I’ve been talking with my students lately about the radical potential of conceptual art. Part of what I’m suggesting is that conceptual art or “conceptualism” (the art historical term for that category of work) was radical in the sense that it challenged existing formalism, and attempted to offer alternatives to the status quo commercial system, but quickly became aestheticized and commodified as it gained acceptance in the art world. So both the early work (pre-usage of the term conceptual art) produced by Duchamp, Manzoni, etc and classic work by the artists known as conceptualists like Kosuth and Weiner was “radical” in its departure from formal object based modernist work (impressionists, cubists, etc in the case of Duchamp, and abstract expressionism for the conceptualists) and created an interesting and liberating set of methods for making art, but possibly because in both cases the artists and work found great acceptance in the art world (which is really the commercial art world) those approaches to making art didn’t have a chance to be realized in more politically and socially impactful ways. There are exceptions to this in the strategies that were used by activist groups including Act Up, interventionists like the Yes Men, and artist collectives, notably The Gorilla Girls, all of which employed conceptual devices in the pursuit of revealing hidden information and promoting political agendas. But what I’m finding interesting in regard to conceptual art is how it can become understood and used by people who may not have knowledge of modern art history, people who might want to employ conceptual art methods in their daily lives and circumstances but who are have not been trained as artists. I’m thinking about conceptual art that can be produced in prison, or in a grade school, or any other non-art context and venue by the people who are in those places normally.
I’m currently leading a conceptual art class in a minimum-security prison. We meet every two weeks for an hour. Its part of a larger set of activities the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program facilitates at the prison. I show examples of past conceptual work and we have seminar style discussions. One of the reasons that I’m interested in introducing conceptual art to a prison context is because unlike other art approaches—sculpture, painting, photography, video, installation, etc. conceptual art requires no materials, no studios, no galleries, or any other resources of that kind. Once conceptual art methods are understood they can be used to produce projects immediately, with no approval, and without any costs.
It has been a slow but very engaging process working through existing ideas of what art can be and what artists can do and offering up broader parameters emphasizing conceptually based approaches. There have been times of revelation and excitement as the process unfolds. People who previously had never considered non-object based ways of making art have come up with thoughtful conceptual project ideas that redefine the physical and psychological context of the prison. One person suggested that we could as a group look out of our classroom window at the people making their way to the yard for a period of time and claim that as a work of art. We discussed formalizing elements for the piece that would help it to be understood as art by adding a title, date, etc. The thought of writing that information up on a label and attaching it to the wall next to the window was contemplated. Finding a way to document the project also provoked various ideas, as well as how it could be added to a CV and other professional materials to potentially be used to apply for funding to support more projects.
An interesting moment happened while discussing conceptual art during one class when one of the people in the group turned to me and said that he liked the ideas but needed another example help him understand things better. I paused for a second and then said that the class we were in was in fact a conceptual art work. The person who asked the question nodded his head, and a knowing murmur arose from the group. I will be curious to see how things develop further.