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About Conceptual Art

'No matter what form [the artwork] may finally have, it must begin with an idea.' – Sol LeWitt

With Conceptual Art, the idea is the most important thing about the artwork. The materials and techniques that the artist has used are less important or not important at all. The artwork is simply a vehicle for encouraging the viewer to think about an idea – or to think in a different way more generally about art and the wider world.

Box That Never Closes

Box That Never Closes 1967

Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941)

Museum & Art Swindon

When did it start?

Conceptual Art as a movement emerged in the late 1950s and flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. But its roots can be seen in the early twentieth century when the French artist Marcel Duchamp presented ordinary objects as artworks. One of Duchamp's most famous artworks is Fountain – an ordinary ceramic urinal that he presented upside down in an exhibition as a sculpture.

Fountain

Fountain (replica 1964) 1917

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)

Tate

Is it still around today?

Although Conceptual Art is associated with the 1960s and 1970s, it influenced many artists over the following decades and can still be seen as important in contemporary art. For example, many of the YBA (Young British Artists) including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas are influenced by Conceptual Art in using found objects to put across an idea.

What does it look like?

Because the art object or artist's technique isn't important, Conceptual Art can look like pretty much anything. It could be an object manufactured for a different purpose, a text, a performance, action or event – or a photograph documenting a performance, action or event.

Standing Motionless

Standing Motionless 1971–1979

Alastair Mackay MacLennan (b.1943)

University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Many artworks created from or in the landscape (Land Art) can also be considered Conceptual Art. Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long make physical interventions in the landscape using natural materials. For his artwork, A Sound-Enclosed Land Area 1969, artist Dennis Oppenheim recorded the footsteps he made while walking in a specific area as designated by a map, for a set period of time. Viewers experience the artwork through its documentation – a map showing the area he walked and a recording of his footsteps.

A Sound-Enclosed Land Area

A Sound-Enclosed Land Area 1969

Dennis Oppenheim (1938–2011)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Explore key Conceptual artists on Art UK

Joseph Beuys
Marcel Broodthaers
Sophie Calle
Martin Creed
Damien Hirst
Jenny Holzer
Mary Kelly
Sol LeWitt
Lawrence Weiner

Watch and discuss

In this video, Nikita Gill, Curatorial Trainee at Manchester Art Gallery, responds to questions from secondary students about Work No. 88. 

Watch the video as a class and ask students to think about the questions and responses with an open mind.

Has Nikita's explanation changed students' understanding and response to the artwork? Discuss the video using these nudge questions if helpful.

  • Can you remember some of the responses of the students?
  • How does the Curator explain the artwork to students?
  • Did watching the video change your mind about Work No.88?
  • What do you think is more important: what an artwork looks like or the ideas behind it?
  • Do you think sculpture and painting are still relevant in the digital age?

About Martin Creed

Martin Creed was born in Wakefield in 1968 and grew up in Glasgow.

As well as making art he is also a musician, and musical sounds and rhythms often appear in his artworks. He wants his work to be accessible and for people to enjoy interacting with it. His work is also often humorous, and irreverent about traditional art values. 

Work No. 370 Balls

Work No. 370 Balls 2004

Martin Creed (b.1968)

National Galleries of Scotland

'[My work is] 50% about what I make and 50% about what other people make of it.' – Martin Creed

Creed uses a range of different materials and techniques including painting, sculpture, text, sound and everyday objects and materials.

Work No. 253: THINGS

Work No. 253: THINGS 2000

Martin Creed (b.1968)

Government Art Collection

He has said that he likes the idea of not adding anything else to the world and often uses objects that already exist – sometimes he doesn't use materials at all!

One of the artworks that he is best known for is Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, which he originally presented for the Turner Prize in 2001. (The Turner Prize is an annual prize for contemporary art run by Tate.) Creed's prizewinning artwork consists of the lights in an empty gallery being switched on and off – transforming how the space looks. The only materials he used for the artwork were the empty space of the gallery, its existing light fittings and a timer to activate the alternate light and darkness.

Activity: class debate – 'Should we take Conceptual Art seriously?'

The question

Conceptual Art is often dismissed as not 'real' art because it doesn't involve traditional artistic skills, techniques and materials.

Task students with preparing arguments for a debate about the value of Conceptual Art. You could ask them to respond to a question such as: 'Should we take Conceptual Art seriously?' or 'Is Conceptual Art real art?' This activity will help students develop research, analysis, and oracy skills.

Casserole and Closed Mussels

Casserole and Closed Mussels 1964

Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976)

Tate

Students could either work individually or in small teams. Half of the students/groups should prepare arguments FOR Conceptual Art, and the other half should prepare arguments AGAINST it. Some artwork suggestions with research links are provided below. It might help to allocate the same artwork to a 'for' and 'against' team.

The process

Ask students to:

  • Research the artwork they have chosen or been assigned, exploring the research links. (They could also do this individually as a homework project before the class.)
  • In class, spend 20–30 minutes in their groups discussing their chosen or allocated artwork and noting down their thoughts about it. (They should also think about the opposing arguments that may be used so that they are prepared to answer these arguments.)
  • Organise their ideas into bullet points that can be presented to the class to support their argument. Encourage them to explain their thinking behind the points as they discuss them.

These prompts may help them to prepare their arguments.

  • What does the artwork consist of? (What does it look like and what is it made from? Is what you are looking at a record of a performance or action?)
  • Do you think it took skill to make the artwork? Does it matter?
  • What do you think the artist is saying in the artwork?
  • Is the artwork interesting? Does it make you think about things differently?
  • What do you like about the artwork / what don't you like about it?
  • How does the artwork connect with viewers looking at it? How might they respond to it? Is this different to how they might respond to more traditional paintings or sculpture?
  • Do you think Conceptual Art is important to the development of art? Has it inspired artists working today?

Suggested artworks to debate

Martin Creed, Work No. 850 (Runners), 2008

This artwork consists of a person running as fast as they can every thirty seconds through the gallery. After every run is an equivalent pause, during which the gallery is empty.

The runners come from different backgrounds from all over the world. Creed brought them together for the artwork and instructed them to run as fast as they could. Creed sees the work as reflecting the beauty of human movement.

Research links:

Richard Long, Tame Buzzard Line, 2001

Richard Long often makes art in response to the natural environment he experiences on long walks. He uses walking as his material but also to measure distances. He often arranges the natural materials that he finds on his walks, such as stones or rocks, into piles or lines, forming sculptures in the landscape.

This way of working offers the potential to make artworks anywhere and at any time and frees him from the constraints of needing a gallery space to show his work in. He documents his work in photographs.

Tame Buzzard Line

Tame Buzzard Line 2001

Richard Long (b.1945)

New Art Centre

Research links:

Roelof Louw, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967

Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)

Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) 1967

Roelof Louw (1936–2017)

Tate

This sculpture starts as a pyramid made from about 5,800 oranges. The shape is similar to an oversized market stall display. The artist, Roelof Louw, wants visitors to interact with the artwork and invites them to take an orange, feel how it fits into their hand and experience eating it.

This interaction changes the shape of the sculpture and eventually destroys it. Even if no one takes an orange, the work will eventually rot and disintegrate.

Watch the artwork in action and hear what young visitors to a Tate exhibition think of Conceptual Art.

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998

My Bed was one of the artworks that Tracey Emin chose to present for her Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain in 1999.

To her, the messy bed surrounded by strewn bedroom objects represents a difficult time in her life when she was depressed and spent four days in bed. She sees it as a portrait of her younger self.

Research links:

The decision

Usually, in a debate, there is a winning team who have presented the most convincing arguments.

  • You could return to the debate question and ask students to choose the winning team with a count of hands.
  • Alternatively, you may decide that there doesn't need to be a winner – and that the process of researching, preparing and putting forward arguments and discussing the artworks is the important outcome.

Differentiation suggestions

If you are teaching younger students or students who may find researching artworks and presenting their arguments challenging, use the artworks and prompt questions above to discuss the artworks as a class.


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