By Thomas Moran | Arts and Life Editor
Walking through an art museum, visitors are sure to find an impossibly wide array of creations. It seems incomprehensible that a stunning sculpture of the human form like Michelangelo’s “David,” painstakingly carved from a piece of white marble, would have anything in common with Felix Gonzales-Torres’ “Perfect Lovers,” consisting of two common office clocks ticking simultaneously on a wall; but somehow, both are celebrated as pieces within the same greater genre — art.
The dichotomy between representational art and conceptual art has caused antipathy within the art world for decades. Some argue that the skill necessary to create a piece of representational art places it above the philosophical understanding required to produce a conceptual masterpiece; however, the debate will not end with one perspective triumphing over the other. It will end when both sides accept the underlying theme of their arguments: The two can’t be ranked because they serve completely different purposes.
Before photography, recording visual reality was a civic duty that fell on the shoulders of artists. The wealthy of society commissioned artists to paint their portraits for the same reason we save photos of ourselves and our loved ones — to preserve the memories. This left very little room in the art world for the artist’s imagination and creative genius to influence his creation. If the final piece did not closely reflect the subject matter, he wouldn’t have been considered a good artist. The value of an artist was completely tied up in his ability to accurately mimic reality in his creation. To be an artist was to practice a craft. Just as a blacksmith used metal and fire, an artist used brushes and paint.
Photography’s invention disrupted that factor because it preserved images of visual reality in a nearly perfect way. This change licensed artists to demonstrate their creativity through their work. Around the 1860s, the impressionist movement began to spread and artists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot began producing art that reflected a mildly distorted reality, the source of the distortion being their own creative philosophies. The goal of a piece was no longer to strictly mimic reality.
A few artistic movements later, abstract art came around and represented a nearly complete abandonment from representationalist values. The mind of the artist was a more important faculty within the movement than any piece’s reflection of reality.
In more recent decades, the art world has arrived at conceptual art — a movement that strictly prioritizes the perspective of the artist over the physical form. Any discussion about a piece’s mimicry of reality is completely in vain. The artist’s philosophy is the sole lens through which a piece can be viewed and evaluated.
This progression highlights why the debate between conservative and progressive critics is completely in vain: Representational art and conceptual art are aimed at completely different ends.
When approaching a representational piece, understanding the context of the artist is helpful, but the goal of the artist was not to impose their philosophy on their creation. Their goal was to transform something previously inert into something substantive. Their goal was to mirror reality. Conceptual art is aimed at portraying the thoughts and philosophies of the artist in whatever medium they choose. The intentions of the artist render the physical form virtually meaningless.
Both forms of art have value; however, it can be dangerous for the art world to lean too far into conservative or progressive art forms. By prioritizing traditional representational art, one risks limiting and inhibiting progress and change in art, and art is fundamentally fluid in nature, changing from day to day, culture to culture. Some of the most acclaimed works of art of the last century prompted social and political change that still impact society today.
By leaning too heavily into progressive movements, one risks losing the soul of art. True art is created for the sake of art, and not for the sake of visual shock that many conceptual art embodies. Blurring the definition of art too much has dangerous implications. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is quoted as saying the attacks of 9/11 attacks were “the greatest possible work of art in the entire cosmos.” If modern conceptual art is solely focused on the philosophies of the creators, at what point do those philosophical expressions surpass the definition of art?
In a world where the definition of art takes so many forms, the question is no longer, which is the higher form of art, conceptual or representational? More pertinent questions might be, does art have limits and, if yes, what are they?
Thomas is a senior journalism major from Greenwood Village, Colo.