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Philosophy of the Arts


When is the work? On Intuitionism and Conceptual Art

Intuitionism in aesthetics is the view that the art work an audience is confronted with is merely a medium for the real work, in the mind of the artist: his intuition. A famous spokesman for this view is Bendetto Croce. The view is also associated with expressivism (Collingwood, Tolstoy), which holds that the work expresses the artist’s vision.
The differences between these views are instructive. (I am not claiming this describes a debate between the representatives of these views, though it might.) The view that a work expresses the artist’s vision does not commit one to holding that the real work is in the artist’s mind. In fact one can uphold that the artist finds his work in the material while working on it, as Picasso famously “admitted” that he didn’t make but found his works. And it is also compatible with Richard Wollheim’s view that the intentions of the artist are t be conceived of as realised in the work of art.

Another view interestingly connects with and distinguishes itself from the former two: Conceptual art.
“Conceptual artists do not set out to make a painting or a sculpture and then fit their ideas to that existing form. Instead they think beyond the limits of those traditional media, and then work out their concept or idea in whatever materials and whatever form is appropriate. They were thus giving the concept priority over the traditional media.” From the Tate online Glossary (accessed September 26, 2009).
So, what is it? When is the work?

What is Conceptual art?

What exactly is conceptual art, though? Arguably its roots lie in Marcel Duchamp’s “art for the mind”:
“I was interested in ideas—not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.” Duchamp, p. 125. (See the discussion in Crowther, pp. 164–186.)
Does that mean that a concept art work is the concept, not the material it was realised in? Put another way: certain paintings by René Magritte could be rephrased as pictorial puns. Think, for instance, of “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, a painting which clearly depicts a pipe. What it means is: what you are looking at is a picture of a pipe, not a pipe. Would you say that the latter paraphrase replaces the painting? I think that would be overstated. In fact, Magritte’s painting brings home a philosophical (if you want) insight into the nature of pictures, by way of a picture. He didn’t say it, he showed it.

Though the point of Magritte’s painting is conceptual, it is made visually. There is no reason to coin the phrase “conceptual art” to deal with works like these.

But conceptual artists concentrate on the concept without choosing beforehand the medium in which it will be realised. Okay. Point taken. But now: does this attitude provide a reason to coin the phrase “conceptual art” meaning something like: “the work is the concept (and its beauty, too, is of a concept)”?
I don’t think so. The good thing about this art-movement consisted in the openness to new materials. Indeed, there is no prima facie reason to paint when there is something you want to express artistically, nor is there one to adhere to any of the other traditional art forms. Without the conceptual-art movement, I guess, we would not have developed such new art forms as performance-art, and installations.

I am not at all convinced that the works made in these new art forms is by definition more conceptual (if that is intelligible to begin with) than earlier art forms, nor that they point to a predominance of mind over sensation, which they don’t.

Art is as perceptual as it was before.

Conceptual art is not an art form but an attitude artists needed to break away from old routines and mannerisms.

Collingwood, R.G. 1938. The Principles of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Croce, Benedetto. 1953 (orig. 1902). Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistics. Translated by D. Ainslie. London: Peter Owen.
Crowther, Paul. 1997. The Language of Twentieth-Century Art. A Conceptual History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Duchamp, Marcel. 1975. The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp. Edited by Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson. London: Thames and Hudson.
Tolstoy, Leo N. 1960. What is Art? Translated by Almyer Maude. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.
Wollheim, Richard. 1993. “Pictorial Style: Two Views.” In The Mind and its Depths, 171–184. Cambridge (Mass.), London (England): Harvard University Press.

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