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Woman and Child on a Bicycle
by John Bourne

Conceptual art theory postulates that in artistic activity the idea is paramount and that language becomes the fundamental material of art. Such "dematerialised" art is therefore often accompanied by expository titles, textual "propositions" and other types of supporting literature which comprise the "content" of the Conceptual work.

But..... art is not good at literature! Don't just take my word for it. Paul Cezanne wrote to Emile Bernard in 1904:
"Literature expresses itself by abstractions, whereas painting by means of drawing and color gives concrete shape to sensations and perceptions."
and Cezanne wrote again to Emile Bernard in the same year:
"The artist must scorn all judgement that is not based on an intelligent observation of character. He must beware of the literary spirit which so often causes painting to deviate from it's true path - the concrete study of nature - to lose itself all too long in intangible speculations."
A prophetic statement in 1904 and one which now seems to have anticipated the artistic cul-de-sac into which Conceptual artists later stampeded and then tried to define as the whole of the artistic world. Cezanne is warning that "the literary spirit" and "intangible speculations" cause painting to deviate from it's true path which is the concrete study of nature.How right he was! He would I am confident have reminded today's Conceptual artists that words are the raw material of "wordsmiths", like authors who write books, poets who write poems, journalists who file their daily copy and philosophers who use words, by means of reason and argument, to establish the cause and nature of things and the principles governing existence....... but words can NOT be the raw material of artists.

Conceptual artists fail to attain meaningful content in their works for two principal reasons.

1 Conceptual artists fail to attain meaningful content in their works because they rely heavily upon the inappropriate conduit of words to channel their intended messages. This critical procedural error is compounded by the fact that they are poor wordsmiths and inept philosophers so that even the (misplaced) literary "content" of their works languishes at a trivial level.

2 Conceptual artists fail to attain meaningful content in their works because they do little or nothing to the subjects they have chosen to raise them to the status of content. This needs explaining. A work of art must have a subject whether it be the hay cart in "The Haywain" or the dead shark in "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living". At that point, it is then how the artist treats that subject which determines the possibilities of that subject and what content is thereby created. So, it is the artist's attitude towards his subject which makes that subject into content.

Ernst Fischer in "The Necessity of Art" puts the issue of subject and content like this:
" Subject is raised to the status of content only by the artist's attitude, for content is not only what is presented but also how it is presented, in what context, with what degree of social and individual consciousness. A subject like 'harvest' can be treated as a charming idyll, as a conventional genre picture, as an inhuman ordeal or as the victory of man over nature: everything depends on the artist's view, on whether he speaks as an apologist of the ruling class, a sentimental Sunday tripper, a disgruntled peasant, or a revolutionary socialist."
For example, Constable in "The Haywain" could have chosen to depict the subject of the empty hay cart in a variety of different ways. Characteristically, he chose to portray the hay cart in a simple rural scene, fording the river. As E H Gombrich says in "The Story of Art" P 375:
"We must lose ourselves in the picture, watch the patches of sunlight on the meadows in the background and look at the drifting clouds; we must follow the course of the river, and linger by the mill which is painted with such restraint and simplicity, to appreciate the artist's absolute sincerity, his refusal to be more impressive than nature, and his complete lack of pose and pretentiousness."
By way of contrast, take a look now at Damien Hirst's dead shark entitled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" whose subject is a dead shark. Notwithstanding the title of the work, the subject of the dead shark adds nothing to our understanding of death nor to our understanding of our ability, or inability, to come to terms with the concept of death. Hirst's subject remains a dead shark whose only added dimension is the surprise to the viewer of finding it in a tank in a gallery rather than where one would expect it to be in the sea or on the beach. The way the shark is presented i.e. as a dead shark, leaves one in no doubt that it remains the unaltered subject of the artwork and that it adds nothing to the quasi-philosophy of the title. The shark as subject does not deal with the issues surrounding death, other than by being dead. Subject remains subject and is not raised to the status of content.

Conceptual art is therefore inadequate because it is almost entirely devoid of significant content and because the artist remains frozen before his subject.The only work he/she is prepared to devote to their subject is either literary (the intangible speculations of Cezanne's view above) or the re- arrangement of Ready Made items. Since the only attitudes towards the subject which he/she adopts are those of the "wordsmith" and the interior decorator or arranger, it is unsurprising that subject remains stubbornly subject and is never raised to the status of content.
In contrast, art requires not only a subject but an artwork which so expresses the subject that the artist's attitude to the subject , the content, is made manifest by the artwork itself. The title to an artwork is relatively less important, serving usually merely as an identifier of the work in question.

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