions for other people to execute. The final product was not important; what mattered was the idea behind the work. According to Sol LeWitt Conceptual Art, “Concept is the most important aspect of the work. Without the concept, the work is meaningless.”

Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp Retrospective, (1963)
Courtesy: Arsty

Conceptual Art was not simply art that was to be consumed in galleries or museum spaces, but it was political and blended with activism, especially in regions where it began. It questioned the status quo and the foundations of traditional art and all the defining features of ‘art’ were never to be seen in Conceptual Art. One of the key debates surrounding Conceptual Art is whether or not it can be considered “art” at all. Some critics argue that because the emphasis is on the idea rather than the object, Conceptual Art is not art in the traditional sense. However, proponents of Conceptual Art argue that the idea behind the work is just as important as the physical object and that this emphasis on the idea expands the definition of what art can be.

Conceptual Art In India

Conceptual Art in India entered the region in the 1960s and 70s as well. The Indian context offered a unique platform for Conceptual Art artists to explore issues of cultural identity, globalisation, and political upheaval.

Subodh Gupta ‘Ray’ (2012)
Courtesy: Frieze

Nalini Malani was one of the first Conceptual art artists of the country who explored the concepts of gender marginalisation, violence, and a human condition often juxtaposed with underlying themes of societal injustice. She incorporated her artworks with video projections, elements of performances and installations. Other notable Indian artists who forayed into Conceptual Art are Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Jitesh Kallat and many more. One of the most significant exhibitions of Conceptual Art in India was the 1981 exhibition ‘Place for People,’ which was organised by the artist Bhupen Khakhar. The exhibition showcased the work of a group of artists who were exploring issues of social and political change in India, and it helped to establish Conceptual Art as a significant movement in the Indian art world. Today, Indian Conceptual Art artists continue to push boundaries and challenge traditional notions of art-making. They draw on a range of influences, including Indian mythology, history, and contemporary culture, to create work that is both thought-provoking and visually striking.

Conceptual Art has been gobbled up by art institutions, museums and artists since its inception and has faced many controversies and critiques over the years, many not considering it art. Despite its sometimes controversial reputation, Conceptual Art continues to inspire and influence artists around the world, as well as challenge audiences to think critically about the role and purpose of art in society. As such, it remains a vital movement in the ongoing evolution of Contemporary Art.

Image Courtesy – Artland Magazine (L)/ Artsy (R)

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