Concept Artists

Back in ’94 I won an electronic arts prize, and spent a weekend in Austria with artists. They had declared me a “concept artist” and we discussed what that meant. I felt deja vu Thursday when I presented at the Parsons New School of Design, and after talked with professors of design and architecture (audio, slides; vid). It seems to me that they are also concept artists, though they might not embrace this description, and this made me wonder again how many intellectuals are concept artists.

A painter arranges paint on a canvas in a pattern that other artists judge to be pretty or provocative or intriguing, or, well anything really that they respect enough to call “art.” While they have no explicit standards, they can roughly articulate many features that all-else-equal make paintings better, and communities of artists usually have enough consensus on what they like to together rate paintings as good or bad. It is similar for sculpture, movies, novels, etc. — communities of artists develop common enough implicit standards so that they agree enough on what is good art.

Similar standards of evaluation can be applied to concepts, ideas, and claims. To the naive, “concept artists” may sound like they intend mainly to make claims about reality, and to evaluate those claims in terms of how well they cohere with each other and data about reality. But in fact concept artists evaluate claims more the way most any artists evaluates art – in terms of beauty, elegance, provocation, intrigue, etc. This can make concept artists a bit more tolerant of ambiguity, logical gaps, etc., though the difference can be subtle – being too obviously tolerant of such things usually isn’t good art.

Concept artists aren’t really my style of intellectual, but I must admit that the fact that conceptual artists are not primarily focused on the truth of their claims does not prevent them from achieving insight and contributing to intellectual progress.  Truth be old, most other intellectuals also are not first and foremost trying to find truth. Yet intellectual progress is often a side effect of their activities. It is much harder than you might think to say which intellectual styles best find truth in what contexts.

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