Can ideas be beautiful?

Following in the footsteps of Conceptual Art pioneers and their predecessor ‘provocateur par excellence’ Marcel Duchamp, Stefan Brüggemann’s works offer intellectual rather than aesthetic stimuli, spurring zealous philosophical debate — ‘Is this art?’

Stefan Brüggemann, ‘I can’t explain and I won't even try’, 2003.

Stefan Brüggemann, I can’t explain and I won’t even try, 2003

Brüggemann’s text-pieces convey the artist’s idle thoughts and in farcical manner comment on the art industry and contemporary society. Although they hardly have the same anarchic power as would have had Barry’s or Weiner’s text-pieces nearly 50 years ago when they began to “expand the palace gates of high-art” (expression by Yvonne Rainer), Brüggemann’s punchy lines still carry a force to incite Duchampian enquiry into what constitutes a work of art. Confronted with Brüggemann’s work we attempt to unravel why the author is frustrating our expectations by failing to provide aesthetic pleasure we legitimately expect to find in the gallery context. It is in answering this question, suggest writers Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens in chapter 4 of ‘Philosophy and Conceptual Art’, that we engage with the point, or multiple points of the conceptual work.

Robert Barry's text-piece, 1969.

Robert Barry’s text-piece, 1969.

Conceptual works such as Brüggemann’s are still widely incomprehensible and only with a great dose of skepticism allowed under the label ‘works of art’; nevertheless, they have secured their place within the conventional and mainstream gallery milieu. This is a huge shift from the 1960s when mainstream galleries had zero understanding for this type of conceptual art, and suggests the “palace gates of high-art” have been broadened and the conceptual art is inching from stunned ‘Is this Art?’ to enlightened (or at least capitulated) ‘This is art!’. The acceptance of ‘This is art!’ category can be achieved only if we welcome the transformed experiential relation conceptual art offers between the viewer and the object of art. One will not be able to appreciate Brüggemann’s work (nor consider it worth the art label) if seeking traditional retinal stimuli. The type of engagement Brüggemann’s pieces offer is of the intellectual sort. In other words, Brüggemann’s text-pieces are not aesthetically pleasing but, if anything, mentally interesting. They provoke intellectual rather than aesthetic inquiry between viewer and the piece; they are the kind of works that speak not to one’s senses but to one’s mind.

The question that, however, remains unanswered (ever since Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ in 1917) is whether this intellectual value gives the work aesthetic value, and more crucially whether the aesthetic value is even necessary? “Can we disengage our view of good art from the notion of beauty?” ask Goldie and Schellekens. In the same book (“Philosophy and Conceptual Art”), philosopher Peter Lamarque asks whether “the ideas at the heart of [conceptual] works are capable of having some aesthetic value. Are ideas, the ‘material’ of conceptual art, capable of being beautiful?”

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world when he placed the 'Fountain' in the gallery.

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world when he placed the ‘Fountain’ in the gallery.

To measure the value of conceptual art on the same scale one would use in the case of traditional art forms would miss the point altogether, for the very attempt of conceptual art is to evade the traditional type of appeal, and to displease and agitate the conventional view of what is beautiful and worthy of being called art. “Much conceptual art rebels against the idea that art must be pleasing, easy to look at, beautiful and ordered and unified. It seeks out the ugly, the repulsive, the ephemeral, the shocking, as well as cheap materials, kitsch, the banal, the boring, the ordinary, objects that are commonplace,” writes Lamarque. There is no reason, however, as another Conceptual Art veteran Sol LeWitt explains, “to suppose that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one […] is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.” While Conceptual Art might be against an aesthetically pleasing experience, it is for an intellectually pleasing experience and this is the merit upon which it seeks to be appreciated.


3 thoughts on “Can ideas be beautiful?

  1. I really appreciate your article, I agree I think conceptual art is more about the ideas behind it rather than the object itself. I also like how the frame of the doorway is comprised of what looks like three doors!

  2. Pingback: Art criticism – judging art by its intelligence | Art Sociology

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