Two centuries ago, the academicians of elite fine art schools in cities such as Paris, Florence, and Amsterdam – where the aesthete ruled supreme – would scorn and inveigh at the sight of Michael Craig Martin’s seminal An Oak Tree, 1973. (Water, Glass)
The thought of such a piece would very much not have crossed their minds, as art existed solely in the media of painting, printmaking and sculpture, inspired by nature with the work of art being true. What ‘truth’ means has been debated since the Platonic era, through to John Ruskin in the 19th-Century. Evidently, this question of truth coexisted with conceptual art in Britain during this radical period in history which this exhibition explores. For the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and Second-wave Feminism were all key turning points between 1964 and 1979.
It was this fluidity and continuum of art being pushed to its limits as a consistent means of understanding the world which was prevalent and worked well in this exhibition, Tate Britain’s ‘Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-79’.
In art’s history, there is a continuity of art being a mediator between the human and the world, often showing what we, as a people, might lack. It counterbalances us: think the Pre-Raphaelites painting pastoral scenes amid the industrial revolution, or France in the late 18th-century using Neoclassicism as a corrective to its decadence. Instead, this exhibition creates and presents us with questions regarding what we consider art to be, in parallel with a period of rapid change. However it doesn’t give us the answers: it doesn’t provide us with a means to correct or re-balance us. Rather, it emphasises what we lack: the answers to questions which the artists themselves have raised.
When visiting this exhibition, one is thrown into the deep end. It is intimidating. Given the connotations of what ‘art’ is defined as, one might be taken aback when they are faced with blank white walls with salutes to semiotics, mirrors, and pyramids of oranges. Pretentious or ambitious, you decide — but the exhibition unapologetically triggers a personal response and way of deciphering what it is you see. Conceptual art places the idea above the aesthetic, and in looking and reading, there is a lot of thought that has gone into the art work that form the exhibition. The art in the exhibition makes us look inward at our own conceptions and ideas, drawing a continuous line of how we see and experience art from the past to our present.
This is why I would posit that it is this post-Wilson, pre-Thatcher period which saw the apex of abstraction. For this conceptualism is rooted in its thought, as opposed to lack of technical skill, or its being reactionary for the sake of being so. It is challenging and it makes you think, which might not be for the person seeking a calm afternoon (the Georgia O’Keefe is across the Thames at Tate Modern). This exhibition forces you to get on its level, and that makes it compelling.