Updated: Apr 20
I’ve never been shy to say that I think a lot of contemporary art is over-conceptualized and that craft is too often forgotten about, especially in scholastic settings. Too often these days I see art critics or so called intellectuals pumping their own tires because they understand the meaning of a piece of art and the average person could never understand it even though, in actuality, it’s just a blue square next to a green square. Too many times I’ve seen students stand next to a hunk of junk explaining how it means this or that, not wanting to hear that they need to better grasp the technique they used to put it together or that this so called concept would never reveal itself to a viewer if they weren’t standing next to their piece explaining it. I don’t think that art should be devoid of concept, but I don’t think it can or should be the only quality of the piece that means anything. Concept or meaning or protest, whatever you want to call it, isn’t something that should define a piece, but something that should be defined by the qualities of a piece.
Quality is something in art that as concept grows and takes over, is forgotten about. In my final years of art school I was so fed up with looking at people’s work that had no craft whatsoever but spending the entire critique talking about some concept the fabricated to pair with it. People were just forgetting that they needed to learn how to put things together to… well, put things together. It would be like if I got an Ikea shelf, threw away all the tools, nuts and bolts, and just stacked the wood up so I could stand next to it when people came over and explain how it’s a shelf. That sounds pretty silly doesn’t it? It should sound just as silly in art. I think a lot of people are deciding that a piece of art should stand for something before they even decide what the piece is, how it’s going to be made, or where it will be shown, they just decide on a concept and whatever happens next will fit to that because they say so. But that doesn’t happen and you’re not always going to be able to sit next to your work and explain why it means what you think it means, the viewer is always going to have their own separate experience.
I have to emphasize that I don’t think art should be devoid of concept, quite the opposite actually, but I think that it should be a product of a process and that it should be malleable to fit different viewers’ experiences. This past weekend the Plebeian team and myself got to visit the studio of Brian Booth Craig (more content from that to come) but we had some marvelous off camera conversations about how we defined our individual processes and how that experience often meant more than any concept we slapped onto a piece could.
It’s no secret that I’m a process driven artist, I have a way to do things, and I’m trying to show you my experience and the viewer can perceive it how they want to. Now I’m not saying that, that is the right thing to do or that all art should be that way, but I’m saying that there should be a spectrum of concept that is developed through a process. Booth Craig had several working pieces sitting around his studio and he explained how he’d leave them out so that they could reveal themselves, show their next step. I found this fascinating because he knew these works had more to them, more things to say but he didn’t want to rush it because it wouldn’t mean as much if he just filled a space with something. Those pieces had more to them and more to say so he had to wait for that to come through. That’s the type of process that can reveal a true concept, if you let your piece reveal itself to you as you work to mold it from whatever you’re working in then it will often reveal a more powerful message. If you force a finish or just try to make your piece say what you want it to say then it often appears hollow or one dimensional, or in the worst case, it doesn’t come through at all.
The message that I’m trying to convey here is that art is a back and forth between art and artist. Your work of art should have a voice that is malleable and it should have some say in how it comes through in the end. Process is the ever-forgotten key to this conversation that is being overlooked far too often. So, if you’re a student and someone in crit doesn’t want to hear that their piece is poorly put together and only wants to talk concept, stop that shit in its tracks. The other student many not like that, but it will challenge them and ultimately make them a better, more dimensional artist. If you’re a super concept driven artist, try making something with no preconceived notions, maybe something totally different than your usual and allow that new piece of work to reveal itself to you, let the winding and often crazy road of art making guide you rather than you guide it. I’m not saying that it needs to be the way you do things moving forward, but it may help you better define your process and put forth better concepts in the end.
I know I sound like the grumpy guy who hates concepts in art but I don’t. I don’t find them necessary for my art, or for a lot of art actually. But I understand their existence and I understand what they’re there for and I respect that. But what I’ll say is that a well defined process will ALWAYS define a better concept than just saying something means something. Artists need process and it can often define us and our art better than any so called concept. Processes have defined entire generations but concepts have often been forgotten or quickly faded into obscurity. So take the longer lasting route and define your concept through something real and something meaningful. Art is an experience and showing what you experienced making it is often the best concept of them all, telling one hell of a deeper story.