To Be Conceptual Or Not To Be Conceptual…That Is The Question!

The Chicago-born abstract expressionist artist Joan Mitchell (Second Generation if that is important), has seemingly lost some of the aesthetic respect during her lifetime due to the fact she emotion-driven themes rather than conceptual issues. According to Baltimore Museum Curator Katy Siegel, “It’s really important that we’re able to see paintings now by people who are not the same 20 white men…We’re coming to a place where we can say that people can be brilliant intellectuals and artists without being conceptual…Music, poetry, feeling love for friends, dogs—the things that moved Mitchell, we are more open to valuing again.”

Joan Mitchell defined her process and her studio practices within this phrase: “Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work…I am happy when I’m painting. I like it.” What more do we, the audience and prospective patron, need from our artists? Isn’t Mitchell’s statement enough? Mitchell was a successful woman artist for over four decades. She showed in prestigious galleries, museums and was collected by patrons of the highest reputation. Mitchell was prolific and dedicated to her studio. Today her work, at auction, sells in the millions of dollars or Euros!

Mitchell was an important contributor and an early member of the famed New York School! As a woman artists, Mitchell “achieved the type of success that eluded many of her female peers, becoming immediately recognized for her artistic talent. She has been somewhat eclipsed by her male counterparts in the decades since—but that may be changing.”

For me, the real question is why so much fuss about being “Conceptual” at the expense of not recognizing being in the presence of an artist who had something to say and who had been saying it for over four decades! “It’s great when women and people of color get what they deserve…It’s too bad that it so often happens after they’re gone.” (Katy Siegel)

Joan Mitchell in her Studio
Salute Tom, 1979

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

31 Comments

31 thoughts on “To Be Conceptual Or Not To Be Conceptual…That Is The Question!”

  1. My guess, if I am understanding your question correctly, is that this whole conceptual art was starting to be a big deal to people around that time. That art had to be planned out. Whereas, for Mitchell she wanted ot paint what she felt. So she didn’t have to “plan” anything. She just let her heart and mind take her to whatever place and that’s the beauty about it. That is not what they expected. They did not expect a person nor a woman to be different. It wasn’t “accepted”. I guess to say that back then they wanted art to just all be the same way. They didn’t want to acknowledge that there was so much talent in within her eyes and hands. It is most surely true as to what Katy said. They only love and miss you when you are gone.

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  2. As we’ve spoken about in class before, for many art is just as much about the act and process of making then it is the finished product. By only focusing on the art that is “conceptually” thought out, we ignore the art out there that is very impactful in its own form. In my eyes, there is nothing wrong with creating art if it makes you feel good; sometimes our work has more of an ability to thrive than if we were to try and tie it down to a conceptual thought. Unfortunately when we only focus on the same white male artists with “thought out” pieces, we miss out on some great art created by women and POC.

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  3. I feel that the fuss was due to their “traditional norm” in what and how conceptual art should be made. There must have been a rule that should be followed which Joan did not since she created work more from how she felt without any thought process or layout. Especially since she was a woman, I felt there was more of a controversy since men seemed more in high demand and being the “face” of such topics than a woman. Which is quite misogynistic that unfortunately woman still have to deal with to this day. Conceptual art is the process of planning and deciding how it will be created beforehand and then executed after. There is always potential in any work of art whether there was a long layout process or created right from the spot. Sometimes art does not have to go through that process and that’s perfectly fine because art is art no matter the process it takes to create it. It’s like once one person goes off by the rules, then they are put on blast and told “this isn’t how it should be,” and begin to disregard everything else they do while more people will just point and agree with the chain effect of agreeing because everyone else is.

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  4. I think what happens in our more modern society and continues to progress, is this sort of necessity for things to look a certain way or be a certain way. When we don’t obey those “standards” or normality that society places on everyone, then people find it right to critique something that doesn’t fit those ideals. I feel like that is the case with the whole conceptual vs. non-conceptual argument that went on with Joan Mitchell. She uses art as an expression and didn’t confine herself to something that was conceptual and people didn’t like it. People couldn’t completely grasp the idea of art being more than just the piece itself but the process that comes along with it as well. Our society is a lot to blame in that. Media teaches people a lot to try and fit into certain standards and I feel like sometimes it really limits our though process and can limit our creative process. This is most likely why Joan Mitchell had been so successful for such long length. Not fitting into that box that people want you to be in.

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  5. Lizbeth Ramirez | ART 477

    To be conceptual or not to be conceptual all depends on the individual. Some people like to have a plan and others just start making it without one. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way, but society chooses to box individuals and if it’s not one way it’s no way. I feel like good Art can come out of both and that there shouldn’t be a fine line between. One shouldn’t have to be conceptual if they don’t want to and vice versa. Personally for me there’s times where I do take the time to plan out a piece, but there’s other days where I just start creating with no end goal, but I do it out of fun and just to see what I can come up with.

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  6. Aundie Soriano | ART 477

    I feel like the fuss about being conceptual has always been an issue in art and design. I’m not saying there’s something wrong about thinking conceptually in one’s work, but I feel like when one explores or expresses something different from the standard traditional piece, in most cases, headlines and critics questions or bash on these ideas. Exploring art differently from what has already been accepted from the public eye always terrifies the public. This whole blog reminds me of the time I studied Japanese Contemporary art. There was an artist by the name of Yayoi Kusama, who we may all know now as one of the most influential artists of this time and who created different infinity rooms. She started fairly young as an artist and moved here to America as she wasn’t very welcomed in her own country due to straying away from traditional art. Throughout her career, she made very expressive work that was discredited and even stolen from peer artists that got acknowledged for the idea. This circles back to recognizing talent too late. It’s absolutely insane how we celebrate her art and existence in her very late career, but during her peak, most of the public did not approve of her.

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  7. Art is so subjective that even abstract art has been considered conceptual at times. I think that a lot of times there is pressure put on artists to create something conceptual, especially if you are a student. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I also don’t think that not producing conceptual art should be frowned upon either. People often see art as something that is there to be enjoyed by those who are viewing it, and while that may be true for some art, a lot of art is for the artist’s enjoyment. Even conceptual art is processed-based at its’ core. It takes time and planning to create something that is thought-provoking and enticing to the public. While this process is not as simple as abstract art can be, it is still a process that is enjoyed by those who do it. I think that ultimately it is up to the artist to create what they enjoy, whether that be something conceptual, abstract or anything in-between.

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  8. As we’ve previously had blog posts about it, sometimes the experience of creating the art can be the art itself. And, as most people might not realize, we tend to have a subconscious idea of trying to place meaning within art, no matter what. There are artworks out there that could have, in theory, no meaning at all during its conception, but cultural ideas, norms, and other societal expectations are placed upon art, even by the artist themselves, sometimes without them realizing. But another important factor in this overarching idea is the cultural difference of treatment between men artists and women/POC artists. We find that there are several women and people of color who make pieces that are on the same level as other artists, but their art is never fully appreciated until the time has passed and those marginalized artists have either retired or passed away. Many of them challenge ideas that are common within their art world at the time, but their expertise isn’t fully appreciated until much later down the line, when society has changed. We, as a society, tend to have a nostalgia/old-times bias against things, where we look back upon things much more fondly than as we look at things now–and the same can certainly be said about art as well.

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  9. In my opinion, art really should be what you want it to be. Because each individual viewer can take away something different, I am not sure why it is hard for people to accept someone making art because they enjoy the process of painting. Creativity is something that can really drive art but is creativity only stemming from passion in a subject? This blog post is more interesting than the previous, and it is a difficult question to think about.

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  10. It is frustrating when people are arguing over whether a painting has enough meaning, enough concepts. Especially when the artist has already proved her value and dedication through out her career. Yet, I think Mitchell wouldn’t care too much about this kind of criticism, for her has already accomplished a lot.

    On the other hand, for artists who are struggling for becoming successful, the question can be vital. Be conceptual, maybe more people will accept the unknown artist’s painting. Not to mention how it is more difficult for artists with minority culture background, they are facing more pressure when choosing their creative path. As a role model, Joan Mitchell’s story encouraged artists to create what they want without caring too much about how others will think. I think it is great that Mitchell was able to prove this statement, and encourage young artist to discover their own definition of art. Instead conforming with the others, she encourages us to try mining our own territory, and make our voice to be heard.

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  11. Art has no boundaries, but during her lifetime and even now, conceptual thinking was and is highly prized and sought after. Times are changing though, and people who create art just for the fun of it, putting their emotions out on a canvas, or a digital illustration, is gaining more and more attention day by day. And now during the present-time, women of color are beginning to gain more of a following as well, however, most still get eclipsed by majority of non-POC artists. Issues decades ago resurface today, and artists, especially women and POC, still do not get the same recognition as their male white counterparts. However, I’d say that it’s getting better with access to social media. So create what you want to create! There will be people out there who look up to your work without the extra thinking.

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  12. As art is more or less an expression of feeling or thoughts I think non conceptual can be just as defining as conceptual work. A viewer’s opinions on either will always vary and you can always do and try different things to express what you want. To be creative or not isn’t always the issue, nor is it to have a beautiful finished appearance all the time. Art can and will be here after we’re gone leaving an impression onto others. Without any doubt people would still have different opinions and it shouldn’t matter to someone who wishes to express themselves and do that they love to do.

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  13. A lot of time abstract art is very emotion driven not so much about conceptualizing a scene. Other artists create art with emotion because they feel that the painting has a life of its own and they don’t tell the painting when it is done but the painting tells them. This isn’t a new strategy but yet I feel there is a double standard when it comes to emotions. Male artists also use their emotions when it comes to painting but yet when a woman does it it’s not as valid. I can definitely see how in this decade more diverse artists are getting the recognition they deserve but there is still a lot of bias and double standards in the art community (music, dance, painting, drawing, etc.) that we need to address.

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  14. I feel that conceptual concepts and ideas, especially conceptual art, have spread to become a general tendency and a resonance within a practice that is forward in ways of viewing and defining art. In an artistic movement or style, the concept is seen as the most important aspect of the work, meaning that all decisions and planning are established resulting in artworks made by forms most appropriate to get ideas across. Because conceptual art views art in a process-oriented thought, any idea that isn’t immediately recognizable and doesn’t fit into this understanding falls out of line. Being “conceptual” in a way has brought people to deny an artist’s skill and rather view how the work is situated in broader societal narratives. We see this as many minority and women artists have been overlooked and even forced to practice conceptual art. I believe that once we find a deeper understanding of art and our experience with the artwork we are able to open more opportunities for artists to express their creativity. What I appreciate about Joan Mitchell were her ambitions to create art in her own way and meaning. An artwork has a different purpose and value for different people who come to interact with it. I think that having this personal connection with creating art can become an important aspect of how art is perceived.

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  15. The problem of conceptual vs, non-conceptual is one that I’ve always found interesting. I can relate a lot with Mitchell wanting to create art just for the sake of creating it and it having no deeper meaning behind it, since a lot of my artwork tends to be like that as well. That is not to say that I don’t think conceptual art is bad, since a lot of my favorite works of art are conceptual and filled with deeper meanings and symbolism. However, the problem I see with too much art being too focused on being conceptual is that it can seem overbearing if that’s the thing people focus on the most when looking at art. For example, if you had to explain every bit of your painting in how it related to a particular movement, previous artist, political statement, deeper symbolism, feeling, past experience, narrative, etc, it makes the artwork feel more like an essay than a visual work of art.

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  16. Conceptual art was all the craze since people could easily identify things. Abstract art was confusing and harder for regular viewers to understand. Even if someone brilliant were to go against the flow at that time, it would have been harder for a woman to help bring that change since equality was still not adapted in the country. If a man were to paint with emotions then, then he might get some recognition, but the style would still not be widely accepted still because it was all too different. Now, more people are going against the flow, more styles are created, and more people are willing to interpret non-conceptual art. I think that Joan Mitchell was just ahead of her time as the quote at the end explains; her brilliance wasn’t acknowledged or appreciated as much until after her death.

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  17. Art is definitely something where the journey matters just as much, if not more so, than the destination. A concept in a piece can be important, but it doesn’t need to be necessary. Plenty of people create just because they want to and enjoy the process, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Joan Mitchell just likes painting, which is understandable, and the only reason one really needs. Having more conceptual art with deeper meaning can make art more interesting, definitely, but it can also get exhausting if you try to assign a meaning to everything. A lot of people, when they view art, aren’t even thinking of any deeper meanings- they just enjoy what they see. In the end, I think it’s more important that an artist enjoys what they do and what they make than anything else, conceptual art or no.

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  18. There is a lot of debate on what is greater when it comes to conceptual and non-conceptual art, when there is no real answer. Art at the end of the day is perceived differently by every individual. Society is always trying to make something be a certain way, but for art, that is not possible. Art is more so about the freedom to create anything one desires. There is nothing wrong with conceptual art, but sometimes not everything needs a story or purpose. Many people paint and draw just to do it, rather than having a set concept in mind beforehand. Good artworks can still be birthed from both forms of art. One should not have to change their artworks for anyone.

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  19. If her art was put out into the public, and people believed it to have been done by a man, would it have been perceived differently? Quicker? Why do we find the importance of an artists creations after their death? There are many factors that play a roll in how art is perceived, and a lot of these aren’t even fair. Though with social networks, and how art is put out into the world nowadays, I think we have a better opportunity at changing this. Being able to show our work to a greater audience helps with the ‘now’ and the ‘presence’ that she talks about. The acceptance of conceptual and non conceptual art will always have people trying to mold it to the way they want it to be through their ‘power’ and influence within the art community, but art cannot always fall into a one size fits all, and nor should it. to me, making art should be a personal experience, not conformed to fill a mold for someone else idea.

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  20. ART 477

    Dear Professor Tracy,

    To answer ‘Why so much fuss about being “Conceptual” at the expense of not recognizing being in the presence of an artist who had something to say and who had been saying it for over four decades!’ One must first understand that two questions are being asked: Why all the fuss about being “Conceptual” and not recognizing when you are in the presence of a great artist? I believe that a conceptual person must have an astute understanding of why something is being done. Thus, they can easily apply their insights to the situation and think at an abstract level. It is not correct that great women and people of color only get what they deserve after being gone. However, it has not only happened to women or POC, but this happened to Vincent VanGogh. VanGogh only sold one piece of artwork in his lifetime, the “The Red Vineyard” and the one art piece he sent his mother, she used to cover a hole in her house’s back fence.

    In my opinion, be a conceptual thinker, abstract or theoretically, can create art in a way that is easy to remember and apply. It is a way to explain the world which cannot be proven or seen. Conceptual art is where an idea presented by the artist is more important than the finished art piece. Mitchell was one of the most influential female artists and contributors during the AE era, saying it for over four decades. “Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work…I am happy when I’m painting. I like it.” (Mitchell) Becoming recognized for her artistic talent and far surpassing her female peers’ accomplishments prove her achievements. Why then would her male counterparts eclipse her? Things are changing now where women and people of color are being recognized for their skill, and perhaps we may eclipse our male counterparts again in the decade to come. We must strive to change the way people think about women and people of color and their talent while recognizing when we are in the presence of an artist who has something to say.

    Kindest regards,

    Sydney-Paige Kay

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  21. I believe artists should really but more passion into their artwork and paint what they want to paint. Which is the real question to answer.

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  22. “Conceptual” art is valued by many and is considered the “norm” because it is a physical manifestation of direct thought. The viewer of the piece can follow the subject matter and identify common shapes. People place value in what they themselves can identify and definitively recognize as talent, as extraordinary. This leads to a tendency to ignore or not be able to recognize the significance of pieces that are a representation of the artist’s feelings and the process of the work. Abstract work is extraordinary and has value in its own unique way of the process of making the piece. Being able to see each movement and gesture of the artist’s paint and brush strokes. This kind of art is created for the purpose of making the art itself, it is a true expression of the moment the artist made it. As such, it may have been harder for an audience to move beyond what society largely valued in art at that time, change can be a slow and difficult process especially when women are the ones doing so.

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  23. It all depends on the artist whether they choose to make conceptual art or not. Every artist is different. There are artists who plan their works out step by step, some who rely on the process, some who create what they like, and others who have a deeper meaning. There are a variety of reasons for why an artist would create a work of art. I believe art is art, there are no set directions on how to create or what to create. Personally, I have experienced this myself in school. It is rather frustrating because I personally do not understand why there is so much fuss about being “Conceptual.” I have a friend who spends over 40 plus hours on his paintings, and the technique, composition, detail, etc. is stunning. Because he prefers to focus on technique rather than concept, he received many negative critiques during our class. We have received such negative critiques mainly because of the concept aspect that art became discouraging to us for a bit. Art is usually something people should enjoy, or is even used as an escape, so I am not sure as to why it is so hard for them to accept some works of art over others.

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  24. By definition “conceptual” deals with the intangible. Unlike some other trades, artists are not typically given a set of building plans for their projects. I think that in some ways Mitchell is more like an explorer or a scientist. She presented a theory about “surface work”, to other artists, galleries and viewers. There was a measurable result in value with her artwork at auction. Like many prolific females, she was also overlooked because of cultural bias at the time. I think that she was able to prove her statement, and work was adequate over time with collectors and critics. It is good that we have preserved her work that can be used by future artists as inspiration.

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  25. I personally believe that art should not be required to have any type of serious or mundane “concept” behind it; art is about feeling and emotion. Regardless of whether or not Joan Mitchell had had those desired conceptual thoughts behind all of her artworks, it doesn’t change the fact that the viewers and buyers of them will end up coming to their own conclusions about meanings; further, even those outsiders may not have assigned a meaning and their emotions when seeing the piece may change day to day or moment to moment. That’s what I believe strongly contributes to the success behind her self-serving (in the best, most endearing way in that she doesn’t care about the critics) work.

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  26. I personally think that there is no need to question if art should be conceptional or not to be conceptional. I believe that questioning this is initially denying what art is in that it asks for how art should be created and that it must have a specific intention. I mean, how can we define art? Every artist has a different definition of art and if we were to question and put a standard of how it should be, I believe it will lack creativity and that it will be focused on the audience’s critique rather than appreciating and respecting the art itself. Likewise, what matters in art is not if the art will sell for a high price nor the artist’s fame, but rather matters in that the artists feel happy in what they create.

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  27. I do not think that it matters to be conceptual or not. Personally, I do not really like to plan out what I am making, I rather just get into it and make the piece work. I do not like sketching and planning, when I’m in the mood to create, I want to work on what will be the final product and if it ends up being messy from the changes I’ve made then whatever, I don’t mind it. I understand planning things out and making sure everything is clean and nice, it really can make a difference and you can make all the mistakes and changes you want beforehand. I just do not have the patience, but I can appreciate it when people do conceptualize their art or when they don’t. Either way, you end up with a cool piece of art.

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  28. Conceptual art is the answer to the question, “what objects would you collect and compose together to make your ideas and thoughts from abstract to concrete?” Conceptual art takes the concept as its starting point or the idea as an act. In conceptual art, the artist’s product is not something put in a museum but a frank dialogue between the artist and the audience. However, conceptual art could not stay outside of the general commodification process of modernism. It was hoped that it would be because it was an utterly non-commercial art branch. However, the works of well-known conceptualists were sold in large quantities in prestigious galleries. I think it is the artist who interprets the work of art, not the producer. Art is almost in the eyes of the minister, not the maker.
    If there is a shit (yes, shit) with an artwork label, the only thing that can make me perceive that shit as a work of art is my meanings, my concepts. So isn’t it me who actually made the art here? I think the person who put the shit in there is just getting me to make a piece of art out of that shit.
    Despite all the criticism, it is one of the techniques I find most challenging. When working with classical materials such as paint, fabric, and marble, I think that the chance of getting appreciation from the environment is higher. In short, as in every field, there is a lot of nonsense and so many creative works mixed in this field. Since it is meaningless or giving meaning to the usual, it looks more like literature, or at least it is more striking when supported by keywords or texts.

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  29. Lots of people feel like they need to make their mark on the world despite the hardships they may face. People strive to work hard not just for them but for the rights of other just like them. Which is what people try to do in many forms.

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  30. I personally believe art does not need to be conceptual in nature. Art is a physical expression from the mind and body and sometimes that expression doesn’t hold more than presented at face value. There are many works out in the world that would be disregarded as “art” simply because there is such a simplicity to it that people don’t understand. Not everything needs distinct concept nor a clear idea.

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  31. Art can be whatever the artist desires it to be and what the artists decide to portray into the outside world. It takes the emotions and expressions of their inner world into the physical realm. So no, it does not have to be conceptual. Nothing has to be fully flushed out and fully defined in order for it to be art or “good art”. I think Katy Siegel is correct that there shouldn’t be a standard held by one group of people and use that to judge other artists that do not fall into the “elite traditional art group”. Art can be considered good to people who can understand and appreciate the piece, whether it be the artists themselves or by their audience. It’s not just for “twenty white men” to decide. Since when does art and artists have to within a box?

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