plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

Conceptual art represents concepts.

That seems obvious.

The simple statement has some interesting implications, however. Let’s explore by looking first at another art-form: still life.

What does still life art represent? The still life, obviously. Each still life painting shows a given set of objects. Is the still life art the same as the still life itself? Of course not. It’s a representation: the appearance of a still life on a canvas is an illusion.

Does the artist create the objects in the still life? Perhaps he or she might throw the vases and cut the flowers, but this is not essential.

Must the objects be valuable or beautiful? Of course not. The value of the still life art depends on the quality of the representation, not on the quality of the things represented.

Now, back to conceptual art. My claim is that conceptual art, and the conceptual component of art in general, is not so much a concept as the representation of a concept. Must the artist invent the concept? No. Must the concept be true or valuable or interesting? No. What is important is that the concept is well represented. What’s also important is not to confuse the concept represented with a “real” concept. The represented concept is only an illusion of a concept. It might even be a representation of a fantasy concept.

Now, why does so much conceptual art seem like “BS,” to borrow from a recent comment writer?

Is it because the concepts are lousy? No, I’m claiming that the quality of the concepts is not important in conceptual art. So, if the work seems like BS, I’d say it is because the representation of concepts is lousy. We can’t expect that just because we have a great concept, that we can make great art out of it, anymore than possession of a great still life object insures a great still life painting.

Does art need to represent concepts to be art? Must art have a conceptual edge? I’d say, following the reasoning above, No. If the conceptual aspect is only the representation of a concept, it is no more mandatory than the representation of perspective or realistic human proportions or the lighting of a still life in a given work. If it enhances the work, great. But trying to add some concept-representation just for the sake of it might be like throwing a still life into a landscape; it might seem out of place, it might detract.

Detract from what? From the emotional impact of the art, which is what art is about.