Let’s catalog a few important moments in the history of conceptual art:
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed and dated a porcelain urinal, installed it on a plinth, and entered it into the first exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists.
In 1961, Robert Rauchenberg submitted a telegram reading “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so” as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits hosted at Clert’s eponymous Paris gallery.
That same year, Piero Manzoni exhibited tin cans labeled “Artist’s Shit.” The cans purportedly contained the feces of the artist, but opening them to verify the claim would destroy the work.
In 2007, Damien Hirst commissioned a diamond-encrusted, platinum cast of a human skull. It cost £14 million to produce, and Hirst attempted to sell it for £50 million—mostly so that it would become the most valuable work sold by a living artist.
And in 2017, Nigel Gifford designed an edible, unmanned drone meant to deliver humanitarian aid to disaster zones.
Okay, I lied. The last one is a technology start-up. But it might as well be a work of conceptual art. In fact, it makes one wonder if there’s still any difference between the two.
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Conceptualism has taken many forms since the early 20th century. At its heart, the name suggests that a concept or idea behind work of art eclipses or replaces that work’s aesthetic properties. Some conceptual works deemphasize form entirely. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, for example, is a book with instructions on how to recast ordinary life as performance art. Others, like Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, lean heavily on the material object to produce effects beyond it. And others, like the pseudonymous graffiti-artist Banksy’s documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, about a street artist who becomes a commercial sensation, deliberately refuse to reveal whether they are elaborate put-ons or earnest portrayals.