The Tradition of Conceptual Art


The evolution of how art is produced (the conception and construction) usually tells of a stark difference between the paleolithic age and today. Art in the paleolithic age was perhaps relegated to those with free time on their hands, which was hard to come by, given the hard lifestyle of hunting and gathering. And given this time crunch, there wasn’t much time to play with ideas, to think about new or inventive ways to conceive and produce art. This is perhaps the polar opposite of today’s art. I would agree with this New York Times article that “What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.”

For example, Damien Hirst’s “Medicine Cabinet” installations are a twist on an artistic representation of a common, everyday thing. He didn’t sit down with barbed wire and a soldering mask and get to work. His “people” do that. It’s his mind and inventiveness that are the commodities.

Now, it’s true that the majority of artists don’t have minions to go about crafting some visionary’s dreams. But, in some cases, so goes the current state of conceptual art. 

So how long has the idea of conceptual art been around? Can we find it in the paleolithic age? Maybe in a very primitive way the seeds of conceptual art were starting even back then.

Researchers looking at  stone age tools have declared that some  — hand axes, for instance — were not used solely for the act of hunting and gathering; that they were prized as art objects to be admired. For example, hand axes had a high rate of manufacture (above what they’d need to butcher animals), often have no signs of wear, some were too big for use, and some were decorated with “expensive” materials and exquisite workmanship.

Someone had to conceive the idea that it was important for these fancy hand axes to be made and that they would then be admired by perhaps a big group of people, so despite their limited resources, they still chose to create art for themselves. Much of it was probably done for ritualistic purposes, but even so, the concept of reinventing something useful for aesthetics was in play even in the stone age, even for  “primitive” man.



  1. I read a fascinating 7 volume history of violence called “Rising Up And Rising Down” by William Vollmann. There is a brilliant section about the aestheticization of weaponry. Many weapons in the middle ages–even instruments of torture–became so ornate that nobody could bear the thought of using them to fight or injure anyone with.

    Good post. Thank you.

  2. Josh, hi – wow, I’m AMAZED you can get through a tome like that. I looked up some reviews on Amazon and apparently it’s so compelling that people breeze through it.

    I’ve seen this aestheticization in armor as well, with many sets only used for ceremonial purposes. I wonder how different the art “scene” would have evolved in the middle ages if they had adopted Damien Hirst’s methods of taking everyday things and looking at them through an artistic lens. Even with the examples of hand axes, armor, and weaponry, it seems art and craft were on much greater planes than they are today. In fact, it’s almost as if we are resorting back to that primitive way of looking at everyday things (hand axes, etc.) and tweaking them slightly to become art.

  3. Lori, it wasn’t a breeze, that’s for sure. Seven volumes of heavy theory, ven diagrams of Samurai honor codes, lots of pictures of skulls:)…that sort of stuff.

    I read all seven volumes over a period of about 2 years.

  4. A famous cross cultural study done in the 1960’s showed that hunter-gatherer societies had far more leisure time than industrial societies. The free time that people have for creative and spiritual pursuits has actually diminished with every “advance” in the complexity of technology and social structures. See

    I think we can see conceptual art in this light as well. It’s as though the busy, multitasking contemporary artist is too busy and important to do anything but conceive an idea, the physical realization of which is delegated to peons.

  5. Ah, Fred, thanks for this! I think different study authors went back and forth about how to define “work”.

    But beyond this, the study you reference showed that we may not be able to compare modern society with the paleolithic age at all, because we (western society) have a different value system, and therefore the progress of all societies cannot be evaluated according to the same idea of “success”. The article you mention states that “hunter-gatherer and western societies take separate roads to affluence, the former by desiring little, the latter by producing much.” Therefore, producing stuff wasn’t necessary, so in their free time they weren’t trying to invent the lightbulb (or the seeds of Cubism). The fancy hand ax was enough.

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