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Conceptual art

90 years ago, Mar­cel Duchamp did some­thing kind of funny by pre­sent­ing a uri­nal as if it were legit­i­mate art.

The art world responded by repeat­ing the same joke, with slight vari­a­tions, over and over, while pre­tend­ing to take itself seri­ously in the process. Much money was made by sell­ing ran­dom objects to rich suck­ers. Now the whole joke may finally be start­ing to fall a bit flat.

Den­nis Dut­ton writes in the New York Times:

The appre­ci­a­tion of con­tem­po­rary con­cep­tual art, on the other hand, depends not on imme­di­ately rec­og­niz­able skill, but on how the work is sit­u­ated in today’s intel­lec­tual zeit­geist. That’s why look­ing through the his­tory of con­cep­tual art after Duchamp reminds me of pag­ing through old New Yorker car­toons. Jokes about Cadil­lac tail­fins and early fax machines were once amus­ing, and the same can be said of con­cep­tual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 dec­la­ra­tion that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a def­i­n­i­tion of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s med­i­cine cab­i­nets. Future gen­er­a­tions, no longer engaged by our art “con­cepts” and unable to divine any spe­cial skill or emo­tional expres­sion in the work, may lose inter­est in it as a medium for finan­cial spec­u­la­tion and rel­e­gate it to the realm of his­tor­i­cal curiosity.

In this respect, I can’t help regard­ing med­i­cine cab­i­nets, vac­uum clean­ers and dead sharks as reck­less invest­ments. Some­where out there in col­lec­tor­land is the unlucky guy who will be the last one hold­ing the vac­uum cleaner, and won­der­ing why.

But that doesn’t mean we need to worry about the future of art. There are plenty of prodi­gious artists at work in every medium, ready to wow us with sur­pris­ing skills. And yes, now and again I walk past a jew­elry shop win­dow and stop, trans­fixed by a sparkling, teardrop-shaped pre­cious stone. Our dis­tant ances­tors loved that shape, and found beauty in the skill needed to make it —even before they could put their love into words.

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23 Responses

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  1. Candace X. Moore says

    I’m hear­ing this sen­ti­ment expressed with grow­ing fre­quency. I’m new to the world of fine art, so prob­a­bly don’t appre­ci­ate the nuances of the com­pe­ti­tion that exists between mod­ern art and clas­si­cal art, but we cer­tainly seems to be in the midst of a turn­ing tide. I’ve seen the shark and I was not moved.

    • David Rourke says


      I do like some expres­sion­ist and abstract art. Most con­cep­tual art impresses me as a bad joke.

  2. Chad says

    Hi David,

    I haven’t yet posted here, but I enjoy your blog and I have fol­lowed it reg­u­larly for well over a year. You dig art that looks like a win­dow on the world. That’s cool and it takes skill to pro­duce. The flip side of that is this: All of the other art­work that does not offer a win­dow on the world also takes skill, maybe not the same level of crafts­man­ship, but skill none the less. The world is big enough for all man­i­fes­ta­tions of art. And, if it’s any con­so­la­tion, Mr. Hirst’s art­work is a night­mare for con­ser­va­tors to preserve.

    • David Rourke says


      I like lots of dif­fer­ent kinds of art. Mostly I like visual art that looks like some­thing (i.e., rep­re­sen­ta­tional), but not always.

      Find­ing a uri­nal and putting it in an art gallery was a fun joke a cen­tury ago. I see no rea­son to repeat the joke over and over. The rep­e­ti­tion doesn’t make it fun­nier or closer to being actual art.

      • Chad says

        Hi David,

        Obvi­ously, the uri­nal joke isn’t all that deep and even the best joke becomes stale after nearly a cen­tury of con­stant ref­er­ence. But, let’s face it: Dada has been around for a while now. And, it’s not going away any time soon. So, these con­di­tions require my inner artist to ask: Why this is the case? Has the cyn­i­cism and moral decay of mod­ern art less­ened or increased since the New York Armory show? How much respon­si­bil­ity should be placed on col­lec­tors and crit­ics? We should remem­ber that com­mod­ity cri­tiques on art objects (Hirst’s motive) are much younger than the ori­gins of found object art. So, a shark in a tank of preser­v­a­tive does have some con­cep­tual rela­tion­ship to a century-old uri­nal joke, but the uri­nal has a lot more in com­mon with other Duchampian art that declared the death of all nar­ra­tive art. Dis­claimer: I don’t use uri­nals or any other found objects in my per­sonal art. I paint in wax with vary­ing degrees of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. But, I don’t have an issue using found objects as a learn­ing and con­cep­tual tool, espe­cially if some for­mal­ism is tied into the work. My com­plaint is with art pro­grams that teach four years of con­cep­tual art to their stu­dents. That’s expensive…ouch!

        • David Rourke says


          I think we’re in a sim­i­lar place. I don’t like banal, soul­less, ugly, deriv­a­tive art. That’s what most con­cep­tual art is. It also often pre­tends to be “trans­gres­sive” while being as safe and con­ven­tional as it is pos­si­ble to be in an aca­d­e­mic art context.

          If you grab some object and incor­po­rate it into an art­work in a man­ner that is orig­i­nal and inter­est­ing, I have absolutely no prob­lem with that.

  3. Chad says


    I agree that we are in a sim­i­lar place. I thought about this after I wrote my last response: Duchamp really could draw and paint, so the con­text of his joke gets lost in a cul­ture of art that does not require illu­sion­is­tic drawing.

    What do you mean by trans­gres­sive? I always thought of con­cep­tual art as more tran­scen­dent than any­thing else (neo-Platonic) . Maybe transendence is a glam­orous repack­ag­ing of trans­gres­sive? I def­i­nitely see pop art as trans­gres­sive, but I think that much of con­cep­tual art is linked to min­i­mal­ism and all of the pseudo-intellectual BS that comes with that genre.

    When it comes to found art and object incor­po­ra­tion, I am a huge fan of out­sider art.

    • David Rourke says


      Per­haps the quin­tes­sen­tial exam­ple of “trans­gres­sive” con­cep­tual art would be the Piss Christ. I am not in any way a reli­gious per­son, so it does not offend me cul­tur­ally or reli­giously. It is delib­er­ately offen­sive in a churl­ish man­ner that reminds me of an ado­les­cent doing what­ever is nec­es­sary to offend Mom and Dad. There is noth­ing “brave” about a trans­gres­sive work such as this—in the aca­d­e­mic art world, it is entirely safe to offend Christians.

      Now if Ser­rano had cre­ated a Piss Mohamed, that would have been an act of brav­ery. Still banal, but at least brave.

      In terms of out­sider art, I find some of it inter­est­ing and valu­able. In other cases, my response tends to be that it is a shame that the artist didn’t have the skill to express his or her mean­ing more effectively.


    Guy walks up to a con­cep­tual artist, looks at his work, and says, “I could do that”. Artist replies, “Yeah, but you didn’t”.
    That’s the only say­ing I know on that.

    The nihilism you find in this kind of art is just a tes­ta­ment to our post­mod­ern times, but they are pass­ing. Young peo­ple wish to develop skills instead of learn­ing how to develop smart sound­ing expla­na­tions that cre­ate value in their work. These blogs are a real help to that, as you can’t find real instruc­tion in schools….maybe ateliers….but not schools yet.

    Duchamp also did some bril­liant work with symbols/signs in his paint­ings. I’ve always felt he kind of fore­told this ‘con­cep­tual art’ prob­lem and proved it to be foolish…but I don’t think any­one else caught on.


    Rene magritte rather….

  6. Tattoo Ideas says

    i love Duchamp’s work. i think he had the guts to do thing that oth­ers didn’t.

  7. Tintoretto says

    Maybe wasnt even Duchamps fault but his fol­low­ers that wanted to cash in the joke.

    his paint­ings are ok.

    • David says


      I have no real prob­lem with Duchamp. The joke was kind of funny.

      The rep­e­ti­tion of infi­nite vari­a­tions of the same joke by tal­ent­less hacks, on the other hand, is extra­or­di­nar­ily tiresome.

      • Tintoretto says


  8. Bill says

    I actu­ally think the Piss Christ is a fairly com­pelling image and you wouldn’t know it was so trans­gres­sive if you didn’t know what the cru­ci­fix was sub­merged into. Visu­ally, it ref­er­ences the gold leaf that Christ is often sur­rounded by in early panel paint­ings. That said, I am some­what ambiva­lent about it, even though I’m not a reli­gious per­son. The title obvi­ously puts the trans­gres­sion out there.

    A lot of con­cep­tual art does leave me cold, but there is a lot of it that is fairly sophis­ti­cated in the use of mate­ri­als, like Wof­gang Laib’s instal­la­tions using metic­u­lously gath­ered pollen.

    I per­son­ally love good paint­ing of all types, from real­is­tic to fully abstract. I’m as big a fan of Jack­son Pol­lock or Mark Rothko as I am of Tit­ian, Sergeant, or N.C. Wyeth. I’m still amazed at how much hos­til­ity there is out there toward abstract art. To me that’s sort of like hat­ing music that has no lyrics.

    • David says


      In the case of Piss Christ, it seems to me that the medium basi­cally is the message.

      I would never con­demn all con­cep­tual art, but much of it is about as vapid as it is pos­si­ble to get.

      • Bill says

        Actu­ally, the medium is pho­tog­ra­phy, not piss. Is the Piss Christ really even prop­erly defined as “con­cep­tual art?” I’m not so sure. My under­stand­ing of con­cep­tual art is that a large part of it involves ques­tion­ing the object as a com­mod­ity — thus it often involves things that can’t be sold, like per­for­mance pieces, imper­ma­nent things, or earth­works like the spi­ral jetty, the light­ning field, or the run­ning fence.

        Like I said, a lot of con­cep­tual art doesn’t do much for me, but a lot of paint­ing doesn’t either (I like your work, BTW, or I wouldn’t keep check­ing in on your web site). I will give any­thing a fair chance, some­thing that comes from my art his­tory back­ground. They always told us to look at the piece and think about it before pass­ing judg­ment. I do end up shrug­ging my shoul­ders and turn­ing away lots of times, but some con­cep­tual art is actu­ally quite beau­ti­ful, and not sim­ple to cre­ate. I thought Dou­glas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psy­cho was pretty inter­est­ing, for exam­ple. I like what I’ve seen of James Lee Byer’s work. There was another piece I saw once at the Port­land Ore­gon art museum by an artist whose name I can’t recall that was very mov­ing, a video instal­la­tion in a dark cor­ri­dor with mul­ti­ple spots where you would stop to see images of var­i­ous peo­ple from a dis­tance fac­ing away from you (a pretty woman, a young boy, an old man, a police­man, etc.). When you stood there, the per­son in the image would turn around and walk slowly toward you until they reached life size, where they’d stop walk­ing. They appeared to be plead­ing, attempt­ing to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing, but there was no sound. When you stepped away, the image per­son turned away and walked back to where they were. My descrip­tion doesn’t do it jus­tice, but it was very mov­ing, enough that I remem­ber it quite strongly over a decade after I saw it. The images were black and white and a lit­tle shad­owy, like it was some­thing you saw in a dream.

        My own feel­ing is that con­cep­tual art is like all art in that it basi­cally fol­lows Sturgeon’s law that 90% of every­thing is crap. But there is good con­cep­tual art (what­ever that is) out there by artists who have worked very hard to do what they do.

        • David says


          The “Piss Christ” pho­to­graph is of an object con­structed by the artist for the pur­pose of pho­tograph­ing it. I don’t think it’s unrea­son­able to con­sider that an aspect of the medium in this case.

          I, too, have seen con­cep­tual art that I liked and found provoking.

  9. Bill says

    Yes, it is an object con­structed by the artist for pur­poses of pho­tog­ra­phy — but doesn’t this get pretty far away from being a “ran­dom object” selected and thrown in a gallery for “rich suck­ers”? The rich suck­ers part is prob­a­bly on the money, but it was a cho­sen, arranged, lighted, pho­tographed, and printed object, a process that cer­tainly calls for some artis­tic skill. I guess I’m tak­ing issue with the whole idea of “con­cep­tual art” as a cat­e­gory — all art is con­cep­tual in some way after all. For all we know, he may not really even have used urine in the con­struc­tion. I’m play­ing Devil’s advo­cate here, but part of me feels that any art Jessie Helms didn’t like must have some redeem­ing value.

    • David says


      I agree that Piss Christ is not quite within the realm of “con­ven­tional” con­cep­tual art. Nor is a com­mis­sioned sculp­ture of Michael Jack­son and his chimp. Con­cep­tual art is the clos­est genre we have for that sort of stuff.

      Con­cep­tual art” is a poorly-chosen term, as is “organic food,” “guest host,” and “war on terror.”

      I try not to judge art in terms of whether it annoys some­one I don’t like. That seems too much like art for the sake of irri­tat­ing mommy and daddy. On the other hand, I won­der how “Piss Mohamed” would go over? I don’t like Osama bin Laden or Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad, and that would def­i­nitely offend them.

  10. tattoo galleries says

    Although skill and tech­niques are impor­tant, com­ing up with those crazy ideas also counts for cre­ativ­ity. How­ever, I don’t want to be the guy with the vac­uum cleaner.

  11. HarmonyC says

    Regard­ing an ear­lier com­ment on art school teach­ing mostly con­cep­tual art: the tide has turned on that one. I grad­u­ated in 2006 and there was already an empha­sis on crafts­man­ship & applied design. Maybe not all schools are doing that yet but I think within 50 years they all will be.

    I love this blog btw.

  12. student says

    You have to remem­ber we have lived in post­mod­ernism and what­ever is going on right now. All these things relate to the time in which they are cre­ated. So paint­ing a real­ist por­trait, land­scape, still life is now banal and bor­ing. I think if you are paint­ing it should reflect what is going on now. I do respect your stance though. Dif­fer­ent things some­times ques­tion or make you appre­ci­ate your view even more.

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