Baffle Us — But Don’t Bore Us

Conceptualism was briefly a vital response to commercialism in modern art. Then it ran out of ideas

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. 

Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) of 1967, on the other hand, was a memento mori of conceptual art, in which ephemerality and decay were given literal form as visitors were each encouraged to take an orange from a pile of 5,800 of them, so that the work would gradually disappear before their eyes. Margaret Harrison, meanwhile, examined wage equality and women’s rights in Homeworkers (1977), a collage showing various products of piecework — gloves, buttons and brooches — alongside texts giving their prices and how long it took to make them, and painted hands to represent the women who made them. In Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) (1969) Keith Arnatt played with man’s (and the artist’s) transience and nature’s permanence by gradually burying himself in the landscape. One photograph of each stage of his immersion was shown on German television for two seconds a time on nine consecutive days — without explanation.

The concepts behind such works are indeed worth expressing and examining and in the case of Arnatt and Louw the artists devised a visually interesting way of putting them across. The flaw, already inherent in some of the works, though, is that in divorcing meaning from aesthetics many artists lose the viewer’s interest. Making the viewer work hard is not a crime but boring them is.

Concept is also the subject of the Royal Academy’s extraordinary In the Age of Giorgione exhibition (until June 5) featuring 50 works from Venice from the first decade of the 16th century, all of the very highest quality. Giorgione, who died at 33, has always been one of art’s most celebrated figures — for both the scarcity of his work and its enigmatic nature. There is, though, no consensus among art historians as to how many works by him still exist and this exhibition includes eight that have a good claim to be by his hand (though some scholars believe there are only six extant paintings). There are also works by the succeeding generation of Venetian golden age artists he influenced so strongly, the likes of Titian (whose pictures as a young man are indistinguishable from Giorgione’s), Sebastiano del Piombo, Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Cariani. These painters were quick to learn Giorgione’s language of poetic landscapes, psychological portraits and air of elegy and mystery.

While Giorgione’s paintings do have subjects (real people, landscapes with figures, nudes), what they actually meant was never clear. When Vasari saw Giorgione’s now-destroyed frescoes on the German merchants’ building on the Grand Canal he confessed: “I for my part have never been able to understand his figures nor, for all my asking, have I ever found anyone who does.” And a contemporary chronicler described The Tempest, one of the most famous paintings in art, as simply “a little landscape with the tempest and a gypsy and a soldier”. Giorgione’s “concept” may in part have been just this — to provoke debate, incite curiosity and wrap the spectator in a mood. Because of his preternatural skill he has not just caught the attention of viewers down the centuries, but gripped it tight.

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