Marcel Duchamp tossed a stone in the pool of the art world in 1917 with his submission of his work “Fountain” to an exhibition. The submission was simply a urinal signed “R. Mutt” and the ripples of that stone have grown into enormous waves over the last 90 years. Since the early 1960’s artists have lined up to push the traditional boundaries of art and have allowed themselves to be shot (Burden), placed their own feces in canisters (Manzoni), lived in a room with wolves (Beuys), and my personal favorite - submitted a telegram as an entry into an exhibition of portraits (Rauschenberg).
During what might prove to be the high water mark of Conceptual Art, The Tate Gallery began awarding the Turner Prize to one of several Conceptual Artists annually from 1997 – 2008. Conceptual Artists have received fame, praise, and large sums of money but they’ve also met with consistent criticism over the years. In addition to the more expected questions of “Is this really art?” there have also been a number of artists and art industry workers who have spoken out against the movement.
The Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ivan Massow called Conceptual Art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless…” and that it was in “danger of disappearing up its own arse” in 2002. A group of artists in the UK founded a movement called Stuckism in 1999 in response to Conceptual Art. This group is known for protesting the Turner Prize and in 2002 they carried a coffin to the White Cube gallery announcing “The Death of Conceptual Art”.
Perhaps more noteworthy was a move by Charles Saatchi of the Saatchi Gallery. Saatchi was a sponsor of the Young British Artists, a collection of mostly Conceptual Artists from the UK. Saatchi was a collector of the byproducts associated with many Conceptual Art pieces and was criticized by the Stuckists for his unrelenting support of Conceptual Art. Yet in late 2004 Saatchi went on record as saying that “painting continues to be the most relevant and vital way that artists choose to communicate.” Soon after this statement he began to sell off many of the conceptual pieces from his personal art collection.
With the specter of a global economic downturn looming large in recent months, one must wonder what affect this crisis will have on Conceptual Art.
In an article in the New York Times in early 2009, Holland Cotter wrote:
…The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.
Anyone with memories of recessions in the early 1970s and late ’80s knows that we’ve been here before, though not exactly here. There are reasons to think that the present crisis is of a different magnitude: broader and deeper, a global black hole. Yet the same memories will lend a hopeful spin to that thought: as has been true before, a financial scouring can only be good for American art, which during the present decade has become a diminished thing….
…And where is art in all of this? Proliferating but languishing. “Quality,” primarily defined as formal skill, is back in vogue, part and parcel of a conservative, some would say retrogressive, painting and drawing revival. And it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song…
(full article appeared 2-15-2009 and may be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/arts/design/15cott.html)
The current economic pit we find ourselves in will likely bring about a purging in many debris filled areas. Banks are being forced to follow the rules again. Businesses are cutting excess spending. Families are once again learning to live within their means. Artists may indeed find themselves returning to object oriented production. Object oriented artists may see the need to raise their level of craft, the quality of their ideas, and produce objects that more successfully communicate layers of beauty. The Conceptual Art that survives will almost certainly have to raise its standards as well.
Sam Cooke said, “A change is gonna come.” I am not deluded enough to think that this change will be pleasant or enjoyable in any way. Who knows how long this crisis will last and how many years beyond recovery until the art market once again picks up a reasonable pace. But I do believe artists of all kinds will benefit from enduring the process.