Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art?


BBC4’s recent documentary, ‘Who’s afraid of conceptual art?’ presented by Dr. James Fox, addresses the clichés and the rhetoric that surrounds much of conceptual art; ‘I could do that myself’ or  ‘I can’t see the skill in that’. Fox demonstrates that conceptual art has a different agenda than we might imagine, an agenda that many intellectuals, authors and philosophers strive to achieve. Conceptual art has humour, it can be without immediate materiality, it can be baffling yet inexplicably original and beautifully quirky.

Conceptual art most certainly divides opinion; some can adore and be thrilled whereas others can be appalled, baffled and alienated. Many people hate what it stands for because they see it as pretentious, and as a nation, Britain is very pragmatic, naturally suspicious and intolerant to pretension.

Illustration by Faye Chua
Illustration by

However, a large amount of conceptual art has a great deal of intellectual capacity and humour. In the program we are presented with Marcel Duchamp’s famously signed urinal which was placed in a gallery in 1917 with the name ‘Fountain.’ The program contains old footage of an interview with Duchamp, ‘Taste is the great enemy of art. That was the difficulty, to find an object that had no attraction whatsoever from the aesthetic angle. Obviously humour came in as an element, it was very important for me to introduce humour. That was my intention to do something that would not please everyone.’ These words are straightforward and unpretentious and explain why a lot of conceptual art exists: because an artist has an idea, enjoys having this idea and goes onto shares it with others who also enjoy it. The fact that some do not enjoy it should not matter, that is taste, one of the interesting things about all art.

One of the ideas put forward by Fox in his documentary is that words are often more powerful than images. When we forget to read the titles of artwork we often miss their defining feature. This is true for the work of the French humourist and the absinth lover Alphonse Allais. Without reading the titles of his triptych consisting of plain pieces of white, red and black paper, the point would be completely missed. ‘First communion of anaemic young girls in a snow storm’, ‘Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes on the shore of the red sea’ and (the not very politically correct) ‘Negros fighting in a cellar at night’ were important pieces in the pre-history of conceptual art where the words were a source of powerful imagery.

Illustration by Faye Chua
Illustration by

The contemporary Scottish artist Robert Montgomery may well have been inspired by Alphonse Allais’ work. He uses text instead of images to explore ideas about consumerism and capitalism, placing these words on billboards and woodcuts or turning them into light poems and fire poems. His piece ‘The people you love’ created in 2010 has had a grand reception. If you type ‘the people you love, Robert Montgomery’ into google, there are 2,420,000 results. People have tattooed his words onto their bodies and the words have even featured in the background of a video of a South Korean rapper.

Montgomery’s work is an example of how conceptual art can be reproducible, accessible to all and can go a long way. In order to absorb these words people must slow down, put their life on hold. His work ‘Searock Songlines’, 2015 is a pastoral to his love of landscape and his Celtic background as well as his love of urban civilization: ‘The mountains must have imagined the city in their echo and drew it in the sky for us/and the sea birds carried messaged from the water to the mountain birds as the sea rock walked here slowly.’ Fox challenges our understanding of conceptual of art, proving that it can be as moving as it is humorous. Conceptual art is not a pretentious or meaningless subject and it is certainly not something we should be afraid of.

Featured Image by John Lord via Flickr Creative Commons

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