Conceptualism Part I

Christine Alfery

Posted on March 24 2022

Conceptualism Part I

Featured image: Going Home IV

Since the 60’s I have been challenged by the question “What Is Art?” There have been many theories and movements associated with the idea of what art is and during my lifetime I have been influenced by many of them. But there is one concept that has been associated with art that I have not been able to see differently. Mainly because I believe in it. That theory/concept began with the Impressionists and how they shifted the way that artists painted. Their brush strokes were short and quick “impressions” of what they saw when they painted outside on the spot, en plein air. Artists were no longer confined to painting in a studio and from their sketches. The Impressionists shifted the discussion of the reality of an object from objective realism to a subjective realism, subject to how the artist saw the work.


This discussion in art and the entrance of an artist's subjectivity into the work remained until the 1960’s. Artist Marcel Duchamp, shifted again, the theories surround art and what art is. DuChamp changed the discussion as to what art is to conceptualism. Duchamp defined art as an idea, a concept and not necessarily an object. If there was an object to exemplify the idea, the concept of the artist, it was generally already made. Ready Made, was a term Duchamp used to discuss the objects he, or conceptual artists like him, chose to represent their idea, their concept of the artist. These objects were generally everyday objects that did not require the artist's hand only the artist's mind. The “ready made” objects were devoid of style, and personalization. They had no emotion and were indifferent to the idea, the concept of the artist. Duchamp challenged the idea that the artist needed to create a new and unique original object to represent and idea, a concept. The idea or concept was all there was to art. The object an artist created enslaved the artist and the artist's ideas. The art object was not important. Duchamp changed how art was to be represented from a subjectively charged object of the Impressionists to a more conceptual objective object of the Conceptualist. Often the objects chosen to represent the creative idea of the artist, would be filled with irony and humor. The artist's sensitivities were removed from the theoretical discussions as to what art is and what it was going to be. The artist's creative process was removed from how art was understood. There needed to be no object included in how art was understood.


This shift changed how art could be understood and what art was. This shift removed the creative subjective object that the artist created to a more objective idea that the artist had. This shift literally removed the independence, uniqueness, and individuality of the artist and the visual language that they used when they created their object. This shift also changed how art was to be governed, or controlled away from the artist, their ideas, their process into the arena of objectivity, where the object that represented an idea, wasn’t important, because it tied the artist down, and restricted the artist's freedom.


The beauty of an object created by an artist no longer was part of the definition of what art was. Rather, art was idea or concept. If indeed the idea became an object, the object could be found in everyday things and would be used to exemplify the idea. Duchamp’s theory of art embodied the concept of freedom. Art was freedom. Art should never be subjected to any kind of government. Art should not be governed. Art should never be imprisoned or enslaved to anything. The art should be emancipated from what it is as an object. In DuChamp's conceptualism, the artist was needed for the idea. Beyond that, the theory of art should not be tied down to anything including the art object. 

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