Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Lack Of Vision In Conceptual Design

The art movement known as conceptual art is said, by most art historians, to have began in the 1960's. However, its roots can be traced back to the Dada Movement, which began in Zurich Switzerland during World War I, and its use of ready-made objects. The idea of conceptual art was born out of the contention that art should examine its own nature. Most art historians would point to works such as Marcel Duchamp's readymades, for instance: the Bicycle Wheel and Fountain, to be the epitome of the conceptual art movement. Duchamp remarked in interviews many times that his selection of his readymades came from a sensation of "visual indifference," and that " was always the idea that came first, not the visual example.” This idea was reinforced in 1967 by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt's “Paragraphs on conceptual art”, where he wrote: “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. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Joseph Kosuth later added in his 1969 essay, Art after Philosophy, that, "With the unassisted Ready-made, art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said. Which means that it changed the nature of art from a question of morphology to a question of function. This change – one from “appearance” to “conception” – was the beginning of “modern” art and the beginning of conceptual art. All art, after Duchamp, is conceptual in nature because art only exists conceptually.”

The problem with conceptual art is that it takes the idea of what is known as “anti-art” to absurd and extreme lengths. It allows it to become pretentious, tasteless, and most of all unoriginal. It has become a “dead art” that offers very little to its audience except for tired nihilistic, in-your-face, shock-and-awe tactics that lack artistic credibility. Nihilism has no place in the art world. Although I do believe that art should have no rules or boundaries, it should be a vehicle of communication used to express meaning, purpose, and intrinsic value. Art should be more than just a concept or idea. Historically, art has been something known to speak to the deepest level of human existence. As Alex Grey wrote in his book The Mission of Art, “When artists give form to revelation, their art can advance, deepen, and potentially transform the consciousness of their community.” Conceptual art, although at times quite intriguing, has the tendency to confuse rather than liberate the human psyche. As a result, it has become fraught with stoic nihilism, which has not furthered our community's ability to evolve. This is due to conceptual art’s tendency to overvalue the idea, or concept, allowing it to take precedence over the rest of the creative process. Consequently, conceptual art has failed humanity on an epic scale, for its lack of spiritual sustenance and artistic vision. This is a travesty. An audience needs more than just the initial idea from the artist. What the audience needs is to witness the evolution of the transcendental visions that are bestowed upon the artistic individual, or for the artist, at least, to capture and preserve it in their body of work. In other words, art should aid in promoting the celebration of life through the entire creative process, not just the concept. It is precisely this problem that collegiate art schools perpetuate when they teach students outdated and banal conceptual art theories. An idea that lacks vision and a lucid message is hollow and worthless to the community. It is because of this that conceptual art has become nothing more than, "aesthetic masturbation without communication".

Art was once an evolutionary process of artistic development which allowed an artist to develop and sharpen their techniques while learning how to utilize their aesthetic knowledge to communicate a personal or, sometimes trans personal, vision. These are the very ideals that collegiate institutions threw away with the inception of conceptual art theory. There is no point in having a vision in conceptual art since the concept is given precedent over the process, the outcome, and the final work. Hence, the reason why many conceptual art installations are not even constructed by the artists who conceive them, but rather hired hands, further contributing to the detachment of the artists to the audience. Terence McKenna once said, "Art's task is to save the soul of mankind…anything else is a dithering while Rome burns.” conceptual art has become precisely the “dithering” that McKenna forewarn us of. Consequently, conceptual art has lost touch with it's audience, leaving the viewer with nothing more than a contrived and undeveloped message, if one even exists at all, and more confused then when they entered the gallery, and likely never to return again, except to propagate a false image of being a civilized intellectual who “gets it”. A work of art should enlighten the viewer by challenging its audience to think differently. It must liberate the mind, not just confuse and shock it. As Keith Haring once said, “I don't think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.” conceptual art does not challenge its audience, but alienates it by mocking and confusing it's viewers with its intriguing, yet vague, and undeveloped ideas.

This may be the reason why the head of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ivan Massow, said that most conceptual art was, "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat" that is, “all hype and no substance.” This honest insight led conceptual artist, and former Turner Prize nominee, Tracey Emin to call for his resignation. However, In defense of Massow, The Stuckist, a International group of painters, responded by also calling it “pretentious” plus, “unremarkable and boring" and even responded creatively by leaving a coffin outside the White Cube gallery, marked "The Death of conceptual art". The Stuckists have asserted that conceptual art was warranted by the work of Marcel Duchamp, but that Duchamp's work was "anti-art by intent and effect". The Stuckists feel that "Duchamp's work was a protest against the stale, unthinking artistic establishment of his day", while "the great, but wholly unintentional, irony of postmodernism is that it is a direct equivalent of the conformist, unoriginal, establishment that Duchamp attacked in the first place." This puts the art students at a disadvantage when it comes to questioning conceptual art theory, because they fear that if they question their professor, they will receive bad marks. As a result, some art students will either drop out, lose their passion by graduation, or develop an unquestioning allegiance to their Alma Mater while perpetuating the dogmatic elitist ideals of the institution. This is a dreadful problem since a true artist, as a rule, should never hold an allegiance to any institution, be it political or educational. It should be the mission, which even the Dadaists; who are responsible for conceptual art have shown, is to question authority unequivocally and the systems of control that govern it.

Teachers who solely teach conceptual art in art schools cheapen the learning experience, not allowing their students to fully develop and evolve an idea to completion naturally. As a result, a lot of the students get frustrated and stressed out by an overwhelming work load that becomes devoid of the passion they once possessed, while being forced to quickly come up with a concept that never has a chance to gain a vision and a concise message. As a result these students spirits are slowly drained of all passion, producing nothing but more conceptual artists who continually perpetuate a “dead” art form. Subsequently, this allows the learning experience tp becomes very narrow and systematic, as conceptual thinking becomes dominate and creative thinking becomes ephemeral. Art schools should be teaching what will become the future of art, not the past. conceptual art has been around for almost a century, and if art teachers believe that conceptual art is the future of art then art will inevitably have no future. It is important to point out that art schools do not solely teach conceptual art theory, but many teachers may have a tendency to encourage their students to think conceptually since it is the art form that dominates the landscape that the students are trying to assimilate into.

If there is a future for art that teachers should take notice of, and maybe even fear, it would probably be the visionary art movement, which, slowly but surely, is starting to gain momentum. Art galleries, such as the Museum of Modern Art, are beginning to take notice of the visionary art movement, which may offer its audience what they’ve been searching for; an art movement with a progressive spiritual message of unity and a interconnectedness with nature. The American visionary art Museum, for its own purposes, defines visionary art as, "art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself." This shift is taking place right now in the contemporary art world. One example of this is the sold out Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Tim Burton has been referred to as a “Visionary Director” a number of times because of his use of Gothic, surrealistic, themes and images. Also his movies include archetypes, a favorite theme of visionary artists, such as the outcast protagonist of Jack Skelington in A Nightmare Before Christmas. A complete retrospective of a visionary art director would have been unthinkable 10-20 years ago, with conceptual art's stranglehold on the Contemporary Art world.

Many artists feel they are dealing with a ever increasing audience of vicarious Philistines who do nothing but binge on fast-food and reality T.V. while basking in the enjoyment of other peoples suffering. Therefore, conceptual art may have inadvertently expressed the vicarious and nihilistic nature that has consumed our culture for the last 50 years, but it has never offered any insight into how to reverse this dehumanization. In contrast, visionary art provides the soul of mankind with the spiritual nourishment that it desires. It is inarguable that the world around us is undergoing monumental changes, both socially and environmentally, which some members of the visionary art movement see as an attempt to prepare humanity for our next evolutionary stage, whether it be physical, psychological or both. Symbolism, Surrealism and Psychedelic Art are considered to be direct precursors to contemporary visionary art. As a Result, visionary artist have been tremendously intrigued by new developments in the fields of psychology and neurology by scientists such a Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Rick Strassman, who are examining the same uncharted territory of human consciousness and imagination practically parallel to the visionary art movement.

V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein began to explore this in their paper “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience“, which presents what may be the, “first experiments ever designed to empirically investigate the question of how the brain responds to art.” It is possible that some artists may take offense to scientists trying to objectively examine the subjective nature of art, but the insight that has been provided by these experiments has given us a preliminary understanding of what may separate artists from the rest of the population neurologically. And how the brain physiologically responds to the aesthetics of form and color, which Kandinsky once proposed as the “two weapons” that “painting has at her disposal.” Their research has begun to provide actual answers to the age old philosophical question “What is Art?” by attempting to discover, “universal laws of art.” What Ramachandran came up with was what he calls the, “Eight laws of artistic experience”. In the essay Ramachandran remarked that, “Although we initially proposed these ‘laws’ in a playful spirit, we were persuaded that there is enough merit in them to warrant publication in a philosophical journal. If the essay succeeds in stimulating a dialogue between artists, visual physiologists and evolutionary biologists, it will have adequately served its purpose.” Ramachandran study of the human brain has also lead him to refute the idea of C.P Snow that the when it comes to the two cultures of the humanities and science “never the twain shall meet.” He demonstrated this at a recent Ted talk with his lecture entitled “The neurons that shaped civilization” where he demonstrated that, “within the human brain lies an interface” which can do precisely what Snow said should not be done. Ramachandran study of how the brain responds to art has even enhanced his own appreciation of visual art. The discoveries of these scientists has been fueling the fire of interest in minds all over the world. And what is being proposed within art and science is that understanding consciousness maybe the Holy Grail; to fully understand human culture and civilization. visionary art points us in that direction, which makes it more relevant and contemporary then conceptual art.

If we were to go back to the inception of conceptual art it would not have started during or after World War II, as most art historians contend, but prior. The ready-mades, which were made famous by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, date back to 1917 with Fountain. Therefore, An Art movement that has roots which can be traced back almost a century can hardly still be considered contemporary. This does not cheapen the importance of such artistic seers as Marcel Duchamp, but reinforces the artistic virtue of originality. As Josie Appleton wrote in his article conceptual art: What's the idea?, “What Duchamp did at least had the virtue of being original - up until that point, the issue of how we define art had not been questioned in such a dramatic way.” However, “Among those who followed him, this game of naming art objects became a little tired. Rather than explore ways of representing experiences or ideas, it became a matter of showing up the arbitrariness of systems of naming: presenting a plastic cup and calling it 'tree', for example.”

This age of Postmodernism and deconstructionism has totally baffled anyone trying to gain a deeper appreciation of art. To design a work with the wholly intention to offend the viewer is fundamentally different than designing a work of art that calls for a convention to be question. The difference of the matter lies solely with the action of intent. A conceptual artists who intended goal is solely to offend the viewer seems fundamentally pointless. It seems as though that the whole idea behind conceptual art is that the intent of a work is either secondary or even meaningless, and that the original idea, or concept, is the only thing that matters. The artist is a unique individual who is praised for their ability to question everything, especially conventions, but great artists, as a virtue, should try to evoke the same questioning in the viewer in order to evolve an idea within a society. If the idea is the only thing that matters, than any evolution of that idea would seem to be blasphemy to the conceptual artist. This presents a problem since most of the people who want to appreciate art are ridiculed by the conceptual artist for wanting to gain a transcendental shift in conciseness.

Conceptual art has lead humanity astray, and down a spiritually blind ally of nihilism and disenchantment. Offering us no glimpse of our collective future, and affording us no remedy to our dehumanization. In a lecture about creativity, Terrence Mckenna summarized the history of art, and the evolution from the archaic societies that first utilized it. Mckenna went on to point out the shamanic element of the artists who, much like the shaman, emerged himself in the visual realms of consciousness and brings back the artifacts of the imagination in the form of objects of art: painting, sculptures, clay pots ect. It is this mystical element, an alchemical experimentation with the irrational and unknown, as Mckenna stated, that has either been, “suppressed or forgotten.”. This fascination with the mystical has reared it head sporadically through art history since the Renaissance, first with the Romantics, and then again later on in the 20th century with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Art, like music, may have may themes and stories running through it, but like music what is always present in the highest level of art is an emotional resonance that should spur an Apocalypse of one's soul. As we speak, the world is undergoing a psychological apocalypse that is resonating on the deepest level of humanity, the world soul. It seems as though the world is collapsing, because all of the things that have even been given value in our society are beginning to be exposed as mere concepts. Money, laws, rights and the human ego; these are nothing more that concepts of human imagination and therefore have no basis in the real world of nature. It seems inevitable that conceptual art be subject to the same observation and should be allowed to be questioned. It has accomplished what it could for art history, and should be celebrated as it is added to the annals of history, but not until it releases it's grip around the throat of the art world.

Visionary artists, such as Alex Grey, are now using universal religious symbols and themes in order to unify the world in a search for the similarities linking all world religions, in hopes of promoting religious open-mindedness. conceptual art offers no evolutionary spring board to catapult our species to where we should be at this stage in our evolution, no longer making it relevant to “intelligent civilized humans in the twenty first century”. Consequently, if the institution of the collegiate art school does not undergo a long overdue evolution of its own artistic ideals and virtue, it will inevitably crumble with the rest of the world. What art schools should be doing is encouraging their students to develop and pursue their own personal vision, and also encourage artists to work together to create a collective vision to liberate humanity from the clutches of convention. It seems disingenuous for art schools to encourage students to conform their art to whatever happens to be the most successful art movement at that time. This kind of thinking is what has made the art world so stagnate recently. Some art teachers must relies that they are doing the art world an incredible disservice when they elect to create successful artists instead of encouraging artists to be unique and novel. It seems as though some teachers are robing their students of the power to insight change that can transform the art world, by teaching them that this is how art world is, and there is nothing that you can do about it. It is a travesty that the art world has become more concerned with who you know and what school you went to then what you can actually do. The art school, much like all collegiate institutions, has become first a formerly a business, and like any other college you must convince perspective students and their parents, who are most likely footing the bill, that going to this particular school is a investment in the success of the student. Thus perpetuating the American ideal that success can only be measured in dollars.

One of the greatest skills of artists is to think creatively, and what I mean by that is artists are not afraid to try new things or make mistakes, therefore novelty is not only the essence of the creative process, but the essential provocation of the universe. Many artists in the past have felt a deep connection to the universe and that if you are doing the will of the universe you can do no wrong. The idea of a mistake is just another construct of the conceptual mind and should be thoroughly renounced by artists. The late great Jackson Pollock believed their were no such thing as mistakes, which made it possible for him to suspend any interest to "do things right". conceptual art elevates and worships the Ego of the individual artists, and disregards the tao of the universe which makes this all possible in the first place. Artists are the cosmonaut that we rely on to give us a deeper appreciation and understanding of the universe. they present the individual as a microcosm that will lead the way. V.S. Ramachandran had stated that, “it has been calculated that the number of permutations and combinations of brain activity exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.” I believe this makes exploration of the inner world just as important as exploration of the outer world of deep space, and that it is time for the artists to reclaim their birth right and unite with the universe in order to expose humanity to what it finds most difficult to confront, and that is exploring the Terra Incognito of the inner, unconscious worlds of the human mind. This is precisely the virtue which unites the visionary art world.

-The Dead Guy


  1. It was a very good article, it was a pleasure to read it, thanks.

    Tehran Stuckist

  2. Thank you for writing this article.