Answers to Teacher in the Hague on Conceptual Art

Home / Education / ARChives / Discussions

Answers to Teacher in the Hague on Conceptual Art


Published on before 2005

[Editor's Note: Comments in regular text are by Fred Ross, comments in italics are by Giacomo di Lindini, bold comments are by Fred Ross again.]

A work of art is the selective recreation of reality for the purpose of communicating some aspect of what it means to be human or how we perceive the world.

But what if there are better, more efficient ways of “communicating some aspect of what it means to be human” even within the realm of art, than a process of “selective recreation of reality”? What if these better ways can easily be achieved by defining and redefining the existential values of art itself, like the first modernists did?

If there were better and more efficient ways of “communicating some aspect of what it means to be human” that would be true . But saying the early modernists achieved that does not make it so . They achieved nothing of the kind . What do you think it means to define and redefine the existential values of art? They are no more than meaningless words your are using and then acting as though they have some special meaning…which they do not.

But, it is worth repeating, there are plenty of beautiful objects or scenes in nature that are aesthetic without being works of art in themselves:
· Rose petals floating in a basin.
· Waves crashing on the shore.
· A drop of dew on a flower.
· A drop of blood on a white piece of paper might be pretty and momentarily interesting (like a Rothko painting).
These are all things that we might experience in reality, and that actually have an aesthetic effect. But they are not art.

Before making bold statements like that, one should define the words “aesthetic” and “art” first. It is naïve to state that aesthetic experiences are mere effects. Aesthetic experiences in art are essentially intentionalistic, unlike the beauty found in nature. These aesthetic values cannot be compared.

It is a typical tactic used by modernists with empty arguments, to call “naïve” those with whom they disagree. “intentionalistic” qualities neither makes it aesthetic, and even if some aesthetic sense is achieved it does not make it art . So the intentionality changes nothing . Neither a drop of dew on a flower, nor a purposely painted square of orange on a brown background, are works of art regardless of whether they have any aesthetic qualities or not.

Art is the selective recreation of reality for the purposes of expressing an idea . Or as ARC Founder Brian Yoder has put it elsewhere, art fictionalizes reality . The artist takes elements of reality and rearranges them in such a way that he makes perceivable an idea, a concept, an impression of the world . In other words, it is the artist, a human being, who is doing the selecting - not nature and not chance.

If beauty in art and beauty in nature are the same, why does art exist? Why not settle for the imminent beauty of nature and forget about the second hand beauty of art? Furthermore: how can anyone “express an idea”, “fictionalize reality”, and chase the beauty of nature at the same time? I do not really understand what “fictionalizing reality” means, anyway.

Beauty in nature and beauty in art are not the same, nor did I ever say they were the same, nor are they the same according to the words of Brian Yoder above . Because you don’t understand what “fictionalizing reality” means, doesn’t mean the term is meaningless . It means you are not knowledgeable of the meaning’s of those words . It means that the image in the work of art is “made up” like a story which used occurrences which never really happened in order to symbolize an idea, thought, value, belief, or emotion.

But the real world or the natural world simply is . Our experiences in it can become the material of artworks when they are judiciously selected and arranged, with all the finesse and mastery of years of training, craftsmanship, and learning.

Does this mean that beauty in nature is a necessary quality of natural objects, and beauty in art is a quality of selected and arranged human experiences, combined with a certain level of craftsmanship? Does this not imply intentionality? One might state that the selection of experiences of which we are speaking, is a reflection of the artists personality or the culture in which the artist works It might be true, that on a certain moment in culture, the artists experiences tend to move away from natural objects and towards cultural intersubjective meaning . If that is the case, a mere depiction of carefully selected “natural” phenomena will no longer be sufficient to serve the artist’s intentionalist needs . The artist, at first, searches for meaning and experience in his own mind, hence expressionism. After that, the artist forms concepts of atavistic experiences and expresses those concepts in a far more efficient and overwhelming object of art than the copyist of natural phenomena. This is conceptual art.

The abstract artist does no such thing. Even if atavistic experiences needed to be expressed, they could only be expressed via realism. Just because you say the such formed concepts are being expressed doesn’t make it so. Show examples of such concepts or ideas. Tell me what they are in words and then how they are being expressed in a work of such art. You can’t do it, because in truth you are doing nothing more than using convoluted words with obscure meanings that can do nothing remotely like what you say they do.

But isn't an "abstract" painting by Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock tangible in a similar way to the examples above? Get close enough to a modernist painting and some patches of paint and blots of color are pretty to look at. Stare at them long enough you might even convince yourself that there is something meaningful in them, like a Rorschach ink blot test . But neither a blob of paint nor a Rorschach test is a work of art, and neither are they truly meaningful. They aren't meant to be interpreted as selections of reality at all. Since Clement Greenburg, modernist critics have always talked about them as "bits of" reality, as if they had their own exalted aesthetic existence.

They are selections of reality, only another, far more interesting, reality than nature. They are meaningful in a conceptual way, not in a pictional way, because pictional beauty cannot hold its own against real nature .

They are a form of reality, and if you find a blob of paint or even many blobs interesting, then you have the right to like that sort of thing, but they have no meaning other than the most primitive sorts like “red” or “blue” or many or few of dark or light. These are hardly the sorts of “concepts” that sophisticated and educated people are likely to find interesting.

Secondly, because paintings of reality cannot be as beautiful as nature itself. Does not mean that such works which capture how mankind feels about real things are not worthwhile and should not be made. Furthermore there are many things that occur in nature that can be observed except fleetingly, and fine art can “freeze” them for further study and appreciation.

The usual description of a modern "abstract" painting is that it is "a painting about paint itself" . Its subject matter is paint, or the formal principles of painting. The first claim is nonsensical: saying a painting is about paint is like saying a poem is about the alphabet. A poem uses the alphabet to represent words, which can in turn be used to convey knowledge or express ideas. The second claim is just as banal. A painting that is "about" its formal principles is, again, like a poem that is about rhyme, about onomatopoeia, or about iambic pentameter. In other words, it is art as a jigsaw puzzle of the lowest order. An endless pseudo-intellectual game, slightly mesmerising because of its futility - like a Rubik's cube. Even fun to play occasionally - in jest - because it keeps the pattern-recognition parts of the brain occupied. By this definition, a Rubik's cube is probably the world's most successful work of modern art - it refers only to itself, it has the sacred cubic form, and it is covered with more colored squares than a Mondrian.

Saying that a painting is about painting itself means that it defines the way painting communicates with its audience . Conceptual art is about communicating concepts . Complicated concepts must be communicated to the audience using complicated media.

Please, give me some examples of complicated thoughts expressed by abstract expressionist painting . You can’t because there are none . You can express
Red vs . yellow
Big vs . small
Few vs . many
Straight vs . crooked

If art had ever been about this kind of cerebral playing with formal principles it would have died a tedious death millenia ago . But this is what modernist critics would have us understand is "abstract" art.

If communication would be on today’s conceptual level millennia ago, people would have been able to communicate complicated concepts through art.

What complicated concepts??? Name some . Name one.

Folks, I want to point out that there is more than one meaning to "abstract". The modernists have tried to collapse two important senses of the term into one, to bolster their (as we saw above) ludicrous claims. For modernists, "abstract" means "non-objective" or "non-representational" or "non-figurative". For them, abstract means that which does not have any meaning outside of itself. In a very real sense "abstract" modern art is actually meaningless . From the modern critic's point of view, the more meaningless it is (the more "abstract") the better. Now, this is not to say that some "abstract" shapes or blobs of paint cannot be aesthetically pleasing. An oil slick can be pleasing to look at from the right angle - no matter whether it is in a puddle or on a prepared canvas. But they cannot say that an "abstract" modern work is meaningful in any real sense. It is whatever it is, a blob of paint or a block of color - no more and no less.

In 1910, just after the appearance of abstract art, formalists (modernists) stated the following: How is it, that a still-life by Rembrandt contains more artistic quality than a still life by an amateur, even if the depicted objects in the still-life is the same? Is there a quality in the artist, if you like the reason of beauty, a talent, which is not about the depicted picture but about the way the painting is done? If so, the picture is of no essence to the quality . Why not leave the picture behind, and concentrate on the talents of the artist that obviously generate the quality of an artwork? (they called these talents ‘significant form’, being the relation between forms, colors and lines)

The quality that one finds in the artwork by Rembrandt is better because the quality derives from the ability of the artist to successfully communicate the subjects or themes, which in this case are the objects in the still life, and to do so with homogeneity and grace such that all points in the canvas harmonize with each other while enabling the viewer to successfully suspend disbelief .
Calling these “…talents ‘significant form’…” does not make them significant at all.

You cannot “leave the picture behind” because without the picture, there is no theme, and without the theme there can be no harmony between subject and technique which is the essence of the quality as well as the artistry.

Sir, you are using the same sort of ‘Artspeak’ which has for generations beguiled our youth into submitting to intimidation of prestige suggestion when someone of “authority” tells them what they should think or believe . But your words are inarticulate, convoluted claptrap, and still as meaningless as the art which they purport to justify, deriving their meaning solely by incestual claims of value by virtue of the fact that you are telling us that they have value and that they express complex concepts, none of which you seem able to describe or exemplify . I respect your willingness to attempt to debate me, and if you are able to muster arguments that merit further consideration, I will be only too happy to respond again.

Fred Ross
Art Renewal Center,
100 Markley Street, Port Reading, NJ 07064