Conceptualism: Art Form That Transcends Visual Optics

The global pandemic has led us to spend more time indoors. Disrupting metropolitan ‘lifestyles’ across the globe, consequent lockdowns have inadvertently brought us closer to exploring creative activities – often, both as entertainment and escape. It isn’t surprising that a lot of people, especially teenagers, are actively choosing to get involved in ‘arts’ while at home.

 While defining art is beyond the scope of this article, usually, the word itself tends to evoke traditional impressions of art that revolve around paints, colours, brushes, and a wide array of skills to produce a mesmerising and visually appealing piece of work. But those who have started exploring their “artist self” recently, may find it interesting to know that there is a lot more to art than just paints, colours, and visually appealing optics.

Essentially, the term art emphasises aesthetics. That said, it is not always the case when it comes to contemporary artworks. Allow me to introduce you to something that you might not have come across before – Conceptual Art. Conceptual art, also known as ‘conceptualism’, is an art form that prioritises the ideas or concepts residing within the artwork, and it is these ideas and concepts that either takes prominence over or overrides aesthetics altogether. So, if you feel underrepresented as an artist in the abundant world of creativity where optics is revered, you can always explore Conceptualism.

A Brief History Of Conceptualism

Many factors have contributed to the rise of conceptualism, however, two are prominent which I will explain briefly. Conceptual art emerged during the 60s as a movement partly in retaliation to ‘formalism’ wherein progressive artists started grouping against a school of art that analysed artwork, compared form and style, and tended to look at artwork from their purely visual components. Conceptual art emerged as an effort to unshackle art from the fetters of “optical dominance” defining the creativity and artists and conventional art altogether. It was revolutionary as it completely disassociated itself with traditional art. 

This movement also came at a time when people were seeking for resolution of violence among humans and actively pushing for social reforms. Another contributing factor that led to the rise of Conceptualism is the peace movement of the 60s wherein different groups from different countries (Canada, Germany, India, Israel, USA, and UK etcetera) across continents, desired some form of change whether it was political or social. Artists offered a unique position during this period as their self-expression in the form of art became a way to stimulate discussion on matters and help others see a new perspective. 


Conceptual Artists

One notable figure amongst others during this process seeking global change was the Japanese artist and activist Yoko Ono. Ono was not only a peace activist but also devoted her time to the movement of conceptualism. It was in 1966 when she held her conceptual art exhibition at the Indica Gallery where she met her husband-to-be, John Lennon. One of Ono’s significant conceptual works is Grapefruit (1964) if one wishes to look this up further. This work replaces physical artwork by holding ‘event scores’ within it. These scores are essentially lines of action descriptions or instructions rather than a dialogue which in essence is a performance art script. What makes this work conceptual is that these lines allow for one’s interpretation and intellectual input for it to acquire meaning.


 Although the 60s is when conceptual art took off, the idea was already lurking in the art world from decades before. Another prominent figure that I must bring to light is the French American artist, Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp led the way towards conceptualism through his readymade works. If you are not familiar with readymades, Duchamp used this term to refer to man-made objects. To name one is Fountain (1917)which featured a urinal signed with Duchamp’s pseudonym. Duchamp intended to move the focal point from craftwork to one’s intellectual take on the piece. Such works received criticism in the art world for not conforming to societal expectations of art and they failed to be shown in the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Despite this loss, Duchamp’s artwork ushered a new wave of innovation in the art world and finally, it was in the 60s when it started to gain some recognition. Theorists and art historians today consider Duchamp’s works to be a milestone in 20th-century art; therefore, Duchamp in essence is the pioneer of conceptualism. 


Though conceptualism gained prominence during the 60s, it continues to inspire modern-day conceptual artists. English artists Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are in this league. With Hirst, matters of science, religion, life, and death are at the forefront and Hirst usually exposes his viewers with animals in glass display cases as can be seen in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). The latter is Emin who, like Duchamp, produces readymade work such as My Bed (1998) which features Emin’s bed in its most raw post-sleep state having stayed in the bed for 4 days drinking only alcohol and no food or drink. The idea was triggered by a depressed yet sexual period she was experiencing and thus, the piece is an attempt to create awareness about the growing menace of alcoholism and mental issues. 


You Might Already Be One Yourself

By this point, you may have some idea of what conceptual art is about, whether that be as an installation, a readymade, a performance piece or just an unfinished sculpture. While some or all the factors defining conventional art can be a component of conceptualism, the most important distinction is that in conceptualism the overall visual appeal is not the priority. If you focus on the concept behind the work of art and not the final appearance, you are a conceptual artist. Conceptualism does not follow commercialised versions of art and it breaks creative boundaries by putting a value on the work’s production and processes applied as opposed to the final product. This is to say, the art world is your canvas (metaphorical, of course) and you need not meet a wall of limitations. You have a chance to explore its endless varieties.

About the Author: Rebecca is a second-year student at Swansea University, reading for English Language and TESOL. She takes a primary interest in social, feminist and cultural matters in the U.K. and India. Having taught English abroad, her love for her mother-tongue has soared. She wishes to research the impact English has had on the world (1) as a colonial weapon (2) and explore the emergence of new varieties in former colonial colonies.


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