What is Conceptual Art?


Contemporary art can be difficult to access and contrary to its origins can feel restricted to art historians or the experts running the galleries. I certainly have felt this way especially in regards to the more avant-garde practices of modern artists and I want in this essay to give a clear definition of Conceptual art in regards to the movement which took place in the late 1960’s early 1970’s. It was a movement that started to question the very nature of art through a diverse range of practices where the emphasis was on the concept or idea behind the work. Much of the movement was focused on the use of language as an artistic medium and it is unique in that it is one of the last great leaps in artistic thought and perhaps the most important of the movements to have at least a rough understanding of, as some of the pieces can seem on the surface bizarre and nonsensical without context.

It can be hard to talk about definition and meaning in art as many critics opinions differ, it is also difficult to give enough context without going down a rabbit hole of different movements, idea and thoughts. I have in this essay chosen to start with Marcel Duchamp and his piece ‘Fountain’ as I think it is a relatively simple example of a Conceptual work. I then jump forward to the 1960’s and 1970’s because this is where a more discernable movement is seen. To underlay some context I briefly describe art prior to the conceptual art movement specifically the group called ‘Fluxus’ and the Minimalism movement as they were key to the birth of Conceptual art (Godfrey, 2011).


‘Fountain’ was first submitted to the inaugural exhibition of the newly formed Society of Independent Artists in 1917 in New York. The society was formed by a group of artists who wanted a more democratic and open place for artists to exhibit work, in their first public notice they wrote about a great need for a place where “artists of all schools can exhibit together certain that whatever they send will be hung” (Camfield and Duchamp, 1989, p.66). ‘Fountain’ was submitted under the pseudonym R, Mutt, under the instructions of Marcel Duchamp who was head of the hanging committee for the exhibition. It is likely he submitted the piece to test the societies commitments to their rules, and chose to use the pseudonym so as not to let his name influence his colleague’s opinions. After heated debates lasting until the morning of the exhibition, it was decided by majority vote not to exhibit the piece. The decision caused some controversy in the media and Duchamp and one of the other members resigned the society in protest. Some of the members felt it was “Vulgar” others worried it was a joke possibly further confused as the name “Mutt” was the same name as a character in a popular newspaper cartoon, it was also difficult to see an object which the artist didn’t actually make just simply signed, as art and understandably so I think even now many people struggle to see the value of calling something like ‘Fountain’ art. As an object, it is just a urinal placed in a gallery instead of the bathroom where it is normally seen. (Tate, Fountain, 2017) (Camfield and Duchamp, 1989)

‘Fountain’ is part of an oeuvre of work Duchamp labelled as ‘readymades’, which although he never endorsed a clear definition historians have supported Andre Breton’s definition, “manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of art through the choice of the artist” (Girst, 2014, p.154). The idea is that any object can be called art if an artist says it is. Duchamp explains this in the second issue of The Blind Man, a magazine he co-founded with Henri-Pierre Roche and Beatrice Wood, which he published soon after the exhibition. “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He Chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view created a new thought for that object” (Duchamp, Roche and Wood, 1917, p.5). He is saying that the creative act is in the choosing of the object and that by stripping away its utility value it becomes art and finally by displaying it in a gallery by changing the context in which it is seen it invokes a new thought (Tate, Readymade, 2017).

The new thought that ‘Fountain’ creates is in the form of a question asking what can and can’t be art. It is not merely a urinal in a gallery but a proposition for a wider a definition. That proposition is not the urinal itself but the idea that an idea can be art. For this reason, ‘Fountain’ is sometimes referenced as the first conceptual artwork, It is the fact that the thought around the piece is more important than the physical object and that it is a piece of art criticising art, that it is self-referential. Calvin Tomkins and art critic who interviewed Duchamp on a number of occasions describes this in an interview, “The real point of the readymades was to deny the possibility of defining art. Art can be anything. It isn’t an object or even an image, it’s an activity of the spirit” (Tomkins, 2013, p.17).


The fifties was a time of healing in the West, of slow regeneration, of rebuilding after the destruction of the second world war, it was above all a time of hope. Abstract expressionism was dominant and reflected the attitude of the time with its brightly coloured abstract paintings. But brewing underneath this apparent contentment was the need for social reform this showed itself in the black rights movements, the youth groups campaigning for social reforms, who in the 1960’s would be labelled as the hippies. While the American government was distracted battling communism in Vietnam a new spirit was rising “a new wind of essentially youthful hostility to every kind of established convention and traditional authority, a wind of moral freedom and rebellion” (Booker, 1992, p.26). The 1960’s brought cultural reformation, people began to challenge old traditions fighting not only for the rights of people but questioned the taboos of sex and the prohibition of drugs. So too in art, there was a rising discontentment with the commercial galleries and a malaise over traditional forms, this could be seen in the dada-like practices of the Fluxus and the complete disregard of renaissance values shown within minimalism. It was the work produced by the Fluxus group and the Minimalist movement which gave rise to Conceptual art. (Godfrey, 2011)

The Fluxus was an international group of artists founded by Lithuanian/American artist George Maciunas who wrote in their manifesto that the purpose of the group was to “Promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art. Promote living art, anti-art, promote non-art reality to be grasped by all peoples” (Phillpot, 2017). They were anti-commercialism avoided academics instead opting for a more democratic philosophy opening creativity to anyone. As a group they played a crucial role in further opening questions about the nature of what art could be which would later become the dominant discourse in the conceptual works. Minimalism, on the other hand, was interested in viewership they were interested in art that didn’t go beyond the object/thing itself, it didn’t represent an emotion or idea it was simply the thing. Mel Bochner wrote in an exhibition review that what the artists held in common “is the attitude that Art - from the root artificial - is unreal, constructed, invented, … make-believe” (Godfrey, 2011, p.111). The art was often simple and geometric “the works were so ‘ordinary’ that the viewer was made to think about the uncertain distinction between things in art and things in the world” (Godfrey, 2011, p.112). It is this self-awareness and engagement with the viewer on a level beyond the emotional which carried over into the Conceptual pieces. (Godfrey, 2011)

Conceptual art

Like the Fluxus, the conceptual works that emerged in the late 1960’s shunned the commercial side of art valuing thought process over art objects making it difficult to sell the works in galleries (Tate, Conceptual art, 2017). Where possible they tried to avoid letting in arbitrariness they were problem solvers they wanted to invoke

thought alone and so the choice of form was restricted to the unaesthetic often to two dimensions. In many ways, the artists acted more as curators like a writer choosing words the forms acted as the “grammar for the total work.” (LeWitt, 1967). Duchamp too actively avoided making decisions based on aesthetics “the choice of the readymades never was a result of aesthetic delectation.” (Tomkins, 2013, p.54).

Sol Lewitt writes about the importance of the entire process for a conceptual work: “All intervening steps –scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations– are of interest” (LeWitt, 1967). This is perhaps best illustrated with Mel Bochner’s piece ‘Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art’ presented at the School of Visual Arts in 1966. For the piece Bochner collected drawings, sketches and documents from his friends who included Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, John Cage, Donald Judd, among others and as the exhibition would not pay to have them framed he photocopied them to a standard size and presented them in loose-leaf binders on pedestals (Frieze.com, 2017). Minimalism “emphasizes an obscuring, even an erasure, of the artist’s hand”, Bochner’s piece, on the other hand, served to reintroduce the hand into its process and “these drawings expose the process of creation and stand as vital counterpoints to the sterile perfection” of minimalism (Malone, 2012).

Conceptual art questions the traditional norms of art objects as unique by posing questions in the form of artworks. One of the earliest definitions was by Solomon Lewit who wrote in his essay ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’: “In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” (LeWitt, 1967).


There was a rapid evolution in thought throughout the 20th century, perhaps the most important of these was the ability to be self-critical. Culturally this meant we could escape the dogmas of religion into a philosophy of autonomy, in science, it meant defining clearly what we don’t know and in art it allowed us to widen the strictures so far that ideas can be viewed as art. This was an important shift in thinking as it opens up the institution of art to criticism from the inside and expands the role of artists beyond the visceral to the cerebral. It is also interesting to note that this trend in the 1960’s to dismantle formalism was championed by one of the first generations of artists who had been educated in university and literature around their work was often dense and at times hermetic (Godfrey, 2011). It seems to me this is a pattern that often occurs with new ideas, where the initial literature is arcane and filled with jargon and it takes future generations to tease apart meaning and restructure so as to make the ideas accessible.

The rules described above for what is and isn’t Conceptual art refer to the movement in the late 1960’s and are based on Sol Lewitt’s 1966 essay ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual art’. They are not necessarily rules to follow if you want to create work that invokes thought, I can’t see the perceptual experience of aesthetic beauty and the intellectual experience of expanded thinking as mutually exclusive. It is a danger though that the conceptual part of an artwork might be overlooked or ignored if aesthetically pleasing.


Booker, C. (1992). The neophiliacs. London: Pimlico.

Duchamp, M., Roche, H. and Wood, B. (1917). The Richard Mutt Case. The Blind Man, (02), p.5.

Foster, H., Krauss, R., Bois, Y. and Buchloh, B. (2007). Art since 1900. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson, pp.527-533.

Frieze.com. (2017). Mel Bochner. [online] Available at: https://frieze.com/article/mel-bochner [Accessed 5 Dec. 2017].

Girst, T. (2014). The Duchamp dictionary. London: Thames & Hudson.

Godfrey, T. (2011). Conceptual art. London: Phaidon.

Greenberg, C. and O’Brian, J. (2007). The collected essays and criticism. Chicago [u.a.]: Univ. of Chicago Pr.

LeWitt, S. (1967). Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. Artforum, 5(10), pp.79-83.

Malone, M. (2012). The Porous Practive of Drawing: System, Seriality, and the

Handmade Mark in Minimal and Conceptual Art. [online] Available at: http://notations.aboutdrawing.org/essay/

News.bbc.co.uk. (2017). BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Arts | Duchamp’s urinal tops art survey. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4059997.stm [Accessed 25 Nov. 2017].

Norton, L. (2017). Buddha of the Bathroom. The Blind Man, online. Available at: http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/dada/blindman/2/05.htm [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Phillpot, C. (2017). Manifesto I. [online] George Maciunas Foundation Inc. Available at: http://georgemaciunas.com/about/cv/manifesto-i/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Tate. (2017). Conceptual art – Art Term | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/conceptual-art [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Tate. (2017). ‘Fountain’, Marcel Duchamp, 1917, replica 1964 | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573 [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017].

Tate. (2017). Readymade – Art Term | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/r/readymade [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].

Tomkins, C. (2013). Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews. Badlands Unlimited.