conceptual art

It never hurts to be good looking

In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp, 1964 (1915 version lost). Courtesy MoMA,

The op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, by Dennis Dutton, "Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?" will doubtless provoke brouhaha from foreseeable quarters. It is not a bad article, however, despite the tiresome Morley Safer-if-you-can-believe-this-I-have-a-bridge-for-sale-it's-all-a-ponzi-scheme tone. It simply points out, in a long-winded way, that once contexts are stripped from an artwork, the artwork is on it's own, and depends on its appearance to stay out of the dumpster. Nothing we didn't know.

The firstest-bestest example of this is Duchamp's In Advance of the Broken Arm, the shovel pictured above. It was once used by a museum custodian to clear the walks after a snowstorm, which Duchamp thought was hilarious. To reinforce Dutton's point, the original shovel was lost.

There are plenty of presumptions in the article to puncture, but this conclusion, regarding the beautiful artifact, was a bit bizarre:
Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human prehistory, tools attractively fashioned to function as what Darwinians call “fitness signals” — displays like the glorious peacock’s tail, which functions to show peahens the strength and vitality of the males who display it.

Hand axes, however, were not grown, but consciously, cleverly made. They were therefore able to indicate desirable personal qualities: intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability and conscientiousness. Such skills gained for those who displayed them status and a reproductive advantage over the less capable. Across many thousands of generations this translated into both an increase in intelligence and an evolved sense that the symmetry and craftsmanship of hand axes is “beautiful.”
I wasn't aware fine motor skills were so desirable to pre-Neanderthals.

One thing is for certain, and that is that all art has become much more self-consciously conceptual. In that sense conceptualism isn't going anywhere. Few artists make work without at least considering the intellectual precepts and ramifications of what they are creating. Whether that means that work solely dependent on a sophisticated web of reasoning and contextual bases to establish its relevance and meaning will remain compelling, we can't know. Maybe what we are now sorting out is what is vital and what is merely scholastic in the intellectual provinces of our artistic pursuits.