COOL CLASSES: “The Theory and Practice of Conceptual Art”

This visual studies course explores the specific mid-20th-century movement of “conceptual art,” as well as its progenitors and its progeny. Students study the founding manifestos, canonical works, and critical appraisals, as well as develop tightly structured studio practica to embody the former research.

Class name: “The Theory and Practice of Conceptual Art”

Taught by: HCAH Visual Media Scholar and Visiting Assistant Professor of Independent College Programs John Muse


Here’s what Muse had to say about his class:
This class introduces students to the history, theory, and practice of conceptual art. Conceptual art has been variously defined, but we’re currently testing a few definitions: a) conceptual art interrogates the concept of art, and b) in conceptual art the ideas conveyed are more important than their material support. The first definition helps us see why seemingly tried and true notions of authorship, craft, medium specificity, authenticity, aesthetic pleasure, and the singularity, autonomy, and durability of the art object have been in trouble for most of the last century.  The second helps us understand why artists opt for methods that give us only ephemera, everyday objects, appropriated images, lots of language, and sometimes not much to look at. If ideas are paramount, then the thing itself is of little value. Think of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a common urinal signed by a fictitious R. Mutt, placed on its back, and offered for viewing in a museum setting. This common, factory-made, piece of plumbing, designed for elimination not contemplation, when thought about deeply, frames questions about the role of the artist, about the power of context to determine how we see things and value things, about humor too, cheeky disregard for norms and proprieties.

One of my first assignments requires students to carry a common 2×4, which they cut to their own height, for one week, never leaving it behind. A simple object, the responses to it are not so simple at all. The board distorts the social field, amplifies sensitivities to others and to one’s own attachments to things. Some students enjoy their newfound visibility and the permission others take in asking them questions. Some, however, don’t so much enjoy this as navigate it as a social resource. Some treat their boards literally as signs, writing messages for others on it. Some cut them up, packaging them, transforming them, provoking different kinds of questions. One made theirs into an electric guitar!

I hope that students leave the course able to think about, talk about, and make art that is challenging, laden with particular ideas about art and what it might be for. I want them to be able to analyze contemporary artworks and also to feel that they can apply the creative approach of the artists and movements we study to their home disciplines, which for my students aren’t typically fine art.

I also wanted to offer a course that took up traditions of artistic practice that were on the margins of our curriculum but of interest to me: installation, performance, activism. I’ve taught the course several times now and will return to it as often as I can, especially now that VCAM is online and more production opportunities are available with the digital cinema stack (the cinema, the editing suite and equipment check-out, and video production facility). But the heart of the course will remain low-fi, DYI, your-medium-is-your-body and the social forms of everyday life.


See what other courses the Interdisciplinary Visual Studies Minor is offering this semester.

Photo of students in class with their 2x4s, courtesy of John Muse. 

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.