Concept versus Skill axiology: From the Old Masters to the YBA’s

I wish to argue that an attempt at comparison between art produced by today’s conceptual artists, some of the YBA’s for example and art from the traditions of the West in the past, is wrong and misguided. I was moved to contribute to this debate as a differential between artworks that utilise predominantly more skill or concept, can be found in today’s art world and my own practice as I produce  conceptual art works, occasionally using traditional techniques.  My practice, being as it is focussed on dual streams of output: writing and making, with the making portion possibly unnecessarily encumbered by ‘stuff’ and weighed down considerably with what I like to term ‘skills’, and the writing part fluid but hinged on theory, occasionally at odds but sometimes driving my physical output;  I need to get a few things straight in my own mind, so I will be updating this post until I am happy with it; please feel free to put any constructive comments below.R.I.P. Video stillStill from my video R.I.P. 2008 Perhaps it is evidence of the hand of the artist in the production of art that is missing when people bemoan the loss of what are perceived as ‘traditional’ skills in art? Do they long for a day when art returns to an imagined ‘golden age’, where the great project of art is returned to decoration and straight forward representation? (And of years of toil and hardship). Presumably ‘suffering’ and ‘starvation’ are also in demand back-stories to the production of art-works that are also over-due restoration? What occasionally slips the attention of such critics is that many of  the renaissance ‘masters’ had a cure for the ills of poverty and misery: employ people with highly specialised skills, so more works can be completed more quickly, thereby increasing profits i.e. Industrialisation. The system of studios and apprentices was the most prevalent way of an aspiring artist could acquire the skills to progress as formal ‘art schools’ didn’t really exist as they do today. Even Michaelangelo trained in the busy studio of other artists, first in the technique of fresco painting by Ghirlandaio; then under the patronage of Lorenzo, in the Medici school where he became a sculptor, but it was also common for artists who were not so determined or able to practice one or two areas for their entire careers, painting hands or drapery for example. The studio of Tintoretto 1537-1612The studio of Tintoretto C 1608 by Odorado Fialetti As many people site the so-called Renaissance masters as setting the bench mark for ‘skill’ in art production, it must be remembered that the renaissance artists looked to the art of antiquity for their inspiration. Renaissance literally means ‘rebirth’, in French renaissance, from re- ‘back, again’ + naissance ‘birth’ (from Latin nascentia, from nasci ‘be born’). One must therefore include the work produced by the artists of antiquity as also being representative of, and epitomising these ‘traditional’ skills. However, we have still to discern the true nature of (this art), which is know to us, for the most part, only through copies; such was the success in bridging the centuries that these came to be seen as originals (Duval 2002). Non of the work produced by the artists of legend: Myron, Polyclitus, Phidias or Praxiteles is known to have survived, but it is probable that their individual breakthroughs in terms of subject and rendering were taken up and adapted by their  successors. These early works also lead us to consider the origins of the concept of art, and this is the crucial question: why was it produced? If to western eyes, ancient Greece has become the inception point and the culture to whom we owe the triumph of anthropomorphic representation, any sensible reading must situate Greek sculpture within it’s milieu. These works were not only concerned with the idealization of beauty, they served many other functions as well: Religious, Votive, commemorative and political. We can see that by considering the function of this art in terms of it’s setting ‘we can renew our understanding of masterpieces that we have tended to view only in the narrow context of a quest for ‘naturalistic idealization” (ibid). However any essentialist critique suggesting that the more well known artists from the history of art somehow appeared as fully formed geniuses is a dangerous and misguided one. There was no ‘master race’ of artists as we understand the phrase from the history of the 20th century. As Man Ray observes in his 1948 essay ‘To Be Continued, Unnoticed’: ‘There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.’ If The Romans looked to the Greeks for their inspiration, the Greeks saw the works of Egypt and were inspired; similarly the Egyptians were doubtless inspired by even earlier civilisations. Was the art of the ancient world carried out by individuals working in isolation? Hardly, the ‘Old Masters’ maintained their factories just as Damian Hurst does. Industrialisation of the production method itself becomes a watershed that actually unites these seemingly disparate areas of skill and concept, when a comparison is attempted of  the output from these two teleologically and philosophically divergent artistic domains; but industrialisation is not at issue here per se.

So what are we talking about when we say Conceptual art?

Usually first off in this debate, when encountering conceptual art comes the question: “where’s the skill in that?” when attempting to locate oneself within the conceptual-art frame of reference. The skill in these art-works are the ideas behind them, and it’s the ideas behind them that are the most important component, as Sol Le Witt first articulated in 1967:

‘In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art’.

These days however, ‘conceptual’ means most contemporary art. Certainly it’s true to an extent that some conceptual art  is more provisional in terms of the shelf-life of it’s construction, but we also hear researchers frequently admitting they will never fully piece together ancient texts, that the meanings of some Meso-american artworks are too opaque for a concise reading. I mean, how much Etruscan art, for example, is there left really? Chares of Lindos Chares of Lindos whose work can still be found on the steps to the Lindian acropolis was a pupil of Lyssipus. It is true that there are no extant surviving works of Lysipuss, the Greek ‘father’ of sculpture – but whose echo’s may still be felt, but how do these ephemeral influences stack up against the conceptual. Do these whispers of artistic immortality compete in some way with a contemporary practice? They certainly play part: the work Chares is most famous for is the Colossus of Rhodes the influence of which can be seen in the Statue of Liberty Colossus vs Liberty A contemporary rebuilding was proposed, orchestrated in part by the late artist Gert Hoff, and as this article in the Guardian shows was to be comprised in some part by light, which as a medium is shared with many conceptual artists, from Eliasson to Turrell. And as a material for art it speaks more of the phenomena of personal experience itself than the reliable gravitas of bronze can ever do – it may barely exist but it has the ability to serve up our senses before us, what could be more democratic than that? Paradoxically, it is the meaning of our own witnessed phenomena that we seek an explanation for, a reading done for us to help us understand this type of art; when intuitively it’s work produced by artists distant from our age whose intentions, frequently can only be guessed at that needs the explanation. Performance art, similarly, barely exists. This was the whole point, it is (was) deliberately disruptive to dominant political ideologies and ‘challenging orthodox art forms and cultural norms’, as Adrian Parr (2005) suggests ‘the ideal had been an ephemeral and authentic experience for performer and audience in an event that could not be repeated, captured or purchased’. This disruption of the class backed, dominant heirarchical and some would say – phallo-centric privilege – that has driven art commodification in the 20th C seems to have waned in recent years and the artists ego is now flagrantly back on the table. Witness the size of Damian Hurst. In the Tracey Emin exhibition at the Turner Contemporary earlier this year; the gallery hung some of her drawings next to works by Rodin, William Blake and Moore. She came off rather well and her large scale embroidery was exquisite, a real tour de force. I know Tracey’s work at the Turner isn’t really that representative of ‘conceptual’ art but she has been thus labelled in the past with her un-made bed and the tent and other stuff. That she’s making things collectors can buy tells us quite a lot about the state of Art in the current climate, not least of the impact Hurst and others made hugely wealthy by acceptance by the – whom I will term – ‘elites’ a-tracy-eminTracey’s bed

At first glance the larger works in the Turner Contemporary show seemed to be blown up versions of her smaller wet sketches but as one approaches it is clear that they are actually embroidered and what seemed at first louch and a tad lazy suddenly becomes enormously studied when it dawns on the viewer that they have been produced with an incredible amount of love and care. The works’ aesthetic reminds me of an eastern calligraphy hovering somewhere between the figurative and the abstract and the figure is transformed by the process.  I’ll concede some conceptual art can look a bit sketchy, perhaps this is the legacy of the abstract expressionists, but I find works that are too ‘polished’ don’t let me in, and are a bit austere. I would happily hang one of these in my house but I would have to remodel the rest of the interior to suit! In fact I would have to sell my house and just sit in a car-park somewhere with just the art work.  They don’t appear visually dense to begin with but they soon become it. Tracey Emin. She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea. at Turner Contemporary installation view. Image courtesy of Stephen WhiteEmin’s singular aesthetic 

As conceptual art is a distinct movement, and like all movements in art production, it has arisen from a contemporary discourse about what Art is. Thus, situating a reflective practice within a contemporary historical perspective connects it to the current ideas and philosophies of the day. However averse the artist finds the culture of the time. Artists have always sought to closely examine the time they find themselves in and respond in whatever way made most sense to them, take a look at these: bruegel_hunters_in_the_snowBrueghel constantly questioning morality Manet,_Edouard_-_Olympia,_1863Manet’s Olympia upsetting a lot of people, but mainly the Victorians crowsVincent’s last, you can almost feel the tension in Europe building. sol-lewitt-brushstrokesSol Le Witt’s modernism closing the distance. james-turrellJames Turrell: immersive and oddly messianic futurism.

The need for art to move forward to maintain it’s relevancy is a problem? Venus vs Alison Venus vs Alison Lapper, pregnant by Mark Quinn

A contemporary reference itself has re-informed artists with a new set of dilemmas and the ‘skill’ is in how we respond to them. To be completely frank here, if I found myself somehow constrained to the limits of the pre-Raphaelites in terms of philosophical aesthetics or even what was available to me as a palette, I wouldn’t be making art, it just wouldn’t be honest. I’d do something else. – I do like the pre-Raphaelites (sometimes!), I live in Birmingham how could I escape them… pretty-baa-lambs- Ford Maddox-Brown1852 Ford Maddox-Brown’s ‘Pretty Baa Lambs’, Jesus wept.

To make historically relevant work, future oriented approaches need to be evaluated and utilised, it’s a tool box. I personally use skills and techniques that have changed little in millennia, it’s the context they are re-presented in that takes a nuanced approach to the idea of skill, in other words it’s not how you create, but what you create.


Adams, Stephen (2008) The Telegraph, 16 Sep 2008, on-line, accessed from: 11/1/2013

Duval, Jean-Luc (2002). Sculpture, from antiquity to the present day. Koln: Taschen. 5th Ed, p9

Man Ray, (1948). essay, To Be Continued, Unnoticed. on-line, accessed from: 20/1/2013 Oxford

Parr, Adrian (2005). Adrian Parr. ed. Becoming + Performance Art. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 25, 2. ISBN 0-7486-1898-8 / 0748618996. Retrieved 2010-10-26.

Sol Le Witt (1967). Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. Artforum 5, No 10, p79



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