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One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art


Tactically, conceptualism is no doubt the strongest position of the three; for the tired nominalist can lapse into conceptualism and still allay his puritanic conscience with the reflection that he has not quite taken to eating lotus with the Platonists.

—Willard van Orman Quine

Philosophers often add “-ism” to a term in order to highlight a distinct approach to a fundamental question, that is, to name a philosophical doctrine. For example, when it comes to universals, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that “Conceptualism is a doctrine in philosophy intermediate between nominalism and realism that says universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.” There are other definitions, but the point about the use of “-ism” to name a philosophical doctrine is clear. For art critics, curators, and historians, however, “-isms” have somewhat different purposes: they name movements in art, broadly shared approaches that have become styles or threaten to do so. During the heroic years of the modern movement, when critics, artists, or art historians first added “-ism” to a word, they usually meant what the suffix usually means in ordinary language: that x is like y, even excessively so. Often with ridicule as their aim, they highlighted a quality twice removed from the source of that particular art, from its authenticity. Thus “Impressionism” and “Cubism,” neither of which names what is really going on in the art to which it refers: each takes up a banal misdescription and then exaggerates it into a ludicrous delusion on the part of the artists. The success of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes led to a plethora of “-isms” that gradually lost these negative connotations and become almost normal descriptors. By mid-century, anyone could generate an “-ism,” and too many artists did so in their efforts to link their unique, often quite individual ways of making art to what they, or their promoters, hoped would be market success and art historical inevitability. When Willem de Kooning, at a meeting of artists in New York in 1951, said: “It is disastrous to name ourselves,” his was a lone voice, quickly silenced by the tide that named all present Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1960s this kind of naming had become so commonplace, so obvious a move, and such a sure pathway to premature institutionalization and incorporation, that many artists rejected it, to avoid being comfortably slotted into what they regarded as an ossified history of modernist avant-gardism. In the 1970s, for example, artists driven primarily by political concerns consciously blocked efforts to designate their work as belonging to a “political art” movement. Yet for some artists, long excluded from any kind of historical recognition, this was a risk worth taking: feminist artists emphasized their feminism, for instance, precisely because it connected their practice to the broader social movement to vindicate the rights of women.

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