One of the legacies of dada is the way that artists continue to question the traditional definition of art. Part
of that traditional definition is that the work of art is an object with special value, which makes it
appropriate for us to enshrine it on a pedestal in a museum or gallery. In response, artists have asked the
following questions:
Does the artist need to submit to the gallery system?
Must art be “entombed” in museums?
Does art need to last forever, or can it be ephemeral, more like a dance or a musical composition?
Does the sale of art in a gallery make it simply a commodity?
Many artists have found an answer by insisting that art is the idea or concept of the artist, not the thing
that the artist produces.
Conceptual art takes many forms, and perhaps the only thing that the forms have in common is the belief
that an artist’s idea is more important than any object that might be made as a result. Performance art
often approaches drama, usually with the artist playing a central role, however, the performance places
more emphasis on purely visual qualities than on plot or the other trappings of a play. Related to
performance art are “happenings,” made famous by Allan Kaprow in the 1960s. Kaprow wanted to blur the
line between art and life, and he often involved the audience in the absurd events he staged. In one piece,
Kaprow had audience members lick jam from the hood of a car; the car was afterwards set on fire.
Other works that could be termed conceptual art exist as objects in the environment, but only for a short
period of time. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who work together, call attention to the forms of nature, but do
so by installing objects like fences, curtains, or umbrellas over vast tracts of land. Their work is a true
community effort because private property owners, government officials, engineers, and hundreds of
workers are involved. Like other works we can classify as conceptual art, these projects were temporary
installations. The only traces of them are in the photographs, videos, and documents that Christo and
Jeanne-Claude sometimes exhibit in installations. Their work resists commodification because there is little
to be bought or sold.
There are many branches of contemporary art, and very few limitations to the ways artists work today. Art
can be provocative, bordering on pornography or sacrilege. Identity—whether gender, racial, ethnic,
national or class identity—is a persistent theme. Artists can be political activists, or they can create works
of abstract, formal beauty. Modern technologies (especially computer-generated images and videos) are
often incorporated into works of art. The styles and movements described here will give you a framework
for thinking about the challenging art of our own time.
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