Conceptual art vs. craftsmanship

October 17, 2009

In a New York Times op-ed piece, author Denis Dutton contrasts the relatively recent conceptual approach to art with ancient traditions of craftsmanship, which he admires.

Dutton’s thinking about conceptual-vs.-crafted artistry differs from David Galenson’s conceptual-vs.-experimental approach, but the two approaches have some similarities. Like Galenson, Dutton has an eye on the art market.

Galenson thinks that the success of conceptually innovative art is based on the structure of the modern art market, while Dutton expects conceptual art will lose its appeal. Dutton writes:

”The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art … on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons.

Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets.

Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.

Denis Dutton is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He wrote “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.”