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Arts & Letters

The Case Against Conceptual Art

Trevor Pateman makes the case for the prosecution.

Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking (2017) is an impressive piece of recent autobiographical fiction. In it, the narrator repeatedly sets herself the task of identifying a work of art – usually a work of conceptual art – which relates to whatever topic she’s currently thinking about.

Some of the works are well-known, such as Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) and Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though at the end of her book Baume urges us to go to the works ourselves, she has accidentally illustrated the main weakness of conceptual art: you don’t have to see it (or otherwise experience it) in order to respond to it. You just need a description spelling out the idea – the thought – that the actual artwork itself was created to illustrate.

Conceptual art is basically illustration, and that is its weakness and banality as art. That is to say, the realisation of the idea may often be elaborate and costly, and sometimes fleeting, but it is usually pretty much irrelevant. We can debate the concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself (if indeed it still exists to be confronted). Baume says as much herself, through her protagonist Frankie: “Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day… I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea” (p.181). How can you love the piece if you haven’t seen it? All you can love is the idea of it. That’s almost certainly enough; if you already love it, it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it. And you certainly don’t need twenty four hours to get the idea.

Toffee Apple
Toffee Apple by Da Luigi, 2018

Back in 1997, as part of the Turner Prize show, London’s Tate Gallery showed Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes on a large screen. This is a video in which a group of people are lined up and asked to stand stock still for sixty minutes while they are filmed by a static camera. It would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch it. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea, and then move on. I sat cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for nineteen minutes, outlasting every other visitor in that period by at least seventeen minutes. What would we say about a cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes, after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea? Put differently, Baume could simply have made up the majority of the many conceptual art pieces to which she refers in her novel; and in a work of fiction, who could object to that? There would have been no loss of idea. But we would simply laugh at someone who said of her novel, “I have never actually read it from beginning to end. But I love this work. I love the idea.”

Art is something you have to experience at first hand to respond to it appropriately. You would make a fool of yourself if you started to talk about a painting or a film or a play by saying, “I haven’t seen it but my wife has, and she says…” A picture in a book isn’t enough, either, because for visual artworks there are, at the very least, problems of scale and natural light. So conceptual art fails as art because it invites us to respond to it without experiencing it.

Not so long ago I wrote a critical piece about a painting by a Dutch portrait painter, Simon Maris (1875-1959), which had been re-titled by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: they had changed its title from Young Negro Girl to Young Girl with a Fan. From the museum’s online images I was able to argue that both titles missed the fact that the ‘girl’ was wearing a gold band on her ring finger. Surely she was a married woman? Though re-titled with much attendant publicity, no one appeared to have looked at the painting. Then I travelled over to Amsterdam to look at it for myself. As I entered the room in which it was displayed there was a fairly dramatic shock awaiting me. What had looked like a cheerful yellow bonnet in all the reproductions now suddenly dazzled me as if it were a golden halo. In consequence, what I had hitherto thought of as a fairly formal portrait suddenly took me in another direction, towards the tradition of what are called ‘Black Madonnas’ – portraits or statues of the Virgin Mary with a haloed black face.

The sight of the halo in this case also reminded me of my own conviction: a painting is meant to be seen; and there is really no other way of seeing it properly than standing in front of it. In Painting as an Art, Richard Wollheim (1987) said that he was only going to write about paintings which he had not only seen but spent time with; he gave a guide figure of three hours per painting. That bears some thinking about in a world where a sixty minute video in the Tate Gallery holds the attention of viewers for two minutes at most, and Sara Baume’s narrator can claim to love a work she has never even seen.

© Trevor Pateman 2018

Trevor Pateman’s essay ‘Young Girl With A Fan?’ is in his book The Best I Can Do (2016). He develops materialist ideas about art in Materials and Medium: An Aesthetics (2016).

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