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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  • Jeffrey Soreff

    beauty, elegance, provocation, intrigue

    Can provocation include the number of thoughts provoked?
    It sounds like mathematical elegance.

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  • William H. Stoddard

    All mathematicians seem to be concept artists.

  • http://www.joehendry.com Joe Hendry Art

    Concept art is like anything else, there can be exceptional examples and there can be examples which are bull.

    All art doesn’t HAVE to be challenging and surely there is a place for challenging conceptual work as much as there is a need for a print of “Water Lillies” in a dentist’s waiting room?

  • Vladimir M.

    While they [artists] 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.

    The cases of critically acclaimed painters Pavel Jerdanowitch and Pierre Brassau throw some doubt on this. (If you haven’t heard of them, google the names for some hilarious stories.)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    That far-mode illusion-of-the-self guy was really annoying.

    • Anon

      That far-mode illusion-of-the-self guy was really annoying.

      Why?

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        For one thing, he took up too much time. He kept repeating that that it’s an illusion (an idea I’ve heard serious defenses of but not from him) and that it causes a great amount of harm, which in most contexts would be considered controversial but he didn’t support. Some natural alternatives to consider would be unity of cells in a multicellular organism or a colony of eusocial insects, but there wasn’t any discussion of them or the sociobiological reasons why we do not resemble them. He also said that we don’t perceive our own elderly parents in retirement homes to be separate from us, which is simply laughable. Children often disagree with such relatives over questions of whether they should be placed there in the first place, how often visits should be and so on. It’s not unheard of for there to be serious intergenerational enmity, and even the occasional child who seeks to off their parent for the inheritance. He could have simply stated that we have a greater amount of empathy for our own parents, but he ridiculously crammed it into his non-perception-of-self schtick.

  • zachK

    I agree with TGGP. Perhaps it’s my background as a scientist but I find the conceptions of the conceptiual artist/design people to be fairly messy.

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