Run a mile from conceptual art

Run a mile from conceptual art.

That’s what I decided a long time ago, when it first appeared in galleries either side of 1970. At the ICA in 1969, and then the Tate in 1972. Shortly afterwards (1973-5) I was commissioning editor for art and architecture at Penguin Books, and maybe I do remember the ICA exhibition, but more out of frustration. Too damned intangible. I was used to artefacts – I loved Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and especially Anthony Caro – out there, forcing a response – the form demanding a  response, and the ideas behind the form likewise. Richard Hamilton and David Hockney were flexing their muscles, tangible, colourful. Bridget Riley dazzled me.

And then there was conceptual art.

Curiously, those post 1968 years seem in retrospect little drab. (I’d self-defined myself as a hippy, and maybe it was always going to be downhill when that world fell apart.) I’ve some memories in vivid colour, and we walked on the moon in 1969 (via TV screens), and experimental art was everywhere, but the first flush had passed, it was getting more self-referential, and fashion and contrivance and posturing were beginning to characterise art and music. Rebelling against the last lot of rebels, even before they’d stopped being rebels. And I think I got a little bored.

But all that said, conceptual art intrigues me. I run a mile, but then I stop, retrace my steps and ask myself – what was that I didn’t see? ….

Art which puts ideas before actuality. Ideas are full of possibilities, they may be realised or they may not be realised. In the Tate exhibition there’s a half-full glass of water half way up the wall: it’s an oak tree argues Michael Craig-Martin, and in the interview that’s produced nearby he explains why. The idea before the form, and the idea has the potential to be – anything.

Keith Arnatt is actually eating his words, written on slips of paper, as revealed in a series of photos. But does he actually eat them? The idea, the process is there, in front of us, but the paper is still there. He disappears into the ground feet first in another series of photos, so the subject, if the subject is himself, is no longer there. I like Keith Arnatt.

Likewise Richard Long, walking up and down to make his own path through the grass. Marking out on a map his own walks on Dartmoor, then removing the underlying map but not his marked paths. Walking every path is a defined area of maybe ten miles within one county – I forget which, but it makes for an intriguing pattern. He’s also out in the fresh air. That helps.

But they were into philosophy and linguistics, or some of them (not least Victor Burgin), and they had a wonderfully obsessive journal which ran for four years, Art-Language, and the language is self-referentially repetitively obscure, and it continues for pages. Parody, and self-parody, but – walls of closely printed words that challenge the eyesight, and cabinets of the same – well, God help us all.

And nearby, a mirror, encouraging us to look beyond ourselves, and a black painting, painted over ten times in black, so it’s ten paintings in one – but we have to be told it’s ten paintings. There’s a pile of oranges (take one) and a dimpled do-not-touch heap of sand – full of significance.

There were video and performances and sound games at the time, not here though, and I remember the few I encountered with a bit of a shudder. They didn’t carry their justifications lightly. The Guardian reviewer uses the word hilarious and crazy referring to a conceptual art retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2000: maybe a few are in retrospect, gathered together, but appearing in a drib here and a drab there they didn’t seem that way at the time.

Gilbert and George appear, in a glass case: they weren’t officially part of the conceptual art movement.

So too pages from Studio International magazine, where Charles Harrison, curator of the ICA exhibition and much else, was deputy editor. Charles edited a book on 20th century English art for me at Penguin – I think it’s still in print. He was a good guy to talk to. The other art historians I met at the time were in the great and good category, and Charles was unkempt, straightforward and down-to-earth. And I think (!) he loved it all.

On the positive side, near the end of the exhibition, and near the end of its lifespan as a ‘movement’, it gets more political. I think they’d thought of conceptual art as a rebellion against of art as object, art out there, art as something unto itself – I think they’d thought art by getting away from often-expensive artefacts and connecting with ideas would somehow become art for the ordinary man and woman. Instead it became a clever game, and out of it came some clever and memorable images, as with Keith Arnatt, but it didn’t connect.

A series of photographs either side of 1972 depict the troubles in Northern Ireland, with equal treatment for Catholics, Protestants – and the army. There’s Homeworkers, a collage which gives visual form to the low wages and exploitation of people all but obliged by companies to  work from home. And above all Twin Towers and the focus in a related work on how an elderly lady, an elderly widow, infirm and hardly able to walk, survives in a tower block, and the accommodations she must make. This for me is art for any time – and art for our own time. Drab and serious and low on aesthetic value, but art that graphically brings home what deprivation and disability can be like.

It’s true of most art, most art movements: endless experiments, wrong directions and wrong turnings, but just a few artworks break though, define the way we look at things. Harder when by definition they don’t want to be visual, they want to do away with all points of reference – take it off the wall, or the floor, and dump it – I was going to say firmly, but tenuously would be better – in your head.

Some artworks do deserve to survive.  But – in the end – this exhibition hovers on the edge of boredom. And maybe that’s not the curator’s fault.

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