Holy Sh*t That’s Some Art: 4 Works of Modern Conceptual Art that Don’t Suck

While visiting an art museum recently I was convinced for a full minute that this was a legitimate work of art until, after a frantic search, I realized there wasn’t any plaque.)

While visiting an art museum recently I was convinced for a full minute that this was a legitimate work of art until, after a frantic search, I realized there wasn’t any plaque.)

When it comes to art, everyone’s favorite whipping boy is conceptual modern art. Each of us knows the experience of standing in our local art museum and feeling a bewildered rage at the jerk who nailed bits of string to a wall in the shape of Chairman Mao. Or Benny Goodman? Or maybe the Mona Lisa? Or nothing? We all hate this. It confuses us. It annoys us. It makes us ponder whether or not the National Endowment for the Arts is really a worthwhile use of our tax dollars. It makes us cheer whenever the working class hero of our favorite sitcom accidentally urinates in Marcel Duchamp’s critically acclaimed urinal.

And, frankly, we’re not wrong to think that way. The sad fact of the matter is that much of conceptual art is really terrible. Not in the sense that the artists who make it are incompetent, but in the sense that what they create frequently fails to do what art exists to do—communicate.

A piece of art is a piece of language. We create it in order to say things that cannot be said except through colors or novels or guitar plucks. When we see a truly good work of art, a painting by Van Gogh depicting a farmer in a field for example, it imparts something in us. Maybe that something is a simple idea, maybe it is just the beauty of a moment, maybe it is just an awe of the immense effort and skill it took to create it, but it is always there.

And yet you might wander through the entirety of a museum like the Tate Modern or the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art or Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory and feel like you’ve gained anything from the things you’ve seen. Feel nothing but void and boredom and the soreness of your feet.

That is a failure. Sometimes it is a failure of your own small mind, but more often it is a failure of the artists themselves. A failure of their laziness, their pretension, their stupidity, or their complete misunderstanding of what it is they, as artists, are supposed to be doing when they beg us for a sliver of our short, cluttered, rapidly ending lives.

For Example

I recently came across these two entirely unrelated pieces of art displayed in a gallery at one of America’s most respected art museums:

2 Terrible Artworks 3

The work of art in the foreground, as you can see, is a piece of yarn strung from a seemingly random point in the middle of the floor up to a seemingly random point in the middle of the window.

Generally, there are 2 reasons a person in an art museum reads the plaque that accompanies a work of art: 1) they really like a piece and want to know more about it or learn the artist’s name so they can remember it, or 2) because they have no idea what it is they’re looking at. So let’s look at the plaque. What it claims is that the artist who strung the yarn really wanted us to think about “pedestrian spaces.” Ah yes, “pedestrian spaces,” those elusive spaces that exist when people aren’t just standing still in space, but also moving in space, just without the help of cars, bicycles, or horses.

In contrast, the painting in the background is an obnoxious modern art classic—the blank canvas. Everyone one of us “painted” that picture in middle school obligatory art class, handed to the art teacher, and then were promptly slapped for being lazy little shits.

This version though has a twist. The upper quarter is slightly shadowed. Look closely.

Blank Canvas Top

There are slight shadows up there in a sort of architectural shape, like the kind you might see on a garden trellis. And you thought this painting was just worthless – he actually put effort into it! Some measurable quantity of effort. Doesn’t that redeem everything? Hasn’t that changed your conception of what this artist was about? Don’t you now see that it was all a ploy to bring you in close and make you realize that what appears at a distance may not be the truth in closeness? That maybe you shouldn’t judge until you’ve examined something in its entirety because in some hidden corner there might be a lazily spray-painted hint of a shadow?

Ha!

Both of these works are catastrophes.

What expansion of the miserable bleakness of existence do either of these works offer us? None. Nothing. Fuck off. They have committed the worst possible sin that any artist can possibly commit—the artistic equivalent of leaving a puppy to die in a hot car—they have wasted their audience’s time. For that, shame should haunt them until the day they die, if they are not already dead, in which case, good! They were boils on the body aesthetic.

But Not Everything is Terrible

A while back I happened to visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The IMA is not one of the most famous art museums in America, but it’s secretly one of the best. Unlike the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Tate Modern, or the unholy monstrosity that is the Louvre, the IMA believes in quality over quantity. Instead of jamming 12 paintings by Van Gogh down your throat, it jams one, but it’s a damn nice one.

But what’s really astounding about the IMA is that its good taste extends beyond marvelous Ghanaian masks or Chinese scroll paintings, and into the miserable, confusing, pretentious waters of the contemporary art. Not every piece that the IMA shows is a winner (the yarn and almost blank canvas come from the IMA) but the overall level of quality—the sheer number of pieces of conceptual art that actually impressed me, delighted me, made me feel that strange tingly sensation between my ears that my doctor tells me is joy—is unparalleled in any art museum I have ever set foot in.

The very first thing I saw—their “opening salvo”—made me stop and say something I’ve never before said in a contemporary art gallery, “Holy shit, that’s some art!”

At which point a security guard glared at me as if I were a peasant.

1. Soundsuit

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The first duty of any work of art is to be awesome. It has to hold us transfixed with wonder at how—be it novel, painting, sculpture, film, or video game—it could possibly exist.

The terribleness of all the conceptual art we’ve been talking about comes from the fact it tries to create that awe merely through its concept—through the idea behind the art. The measure of its quality becomes, essentially, its cleverness. Cleverness, however, is a very difficult thing to transmit when all your using is a strand of yarn strung across a room. It requires nuance, reference, a clear grasp of its entire cultural context, and demands those things be transmitted immediately. Conceptual art struggles to do that. It’s too blunt, too slow, too imprecise. Too often no one ever figures out what it’s talking about, or if they do figure it out, it takes so much pondering and plaque reading and Wikipedia searching that whatever happens to be there to “get” can’t possibly come across as anything other than trite.

In contrast, whatever ideas the artist Nick Cave (not to be confused with this Nick Cave) tries to convey with his Soundsuit take a backseat to the suit itself. The wonder of the suit is the focus, its intricacies, its colors; its insane, spewing phonograph of a mouth, its luminous knitted floral pants. Like a marvelous painting by Courbet or Seurat, it’s just really cool to look at it. Instead of wondering what Nick Cave is trying to tell you, you wonder how it was Nick Cave was able to assemble all of these trinkets into one free-standing humanoid structure.

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If a work of art is to be successful—if it is to be a true work of art—it can’t lose its audience in a swamp of intellectual abstractions. It has to absorb the audience into itself. It has to make them stand there and ponder the work not out of bewilderment but out of interest and delight.

The Mobius Ship

Mobius Ship

Once in a while, a piece of art actually is clever. For example Tim Hawkinson’s Mobius Ship. This is an artwork founded on a pun. A PUN! And yet it is phenomenal. Again, because the concept—the pun—is quickly submerged beneath the physical artwork itself.

The Soundsuit is a thing that before you saw it you could have never imagined existing; the Mobius Ship doesn’t quite reach that level. It’s an expansion of something you always knew existed—model ship building—but taken in an unexpected direction. But cleverness alone isn’t what makes something a cool work of art. The Mobius Ship actually took effort to make. It’s cool for the same reason an actual model ship is cool—the craftsmanship, the immensity of work that went into shaping each tiny piece of wood, raising each mast, hanging each sail, and tying each strand of rigging.

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Tim Hawkinson worked really hard to make the Mobius Ship. No one worked hard to make that almost blank canvas. No one—other than some Chinese sweat shop laborer—worked hard on that yarn.

3. This Thing That Doesn’t Have a Name

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Good scale model help is hard to find.

We’ve done a lot of taking about how the concept of an artwork needs to take a “backseat,” about how art should just shut up and be beautiful. That’s a good rule of thumb for any aspiring creative type, but it’s not a universal. There are pieces that place their concept front and center and still manage to be interesting works of art. They do this by making the concept and the art itself a unified whole.

One such piece is the work above (which has no title) by Gabriel Pionkowski. What Pionkowski did is take a “ready-made” canvas—like the kind you would buy at Target depicting the skyline of Paris—and unravel all of its threads, draping them one by one over their old frame. This is deconstructionist art at its purest, but also at its best. Because unlike all those deconstructionist novels you were forced to read in college, what it’s deconstructing is actually clearly present in the work itself—a painting.

Art—especially conceptual art—works like a good joke. You need to set the baseline of reality, of expectation, and then deviate from it in some delightful way. If the baseline is not clear, the joke fails. If the deviation is not clear (or inspired) the joke fails. That could have easily happened to this work. If Pionkowski had dumped all the threads on the floor, this work would have sucked because we wouldn’t have known what it was doing until we stumbled over and read the plaque, by which point Oh, I get it; he tore apart a painting! would have been transformed into, Oh, I get it; the asshole tore apart a panting. But because there is the frame, we know immediately that what’s happening here is some sort of parody of a painting. We know its context. We know its intentions. We can read it.

Yet it’s not just a parody of a painting. Unlike the almost blank canvas above, the unraveled canvas is actually an improvement—a thing that transforms a presumably mundane mass produced piece of “art” into something that’s really visually striking. The threads have all these twisting, blending fragments of color and take on a strange ghost-like translucence as they dangle in front of the wall. Like with all good art, you actually want to look at it.

On their own, the visual aspect of the work would be interesting and the concept clever, but together they create something that’s insightful—that doesn’t just “hope” to challenge our understanding of art, but actually does.

4. Floor

Do-Ho Suh's Floor

Unlike the other 3 artworks we’ve been praising, which are essentially glorified sculptures, Do-Ho Suh’s “Floor” is a full-on installation. It takes up an entire gallery room. You walk in and you see this roughly six-inch raised platform sticking up off the floor with a wooden base and a Plexiglas top. In between those two layers are thousands and thousands and thousands of tiny plastic people standing with their arms raised up, the Plexiglas floor resting on their hands.

Unlike the Mobius Ship, there isn’t really a great deal of craftsmanship going on here. The floor is just a floor. The wood just wood. The figures have presumably been manufactured by the thousand with an injection mold somewhere. Do-Ho Suh is not someone with astounding skill at making something; instead it’s the assemblage, the vision of how all these things could work together to create something greater than the sum of their parts.

What makes Do-Ho Suh an artist—a good artist—is that when you walk up and stand on the “Floor” and look down, what you see this:

Floor topdown 2

Tens of thousands of tiny plastic hands holding you up. This, of course, conjures up all sorts of ideas about your place in society, about how the lives of billions have gone before you to prepare the world in which you live, where you get to do luxurious things like wearing softly yellow pants to Midwestern art museums instead of dying in salt mines. But, like draped canvas threads, it’s also pretty. More than pretty, it’s like a pointillist supernova spreading out beneath your feet.

Floor does what installation art is meant to do—create an interaction that goes beyond what you can create just by putting some paint on a canvas or setting a thing on a pedestal. What Ho-Do Suh wants to say demands something much more complicated than that, and so he creates the interaction necessary. He builds his floor, and then lures you on top of it so you can see a hundred thousand tiny, plastic hands reaching up towards you like they were plants and you the sun. That is not an experience that can be replicated any other way. Even photographs of the work are pale, clumsy imitations.

Like the best books are books that could only ever be books, the best works of art are the ones that could never be anything but what they are. You can only unravel a painting by unraveling it. You can only transform a ship into a Mobius strip by building a ship in the shape of a Mobius strip. The idea and the form are a cohesive whole—they’re inseparable. If your art could be more effectively and beautifully replaced by a grandmotherly cross stitch spelling out the thesis of your art, than it’s not very good art and you should maybe consider a career in business management.

(Art is confusing. Why are some paintings good and others bad? Why does everyone love the Venus de Milo so much? What the hell is this that thing hanging in my local art museum? Holy Shit, That’s Some Art is a layman’s attempt to figure it all out and return to the art world that sense of wonder and delight that’s been missing now for at least 50 years. For more follow HSTSA on Twitter.)

  • Guest

    Bryan, thanks for the shoutout to the IMA. However there is some better work there that you didn’t mention.

  • Bryant, thanks for the shoutout to the IMA. However, there are a few piece there that are better than the ones mentioned.

    • Bryant Davis

      I actually have a whole boatload of articles planned out using work from the IMA. Like 10. Look for them in the future! But what particular pieces did you have in mind?

  • Z. LaPorte Airey

    That was very interesting. Art does not always suck!

  • Lodger X-Lodger

    Read the first paragraph and realized this article wasn’t for me – but for idiots who don’t have the intelligence to get art… if you don’t understand why Duchamp’s ready mades were important works of art in their time – go to freaking Cheesecake Factory – have a Miller Genuine Draft and STFU

    • Sarah Rembold

      Please read the full article before you make such sweeping, damning generalizations. Everyone sees the world differently and their opinions are informed through their educations and personal experiences. It is ludicrous and unfair to label anyone who does not like Duchamp an uneducated idiot–I have a BFA magna cum laude and I hate Duchamp’s work, as well as that yarn piece. I understand how Duchamp contributed to art, but that doesn’t mean I like his work or think it sent the art world in a good direction.

      In writing this critique, this writer has done something many people in the art world are afraid to do: called it as he sees it, and spoken out about his distaste for the fads that have informed modern art. He defends his opinions not with generalizations but specific examples, and comes across as critiquing from a well-thought-out and educated standpoint. The world needs people like this, because those who are unafraid to question societal norms end up producing great change.

      Truth is, no one knows what art really is, because it’s different for each person. The point of art is not to “get” it, but question the status quo. If everyone agreed on what made art, the field would never advance! And the point of an education in art is to teach one to approach every work–modern and classical–with a critical eye. In that regard, this writer has done an excellent job. I may not agree with all he says (I hate Soundsuit), but I am impressed with his critique and courage to speak out. So please, take the time to read and consider the full article before speaking in such an unkind manner. Otherwise you risk coming off as impolite and irrelevant.

      • Bryant Davis

        Thanks Sarah! You’ve defended me better than I ever could.

        I wouldn’t call what I’ve done courageous because it’s not like there’s consequences for displeasing guys like Lodger X-Lodger, but I do think–as you say–art has become stagnant and hermetic and disinterested in actually interacting with anyone outside of its own little elite clique.

        People try to argue that’s because the world has turned its back on art, discarded it like it’s discarded poetry and literature and so on, but I think that’s nonsense. I think that art exists only on the margins of society because that’s where the artists who make art want to be–they want to be ignored, because it’s safer.

        There’s a thing the lunatic Nietzsche once said that’s always stuck with me about how most philosophers are more afraid of being understood than misunderstood. If no one can understand you, no one can judge you. They can’t say you’re right or wrong. Instead all they can do is either admit their ignorance or praise you in the hopes that no one notices their ignorance. It’s become a feedback loop as miserable and poisonous as the one my grandpa falls into when he watches nothing but FoxNews all day.

      • Glenn LaVertu

        The problem I have with this article is that the writer resorts to a lot of judgement. I know I know, you said: “In writing this critique, this writer has done something many people in the art world are afraid to do: called it as he sees it,” but truthfully there are 2 kinds of criticisms published frequently: judgmental, and merely descriptive. Descriptive is boring and tells us almost nothing. It tends to read like an advert. But judgement is too closed, doesn’t allow the reader much room. Calling conceptual art “terrible” is a blanket statement that can exclude your readers if they come to the article liking some of it already. The reasons given for not liking conceptual art are also very cliché and not very thoughtful. There are plenty of CAs whose works are spellbinding if you open yourself up to it.
        Anyway… I also feel the need to mention that none of the artists used as a contrast Hawkinson, Cave etc, are not really conceptual artists. In the pure definition of the genre anyway. Otherwise… everyone is a conceptual artist.

        • Bryant Davis

          You’re not wrong when you say my article is judgmental. I meant it to be. That can be confrontational or off putting, I suppose, but I feel like the lack of judgment, the unwillingness to say anything but the “nothing” you describe, is a big part of what makes art so alienating to the world at large. I came up through the literary art world, and I remember reading essay after essay of literary criticism, hundreds of them, and sitting in classes and lectures with professors who were paid astronomical amounts of money to be there because they were supposed to be the best in the world, and yet they would never say anything about anything. It was all, “Isn’t this interesting?” Nothing that a person could ever agree or disagree with.

          I think this is one of the things that keeps art so isolated from people, so opaque to hundreds of thousands of people who are smart, thoughtful people, people who read serious books, people who go to art museums, people who are willing to put in the effort to appreciate all this modern or conceptual or abstract or whatever art, but are just bewildered. If you ask someone in the academy why a work is good, they’ll either talk down to you like you’re an idiot and should already know why it’s good or give you a twenty minute mumbled about “identity theory” or “deconstructionism.” None of that helps anyone. It gives them no framework with which human beings outside of the academy—human beings with actual lives—people to whom art, if it is to be of any consequence whatsoever, has to speak—can figure out what the hell is going on.

          You can say that the opinions I express are judgmental, reductionist, simplified, and all that has some truth to it, but they offer people something that they can either agree with or reject, debate or battle or insult, all of which gets them doing their own thinking about the workings of art, allows them to have their own thoughts about art. Strong opinions, regardless of their correctness, offer people a platform in the muck and mire of art from which they can venture out on their own. Soft opinions only add to the mud.

          • Val Figlio

            Everything shown above sucks. Nothing requires talent. “Artists” today spend 4 years in the university learnning how to be instagram’s and facebook shallow posers. they dont know history, geometry, perspective, how to paint or how to draw.

          • Bryant Davis

            I don’t know, dude. I feel like it’s hard to judge a bunch of people who didn’t make paintings for not being good painters. That’s like yelling at a poet for not being a better novelist.

            And these people clearly do have good conceptions of geometry and perspective. How can you create the Meobius Ship without understanding how people perceive shape and space? How can you make the Sound Suit without understanding the way colors bend and weave together?

          • Glenn LaVertu

            I’ve seen talented artists make complete shit throughout their lives. Talent is over-rated.

          • Glenn LaVertu

            My point is that strong opinions often have no supporting evidence to back it up and are simply expressions of personal opinion. I’m not sure what a soft opinion is. To me it’s soft if you can’t back it up.

            I write about art and have critiques with students and visit artists’ studios and I only offer my interpretations, not my opinion. I never say if i “like” something or detest it. Who cares whether I like it or not? The art is the art and my job/our jobs are to figure out what it is and what it’s personality is. If it is a weak work the interpretation will reflect it without offering a judgment. After that its up to the artist and the audience to consider that interpretation and the supporting reasoning that led to it.

        • ChuSez

          Can’t have any of that there “judgement”, no siree Bob.
          The entire Modern Art market might collapse!

          • Glenn LaVertu

            Judgement is nothing more than an expression of personal taste. Interpretation offers a line of thinking that everyone can relate to, and even offer their own point of view to. Judgements mean nothing. Interpretations keep art alive: shitty or brilliant as they may be. Taste changes but the understanding of that artwork only deepens.

            I don’t care about the art market myself. Art is not about money.

          • ChuSez

            “judg·ment
            noun: judgement
            1 the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.”

            A teachable moment.

          • Glenn LaVertu

            Except that is not really what the notion of judgment winds up accomplishing. Instead it creates the air of empiricism and contributes to the narrative of a hierarchal value system.

            Interpretation offers an open dialogue that creates knowledge value with concern to experience: the personality of the art-object (or any object or event really). Rather than approaching this with the idea that there are criteria to be met, the interpreted experience offers that the thing itself has something to offer, within a set of criteria made for itself.
            In the end interpretation can conclude as evidentially supported possibilities or a series of “a judgments” that are based on the guidelines the work has laid for itself, rather than some phony market, or contrived idea of art-“standards.”

    • ChuSez

      Ah! A self deluded pseudo intellectual lover of Modern Art fluent in BoHo clap trap.
      You should have posted that at The Onion!

      • Glenn LaVertu

        I agree with you there. It’s a bullshit response.

  • alderblight

    None of the work you highlighted is Conceptual work. The standard definition of Conceptual Art is when the concept or idea takes precedence over formal considerations, which is not the case in the work you posted. Think Michael Asher, Joseph Kosuth, etc. Simply having an idea as part of the work doesn’t make it “conceptual”. The works you posted are all intensely formal, rather traditional, works of art. I like Nick Cave quite a bit, not trashing any of these artists (except maybe Hawkinson, who I think is cheesy). I’m assuming the string work you said was “terrible” was by by Fred Sandback, who is pretty awesome if you take the time. There are a few lines in the article that lead me to believe that you think the role of the artist is to entertain their audience (“they have wasted their audience’s time.”). The viewer makes a choice whether to engage with an artist’s work, and if the work doesn’t resonate with the viewer, so be it, but to say the artist “wasted the viewers time” is absolutely absurd and reveals how shallow the depth of your understanding of contemporary art is.

  • Val Figlio

    But what is the goal of artists today? The idea today is “Concept” “creative” “Cool” “Viral” the “ideai” itself. And yes, i belive if your call yourself a artist you have to at least master the craft of making art. People, since the last century, go to art exibition and feel stupidy. They don’t understand a shit about what they see. So, a idiot has to come and explain “the concept” behind the work. Artist today dont even know how to draw or sculpt. And if you know how to draw they call you “a academic”. Art used to be something that was used to elevate us, not our egos. Modern times distroyed art, literature and now were watchin music die.

  • Alice Hilaire

    I absolutely loved reading this article. It moved me as an artist and as someone who grew up in a family who doesn’t appreciate or in general, open up their mind. Conceptual art is definitely a unique perspective for everyone, which is why I love it so much. And I also see how it connects the diversities in this world. Frankly, even great and open minded artists don’t always understand or can’t read the concept of a piece, which I find was also explained in this reading. I also enjoyed the fact that in the article, there was clear explanation of both sides. That maybe the artist was being a pretentious shit; furthermore, the artist not being able to communicate to the viewers, as is his job as a conceptual artists, is a failure if those are to be the terms. I read the entire article because there was a lot of voice and opinion to be read from this, which I admired greatly.

  • Jordan Hance

    I just read this article now, FANTASTIC! I, myself, am also a practising artist and this whole conceptual art movement angers me a lot. I believe that good art involves good technical skill not just the ability to look at something and say “this is art”. I am a lover of painting, and pride myself on my artistic ability to produce realistic, moving works, while people I studied with are churning out the yarn threads and blank canvases. I found myself laughing in agreement to some of your descriptions, they are hilarious, but sad too because contemporary art, especially conceptual, is becoming a joke. Much like music’s transition to talentless noise, art too is moving in that direction. Bring back the high technical skill of art!