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Concept Art

Concept art is first of all an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of e.g. music is sound.
Since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.

[Henry Flynt: "Essay: Concept Art." (1961) In: La Monte Young (ed.): An Anthology, 1963.]

The aesthetics of ideas

It is constitutive for the traditional notion of "art" that it operates  in the aesthetic realm. The artwork is not a sign to be deciphered in terms of a pre-existing code; and its content is not an explicit, discursively articulated concept. The artwork affects us through an elusive coherence in the experience of perceiving it. To achieve this, the artwork must provide the spectator with fairly complex, ambiguous or indefinite material, and avoid the straightforward expression of unequivocal ideas. Almost all artistic genres indeed work that way.

Nevertheless, there is another possibility. Ideas themselves may be treated as artworks. Liberated from their claim to truth or usefulness, they may be the object of a "second-order perception", which considers them in their associative and metaphorical relations to other ideas and experiences, in the same and other domains. It has often been observed that the contemplation of mathematical and philosophical notions may be aesthetically rewarding in just this way.

For several centuries, the "art of ideas" has been practiced incidentally in the margins of philosophy and literature. But in the course of the 1960's it became an explicitly acknowledged artistic genre, first in avant-garde music and subsequently in the visual arts. This page provides links to material about this tradition, and about some of its antecedents and parallels in other domains and periods.

Note that we employ the phrase "concept art" in a strict and well-defined sense: the presentation of verbally articulated ideas as artworks. By going back to Henry Flynt's original terminology, we hope to improve somewhat on the language of current art criticism, which tends to lump all analytically oriented art together under one completely vague notion of "conceptual art".






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All I make are models. The actual works of art are ideas. Rather than 'ideals' the models are a visual approximation of a particular art object I have in mind.

Joseph Kosuth: Statement, 1967.

Every competent human brain strives for emancipation from its organic duties. Every competent human brain strives for freedom to shape a purely mental life of its own.

Susanne Langer: Mind. An Essay on Human Feeling. 3 Vols.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967/1972/1982.

Through the actual experience of running a gallery, I learned that if a work of art wasn't written about and reproduced in a magazine it would have difficulty retaining the status of 'art'. It seemed that in order to be defined as having value, that is as 'art', a work had only to be exhibited in a gallery and then to be written about and reproduced as a photograph in an art magazine. Then this record of the no longer extant installation, along with more accretions of information after the fact, became the basis for its fame, and to a large extent its economic value.

Dan Graham: "My Works for Magazine Pages. A History of Conceptual Art."
In: Dan Graham: Exhibition Catalogue, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 1985.
[Reprinted in: Kunst en Museumjournaal, 1993.]

It may be preferable, for obvious reasons, to limit artworks to the mind, to allow them to exist in thought only. Dematerialized, planted in consciousness, they would exist solely in the imagination and might survive untarnished.

Lothar Baumgarten: "Status quo", 1987. Artforum 7 (1988), p. 108.

In a sense, conceptual art returns to Judaism as it eliminates the image and focuses on the word.

Osvaldo Romberg : "Art to Art. Life to Life." Catalogue, Faith, Ridgefield: Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999.

Artist's Publications

George Brecht: WATER-YAM. Wiesbaden & New York: Fluxus Editions, 1962.

Dick Higgins (ed.): The Four Suits. Benjamin Patterson / Philip Corner / Alison Knowles / Tomas Schmit. New York: Something Else Press, 1965.

George Brecht & Robert Filliou: Games At The Cedilla or The Cedilla Takes Off. New York: Something Else Press, 1967.

Dick Higgins: FOEW&OMBWHNW. New York: Something Else Press, 1969.

Joseph Kosuth: "Art After Philosophy I & II." Studio International, October/November 1969.

Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin & Harold Hurrell (eds.): ART-LANGUAGE. The Journal of Conceptual Art. Vol. 1 nos. 1-3 (May 1969-June 1970); vol. 2 no. 1 (February 1972). Art and Language Press.

Patrick Hughes and George Brecht: Vicious Circles and Infinity. A Panoply of Paradoxes. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.


Anthologies & Bibliographies

Emmett Williams (ed.): Poésie Et Cetera Americaine. Paris: Biennale Internationale des Jeunes Artistes, 1963. [Pieces by Jackson Mac Low, George Maciunas, Robert Watts, La Monte Young, Al Hansen, Benjamin Patterson, George Brecht and others.]

La Monte Young (ed.): An Anthology. New York, 1963. [Including: Henry Flynt's "Essay: Concept Art." (1961), and work by George Brecht, John Cage, Walter de Maria, Yoko Ono, Dick Higgins, Ray Johnson, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Morris, Nam June Paik and others. An Anthology actually appeared in early 1964; it was reviewed in New York in Kulchur and in London in The Times Literary Supplement.]

Simon Vinkenoog (ed.): Randstad 11-12. Manifesten en manifestaties 1916-1966. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1966. [Including work by Stanley Brouwn, Robert Filliou, Gutai, Dick Higgins, Arthur Koepcke, George Maciunas, Claes Oldenburg, Nam June Paik, Ben Vautier, La Monte Young and others.]

Willem de Ridder & Wim T. Schippers (eds.): Kunst van Nu 3, 11 [Nieuw!! FLUXUS] (Amsterdam, Sept./Oct. 1966). [With work by Ay-O, Eric Andersen, George Brecht, Arthur Koepcke, Claes Oldenburg, Yoko Ono, Robert Watts and others.]

H. Sohm (ed.): Happening & Fluxus. Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1970.

Gregory Battcock (ed.): Idea Art. A Critical Anthology. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973.

Lucy R. Lippard: Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. New York: Praeger, 1973.

Alexander Alberro & Blake Stimson (eds.): Conceptual Art. A Critical Anthology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.

Alexander Alberro & Patricia Norvell (eds.): Recording Conceptual Art. Early Interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, and Weiner by Patricia Norvell. University of California Press, 2001.


Reception and Reflection

Thomas Dreher: Konzeptuelle Kunst in Amerika und England zwischen 1963 und 1976. Frankfurt a. M., 1992.

Robert C. Morgan: Conceptual Art: An American Perspective. (Foreword by Michael Kirby.) Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1994.

Robert C. Morgan: Art Into Ideas. Essays On Conceptual Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Thomas Dreher: "Konzeptuelle Kunst in Amerika und England 1963-76." Vortrag Karl-Franzens-Universität, Kunsthistorisches Institut, Graz, 10.1.1996.

Bruce Altshuler: Art by Instruction and the Pre-History of do it. In: Catalogue do it, Independent Curators International, 1998.
Michael Newman & Jon Bird: Rewriting Conceptual Art. London: Reaktion Books, 1999.

Thomas Dreher: "Art & Language UK (1966-72): Maps and Models." In: Oliver Jahraus, Nina Ort & Benjamin Marius Schmidt (eds.): Beobachtungen des Unbeobachtbaren. Konzepte radikaler Theoriebildung in den Geisteswissenschaften. Weilerswist: Velbrück Verlag, 2000, pp. 169-198.

Edward A. Shanken: "Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art." Leonardo 35, nr. 4 (2002), 433-38.

Peter Goldie & Elisabeth Schellekens: Philosophy & Conceptual Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Related genres

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© Remko Scha (May 14, 2002 – April 2, 2007)