An examination of conceptual art, in today’s New York Times.
Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?
By DENIS DUTTON
The New York Times, October 15, 2009
Christchurch, New Zealand
Art’s link with money is not new, though it does continue to generate surprises. On Friday night, Christie’s in London plans to auction another of Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets: literally a small, sliding-glass medicine cabinet containing a few dozen bottles or tubes of standard pharmaceuticals: nasal spray, penicillin tablets, vitamins and so forth. This work is not as grand as a Hirst shark, floating eerily in a giant vat of formaldehyde, one of which sold for more than $12 million a few years ago. Still, the estimate of up to $239,000 for the medicine cabinet is impressive — rather more impressive than the work itself.
No disputing tastes, of course, if yours lean toward the aesthetic contemplation of an orderly medicine cabinet. Buy it, and you acquire a work of art by the world’s richest and — by that criterion — most successful living artist. Still, neither this piece nor Mr. Hirst’s dissected calves and embalmed horses are quite “by” the artist in a conventional sense. Mr. Hirst’s name rightfully goes on them because they were his conceptions. However, he did not reproduce any of the medicine bottles or boxes in his cabinet (in the way that Warhol actually recreated Brillo boxes), nor did he catch a shark or do the taxidermy.
In this respect, the pricey medicine cabinet belongs to a tradition of conceptual art: works we admire not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept. Mr. Hirst has a talent for coming up with concepts that capture the attention of the art market, putting him in the company of other big names who have now and again moved away from making art with their own hands: Jeff Koons, for example, who has put vacuum cleaners into Plexiglas cases and commissioned an Italian porcelain manufacturer to make a cheesy gold and white sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. Mr. Koons need not touch the art his contractors produce; the ideas are his, and that’s enough.
Sophisticated gallery owners or curators normally respond with withering condescension to worries about the lack of craftsmanship in contemporary art. Art has moved on, I’ve heard it argued, since Victorian times, when “she’d painted every hair” was ordinary aesthetic praise. What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.
Since the endearingly witty Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art 90 years ago by offering his “ready-mades” — a urinal or a snow shovel, for instance — for gallery shows, the genre has degenerated. Duchamp, an authentic artistic genius, was in 1917 making sport of the art establishment and its stuffy values. By the time we get to 2009, Mr. Hirst and Mr. Koons are the establishment.
Does this mean that conceptual art is here to stay? That is not at all certain, and it is not just auction results that are relevant to the issue. To see why works of conceptual art have an inherent investment risk, we must look back at the whole history of art, including art’s most ancient prehistory.
It is widely assumed that the earliest human art works are the stupendously skillful cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet, the latter perhaps 32,000 years old, along with a few small realistic sculptures of women and of animals from the same period. But artistic and decorative behavior emerged in a far more distant past. Shell necklaces that look like something you would see at a tourist resort, as well as evidence of ochre body paint, have been found from more than 100,000 years ago. But the most intriguing prehistoric artifacts are much older even than that. I have in mind the so-called Acheulian hand axes.
The earliest stone tools are choppers and blades found in Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, from 2.5 million years ago. These unadorned tools remained unchanged for thousands of centuries, until around 1.4 million years ago when Homo ergaster, Homo erectus and other human ancestral groups started doing something new and remarkable. They began shaping single, thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals, but often in what to our eyes are arresting symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop forms. Acheulian hand axes (after St.-Acheul in France, a site of 19th-century finds) have been unearthed in their thousands, scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa, wherever Homo erectus roamed.
The sheer numbers of hand axes indicate a rate of manufacture beyond needs for butchering animals. Even more curious, unlike other prehistoric stone tools, hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges, and some are in any case too big for practical use. They are occasionally hewn from colorful stone materials (even with decoratively embedded fossils). Their symmetry, materials and above all meticulous workmanship makes them quite simply beautiful to our eyes. What were these ancient yet somehow familiar artifacts for?
The best available explanation is that they are literally the earliest known works of art — practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and virtuoso craftsmanship. Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human prehistory, tools attractively fashioned to function as what Darwinians call “fitness signals” — displays like the glorious peacock’s tail, which functions to show peahens the strength and vitality of the males who display it.
Hand axes, however, were not grown, but consciously, cleverly made. They were therefore able to indicate desirable personal qualities: intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability and conscientiousness. Such skills gained for those who displayed them status and a reproductive advantage over the less capable. Across many thousands of generations this translated into both an increase in intelligence and an evolved sense that the symmetry and craftsmanship of hand axes is “beautiful.”
Aesthetically pleasing hand axes constitute an unbroken Stone-Age tradition that stretches over a million years, ending 100,000 to 150,000 years ago, about the time that their makers’ African descendants, now called Homo sapiens, started to become articulate speakers of language. These humans were probably finding new ways to amuse and amaze one another with — who knows? — jokes, dramatic storytelling, dancing or hairstyling. Alas, geological layers do not record these other, more perishable aspects of prehistoric life. For us moderns, the arts have come to depict imaginary worlds and express intense emotions with music, painting, dance and fiction.
However, one trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the pleasure we take in admiring skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall — where now and again the Homo erectus hairs stand up on the backs of our necks — human beings have a permanent, innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts.
We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture. Evidence is all around us. Even when we have lost contact with the social or religious ideas behind the arts of bygone civilizations, we are still able, as with the great bronzes or temples of Greece or ancient China, to respond directly to craftsmanship. The direct response to skill is what makes it possible to find beauty in many tribal arts even though we often know nothing about the beliefs of the people who created them. There is no place on earth where superlative technique in music and dance is not regarded as beautiful.
The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.
In this respect, I can’t help regarding medicine cabinets, vacuum cleaners and dead sharks as reckless investments. Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner, and wondering why.
But that doesn’t mean we need to worry about the future of art. There are plenty of prodigious artists at work in every medium, ready to wow us with surprising skills. And yes, now and again I walk past a jewelry shop window and stop, transfixed by a sparkling, teardrop-shaped precious stone. Our distant ancestors loved that shape, and found beauty in the skill needed to make it — even before they could put their love into words.
Denis Dutton is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the author of “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.”