Saturday, 3 July 2010


(Courtesy: Keith Arnatt, Self Burial, 1969)

The advent of conceptual art has a revolutionary impact in art history. It challenged the traditional perception, practice and notion of art through a single or a combination of a number of new mediums including text, document, photo, sound, video, ready-made, performance and many others. Conceptual art is sometimes considered postmodern as it often confronts challenges and attacks the ideas of authority and mass. What is the central role photography played in conceptual art movement? What is the relationship between conceptual art and postmodernism? Is it the final phase of modernism or a part of the shift to postmodernism? This essay will firstly discuss the formation of conceptual art in cultural, social and historical context and analyse its development and core attributes; secondly explain how photography developed in that period as a medium and how it is utilised in conceptual art; and lastly explore the interactive relationships among modernism, conceptual art and postmodernism.

Conceptual art as a word was firstly used by Henry Flynt in 1961 (Lippard, 1973, p. 258), but there were several pre-historical artists such as Marcel Duchamp and their works pioneered conceptual art territory in as early as 1920’s. It is not until late 1960’s that this movement gained momentum and reached its height. The social and cultural background in 1960s was of tension and malaise. Urbanisation, racial conflicts, feminism, Cold War, Vietnam War, Paris 1968 Uprising and other issues made some artists question the traditional authority and values. Technology development already created virtual simulated reality via photography, television and etc. These stimulated artist to contemplate ‘how do we know we know’ (Godfrey 1998, p. 19), which was influenced by the philosophy from Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984) etc. Within art field, following anti-formalism Dadaism in early 20th century, The Cobra Group used daily objects as art; in 1950’s and 1960’s Gutai Group used plastic to interact with nature as art; The Lettriste Groupe used text substitute traditional image. These group and many other groups and artists used different approaches and mediums to challenge the dominant formalism - Abstract Expressionism. The most important movement influencing conceptual art was Fluxus and Minimal Art. Both of them explored the concept ‘what is art’. Fluxus used everyday objects, sounds, images, and texts to create new combinations to jab seriousness of modern art. Minimalism purified the art form to the most minimal and conceptual stage. In such as background, conceptual art developed to its apogee between 1967 to 1972 and formed its own characteristics.

Conceptual art is about ideas and meanings not about forms or materials. ‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and execution is a perfunctory affair’. (LeWitt, 1967, p 213) In this way, the Greenburg’s modernism argument of ‘medium specificality’ is given way by artist’s idea. Medium or form has to serve idea. Conceptual artist is not restricted in selecting of form accordingly, therefore he/she can choose to use all possible medium to convey his or her concept, since no form and medium is intrinsically superior to another.

Conceptual art questions the traditional status of art. It is a continuous self-criticizing art form at the same time. Kosuth (1969) asserts ‘works of art are analytic propositions’. He meant work of art is a tautology. It is a definition of art and at the same time it should question the nature of art. He then argues ‘a work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art as a comment on art’. It represents a state of continual self-critique by using different kinds of style and medium. The content and data showed by the medium interacted with viewers’ engaging to form the art – the analytical proposition.

Conceptual art is an art form of de-materialisation. As idea is paramount and material is secondary, artists ‘lose interest in the physical evolution of the work of art’ (Lippard and Chandler, 1973, p.46), in reaction to the dominant strand of modernism – formalism – where attention is focused on purely forms and styles. Kosuth proposes that artists should work with meaning, not shapes, colours or materials. LeWitt even radically claims that all concepts do not require materialisation necessarily. Artists are pursuing ‘ultimate zero point’ (Lipard and Chandler, 1973, p.36) by using white paintings, silent concerts, invisible sculpture. Documentation and images recording the ideas become by-product of conceptual arts.
During this period, photography experienced its self-reflexive process radically. To explain this process, it is necessary to elaborate the dominant art thoughts at that time. Following Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic judgement with ‘disinterestedness’, Clement Greenberg developed pure formalism theory based on his proposition of medium-specificity. He argues that all veritable art has to be critically self-reflexive to pursue the essence of its medium in order to reach its legitimacy and autonomy. He wrote: ‘Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself. By doing so it would, to be sure narrow its area of competence, but at the same time it should make its possession of what area all the more certain.’ (Greenberg, 1963, p.86) The theory greatly fuelled the development of painting, sculpture and other art forms. In painting, Abstract Expressionism emerged with the rejection of depiction. Subjects are replaced by pure form, colour, shape and etc – the ‘significant form’.

Photography had been changing its art style from Victorianism, Straight, to dominant Reportage in 1960’s. While depiction is not exclusive to painting, it is exclusive to photography. To achieve ‘medium-specificity’, painting dispensed depiction but continue to ‘offer the experience of art in all its essentials’ (Greenberg, 1963, p.92), how should photography purify its nature as a medium? Greenberg argued that photography is not a high art and it is not a legitimate artistic medium, because it is too figurative and narrative cannot be separated from its nature therefore photography will never reach the autonomy of a high art medium. Conceptual art movement offered a good platform for photography to exert its ‘medium-specificity’. ‘Photography took on new importance in art history, as the use of photography by conceptual artists effected a fundamental shift in the history of modern picture’. (Gronert, 1995, cited in Fogle, 2003, p.86) Since then, photography finished its poor brother status against painting.

Conceptual art’s dematerialisation results in the rejection of traditional forms of painting and sculpture but emphasise of the thinking process via a range of practices including performance-based work. As photography’s nature is for depiction and mechanical reproduction, this suits conceptual artist’s demand for both recording of the process and widely disseminating in mass media. ‘Camera became a tool among many available for the execution of a project’, (Krauss, 1983, p.31) as a means to an end. Not only because of this, as conceptual art is against traditional aesthetics, especially Greenberg’s pure formalist theory, anything Greenberg is against, many conceptual arts rebelliously just endorsed. Therefore, Greenberg’s rejection of photography as a high art medium is another reason photography gets widely used in conceptual art. As photography requires limited skill, it gets popular in conceptual art as a manifesto against traditional aesthetics.

Performance is a common form in conceptual art. Artists perform normally performed in a limited space with a few audiences or sometimes no audiences at all. For example Yves Klein’s ‘The Leap’ and Bruce Neumann’s ‘Self-portrait as a Fountain’. Photography is the proof to record the performance. In process art, photography is used to document the whole process period. For example, Doublas Huebler used his Polaroid to shoot the tracks on the sand dune left in New York every half an hour for 13 hours. As Land Art is installed in nature not possible to move or re-produce, photography becomes the perfect tool to document the brevity of Land Art. For example, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. In this way, photography is used to extend the space of the idea in conceptual art via this documentation function.

While it looks that photograph is the second statement after the idea, sometimes it interacts with artist’s ideas and plans. Lawrence Alloway (1970) made an analysis of Richard Long’s work in his essay ‘Artists and Photographs’. He mentioned that Long’s walks in the country with regular stops for documentation with a camera (of the view, not of the walker) presuppose a photographic step in the work process. Nancy Foote (1976) argued that the presentation of photographs from conceptual art work sometimes not only eliminate the duration of process, but also strengthen conceptual strength from juxtaposition and comparison. She used Becher’s Cooling Towers (1972), Antin’s 100 Boots (1971) and Smithson’s Mirror Displacements (1969) as examples. She also claimed that photographs can constitute physical as well as conceptual structure. The growing importance of photography in conceptual art opened new possibilities for many who consider themselves primarily photographers. Photography stepped into conceptual art movement as only a tool but as the interaction between the tool and the conceptual art grew, photography became a more than just a tool for documentation.

Photography became appear as an important element in some of conceptual art works. It is used as an image and an object in some works. Sometimes, it is both used to question the definition of aesthetics, art institute authority, or traditional status of photography as a medium to document reality. For example, Baldessari used a Polariod ‘Wrong 1967’ to question the traditional aesthetic issue in art. Josephy Kosuth used photos in his ‘One and Three Chairs’ to question ‘what is a chair as a chair’ the tautology of the object. Ed Rusha’s photography work questioned the traditional photography aesthetics – the decisive moment. ‘The role of photography has extended far beyond its original archival function, entering into dialogues with artistic ideas in mutually reinforcing ways’. (Foote, 1973, cited in Fogle, 2003, p30) Photography’s position in conceptual art increased dramatically. It became an independent art form. For example Victor Burgin always uses photography to convey his social, political and cultural ideas with the combination use of texts. For example, his work ‘Today is the Tomorrow’ (1971). John Hilliard sometimes uses only photography to fulfil his ideas. For example, his work ‘Camera Recording its Own Condition’ (1971).

Photography experienced an important part of its modernism ‘medium specificity’ self-reflexive process during this period. It stepped into conceptual art as a medium with neutrally mechanical depiction function. Before this, photography was rooted in the pictorial traditions. It was used as a mirror to reflect the ‘self-conscious and self-centred’ for the photography’s sake. It was conceptual artists ‘uproot and radicalise the medium’ (Wall, 1995, cited in Fogle, 2003, p.32), ripped off all the traditional pictorial aesthetic factors, and purely utilised this medium for depiction purposes as a window, which is a significant step toward the vernacular of photography as a specific medium. However, this impartial depiction function of photography was used by artist’s subjective new kind of photographic mise-en-scene. Wall called this ‘an introverted masquerade that plays games with the inherited aesthetic proclivities of art-photography-as-reportage’. In this way, photography’s self negation entered into a new negative sense – both anti-aesthetic and aesthetically significant. The form has gone through the negation process at the same time. Most of the times, photos taken by conceptual artists are technically unremarkable pictures and sometimes they are even taken by an Instamatic ‘eliminating all the pictorial suavity and technical sophistication it had accumulated in the process of its own imitation of the Great Picture’ (Wall, 1995, cited in Fogle, 2003, p.40). It is an avant-garde behaviour. It goes with the tenet of anti-aesthetics in conceptual art. In doing so, photography freed itself as a new category of contemporary art. This is the base for its further development such as conceptual photography in coming postmodern age.

Before I discuss the relationship between conceptual art and postmodernism, I would like to elaborate modernism art. Romanticism is the precursor of Modernism. It rejected the previous religion related art values dominated by art institutions and authorities but emphasised on individual subjective experience, the sublime, the supremacy of "Nature" and etc. As the western entered into Industrial Revolution with rapid technology progress and political ferment, modernism developed ‘involving the pursuit of change for its own sake and issuing in forms of militant avant-gardism and experiment’. (Harrion, 1997, p.11) During the more than one hundred years roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s, visual art developed radical changes from Édouard Manet’s ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’ (1863) through Impressionism, Futurism, Cubism at the turn of the century to Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art etc in the mid 20th century. Greenberg is one of the key art theorist. I dabbled some of his thoughts such as ‘medium specificity’ earlier. His high formalism claimed that art has to liberate itself by emptying ideas and meaning, the content. Only then, can art purify itself to a high art form differentiating from the mass culture. Then ‘the significant form’ becomes the reflection and expression of artist’s emotion and self. Self-criticism developed out of this process via the constant avant-garde activities.

Postmodernism means ‘after modernism’ literally. However, it refers to a complicated movement in a wide range of aspects including cultural, social, philosophy and art etc from mid 20th century. Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist's premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist. Heartney (2001) used Narcissus’s reflection in water as the analogy saying the postmodernism disintegrates the moment one reaches out to grasp it. Postmodernism is a reaction towards modernism and a reflection of the conditions of our time.

Postmodernism rejects the methodology of rationalisation originated from the Enlightenment, ‘the independent subject, truth and the external world’. (Heartney, 2001, p.7) It questions and deconstructs the system where science, culture, and society etc are based and developed. It considers any assertion of truth and any appeal to nature, principle or system are purely sham. It argues reality is fragmented with many old assumptions not unitary. Pluralism exists in culture, art, society etc. There is no universal foundation and standard as pluralism has its own context. There is no right or wrong, superior or inferior out of context. Same thing could lead to different perception in different context. We can no longer judge on the grounds of truth, knowledge and justice. Lyotard claimed that ‘grand-narratives’ is substitute by ‘mini-narratives.’

In visual art, postmodernism was a deliberate rejection of modernism practice, theory, and criticism – especially Abstract Expressionism and the formalist criticism of Clement Greenberg’s modernism dogma. Conceptual art is one of the forms of the attacks in this movement. From this aspect, it is part of the shift to the postmodernism. It used a mixture of different mediums to convey ideas in an anti-aesthetic way against Greenberg’s ‘medium-specificity’. As Abstract Expressionism abandoned content, conceptual art went to the other way abandoning esthetic form. It inherited the method of commercial kitsch from Pop Art and followed the approach of involvement of viewer as part of the work from Minimalism to open mass culture and mass taste against Greenberg’s ‘high art’. It deliberately abandoned artist’s self with sometimes a mechanical way in art creation against Greenberg’s ‘emotion and feeling’. All these attribute to the reaction and reflection against modernism. It questioned and deconstructed the modernism art system and it offered a great plural art form to postmodernism art. It is of ‘mini-narratives’ in the historical context when pure formalism thoughts dominate the art world.

Conceptual art, on the other hand, could be considered as part of modernism as well. Kosuth’s tautology does not get far from Greenberg’s tautology – art is the form reflecting emotion and self. Dematerialization, as a tool against Greenberg’s theory, can be considered as a manifesto of modernism’s constant avant-garde activities, through which modernism criticize itself from inside. The fact that conceptual art eventually walked into art institution could be considered as the ‘grand-narrative’ in modernism art.

It would be rather difficult and impossible to categorize in a clear, singular and absolute way, where conceptual art belongs to, the final phase of modernism or part of the shift to the postmodernism. Conceptual art can be considered as both. It is one of the avant-garde art movements within both modernism and postmodernism. The success of the avant-garde art movement is in fact the end of the avant-garde, when its thoughts and propositions get assimilated to the main stream and the art system. In early 1970s, some of the conceptual artists’ were being sold for substantial sums in the world’s most prestigious galleries. Lucy Lippard, Blake Stimson and many other art critics pointed out that conceptual art movement failed to achieve what it originally promised to overturn the art system. However, as Victor Burgin (1984) has indicated, this movement has made a great heritage by making possible the art beyond object - ‘the absence of presence’. Although the major movement faded away in early 1970s, conceptualism has been slowly formed in art as one of important intrinsic characteristics. Photography experienced its self-criticizing and reflection by the wide usage in conceptual art during the period. It became one of the most complicated contemporary art mediums. Since then, photography conceptualism emerged after assimilating the essence from conceptual art movement. This is exactly the development of modernism art by its self-criticizing, in which conceptual art movement is a vanguard tool. By the same token, postmodernism, as the continuation, reaction, reflection against modernism, provided a much-needed corrective to the exclusionary and falsely universal worldview of Greenberg-style modernism. Postmodernism is the avant-garde movement to develop modernism and it is the factory of a new and sustainable modernism.

(Word Count: 3176)

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