Beginning in the 1960s, conceptual art was described as anti-establishment. First, picture the commercial images of Marilyn Monroe popularized by Andy Warhol. Realize that some artists were opposed to the concept of getting rich through commercial art sales. Conceptual artists wanted to make the masses think instead of giving them plastic art to consume.
As a movement, conceptual art creates disharmony in society, jarring people out of their traditional understanding of art. According to the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” “Conceptual art, it seems, is something that we either love or hate.” A piece of conceptual art challenges the viewer to defend the work as a true piece of art instead of something masquerading as art. Thinking about the artist’s deeper meaning in a conceptual art piece helps the viewer understand an important statement about society.
George Brecht (1926-2008) was the son of a flutist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In 1961, Brecht performed his conceptual art piece entitled “Incidental Music.” This performance art can only be described as Brecht stacking up toy blocks inside a grand piano. In his obituary, George Brecht was described as a “provocateur” by the “New York Times.” He belonged to an international collection of artists called the Fluxus, mainly conceptual artists like him. Brecht died at the age of 82.
A different consideration is the artist Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945). His composition, “One and Three Chairs” (1965) consisted of a plain, beige wood chair sitting next to a life-sized photograph (black and white) of a wood chair. Taken out of historical context, “One and Three Chairs” does not appear to be art at all. However, taking something as plain as a chair captured on photo paper and positioning it next to a real chair suggests simplicity or absurdity depending on your point-of-view.
The peak of conceptual art occurred from 1966 to 1972. Artists reacted to the art critic, Clement Greenberg’s narrow definition of Formalism. According to Honour and Fleming (2005), Greenberg “saw the art object as being essentially self-contained and self-sufficient, with its own rules, its own order, its own materials; independent of its maker, of its audience; and of the world in general.”
Even the artist, Marcel Duchamp, a young friend of Dadaism and Surrealism decades earlier, created a piece of conceptual art in the final twenty years of his life – “Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas.” This piece included part of a nude woman made of leather and other pieces of found art. The viewer had to look through a peephole to see this shockingly erotic composition. In “Given” (1968), Duchamp bridged the thirty-year chasm between Surrealism and conceptual art. While conceptual art occurred in the U.S. in the context of civil rights, the same movement abroad bucked all of the traditional notions of the art establishment.