Why Conceptual Art Should Try Harder To Be Understood

two clocks by Felix Gonzalez-Torres conceptual art

“Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Even though I make conceptual art, I have always had a hard time with the fact that it doesn’t try very hard to be understood. Historically, it has placed the burden of understanding on the viewer, which leaves a lot of people feeling like they don’t get it or that it doesn’t apply to them.

This is really unfortunate, because the conceptual art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is, to my mind, some of the most powerful work ever done. Sadly, much of it is lost on people (including me) who walk into galleries or museums, see completely decontextualized objects, and leave scratching their heads.

This has to do with the belief that good art should always speak for itself and shouldn’t have to be explained–a notion that I reject completely. In fact, it is the artist’s responsibility to make a work accessible and knowable. If someone goes into a gallery, sees an exhibition, and comes out feeling stupid or disconnected, it is the artist’s failing not the viewer’s.

Let me give you an example of why it is so important for conceptual art to be put into context. One of my favorite pieces is Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (see photo above). The first time I saw it, it got a very loud eye roll from me. Some guy hangs a couple clocks on a wall and MOMA calls it Art. I find this type of thing insulting.

But then I read about the piece and about the artist and here’s what I learned: Gonzalez-Torres was a gay Cuban-American artist who came to prominence in the 80s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Gonzalez-Torres created this piece shortly after his lover was diagnosed with the disease. The artist synchronized two identical battery-powered clocks and hung them side-by-side, a visual representation of the eternalness of love and partnership. Slowly, as his lover’s health would begin to deteriorate, the two clocks would fall out of sync, one inevitably losing time more quickly than the other.

That small amount of information, that little bit of context was enough to turn the piece from something I would’ve walked right past in a museum, into an affecting, poetic, and elegant meditation on love, mortality, and loss.

This is why it is important for artists and galleries and museums and institutions to share the stories behind the work. We don’t need much, just a tiny crack to let us in.

Back to Writing Index