I have a lot of problem with conceptual photography – it seems to me that a photograph is very good at showing what something/somebody looked like at a particular time and place. It also seems to me that a photograph is very bad at expressing a concept or idea – especially without accompanying words.
Conceptual art is a lot like a joke. If you “get it” then you think it’s funny or you don’t. If you don’t “get it”, well, then you don’t get it – it isn’t funny and you can’t figure out why it should be. If somebody explains the joke to you then the most likely response is a shrug and “Whatever.” Conceptual art is often like the joke that I don’t get.
Conceptual art is hard for any artist. The artist always “gets it” but has to provide enough clues so that some segment of the viewing public will “get it.” Or maybe not. A respected colleague speculates that some conceptual artists aren’t interested in having just anybody “get it” – their art is aimed at an in-crowd. There are jokes like that, too. I don’t understand wanting to make art only for the in-crowd. A poet acquaintance once told me that she would be happy if she could spend her time writing poems that nobody but her could understand. I don’t understand that, either. I once attended a concert of new music at which one piece consisted of a solo violin playing music based on the EKG of a laboratory rat on LSD. The vocal accompaniment was based on the scientist’s notes. I didn’t understand that, either.
Conceptual art is especially hard for a photographer. It’s hard to photograph an idea. I recently heard one of the luminaries of conceptual photography say (not quite verbatim) that a photograph is not a collection of shapes and spaces that somehow relate to one another but an image of a collection of objects. What is important is the relationships among those objects and “composition” only is important inasmuch as it helps the artist show those relationships in the way intended. (I can’t see any evidence of this statement in the artist’s work, by the way.) Working an idea into that framework is a pretty formidable challenge. I don’t know many photographers who can do it.
You can certainly argue that all art is based on some idea, some concept, that the art is supposed to illuminate. At one extreme it’s “I find this (collection of objects in some kind of relationship that my photograph illustrates) to be [beautiful, ugly, appalling, amusing,…]. I hope you do, too.” At the other extreme, there is the very intellectually crafted and idea-based work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Parke-Harrison, Joel Witkin, Duane Michals, ... Somewhere between these extremes the work becomes “conceptual”.
Conceptual art is hard for the viewerm too. It forces the viewer to intellectualize about the piece in addition to processing it visually – to see it in the context of personal background and experience. If you aren’t hip to the conventions of B-movies then the “Untitled Film Stills” are pretty mysterious. Reading the subtitle text generates a “Whatever.”. At the visual art show at Bumbershoot a couple of years ago there was a bigger-than-life-size head and shoulders portrait of Benjamin Franklin made out of various sizes of keys. After a pause – “Oh, I get it. He’s riffing on Franklin’s kite-string and key experiment.” The artist had left enough clues that most people who were educated in the U.S. could “get it”. I still found it pretty dull. The makers of a lot of conceptual art don’t leave enough clues to allow me to “get it.” I’m sure that the artist would maintain that is my problem and that’s likely true. Whatever.