Are contemporary conceptual projects doomed to be misunderstood historical curiosities?

Denis Dutton, a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, argues in a NYTimes op-ed that conceptual art, situated in the intellectual zeitgeist, will never be able to transcend time the way well-crafted objects do.”One trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the pleasure we take in admiring skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall � where now and again the Homo erectus hairs stand up on the backs of our necks � human beings have a permanent, innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is pass�, a value left over from our grandparents� culture. Evidence is all around us. Even when we have lost contact with the social or religious ideas behind the arts of bygone civilizations, we are still able, as with the great bronzes or temples of Greece or ancient China, to respond directly to craftsmanship. The direct response to skill is what makes it possible to find beauty in many tribal arts even though we often know nothing about the beliefs of the people who created them. There is no place on earth where superlative technique in music and dance is not regarded as beautiful.

“The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today�s intellectual zeitgeist. That�s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni�s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth�s 1965 ‘One and Three Chairs‘ (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of ‘chair’) or Mr. Hirst�s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art ‘concepts’ and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity. In this respect, I can�t help regarding medicine cabinets, vacuum cleaners and dead sharks as reckless investments. Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner, and wondering why.”


  1. I have been mulling over similar points as of late thanks for this article.

  2. I think Dutton has completely misunderstood Conceptual Art. It's no more topical or tied to the fashions of the day than other styles or forms.

    Nor is it anymore a dry academic exercise than classical or biblical allusions, received standards in composition, tone or finish.

    The plea for what is quickly or easily discerned as 'skill' proves equally unsustainable.


  3. Dutton's not always someone I agree with, but I think he has a point here. Of course, it doesn't necessarily matter to the artist if a work looses resonance five hundred years from now.

  4. It doesn't have to be either/or.

  5. no indeed it doesn't. and i would further argue that the best conceptual art (insert your own faves here) plays out precisely against the backdrop of this desire for craft virtuosity, so it will retain its resonance and meaning.
    And moreover, let's keep our definition of virtuosity fluid. Matisse was an abomination, and now, no one handles paint like him. I read once that Duchamp liked Matisse.
    I prefer painting too, but I get worried about these hints of aesthetic house-cleaning.

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