Conceptual Art: What is it?

Many people often question why Conceptual art is art, saying it’s nonsensical. Here’s why you should think otherwise.

Sheila Hicks’ installation, Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, is one of the stars of this year’s Venice Biennale. Viewers are confronted with a colossal wall of colourful, gigantic balls of fabric. While the work’s scintillating hues and sheer scale can easily dazzle and impress, many are confounded and left questioning – What does this mean? Why is this art?

This is a common response to Conceptual art, or, art that exalts the idea or concept above all formal considerations. Artwork such as Damien Hirst’s infamous dead shark suspended in formaldehyde that has left many utterly perplexed, both by the artwork itself and its hefty 12 million dollar price tag.
dead shark suspended in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst

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Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution, 85.5 x 213 x 71 inches

While Conceptual art can seem impenetrable and, oftentimes, frivolous, it is important to understand the meaning behind the movement. In the early 1960s, artists frustrated with the status quo relinquished traditional art in favour of art that was to be admired not for the skillful, hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative ideas. Conceptual art is not intended to be beautiful but rather, powerful in its ability to push boundaries, question the ordinary and stimulate and intrigue viewers.

For Hicks, her monumental textile wall is a vehicle through which she pays homage to the relegated crafts of indigenous communities across the globe. For viewers, the installation can mean anything they wish it to mean, as interpretations are deeply personal and not limited to one specific message.

So, the next time you are confronted with a Conceptual artwork that seems strange or nonsensical, instead of dismissing it, allow yourself to open up to it, immerse yourself in it and let your mind take over.

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