"In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work [. . .] all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art."
Sol LeWitt: "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," Artforum, summer issue, 1967.
The classical painting is a material object with
a virtually infinite number of unspecified and unspecifiable properties
which are nonetheless considered to be constitutive for the identity
of the work, because they were supposedly witnessed (and
thus endorsed) by the artist. That is why art galleries exhibit
original paintings, rather than copies or descriptions. (Cf. Nelson
Goodman on copies and fakes in Languages of Art.)
But when art is in fact created by realizing explicit, discursively
articulated concepts, the possibility arises to skip the realization
of the work, and to communicate the underlying concept directly
to the "spectator". In classical music, this possibility
has existed already for several centuries, because it is always
based on the execution of scores which specify the intended properties
of a piece in great detail. Some people do in fact read music,
but playing and listening have always remained more popular.
The musical score is one of the most conspicuous roots of the "concept
art" tradition in modern art. Around 1960, several New York composers and their overseas associates in the "International Fluxus Movement" started to write verbal pieces that were
inspired by the teachings of John Cage (specifically: his generalization of music to include theatre, his interest in indeterminacy, and his emphasis on abstract temporal structures). These pieces
(by George Brecht, La
Monte Young, Henry Flynt, Tony Conrad, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Eric Andersen, Ben Vautier and several others) were often fairly vague, or had nothing to do with sound, or were
obviously nicer to read than to execute, or were impossible
to perform in the first place. They were verbal artworks without
being literature, using conventional, literal language to denote
classes of things, events, or concepts. The "score" is treated as
an autonomous artwork which can be displayed in books or magazines without any intentions regarding its possible execution. (Nonetheless, many word pieces can be (and have been) "played". The performable ones among the Fluxus pieces were often executed as "events" in the context of "concerts"; and some of them have also been realized as visual art works. (The exhibition Pop Art Redefined (Hayward Gallery, London, 1969), for instance, included realizations of some pieces by George Brecht.))
Later conceptual artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt and Robert Barry presented their "word pieces" in a visual arts context. Weiner treated his verbal descriptions as autonomous artworks, which could be displayed on gallery walls without any intentions regarding their possible execution; the description thus replaces the work. Sol LeWitt's pieces, on the other hand, were obviously intended to be realized rather than contemplated. They constitute a direct visual equivalent of the scores of traditional classical composers.
The Fluxus compositions were disseminated through private correspondence, low circulation magazines, and small-scale "concerts". The work of later, more visually oriented "conceptual artists" (Weiner, LeWitt, Barry, Kosuth, Art & Language) was sold to commercial art galleries and major museums; it thus entered more easily into the canonical narratives of modern art history.