Criteria For Judging Conceptual Art

Criteria For Judging Conceptual Art

A Story by Tony Z Sienzant

An Essay Answering A Question from Gerald Greenblatt on the website Quora, Jan 10, 2018: "What are the criteria by which one can judge the quality/success of a piece of conceptual art?"


Since conceptual art relies more on the ideas presented by the art in question than its resultant form, one must know what the artist's intention was in creating the piece in order to gauge if it is 'successful.'

Sometimes the artist statement, if there is one, will put you onto the correct path to begin your thinking. If there is no artist statement, one can still glean an intention by inference, in viewing the artwork itself.

However, one must be perceptually acute & more self-aware & more willing to delve deeply into one's own storehouse of knowledge to do so.

There's a lot of conceptual art that still has an art object to experience. One's experience of that art object will determine whether the art seems to be 'successful' to you or not. In this regard, the criteria for the viewer is simply having an open mind & allowing one's thoughts to travel wherever the art experience dictates. For example, one may make various connections between the material used, how one feels when experiencing the material in that form, what symbolic importance they may have, as well as other concerns. And a good way to do this is continually ask oneself questions: Why did the artist choose this material? Why is it arranged as it is? How does it make me feel?

Of course, one question may lead to another, as in a dialogue or conversation & may land you on a topic far afield from where you began. All of these associations will be important for you in ‘adding up’ the artwork in question. And of course there are a multitude of questions that the art piece may evoke.

Another good rule of thumb is to compare & contrast this work with others you may have seen, or may know, or that may be included in the exhibition you are viewing. How are they alike? How are they different? Everything matters. From size, shape, where it is placed, the title of the piece, and so on. If the artist is in attendance, you may speak to them with whatever specific ideas their piece may have elicited in you. Their responses will give you even further information to work with in deciding how ‘successful’ or ‘significant’ their piece is. And of course, their responses may bring up other questions for you or even to debate on a certain point.

From such simple questions, one can then formulate what may be the artist's intent & whether they chose the correct 'moves' so to speak in actualizing the piece: does the piece impart the meaning they intended ?

I'm aware that much conceptual art, at least historically, were simply words or instructions. In that case, the only art object would be the words themselves. Which means there is no physical object at all to consider besides what the words may conjure in one's mind. A good example of this may be Yoko Ono's 1964 book "Grapefruit" where she compiled a series of instructions for the reader, some beginning with the word "imagine," such as “imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky.” (Yoko Ono’s “imagine” conceptual pieces were what inspired her husband to write the now famous song "Imagine.")

Such conceptual art has less to do with traditional pictorialization & may approach poetry or the aspects of literature. In such cases, one may apply more ‘literary’ criteria to judge them. But their very presence in an art gallery or museum means that they are essentially beyond such literary concerns, so I will caution you on that. Even contemporary artists who essentially rely on words must choose how those words will be displayed: painted on a canvas, attached to wall in elegant typeface or scrolled across a digital screen, for example. Each decision changes the meaning of the work: an artist who paints his words may be more interested in how words impart something unique into the traditional role of painterly concerns while the artist using digital technology may be more interested in exploring how human communication is transformed through technology.

Sidenote: Jasper Johns in the 1960’s often painted words in his canvasses. He might use the word green but have it painted in yellow, or the word red painted in the color blue. By hitting our consciousness with a duality of simultaneous & conflicting thoughts, he was delving into an exploration of language & consciousness itself. In that respect, you can see how such conceptual avenues can open up heady philosophical topics for further consideration.

You will note that, much conceptual art still in fact uses many of the same criteria as one might see in more traditional art: form, theme, subject matter, arrangement (rhythms, counterpoints), elements of narrative and/or storytelling or may forgo much of these to focus more specifically on one element. If the piece is not contemporary but was created some years ago, placing it against what was historically happening at that time is a worthwhile pursuit because it may have been in ‘answer’ to other trends or ‘rebuking’ a specific aspect of something that was more prevalent or taken for granted (think Pop Art’s impersonal coolness to Abstract Expressionism’s hotly personal attitude).

Finally, since conceptual art has to do with ideas themselves, it could more readily & more directly deal with powerful social subjects, such as sexuality, racism, capitalism, consumerism, religion, etc. - - subjects that might not have been as readily present to the viewer in works of abstraction or even representational art, for example.

I would like to direct you to two pieces I've written, whereby the art in question was heavily conceptualized while still having actual physical properties that augmented & accentuated the concepts behind them. These are critical-minded essays that analyze & critique the artist's choices. It may give you a better handle on the things I spoke of here. One is very short & deals with the symbolism or associations the piece conjured up, as far as its meaning, and is almost “poetic” in how it is written. The second piece is much longer & strives to place it in a historical context (it dealt with the Holocaust, almost as if it were in response to Hitler) & really details the many levels in which the artist achieved the effect she did both in what she did & how.

If you do these things, the method of your thinking will more closely align with what art critics (such as myself) try to achieve when they analyze an artist’s work. And in doing so, you may come up with what I call “the big new original thought.” It will be something not so obvious, or a special way of looking at the art from a vantage point no one else has considered. And that’s the thing that really makes the critic’s essay worthwhile to read, apart from experiencing the artwork itself: one’s own particular concept, unique to one’s own experience, as applied to the art in question.

Good luck :-)

1st Essay:
Do Not Be Fooled By Little Things

2nd Essay:
Cracked Architecture

© 2018 Tony Z Sienzant

My Review

Would you like to review this Story?
Login | Register

Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


Added on January 10, 2018
Last Updated on January 10, 2018
Tags: Art, Conceptual Art, Art Criticism