The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie

Back to Prose


(ArtWork 75 - August/September 1995)

It's surprising what happens when you confess to not knowing something that you thought the whole world knew - except yourself. If, in seeking elucidation, you have the courage to admit this ignorance it becomes a golden opportunity for others, who also don't know, to attempt to score points by waffling that they knew all the time. An over-emphasis on unconvincing pseudo-definitions is the usual give away that indicates that they are in the same leaky boat, and so the enquirer has to seek more watertight sources.

If pressed for a genuine answer by a genuine enquirer who genuinely seeks genuine knowledge, the more honest amongst us will wearily admit to having kept their uncertainty strictly private, and had long thought they'd been solitary in their ignorance. The discovery of other such uninformed companions relieves the pent-up tension, and to have it confirmed that there is more ignorance abroad than you thought, is a great comfort. And that's how it was with me and 'Conceptual Art'.

I am happy to share with you the results of my extended random poll, conducted amongst fairly knowledgeable arty folk, as to what they thought was meant by 'Conceptual Art'? Bearing in mind that they could be telling lies, the quick definition was that it was... (I) 'ideas-based art'. Others went deeper and said it was... (ii) 'art where the idea is of more importance than the object'... And the cynics cynically said it could be... (iii) 'objects struggling to be more important than the idea'. This analysis seems to suggest that the art would be better art if it wasn't made.


An overlooked definition is there for all of us to see in Chambers English Dictionary... 'Conceptual Art'... 'concentrating not so much on a completed image as on the means of producing an image or concept'. This would seem to allow the validity of all ideas from Leonardo's sketch-books to wild intentions biro-ed on the back of wet beer mats. This is great for those of us who are fed up making things anyway.

Pardon me if I'm wrong, but whether you make things or don't make things, am I wrong in thinking that all art seems to start with an idea - even if you don't know where it came from and even if the idea is not to have an idea? The free-for-all of 'ideas based art' seems OK to me, as long as one idea is not declared to be the only one that matters, and becomes bossy by insisting that this is how all ideas should happen. This can make non-followers feel rotten about having the affrontery to actually pursue very different ideas. Zooming in on a single focus surely precludes the development of all manner of ideas to allow the possibility for everything and anything to happen including nothing. Nothing of course is not quite nothing, for a conceptual nothing can be used to construct a conceptual CV.

The philosophical American avant-gardist Joseph Kossuth says something like this... "It is abundantly clear by now that we do not need to have an object to have an art work"!

If Joseph is right and his idea catches on, we may as well fill a skip with hogs-hair brushes and half-squeezed tubes of oil-colour, send sculptors' buzz-boxes and chainsaws to car boot sales, and Damien Hirst will have to take a bad price for his formaldehyde. Only CVs will survive.

Cash derived from the sale of these obsolete tools of trade could pay for plumbing jacuzzis into redundant studios where the artists can flop, like old Archimedes, and think up ideas. When they get a concept, they should jump up, shout 'Eureka' - then do nothing about it. There could be big exhibitions about not much. A new 'jacuzzi movement' could herald the leisure age of the arts - how's at for a concept!

It's all a bit like the Arts Council which, come to think of it (and do no more than that) is already conceptual. I've always wondered why a big inverted 'V' replaces a normal 'A' in their logo. Note that the line that bridges the middle of the 'A' is missing. Is this to encourage us to be conceptual?

Another line across another bridge was recently in danger of going missing. Someone once had a concept for building a big sculpture called the 'Forth Railway Bridge', then they spoilt the idea by actually building it. The good news for the conceptualists is that the bridge is not all that well maintained, and if deterioration continues, it could collapse into being a concept once again.

There's only one snag - you can't run trains over a concept.

Essay reproduced from My Words by George Wyllie, with permission.

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