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Conceptual art

1. Precedents

Source: Oxford University Press

In the mid-17th century, Poussin defined classicizing painting as ‘nothing but an idea of incorporeal things’ (see Holt). Only in the early 20th century, however, did artists question the traditional emphasis on perception and on finished objects. The Dadaists, particularly Marcel Duchamp with his invention of the Ready-made in 1913, countered the ‘retinal’ qualities of beautifully made, unique objects whose status was linked to a monetary value with an art consciously placed ‘at the service of the mind’. Duchamp’s ready-mades, intellectually rather than manually conceived by ascribing a new use to old objects, demonstrated how art was defined by means of ideological mediation and institutional presentation within a determined historical context. He stressed the role of the spectator in constituting the meaning of these works, and by placing them in conventional exhibition spaces sought to destroy their atmosphere of cultural sanctification. Moreover, by rejecting the assumed link between aesthetic and monetary worth Duchamp emphasized in 1961 that his choice had been based on ‘visual indifference with, at the same time, a total absence of good or bad taste’ (Sanouillet and Peterson, p. 141).

The position formulated by the Dadaists in response to the mood of crisis that emerged in Europe after World War I was resuscitated in the 1950s and 1960s, another time of social upheaval, particularly by American artists sometimes referred to as Neo-Dadaists. Robert Rauschenberg, for example, literally effaced the Western view of the heroic individual creating precious objects when in 1953 he acquired a drawing from Willem de Kooning, erased it and then exhibited the result as Erased de Kooning Drawing; when invited in 1960 to participate in a show featuring 40 portraits of dealer Iris Clert he sent a telegram to the gallery stating that ‘This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so’. Robert Morris also anticipated notions central to conceptual art in works such as Document (1963; New York, MOMA), a relief construction from which he had removed ‘all aesthetic quality and content’ in a notarized ‘Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal’; its acquisition by an esteemed cultural institution further highlighted its ironic stance.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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