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 "Homeworkers", 1977, by Margaret Harrison. Image courtesy Tate, © Margaret F. Harrison


More often than not conceptual art deserves every ounce of the scorn heaped on it: the paucity of the concepts leading to an equally shallow visual and intellectual experience. Interesting ideas are no more prevalent in the art world than anywhere else and conceptual art — where the idea is more important than the finished object — offers a get-out clause for the second- and third-rate artist. At its inception in the early 1960s, though, conceptual art was a valid and briefly vital response to the commercial art world and indeed the wider worlds of society and politics. Because conceptual art could be anything and made from anything (photography, text, performance) it was harder to own, appropriate and display than traditional art.

Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 at Tate Britain (April 12-August 29) looks at the first flush of the movement, when it had, regardless of the quality of the work, a rationale, and before art schools such as St Martin’s and Goldsmiths started using it as their default house style, unleashing a wave of students with a sense of entitlement but without the most basic skills. The period on show covers a vibrant tranche of British politics, from Harold Wilson’s first government to the election of Mrs Thatcher and ignores the internationalism of the style and therefore figures such as John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein (and also the Brazilian Cildo Meireles whose 2009 exhibition at Tate Modern caused consternation when the deaths of aquarium fish used in his exhibits led to the intervention of animal protection organisations).

The exhibition comprises some 70 works by 21 artists, many of whom have disappeared from public consciousness. Some of the others rapidly sloughed off conceptualism to return to the more concrete verities of traditional forms. Michael Craig-Martin was one of these. His An Oak Tree of 1973 — a glass of water on a high glass shelf, alongside a text suggesting possible meanings of the work — nailed one of the central problems of conceptual art. The text stated that the glass of water was in fact an oak tree and this claim hung on “belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say”. If you don’t have that willing faith then the glass of water is just that and the artist is no such thing. Craig-Martin soon turned to making large colourful outline paintings of everyday objects.

If Craig-Martin looked at the nature of art, Mary Kelly, in Post-Partum Document (1973-9), looked at the mother-child relationship by compiling an ongoing record of her baby son’s development. Using everything from nappy linings, a plaster cast of his hand, card indexes of his first words, all laid out as evidence of a scientific process, she sought to combine feminism, psychoanalysis and motherhood to present an alternative to traditional Madonna and child paintings. 

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