Essays on Art by Hugh Moss

Conceptual Art

November 2023


Until the twentieth century conceptual art was not even mooted in the West. In so far as it could be said to have existed in some pre-natal form, it was limited to the preparation of ‘real’ art. The theoretical framework for conceiving of it as a viable art-form didn’t exist. It arises as a natural outcome only in a fully emancipated, mature aesthetic culture - a transition to which only occurred in the West in the twentieth century. Accompanying that transition, another natural outcome is the shift from object- to process-based aesthetic theory, without which there is no conceptual art as a separate entity. The art object itself, despite having been ‘conceptualized’ in the mind of the artist, is emphatically not conceptual as an object - it exists. But in process-based aesthetics, with its focus on the meaning of art rather than on the objects that convey it, the idea of conceptual art arises naturally. The inevitability of conceptual art in a fully mature aesthetic culture is both a given and an indication of maturity.

How it is realized, however, is, in the short term, culture-specific. In the West, still carrying the baggage of centuries of servitude to our other main vehicles of evolving consciousness, it was conceived of as a separate, ideally object-free art-form. Ironically, but inevitably, it was approached in the same rational manner favoured since the Greeks by attempting to isolate the idea, separate it as a fragment from all other presumed art-fragments. It became an alternative to music, or painting, or literature. A similar approach ruled for a while in the visual arts in the inclination to approach the basic languages of visual art separately – subject matter, line, form, colour and texture; to explore each to a logical conclusion. With form, we can see the end-result of this as the blank white canvas of the mid-century. This was a cul-de-sac for visual art, since a school of blank-white-canvas artists would only be viable in a satirical novel – a draft of which I wrote twenty-five years ago in order to explore the absurdities to which it led. But it was an invitation to conceptual art as a viable separate endeavour, since very next step was to do away with the canvas completely. Puzzling at the time to many, even to art-world insiders, this led to an important innovation for western modernism: conceptual art.

In China, by the sixth century BCE when art became fully recognized in its highest role as self-realization, conceptual art was, like abstraction, gradually woven into the broader tapestry of the aesthetic process. There was no need for it to be a separate, distinct fragment, it was immediately an integral part of the process of art. The moment art is accepted, above all else, as in the service of evolving consciousness, the distinctions that might ‘define’ conceptual art, evaporate. It just becomes a natural part of the act of communication; no label required. Art as a whole became integrally conceptual; the concept being that it was the most efficient way of evolving consciousness by aspiring to self-realization. Every time a handscroll was unrolled, the concept of self-realization through its many layers of meaning was well understood, transcending the art object itself.

Once the overarching concept of art is embedded, the distinction between what is and is not conceptual becomes irrelevant. All fully emancipated art is fundamentally conceptual. As it should be, even if it results in a physical art-object to which we respond - conceptually.

Had I just publish a blank sheet of paper for this essay it would simply have demonstrated the problem involved in trying to isolate the idea of conceptual art. It might have been amusing as a take on our western attempts to fragment the process of art in order to comprehend it, but by falling back on a sheet of paper to proclaim my conceptual-art street-cred, it would have contradicted my main conclusion.

The conundrum of the western approach to conceptual art is summed up by the recent case of Danish artist, Jens Haaning, characterized as a ‘conceptual artist.’ He was sued by the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, northern Denmark, after responding to a rather complicated commission involving both a fee and a loan by submitting two empty frames to the institution in 2021. It is not made clear who filled the frames with blank white rectangles, the artist or the institution, but the artist did add a title: Take the Money and Run. The details need not concern us here, the point is that Haaning exposed the conundrum of the western approach to conceptual art by presenting anything at all in time for the planned exhibition. To present a framed, totally white ‘canvas’ not only exposes the contradiction of an object-free art form it, it exposes the dilemma of the modern western approach to its revolution in the arts with its lingering tendency to conflate art-object and art-process.

          Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, November 2023.

Back to main menu