Monday, January 22, 2007

Robert Hughes Hates Conceptual Art

Mia Fineman, writing about the Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes in Slate, notes a bias in his oeuvre:
But all critics have their blind spots: particular styles or tendencies that they categorically dismiss, unable or unwilling to engage with the work on its own terms. Hughes' is conceptual art, particularly the ludic, cerebral variety that began with Duchamp and has been carried on by generations of artists, from Joseph Beuys and John Baldessari through Tracy Emin and Maurizio Cattelan. For Hughes, most conceptual art is too intellectualized, too disembodied; it lacks the substance and sensual immediacy that defines truly great art. "Art requires the long look," he wrote in the introduction to his 1990 collection of essays, Nothing If Not Critical. "It is a physical object, with its own scale and density as a thing in the world." While this is true of most art up through the 19th century, the new century ushered in a new way of thinking about art as a set of concepts, a mode of interaction, a manner of seeing and apprehending the world that may -- or may not -- be tied to a discrete physical object. To reject this approach entirely is to cut oneself off from much of what's interesting and compelling in the art of the last 100 years. And it's here, in his refusal to engage with this core tenet of contemporary art, that Hughes still exudes a faint whiff of provincialism.
This may be my weakness, too. When Fineman writes "For Hughes, most conceptual art is too intellectualized, too disembodied; it lacks the substance and sensual immediacy that defines truly great art," I find myself nodding my head. Much -- not all, but a great deal -- of that brand of conceptual art is like poorly translated instruction manuals for low-quality foreign electronics: inadequate explanations for half-baked ideas.

"To Hughes," writes Fineman, "conceptual art looks like nothing more than an insider's mind game. And while it's true that much conceptual art is trivial or banal or needlessly hermetic, the track record of traditional, object-based art is no better."

Really? Maybe it's just easier to assess art objects than it is conceptual art. Or maybe, because the idea of ideas-based art is still not much more than 100 years old, we're still figuring out how to pull it off and how to talk about it. Or maybe, because Duchamp took it so far, and Warhol took it even further, there isn't much left to go before the ideas start to look stale. And maybe because the barriers to entry in the conceptual art world have little to do with skill and craftsmanship, conceptual art attracts a lot of -- excuse the Holden Caulfield reference -- phonies.

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