Out with the sensual, in with the conceptual

Philosopher of art and Darwinian cultural theorist Denis Dutton has a guest op-ed in today’s NY Times that you may find highly readable. Dutton’s thesis, succinctly put, is that the end of the 19th century marked the end of a certain mode of artistic production wherein the quality of a work of art was linked, both in in design and in discourse, to the skill with which the work’s maker used the materials from which the work was made; thus, for Dutton, our artistic epoch is first and foremost the age of conceptual art, the only era in which figures like Warhol, Duchamp and Hirst could’ve possibly struck it big. Ours is an epoch in which people are no longer content merely to gaze at pretty objects: the image is nothing without the idea from which it is inseparable.

Dutton’s piece is interesting, no doubt, chiefly because he doesn’t position himself against conceptual art as such (though he definitely seems to think Hirst and his work are something of an elaborate gag). His main point—the best I’ve ever read from him—is that,  a century from now say, people will reflect upon our era as having been a very strange time in the history of art. I can’t disagree with that diagnosis, no sir.

But one thing that I find a little bit strange: if the concept reigns supreme in the artistic mainstream (Hirst’s formaldehyde shark went for $12 million just a little while ago), why is it relegated to the avant-garde in cinema? I don’t mean to suggest that non-avant-garde cinema is intellectually bankrupt, because that would be a totally ridiculous claim; but all the same, many of today’s most remarkable filmmakers are interested firstly in the medium’s sensuous dimensions, secondly in the conceptual dimension. Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach… perhaps cinema is just too successful at bombarding the senses to give itself entirely to the concept.


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