On Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Lack of it in Conceptual Art. / by Chris Hall

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art), Fountaine, 1917

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art), Fountaine, 1917

“For more than four centuries, the idea of “making it beautiful” has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular - the lover's machine gun and the prisoner's joy – the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route, without a detour through church and state, from the image to the individual.  Now that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art – no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into vernacular memory, no longer welcome even to try.”  Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.

For many years, while in my youth, I denied the importance of beauty when making a work of art, slightly favoring content over form.  It was a mistake on my part, as I tended to conflate notions of conventional beauty (think 19th century academic art) with generalized aesthetics.  But I've since learned that beauty, even conventional beauty, can be a useful tool (like humor) to smuggle in controversial/problematic ideas to an audience who may not be willing to receive a "message" willingly.  Aesthetics puts the sugar in the cough syrup, essentially.  More than just a tool for art for art's sake beauty (which indeed, does serve a purpose – healing the wounded psyche, so often marred by modern life, is a noble use for beauty and for art), aesthetics is a useful communication tool; it is useful in that it can attract and advertise ideas (as opposed to products).  Aesthetics can attract a viewer toward an artwork, and if properly deployed, its nuances can help convey a message, a feeling, an idea – communicate.  If art could be said to have a prime directive, then it might be the need to effectively communicate to others.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

Again, I am not limiting myself to just notions of conventional beauty (what I may find beautiful, others may not, and visa versa) , but to aesthetics as a whole.  Beauty is guided (though not governed) by aesthetics – the kinds of things you learn about in foundations classes (color, contrast, repetition, etc).  Aesthetics, when learned and used, can be an effective tool in communication.  Increasingly, however, art (most especially contemporary conceptual art) is divorcing itself all together from aesthetics.  Without aesthetics, however, there is nothing to draw a viewer in, and nothing to help clarify meaning and message.

Maurizio Bolognini, Programmed Machines, 1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Maurizio Bolognini, Programmed Machines, 1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Perhaps we can partly forgive a conceptual work if the message or proposed idea is worth examining and to our benefit, but post-modern skepticism and pessimism often denies us this, giving us instead a smug, nihilist perspective, self-congratulatory stuff, and stuff too reliant on being cool and clever.  On a good day we might get art with a simple, pat, feel good message, but that kind of art will only get you so far.  Rarely do I see any contemporary conceptual art that actually challenges or inspires.   Instead we get theses and investigations.  All of this, of course, assumes that the conceptual art effectively communicates its message, and too often, it does not.  Too often these works rely on a supporting artist's or critic's text in order to explain the intent (and without the use of aesthetics to draw a person in, the viewer's curiosity to even want to investigate those texts is voided).  But let us suppose that viewer's curiosity is piqued, and they choose to seek out and read the supporting text – what might they expect to get in return?   They can expect to be rebuffed by a wall of vague, cryptic, elitist International Art English jargon.  The ability to effectively communicate in art is important if one hopes to have any kind positive effect on the world.  More often than not, though, contemporary conceptual art fails to meet even this very basic requirement.   Supporters of contemporary conceptual art practices tend to be academic elitist cognoscenti,  left brain types who distrust poetry, more statisticians than artists, they are those who can dispense with beauty, who choose to speak the puffed up jargon filled International Art English gibberish as a means to impress their peers rather than to clarify their argument, and they are not willing to condescend themselves to speak in a language everyone can understand, perhaps for fear that their argument might be exposed as a fraud.  Their world view is head heavy and lacks a visceral life body, and for all their pluralist rhetoric, they think nothing of openly mocking art that doesn't fit into their world view (no-no buzzwords include:  universal, heroic, individualism, catharsis, beauty, originality, self-discovery . . . incidentally, all things championed by Modernism).  It is an exclusive rather than an inclusive practice.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from The Crap Show, 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from The Crap Show, 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

I realize I am being very judgmental here and making sweeping generalizations, so I would like to point out that unlike my many other conceptual art detractors (notably my Stuckist brothers and sisters), I am not completely anti-conceptual art (many Stuckists will go so far as to even condemn abstract painting).  I am, however, against the failure of art to properly communicate  – and the nihilist, skeptical, pessimistic (or pat) messages often contained within them.  Beauty and aesthetics are equally as important as content and message; ideally, good art must have a balance of head, heart, and body.  I do believe that it is possible for conceptual art (with the aid of aesthetics) to communicate more effectively to an audience beyond elitists in the know, and to do so with challenging and inspiring content.  Sadly, in my experience at least, those instances are few, and far in-between.