Of course, in the first place, if you use the phrase ‘Conceptual Art’ it depends on what you mean by the adjective ‘conceptual’. With a small ‘c’, please, rather than a great big overweening capital letter. In fact, it goes without saying that any worthwhile work of art, whether visual or non-visual, has some sort of concept inside it – there is always some kind of intellectual framework into which the viewer can fit it. Something that goes ‘click’ in your head, uniting you to what the maker of the work in trying to say to you. In the art world, we have now, however, all sorts of flaws and fissures present themselves, further complicated by the inbuilt problems inherent to art world human nature. Let me attempt to spell some of these out.
First, there is the romance with and pursuit of what is perceived as being ‘new’. To some extent, this has always existed in art. It intensified with the Renaissance, at least here in Europe, and intensified again with the birth of the Romantic Movement. With the appearance of the Modern Movement, in the early years of the 20th century, it intensified yet again. Sometimes, however, the idea of radical ‘newness’ became conflated with a wish to return to forms of art that were regarded as somehow purer and more virtuous that whatever happened to be the dominant, fashionable style of the moment.
“Today, we have the flourishing cult of ‘appropriation’ – basically art that states ‘this is so clearly not new”
This impulse goes quite a long way back. There is, for example, the sudden return to ‘archaistic’ forms in the Greek sculpture of the first-century b.c. Closer to our own time, there and the German Nazarene artists of the early 19th century, and, close on their heels, the appearance of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement in Britain. Members of both movements implicitly made claims to be clearing out a lot of old rubbish, in order, once again, to reveal the true mission of art. Today, we have the flourishing cult of ‘appropriation’ – basically art that states ‘this is so clearly not new that you must be prepared to accept it as being in intention radically new – newer than anything that might presume to compete with it.’
Second, there is the way in which historical perspectives have shortened during the last twenty-five years or so. Quite largely, but not entirely, this has been due to a lack of supply within the art market. As ‘historical’ works vanish into museums, the emphasis has been more and more on contemporary products.
Shrinkage of perspective has been due to other factors as well. A comparable, but less drastic and briefer shrinkage took place in the mid to late 19th century, from, say, around 1830 to around 1880. It was particularly conspicuous in Britain, then without a doubt the leading world power in both industrial and imperial terms. Excited by technological progress, the patrons, and no doubt to some extent also the pundits, of the period concluded that their own times had now visibly surpassed all other cultural epochs and that the art of the then present was what counted, as opposed to what had been produced in the past.
This way of thinking, certainly where the top end of the art market was concerned, was challenged by the rise of America, and in particular by the desire, financed by American money, to build up historical collections that would challenge, in both quality and extent, the great holdings of art that existed in Europe.
Today the situation is complicated, not only by a renewed shortening of perspective, but also by the existence of a plurality of cultural pasts, or, rather, should one say, of a plurality of cultural traditions. This pluralism had of course always existed, but cultures, till recently, could develop in total or at least partial separation to one another. What has put a stop to this is once again technology and in particular the extraordinarily rapid development of technologies of communication represented by the worldwide web. Contemporary art still has the ambition to be seen as uniquely innovative, newer than new, something inherited from the 20th century Modern Movement. Yet in all the multiple geographical regions in which it now operates, the echoes are in each case subtly different, as long established cultural histories make themselves felt.
To this one must now add two specific factors. One is the degree to which the art market has become a financial force in its own right. With the rise of bourgeois capitalist society, and its attendant mechanisms, in – let us say – the early 16th century, the way in which art works were conceived, produced and turned into money began to change. No longer produced as the result of a direct commission from a patron or a group of patrons, in response to a specific need, sacred or secular, they began, instead, on more and more occasions, to be things made on spec and offered readymade to a market that might or might not desire to own them. This is still the situation today. What is perhaps new is the wildly speculative nature of the contemporary market. Looking for a historical model, it often resembles nothing so much as the Dutch tulipomania of the first half of the 17th century.
Opposed to this, but in some ways subtly allied to it, has been the rise of major officially funded institutions specializing in the support and promotion of contemporary art. Museums used to be thought of as repositories whose main job was to preserve the legacy of the past, and (secondarily perhaps) to make it available to spectators of later generations. This is no longer the case, The remit of many of the most important official galleries – Tate Modern being an example exactly to the point – is now to make contemporary achievement in the visual arts immediately and directly available to the widest possible public.
When faced with gyrations of the tulipomania art market that supplies quite an important part of the context within which these new-style galleries have to operate, those in charge react in ways that are not entirely unexpected, given the context.
First, there is a wish to be democratic and populist, but strictly on the institutions’ own terms. For instance, one notes that quite a lot of art that today lays claim to being ‘advanced’ reinforces the claim by being rather brutally erotic. In the kind of official gallery, I am describing these works may indeed be on show from time to time, but only in areas where the intending spectator can be forewarned, and where you have to pay to enter. On these occasions, in order to protect the pure from an offence, democracy has to pay tribute to Mammon. The skint but grown up cannot be allowed in.
More important, there is an increasingly strong reaction against the world of money represented by the big auction rooms and major art fairs, where grab and flip, take the profit and run are now an acknowledged part of the game. Hence the emphasis on art-categories that it’s hard to monetise: for example, Performance Art, and – the category I began with – Conceptual Art.
In fact, what we have today is very often self-satisfied elitist stuff, rather awkwardly, in the old theatrical sense, playing to the gallery.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2017