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Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979

Join OCA tutor Robert Enoch on the 20 August at Tate Britain.
In the 1960s artists began to abandon traditional approaches and made ideas the essence of their work. This fascinating exhibition explores this pivotal period in British history.
It gathers together artists who took art beyond its traditional boundaries to suggest new ways of engaging with the realities of the world beyond the studio, which ultimately led to a questioning of the function and social purpose of art.
The radical and controversial work both scrutinised and consistently took inspiration from the real world. Asking what art is, as well as what it might be for, inevitably led some artists to create work that was often politically engaged with themes and issues ranging from feminism to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Seen within the context of its time, spanning Harold Wilson’s first Labour government to the election of Margaret Thatcher, this show reveals conceptual art’s lasting legacy.
Artists featured within the show include, among others: Keith Arnatt, Art & Language, Conrad Atkinson, Victor Burgin, Michael Craig-Martin, Hamish Fulton, Margaret Harrison, Susan Hiller, John Hilliard, Mary Kelly, John Latham, Richard Long, Bruce McLean, David Tremlett and Stephen Willats.
To reserve your place please email or alternatively to request a place on a study visit please click here and complete the form.
For study events that require a ticket, there is a non refundable fee of £10 to pay and your confirmation email will instruct you on how to do this.
Image Credit:Keith Arnatt, Art as an Act of Retraction, 1971. Tate © Keith Arnatt Estate

Posted by author: Joanne
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23 thoughts on “Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979

  • Now here is life throwing me a challenge! On the OCA Photography courses we are repeatedly told that our art needs to be conceptual in some way or another in order to be contemporary and therefore worthy and indeed the majority of, if not all, the tutors appear to be working in the areas of conceptualism. This has been a challenge to me as I find most conceptual art either unfathomable or trite or pointless depending on the idiosyncrasies of the piece in question. I admit it – I have a problem with my appreciation and understanding of conceptual art and I find it difficult and unrewarding to engage with. Therefore I am finding it difficult to engage with many areas of the course and the OCA.
    So wouldn’t attending the “Conceptual Art in Britain” exhibition be a wonderful opportunity to explore the field and find engagement and meaning? It might seem so, but I have looked through all the pre-exhibition promo material including videos of the displays and I can already feel my exasperation and disengagement flooding in. I have attended conceptual art installations before so I cannot see that this exhibition would provoke a different response. The dilemma I face is this. Do I spend the considerable amount of time, effort and money attending this event would require in order to convince myself and my tutors that I have opened myself to the occurrence of a Damascene moment of enlightenment or do I accept that it is not for me and that my time, money and energies are better spent elsewhere? I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t! At this moment I am leaning heavily towards the latter choice. I hope I am not alone but I also hope that those for whom conceptual art is a source of inspiration and enjoyment will find what they are looking for at Tate Britain.

    • Dear David,
      I suspect there isn’t a tutor or student within the OCA who would wish you alone, but the process of study will almost certainly feel like a lonely process and quite often if my experience is anything to go by. Finding your way forward will depend a great deal on trying to understand what it is that you want express in an art form that is a very broad church.
      The OCA ‘study visits’ and ‘artist talks’ are but two ways of exploring our medium, to search for avenues that might inspire thought. You say you have attended conceptual art exhibitions before and you suggest that you didn’t connect, so you wouldn’t expect to do so again. Well that maybe so, but this Tate show has a very broad range of work exploring a very wide range of ideas and it is about those ideas as much as the work itself that this visit has been arranged I am sure.
      It may be that your comprehension of conceptual art is one that you will never connect with and that your own voice may rest, for example, within the documentary field – see the OCA “Photographers talking” thread on the Student Site for a range of contemporary practitioners like Chow Dewe Mathews, Elina Brotherus and OCA’s Johanna Ward for example.
      However taking the opportunity to engage both with a medium that you currently consider difficult, if not opaque, and in the company of an OCA tutor and fellow students at least opens up the opportunity to explore what it is you don’t understand and why you feel about it as you do – though finding answers that neatly slot into place will be hard to come by…. I hope this helps.
      Best, John

      • Hi David
        Good advice from John there. The only thing I would add is that if anyone is going to help you find the Damascene moment, it is the tutor running this visit. I have watched Robert run a similar event at the Photographers’ Gallery a few years ago and seen his knowledge and enthusiasm open eyes. Give it a try.
        Best, Gareth

        • Thanks for your support, Gareth. It is appreciated.
          However, as you will see from my response to John I have come to the realisation that I don’t need to continue trying to force myself in a direction that is so uncomfortable and unrewarding and I will be focussing my attention elsewhere. The final straw interestingly was watching the videos by Paul Graham and Johanna Ward which made it clear to me that my ‘voice’ lay elsewhere. The realisation that I can let go of any demands to ‘get’ conceptual art feels like a weight off my shoulders!
          Best wishes,

      • Hello, John.
        It’s good to communicate again and thank you for your thoughts and encouragement.
        I have previously attended one of the OCA study visits to a contemporary conceptual art exhibition, the Artes Mundi exhibition in Cardiff, so it isn’t that I haven’t tried!
        Thank you for pointing me towards the ‘Photographer’s Talking’ thread which I had not seen before although I have seen some of the videos elsewhere including the one by Johanna Ward. I was intrigued to see that there was a video on Paul Graham talking about images from his ‘Shimmer of Possibility’ series as I have never got to grips with this photographer’s work and I was keen to see if it would shed light on it for me. Sadly, it merely confirmed my worst fears and has driven me further from this style of photography!
        Your phrases ‘Finding your way forward will depend a great deal on trying to understand what it is that you want to express in an art form that is a very broad church’ and ‘and that your own voice may rest, for example, within the documentary field’ have proved to be the greatest help for me. I am very clear that conceptual art of the type that I have seen practised by the likes of Paul Graham, Jesse Alexander et al. and what I have seen from the Tate Modern exhibition is not what I want to be doing. My artistic ‘voice’ sits much more comfortably in the documentary field as you suggest and that is where I will concentrate my energies. I am now clear that I can let go of any demand to have a conceptual Damascene moment and move on with clarity. It feels like a bit of a Damascene moment of its own!
        Best wishes,

          • Hi, John.
            Thanks for this. I was aware of this symposium and did consider attending but I cannot justify 3 days away and an expenditure approaching £300 at the moment. I have explored Jesse’s work since discovering he is an OCA tutor (I thought it might be a good idea!) but he and I are on different planets and are unlikely to see eye to eye in this lifetime! 🙂 I will take a look at Michal Iwanowski as I do not know his work.
            I gather that you will be making a presentation at the symposium so I regret that I will miss that. I wish you every success with it.

  • Painting with Light is also on at the same time and I was wondring if it would be too onerous to combine the two as they are in the same place. My offer of 241 in the newspaper only goes up to 14 August though. Has anyone seen it? Not booked yet.

  • This show is an extremely provocative compendium of conceptual and visual strategies. Thanks to all who took part on Saturday and made it such a fulfilling day. I look forward to seeing the inspirations in student work!!!>>>>

  • I sympathise with David G (above) because, after having read the article by Laura Cumming and most of the exhibition catalogue, I thought there wasn’t enough there that I could get inspired by. But I went, & have just written up about it here:
    It makes such a difference having a tutor with the group who is so willing to engage with the students and who is willing to discuss different viewpoints. Thank you Robert.

    • Thank you for flagging up the forthcoming BBC4 Conceptual Art programmes. I will watch them with interest as I don’t have to invest serious amounts of time and money in them. I am pleased to read that those who attended the ‘Conceptual Art in Britain’ exhibition gained a lot from it but, having read their reviews, I still do not feel that I missed anything. I think that my sticking point is that I want things to have point and purpose and relevance in the real world. I am not into mind games, ‘in’ jokes and abstraction. Probably my scientific background at play here. Let’s see what the BBC4 programmes will do for me :-).

      • I would say that the point & purpose of conceptual art is to make you think – possibly in ways you have not thought before. I found myself asking so many questions with many of the photos saw. For example, at the last piece of work dealing with the pensioner in a block of high-rise flats, I was wondering if the structure was linked to Le Corbusier’s design for a city – in which different types of people would live in the same block= shift workers in one block, doctors in another etc etc. . It makes sense to me to link cultural expressions in terms of time. Your scientific background would also make you find links – nothing exists suddenly and in isolation from everything else that is happening, in my opinion. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone occasionally – you might enjoy the ride! ;-))
        My blog is not as it is identified at the bottom:

        • Thank you for your observations, Anna. Conceptual art is undoubtedly created to make people think. The problem for me is that in the face of much conceptual art I have no idea what to think except what is the point and what relevance does it have in the real world. I guess we are all different. You managed to find examples that spoke to your particular personal interest in architecture. I have yet to see any conceptual photographic art that has anything of significance to say about environmental issues and the natural world which is what floats my boat. If anyone knows of any such work I would be interested to hear of it.

          • I am glad you asked the question, David, because there is a lot of conceptual art which is directly related to environmental issues and the natural world: ‘Centre for Contemporary art and the natural world’ does an enormous amount to raise awareness of environmental issues through contemporary and conceptual art, this link could interest you: . The work of Daro Montag: ‘This Earth’, could interest you too. You just need too do a bit of digging (pun intended!)

          • Thank you for taking the time and trouble to make these suggestions, Anna. However, I have explored the links you suggest and also other links that they lead to in some depth and I cannot find any project that uses photography as the tool of expression in a conceptual style. A couple use a photograph or two as an adjunct to the main project. There are plenty of uses of other forms of conceptual art but not photography. The conceptual art relating to the environment highlighted in these links and that I have seen elsewhere whilst being interesting and genuine does not work as a source of inspiration for me personally as it is too nebulous and low impact. For me it really doesn’t address the serious issues that face us all in a way that puts over the messages forcefully enough to engage and influence.
            Maybe I am too serious but that is the way I am. I don’t want to leave people guessing or bemused in my work. I want my work to be clear whilst also having depth and purpose and I am attracted to clarity of purpose and not guessing games in the work of others. I am grateful to you for enabling me to see this as my truth in a new light. I will continue to search for examples of photographic conceptual art that do speak to me.

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