The Concept Continuum

We can perhaps think of the role of concept in art on a continuum.  

At one end of the spectrum we have art about art where concept is king.  An example is Marcel Duchamp's readymades.  As a Canadian the snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm) is especially appealing.  From Moma Learning:

To make In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp selected a snow shovel, hung it from the ceiling of his studio, and called it art. . His readymades—mass-produced, functional objects he designated as art—challenged many accepted assumptions and traditions, namely that art should reflect an artist’s skills, or even be handcrafted by the artist. Duchamp asserted that an artist could create simply by making choices.

Such self-referential work spirals in upon itself until there's nothing left.  It's not like you can make a practice of sticking shovels in an art gallery.  Otherwise, art schools would only need to teach students how to find the nearest Canadian Tire.  That doesn't stop some members of academia from trying to find ever more obscure and convoluted ways to make clever statements mostly appreciated by those in the know.  But I digress.   

A little further along the continuum we have photographs of photographs.  Richard Prince is well known for his Cowboy photographs.  

Richard Prince came to the attention of the art world in the 1980s for appropriating the Marlboro Man advertisements into his own photographs. When he started appropriating images he was working at Time-Life in the tear-sheet department. “At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject.” He would rephotograph the advertisementsand then crop them to remove the text and most references to the cigarettes they were selling. Eventually one of his Cowboy photographs would become the first photo sold for more than $1 million. In 2007 he reset the record price for a photograph by selling “Untitled (Cowboy)” for $3,401,000 at an auction.
— James Franco

From this article.


This kind of work where concept is king doesn't appeal to me that much.  But further along the continuum we find ourselves visiting artists such as the recently deceased Lewis Baltz.  From a tribute by Gerry Badger:

Baltz was a leading figure in the field of what has come to be called ‘conceptual’ photography.’ Indeed, he was actually the Professor of Conceptual Photography at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. But the term ‘conceptual’ photography, like ‘documentary’ photography, can be difficult to define, and is a complex beast; not quite a school, not quite a defined approach.

But then Lewis belonged to no school, and in his hands, the conceptual approach certainly was both complex and meaningful, unlike so much contemporary photography that pretends to have a concept where in fact it has little, and is merely a regurgitating of formulaic strategies that lack either intelligence or soul.
— Gerry Badger

Baltz is best know for works such as The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California.  There's a great deal of over-wrought writing about this work, but Tyler Green does a good job summarizing it here.  From that article:

New Industrial Parks, which Baltz shot in 1974 with a 35mm camera and the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, is one of the masterworks of the 1970s. Baltz’s project made our ugly, under-considered treatment of the land into something uncomfortably beautiful, an apt metaphor for the way bad Western land-use policies served as an effective economic engine.
New Industrial Parks gracefully engages with many of the most important art-making threads of its time: conceptualism, the marriage of conceptualism to photography, geometric abstraction, minimalism and artists’ intense engagement with the then-nascent American environmental movement.

Baltz's work appeals to me because concepts are - at the very least - balanced by the aesthetic properties of the photographs.  These photographs can be deeply appreciated without reference to concept or their place in art history.*  They are beautifully crafted images.  They invoke a visceral response.  The aesthetic properties and concepts support each other. 

Duchamp's shovel by comparison, is a bit of a one-trick pony.  It's about the concept.  There is a 'right answer' as to how one is intended to interpret the shovel.  Prince's photographs are similar.  We're meant to marvel at the cleverness of the idea rather than his ability to assemble light and form in interesting ways.   

Many  excellent photographs lie further along the continuum where concept plays a lesser role. Ones where concept is more emergent or implicit.  I appreciate these photographs equally well.  

But I can't help but admire photographs like those from Lewis Baltz that sit comfortably at the balancing point of the continuum.  They are photographs that have a strong conceptual foundation while still being excellent photographs independent from conceptual reference.  

* Perhaps assuming one appreciates photographs of the vernacular.