Did you know that another word for ‘idea’ is ‘concept’? With conceptual art the artist’s idea (or concept) is the most important thing about the artwork. What it looks like doesn’t matter as long as the idea comes across.
Conceptual artists don’t make traditional paintings and sculptures but use whatever techniques are best for putting across their idea – and because ideas can be expressed in lots of different ways, conceptual art can look like just about anything.
Find out what kids think about Conceptual Art at Tate Britain when they visited the Conceptual Art in Britain exhibition at Tate Britain.
When did it start?
Marcel Duchamp was an important influence on conceptual art. In 1917, he turned a toilet upside-down and put it in an exhibition with the title of Fountain.
Conceptual art started in the mid-1960s and was a big thing until the mid-1970s Lots of artists around the world made conceptual art. Some of the most important of these were: Joseph Beuys, Jenny Holzer and Sol le Witt.
So what were they thinking?
- They didn’t think that traditional painting and sculpture could put across their ideas very well
- They didn’t like it that the art world had become so commercial. Like cars, shoes and hoovers, art had become just another product that could be bought and sold
- They also thought that artists shouldn’t be seen as celebrities with special skills. They believed that everyone has ideas…so everyone can be an artist
By making the idea the important thing, conceptual artists felt they were liberating art. After all no one can own – or buy and sell – an idea. One conceptual artist called Lawrence Weiner said: ‘Once you know about a work of mine you own it. There’s no way I can climb inside somebody’s head and remove it.’
Conceptual art influenced lots of art that came later, in fact many artists making art now – such as Martin Creed and Simon Starling – still make conceptual art. This is a work Martin Creed made in 2000. It’s called Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (and that is exactly what it is!).
Instead of putting traditional objects in a gallery he fills it with light and darkness. This makes us think about the space we’re standing in, about what art is…and even about what we are doing there!
Conceptual artists don’t care about being able to draw or paint very well or about making an artwork that looks good – because to them the idea is the important thing. But because this is the opposite of what people traditionally think art should be (a powerful painting or skilful sculpture), conceptual art is sometimes dismissed as not ‘real’ art. Do you agree?
Here are some other ways conceptual artists make art…
Acting out or performing their idea
Artist Bruce McClean wondered what the point of traditional sculpture was. So he acted out some funny poses using his own body draped over plinths. (Plinths are the boxes that traditional sculptures stand on in galleries).
Using existing (or found) objects
This artwork may look a bit boring, but Michael Craig-Martin said the reason he used four very ordinary boxes was to make the viewer focus on ‘the idea embodied in the piece’.
His idea was to explore what happens when a mathematical sequence is applied to four identical structures. The box lids were made by cutting away the top surface of the boxes in a sequence of 6, 12, 18 and 24 inch intervals. (An inch is around 2.5 cm).
Creating ‘interventions’ in landscapes
An intervention is like an interruption: they dig a hole, make a temporary sculpture out of rocks or stones…or, they just go for a walk! Artist Richard Long walked forwards and backwards across a field until his footsteps made a line of flattened grass.
What do you think? Do you think art has to be skilfully made? Or do you think that if art makes you think, that’s enough? Let us know in the comments.