The following are fighting words: All art is conceptual. That is to say, all art has some meaning behind it, something the person who made it is trying say, solve, draw our attention to, or convey. It might be the qualities of the person in a portrait brought through facial expression (Leonardo de Vinci, Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun), a priority of aesthetics (William Morris. Brancusi, the entire Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements), or pure emotion (Mark Rothko, Vincent Van Gogh).
Unfortunately, the term conceptual art was coined to describe, not work with meaning, but work in which the importance of meaning far exceeds the technical prowess allowed to convey it. Translation, if it sparks irony, disgust, or confusion, and it looks like it will fall apart any minute now, shows bad technique, or was made by someone utterly unskilled, then it’s conceptual art. – With a nod to Marshall McCluhen’s famous quote, “The medium is the message,” if the medium is crap or falling apart, that’s the message too. – Add to the problem the art world’s attitude that we’re all supposed to applaud the genius of post modern irony, and anyone who doesn’t like it is just incapable of understanding what Art is Supposed to be About.
I’ve been amazed in recent years to hear more than a few ultra talented and exceptionally skilled young artists describe their work as conceptual. What immediately goes through my head, and sometimes out my mouth, is, “but your work is well made!” Were these recent art students taught something so different in their art history classes? Are art history professors rewriting the history of two decades (dragging out to four now) of really lame, but highly lauded, postmodern art? If Milleneals love anything, it’s talking about the meaning behind what they believe they’re doing. Maybe art professors have finally found a way to prevent art students from the old “I meant it to look unfinished (or falling apart, or like I waited until the last minute to start)” trope by not telling them conceptual art is supposed to look poorly made.
“Your work is post-conceptual,” I explain. In the post-conceptual movement, meaning is equally as important as technique but not more important than it. They give me blank stares like I’ve made this one up. I haven’t. It’s been an acknowledged movement in Europe for years. Americans are just painfully slow to embrace anything truly new, unless it comes with headphones. As far as our design orientation goes, we are sticks in the mud.
The lack of embracing the new label doesn’t keep the post-conceptual movement from gaining traction. One look at #sketch on Instagram and you will be floored at the sheer talent of people honing their sills like Old Masters to convey emotion, narrative, expression, and, yes, meaning through the medium of drawing. Most of these artists are well under 35. Art supply companies are in a highly profitable product race, bringing us more options for paper and mark making tools than ever before. The last art supply expo at my beloved local supplier Binders offered over 10 new kinds of papers in sketchbooks (I managed to get out of there before buying more than 4 of them) and nearly as many new types of pens and pencils all promising us that with these improved tools, we can draw better. We are hungry; the suppliers are feeding us; and, we are converting this energy into meaningful beauty.
Beauty, now, there’s the problem.
By the end of World War I, much of what the West saw as beautiful had been destroyed in body and in spirit. Beauty, along with its Artistotelian siblings goodness and truth, was no longer enough in a world pondering what the hell it was all for. Death and a lust for life by its survivors drove Western culture into a frenzy of jazz, comparatively independent women, and Art Deco, Western humanity’s last major swan song of the intersection of art, ingenuity, good design, and the relentless honing of craftsmanship. “If there’s no meaning, we’ll give it our own meaning,” became society’s first real proclamation of secular thought.
Out of this wonderful, creative frenzy, and even foreshadowing it, Picasso gave us women ripped of beauty, paraded as the distorted, masked, in your face whores he apparently thought we are. “The old art is dead,” he proclaimed,* and in order not to seem uncool, the art world went along with it for decades, looking down their noses at anyone who didn’t “get it” as hopelessly bourgeois, incapable of appreciating “real art” or doing anything new themselves. Beauty was dead, or worse, looked down upon as shallow, hollow, and meaningless.
The act of attributing meaning is absolutely human. From early humans who assigned divine meaning to the sun, moon, stars, and Earth to our sad search for meaning by addictively watching news, our meaning-making skills are tied to our exceptional pattern recognition skills. Chimps have thumbs, birds make tools, but only humans are capable of seeing how things fit in a much larger picture.
That’s what my own work is all about: that bigger picture of time and space, encapsulated into objects. There is so much intention in each painstakingly designed and meticulously crafted piece, that I often find it difficult to describe articulate. I fall into that trap of letting the pieces speak for me. In my defense, I was art-raised old school, where good work had to stand for itself, separate from an artist statement. Once you look deeply, the themes of duality are quite unmistakable. Sometimes not flaunting the verbal context works, and I see that delight of recognition in the viewer’s eyes. They ask a few questions, and I confirm what they have already intuited. This tends to result in the viewers’ decision to own the work. It’s a powerful connection betweeen humanity and object.
When a handful of the elitists dismiss my work as “retro” or “vintage” and not filled with enough meaning, I know they’re not looking very hard. They’re missing what should be obvious, and so I have little desire to correct them by discussing the unthinkable struggles, or the times I’ve faced down death, or my understanding that meaning, beauty, goodness, and truth are way bigger than our egoic insecurities.
So, to my incoming young colleagues, and to everyone, really, your art can have all the meaning you give it. If you want it to have sticking power, design it with keen awareness, and make it art that will live long past you.
For further reading and watching on this subject, I recommend both the book and video series by Simon Schama, called The Power of Art
and Venus in Exile
by Wendy Steiner.