Theories of Conceptual Art

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  • 0:01 What Is Conceptual Art?
  • 0:43 Background
  • 3:13 Conceptualism
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We often think about art as a visual experience, but it's also an intellectual one and, to some people, that's really the part that matters. Explore the basic ideas behind conceptual art and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

What Is Conceptual Art?

Hmmm... this is art, right? I'm not quite sure I like how this looks. Good thing the appearance doesn't really matter! That's right, even though this is visual art, the appearance isn't that important. Why? Because this is conceptual art, meaning that the idea or concept behind the art is more important than the finished product. The real art, the real purpose, is to explore intellectual ideas through the act of artistic creation, but once you've done that, the meaning of the art is achieved, regardless of the appearance. Think that's cool? Well, that's the concept.

Conceptual Art


The ideas behind conceptual art, at least in the modern sense, date back to the early 20th century. Around World War I, abstract art was really becoming popular, and people around the world were starting to devote more time to answering this question: what is art? And that's where we find this guy, Marcel Duchamp, a French (and later) American painter and sculptor who was tired of the then-prominent idea that art should be focused almost exclusively on its visual qualities. So, Duchamp decided that art needed to be more conceptual, more about the meaning than anything else.

Marcel Duchamp

And he made this; this is the Fountain, created in 1917. It's a urinal, flipped on its side and inscribed with the words 'R. Mutt 1917'. Seriously. Duchamp often made pieces like this, which he called readymades because they were built with premade parts. Duchamp went to a store, bought an item, and altered it just slightly enough to make it art. See what he's doing here? He's removing the artist's control over the visual elements, thus placing the entire value of the art on its meaning. I'll let you think about what meaning may have been intended by labeling a urinal as fine art.

The Fountain

Duchamp was not the only artist to do this, although he was a pioneering figure in this idea. There was actually an entire movement dedicated to this. It was called Dada, and was characterized by conceptual art that embraced an anarchic sense of the absurd. Here's a great example; this is Kurt Schwitters, a German artist of the early 20th century, and this is his Merz 460, a collage created in 1921. Like Duchamp, Shwitters relied on found, or premade objects, and then arranged them into art.

Merz 460 by Schwitters

In this case, it was pieces of trash and scraps of discarded paper, made into a collage. While Schwitters did arrange these pieces in an aesthetic way, again, it's not the final product that is the point. By using scraps of paper that he happened to find, Schwitters embodied the Dada reliance on chance, freedom, and anarchy to challenge the illusion of control.


The works of early 20th-century modern artists helped set the foundations for conceptual art. However, the first movement to completely embrace conceptual art was conceptualism in the 1960s. That's where the term 'conceptual art' was truly coined and defined and it's largely thanks to this guy, American artist Sol LeWitt. LeWitt's Sentences on Conceptual Art were the first academic essays to really define the goal and methods of conceptual art as being completely about the idea or concept, not the visual product.

In fact, LeWitt commonly did not 'make' his art at all. He planned it, he designed it, he plotted out every aspect of it, and then hired someone else to carry it out. 'The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,' he wrote. The most famous examples of this are his wall drawings, repetitions of geometric shapes broken into basic components. LeWitt planned and designed these wall-sized murals, and then often hired drafting teams to install them. What mattered was the concept, the plan, the idea. The rest could be taken over by someone else.


LeWitt's process became very common. Pop artist Andy Warhol even called his own studio 'The Factory' because his assistants made all of his art on industrial machines. One of the biggest names in conceptual art during this period was Robert Smithson, American landscape artist and photographer. Smithson was fascinated by the idea of the picturesque landscape, which artistically is pretty much the balance of aesthetic beauty in nature. Smithson decided to focus on human interaction with the landscape.

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