What is conceptual art? When discussing the definition of this, it is sometimes easier to have a straightforward linear meaning which encapsulates all the art beneath it. With conceptual art, this is not possible because the art could be in any or various different forms. The art isn’t just another movement in the history of art, it is ‘an attempt at a fundamental redefinition of art’, which reconceptualises the meaning and purpose of art to us as the audience (Newman & Bird, 1999: 48).
This redefinition has occurred partially through the constraints of formalism and modernism, but has been surfacing for many centuries, with artists ultimately wanting to move away from the traditional painting and sculpture and exploring more collaborative and performance pieces. We see a transition from the sensual to the conceptual, with art becoming a process, not just a finished piece (Newman & Bird, 1999). Art has traditionally been focused on the ‘aesthetic’, whether that be compositionally or tonally, or by the use of a certain medium. However, this focus on the end product takes away from the art of the process. ‘A number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art’ (Alberro & Stimson, 2000: 46). This loss of narrative in more traditional forms of art raises questions as to the authenticity of art, as just creating an end product doesn’t show great skill.
The conceptual movement established a demanding investigation into the formulation and assembly of art, which in turn allowed artists to create honest and impactful artworks (Kalyva 2017). Conceptual art can also be viewed as an interrogation; an analysis of artworks which only purpose is to be sold and make money. This capitalist approach of making art completely destroys the meaning of art and the purpose of exploring and developing artistic possibilities. This is further linked to art solely made to be exhibited in a white cube space. Conceptual art is probably the hardest art to sell and present in a traditional exhibition space, meaning that the art is not reliant on the market, and instead, artists focus on the process and narrative. Moreover, conceptual artists have a kind of unique privilege, they need to maintain an ‘artist’ title to have visibility. This differs from more traditional forms of art, in which the artist can become prominent from just having ‘aesthetic’ art; this is important to remember when understanding at conceptual art.
To build further upon conceptual art, we see Clement Greenberg as a key figure in questioning the value of the form. Greenberg was a prominent art critic concerned with formalism and American abstraction, being most influential from around the 40s to the end of the 60s. He held strong opinions over the aesthetic value of conceptual art and the dematerialisation. ‘This identification of judgements of artistic value with pure aesthetic judgement pervades Greenberg’s work throughout the late Sixties and Seventies’ (Costello 2007). The obsession with the ‘aesthetic’ completely juxtaposes what conceptual art is about, and therefore a clear divide between conceptual art and Greenberg’s theories formed. In addition, looking at the 70s as a whole, there were many aspects which would bring about a revolution such as conceptual art. We see the cultural explosion continuing into the 70s; musically, artistically, and culturally. The 70s was also competing with political unrest and activism – women’s rights, the AIDS crisis and black rights – this had a direct impact on the arts, with artists now narrating the political scene around them.
Mierle Ukeles, 1973, Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance – Outside, [Photograph], New York
In the 70s, we see New York artist, Mierle Ukeles, come to prominence with her maintenance-inspired conceptual art. Ukeles transformed her own maintenance work into art, giving power to the everyday domestics typically carried out by a mother figure, like herself. Looking at one of her most notable 70s artworks, Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance – Outside, Ukeles is featured cleaning the steps outside of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum in Connecticut. The performance was almost obnoxiously critiquing the institution, laying out the vast social hierarchy of the museum. From the investors and owners, to the curators and artists, then to the lower paid maintenance workers; we can see a structure of importance valued by the institution.
Mierle Ukeles, 1973, Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance – Inside, [Photograph], New York
Each of Ukeles’ performances were recognised as art due to her label of artist and allowed her to portray the maintenance work as an art form, as mentioned previously (Newman & Bird, 1999). We see in the Inside version, Ukeles on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. As a viewer this is definitely quite intrusive, as it is so unseen in a formal setting like a museum. The parent and child in the background seem to almost be ignoring Ukeles, as I’m sure most museum-goers would, because ultimately this is usually an invisible act. The splayed-out cleaning products on the floor around her show the intent on developing this to become a casual and genuine event; instead of one done after hours and kept secret from the public gaze. Ukeles ‘opens public space to the pressures of what it traditionally excludes’, fighting for equality and visibility across all museum workers (Newman & Bird, 1999: 117).
This lack of visibility of key maintenance tasks in a museum creates the feeling that it is an inferior job, even though it is crucial to the running of the institution and disregards the workers. Ukeles uses these performative pieces to promote the unseen, whilst also attacking the institution that feeds this problem. Her work relates back to the ideas previously mentioned concerning the 70s, with themes of feminism being vital in her work. The exposure of domesticity in a public space raises concerns about why it is mostly hidden and also how this isn’t just a woman’s space. Her conceptual art of the 70s contributed greatly to the art of today through her confidence to promote and critique, raising questions and giving the unspoken a voice.
Alberro, A. & Stimson, B., 2000. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. s.l.:MIT Press.
Berger, M., 2001. Fred Wilson: Objects and Installation, 1979-2000. Center for Art and Visual Culture, Volume 1, p. 1.
Buskirk, M., Levine, S., Lawler, L. & Wilson, F., 1994. Interviews with Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Fred Wilson. The Duchamp Effect, Volume 70, pp. 98-112.
Colpitt, F., 2009. Jeff Elrod. ArtUS, Volume 27, pp. 101-2.
Costello, D., 2007. Kant after LeWitt: Towards an aesthetics of conceptual art.. Philosophy and conceptual art, pp. 92-115.
Hogue, M., 2013. The Site as Project: Lessons from Land Art to Conceptual Art. Journal of Architectural Education, 57(3), pp. 54-61.
Kalyva, E., 2017. Image and Text in Conceptual Art: Critical Operations in Context. s.l.:Springer International Publishing.
LeWitt, S., 1967. Paragraphs on conceptual art. Artforum, 5(10), pp. 79-83.
Newman, M. & Bird, J., 1999. Rewriting Conceptual Art. London: Reaktion Books, Limited.
Smithson, R. & Flam, J., 1972. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. 2 ed. California: The University of California Press.