Conceptual Art is difficult to define simply because there is uncertainty about when it started, which artists to include, and whether it should be confined to “art” or should include music and theater as well; at the same time, it marks a crucial paradigm shift in the nature of art, paradoxically providing a clear demarcation between the past and the present. As important as Conceptual Art is, it still tends to cause intense and sometimes extreme reactions in its audiences—many of its detractors consider it a “con,” bad, or even not art at all. The acceptance of the changes imposed by Conceptual Art is a key factor that differentiates the work of Contemporary artists and that of traditionalists: Conceptual Art rejected the idea that art’s purpose is to produce something beautiful or aesthetically pleasing.
The term refers to a broad group of tendencies and works produced by a variety of artists working in the late 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s who collectively began to question the relationship between art and the gallery/museum art world and the market for art objects. The conceptual artists generally began their careers either working as musician/composers or as sculptors, and as their work developed, it began to emphasize ideas and intellectual content instead of actual, physical art objects.
It is an approach to making art that has its ultimate origins with the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp, whose ideas were extended and transformed by the American composer John Cage in the 1950s. As a term, “concept art” first appeared in a 1961 article by the Fluxus artist Henry Flynt. Fluxus was an organization that began as a concert series devoted to avant-garde music by composers such as John Cage, who was a major disseminator of Marcel Duchamp’s ideas to American artists in the 1950s. His influence on American art led to the shift away from Clement Greenberg’s version of Formalism where art “purified” itself of everything extraneous to it, towards what would become Post-Modernism in the 1980s: an ironic, quotational art that was concerned with definitions of what is “art.”
American artist Joseph Kosuth and the Art & Language group in England (Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Harold Hurrell, Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden, Philip Pilkington, and David Rushton) codified “Conceptual Art” as a movement by eliminating the finished object entirely and focusing on information as an abstract material. By shifting the “art” away from a physical object, it changed what they exhibited in museums and galleries into “documentation.” There is nothing to “see” with conceptual exhibits. What appears in exhibitions of Conceptual Art are not objects for aesthetic consideration but rather a series of documents that allow the audience to create each art work in their own mind. Conceptual works often have very “uninteresting” appearances—lists, instructions to perform, complex diagrams that resemble construction plans—and often refer to activities or events to be performed or describe ideas that do not have a physical form.
Conceptual Art created a new paradigm for art, one that enabled the expansion of art to include a much wider variety of things than it traditionally included: performance art, site-specific art, ephemera of all types, as well as establishing a framework for the addition of new media (video, film and digital art of all kinds) whose “works” were utterly different than traditional paintings and sculptures.