According to Verwoert (2005), the debate over whether conceptual art or medium specific art is better still continues to this day. One of the reasons it is frequently debated is that "an increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years." This has caused art production critics and the field in general to once again ask the question as to whether there is one type of methodology that should be considered the best to use, and whether another should be deemed unnecessary? It becomes necessary to compare and contrast the two for their aesthetic value and to understand why such discussion continues to this day as to which is the better of the two.
What is Conceptual Art?
Conceptual art is defined in most instances as art that draws from a particular idea rather than having any kind of concern for the aesthetics of the work. Conceptualism, as it is often referred to, does not draw from the conventional perspectives on art, but rather evokes a practice whereby the artist plans beforehand what they will be showcasing in the piece. In his lecture on conceptual art, Sol Lewitt writes the following about conceptual artists. These individuals are "mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach. [Where] formal art is essentially rational," the conceptual artist can change his or her mind even if an idea has been conceived before beginning to work on a particular piece. Lewitt continues by stating that "the artist's will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His wilfulness may only be ego." As such, the main idea or rather conceptualization behind conceptual art is that it is methodical, but pushes the boundaries of what the general population has come to understand about art, and its forms. The traditional techniques are discarded for more ‘out there’ ones or rather non-conventional practices.
An example of conceptual art can be seen in Willem De Kooning's Erased De Kooning Drawing, which raised a significant amount of eyebrows by art intellectuals as to whether it was truly art. The drawing forces the observer to "consider whether erasing another artist's work [is indeed] creative." Another drawing that has often been noted as impressive in the area of conceptual art is Yves Klein's Aerostatic Sculpture. The sculpture is roughly 1001 balloons that are blue in color and are shot into the sky. Klein's work, The Void, also is noteworthy in the area of conceptual art in that he articulated that the exhibition was invisible and the proof behind this was proverbially in the pudding as the piece reflected an empty room.
It would seem as though conceptual artists draw from an idea or concept in their mind and then roll with that idea or concept. The criticism of it then is based solely on the observers’ ability to see what the artist has seen in their mind in a particular sculpture, painting or piece. Conceptual art is seen to defy the very nature of what art stands for because artists do not necessarily use brushes, stencil, pastels, etc. to concoct their creations. Instead, it may be photographs that are distorted, objects that echo something extraordinary or changes made to other works with the intention of creating an entirely new idea or concept.
What is Medium Specific Art?
Medium specific art is defined as artwork that that utilizes certain materials that are manipulated in order to provide a particular style. The artwork's success or rather observance for being successful is reliant on the properties of the medium that is selected. Essentially, the basis for medium specific art is the type of material that is selected and the presentation that the artist is able to provide using that medium. Krauss (1999) writes that medium-specific art is much more concerned with being contemporary. The medium "functions against the grain of its earlier [functionality], becoming under precisely the guise of its own obsolescence, a means of what has to be called an act of reinventing the medium." Essentially, the medium and it selection are what will be telling the story in the piece.
The more unique or stylish the medium selected, the more purposeful the art may be seen by viewers. Medium specific artists embrace the very nature of the pastel, or the clay, or the paintbrush rather than rejecting it or allowing it to fade into the background of the overall tone and perspective they plan on giving the work. While ideas and concepts do exist within the context of medium-specific art, its depth is found in the choice of the materials, whether raw or otherwise that are used.
Verwoert (2005) explains much of the discussion surrounding art (conceptual versus medium-specific) is centered on whether painting should be considered separate from other types of mediums. On the one hand, if paintings are perceived to be conceptual art then it does not matter if a separation is necessary. "Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art." In other words, for paintings that are considered to be conceptual art, the meaning behind the medium is irrelevant. The most important thing is the idea and the depth at which the artist expressed the idea.
Conversely, Verwoert (2005) identifies that the answer can be yes in terms of isolating paintings, but this is if the artist’s intention is to have a medium-specific piece. Specifically, there is "enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when the art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium." When a medium is expressly chosen and the artist works with that medium, then it is perfectly within the process of conversation for there to be a separation of that work from other types of mediums, or at a minimum to be understood.
Art is about context, for the most part, and so the more logic behind the work that the artist can conceive to occur within the observer the better. If this means using a specific type of medium, and subsequently separating the medium from others to make a point, then so be it. If both rationales are to be taken as correct, or relevant to the discussion and overall comparisons of the two types of art, then why is there a debate?
Much of the debate appears to be related to the idea that concept art is reactionary and not necessarily a definitive area of production within the creative field. It renders the idea between the medium and the art null and void, because the artist opts to draw from their own idea or concept, first as opposed to selecting the medium beforehand. Verwoert (2005) puts forward that conceptual art challenges or rather presents a challenge to the idea that art must be one way or the other. Using the Krauss essay, he writes that there is a need to dismiss the very fundamental nature of medium-specific art because it limits the artist's concept or idea. It does not bode well for the artist to be boxed in through abiding by a specific medium based on Krauss’ argument. There is place or rather importance for both art forms, if artists are to take the Krauss argument to heart. It is not a one way or the other type of ideal for the art world.
The problem, though, according to Verwoert (2005) is that when conceptual art is debated against medium-specific, it is often rejected for being meaningless. Critics of conceptual art believe that there is no realism behind what is being conveyed by the artist. Using the previously mentioned Klein work, The Void, the idea that he presented was that his paintings were invisible. The notion behind this on its surface seems ludicrous because how can art be invisible. However, by taking conceptualism and its definition for what has been expressed and explained about it, the observer has no choice but to accept that this is the artist's concept or idea. There is no reason to reject Klein’s piece or others in a similar vein simply because it boggles the mind as to being credible or logical. The entire foundation of conceptual art is centered on being illogical, and instead giving credibility to the idea or concept rather than its rationality.
Verwoert (2005) goes on to state that conceptual art is post-modern and to be overly critical of it is unnecessary and unneeded. "Those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, not only condemn their practice to [the] historical, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market." In essence, the critical nature of art, more specifically conceptual art, cannot be overlooked simply because observers and art critics alike do not view it as artistic. Conceptual art removes the so-called limitations of being media-specific and the overall laws of the system of art. To be clear, each type of art is significance to the field, and the sooner critics and historians accept this, the better it will be for artists that are more and more gravitating away from the conventional mediums.
It would appear as though there is place for conceptual art and medium-specific art within the field. Much of the debate stems from the challenges and lack of consideration that those within the art field have about conceptual art and its place. Many art historians and intellectuals seem to have believed that conceptualism died shortly after it was born, but the artform has been revived in recent years – which is what brought about said debate. It is critical for artists to utilize their creativity the way they see fit and if it means the usage of conceptualism to project and convey their ideals, then so be it. The idea that conceptual art is not just as important or relevant as medium-specific art lies primarily in those who do not consider or choose to believe that everything deemed creative does not require logic or factuality behind it. As the adage goes, what the mind conceives, it can achieve, even if that means something abstract or non-conventional.
Krauss, R. (1999). Reinventing the Medium. Critical Inquiry, 25(2), pp.289-305.
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Saylor Academy. (2016). Conceptual art. [online] Available at: http://saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/conceptual-art.pdf [Accessed 10 Apr. 2016].
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