Conceptual Art vs Greenberg: clash in means, not the ends

Lawrence Weiner, As Long As It Lasts, 1992. Visual statement.

Lawrence Weiner, As Long As It Lasts, 1992. Visual statement.

“Ideas alone can be works of art,”[1] proclaimed American Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt in his 1968 Sentences on Conceptual Art, summoning up a new stream of thought that emerged in 1960s America[2] as a reaction to Clement Greenberg’s insistence on formalism and opticality, a stance that art should be experienced solely through ‘visual stimuli’ and in a disinterested manner.[3] In an anarchic Dada style,[4] Conceptual Art (as this new stream came to be known) proposed “perceptual withdrawal”[5] – instead of producing ‘sacred’ and valuable art objects, they offered only brief linguistic description of their ideas or simple visual statements such as Lawrence Weiner’s As Long As It Lasts (Figure 1). If a physical object of some sort was present it was either perplexingly bare or badly executed and aesthetically unappealing. What is more, these artworks mixed a variety of media (including everyday objects and all sorts of rubbish), thus attacking Greenberg’s “quest for medium-specific purity.”[6] Purposefully provocative, conceptual artworks encouraged a renewed enquiry into what art is or should be.

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Impermanence

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Impermanence has long been of interest to artists. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, symbols of vanitas and momentum mori (associated with still life painting) signified fragility of life and the earthly pleasures. The opulent items such as exotic food, ecstatic vines, and luscious flower arrangements were all displayed as reminders of inevitable decay and brevity of material possessions. In the twenty-first century, the idea of impermanence is explored in significantly different forms and mediums but the core message remains (more-less) the same.

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Celebrity Culture

LEFT: Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, 1967 US, screenprint. RIGHT: Torii Kiyonobu, The actor Ichikawa Danjuro II as Soga no Juro, 1733 Japan, handcolored woodblock print. Japanese artist Kiyonobu was known for depiction of famous people; mainly actors and geishas who rose to the status of celebrity in the 18th century Japanese society.

LEFT: Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, 1967 US, screenprint. RIGHT: Torii Kiyonobu, The actor Ichikawa Danjuro II as Soga no Juro, 1733 Japan, handcolored woodblock print. Japanese artist Kiyonobu was known for depiction of famous people; mainly actors and geishas who rose to the status of celebrity in the 18th century Japanese society.

Gaze, Curiosity, Voyerism

Left: Nicolas Maes- The Eavesdropper-1657 Dutch Golden Age-oil on canvas

Private life becomes a public life, a product for consumption, a spectacle. LEFT: Nicolas Maes, The Eavesdropper, 1657 Dutch Golden Age, oil on canvas. RIGHT: Romance of the Western Chamber: Oriele reads a letter from scholar Zhang, 1638 Japan, woodblock print