In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. —John 1:1
I don’t recall when I realized just how weirdly powerful the first sentence of the Gospel according to John is, but I remember that it was a thrilling experience. That short phrase contained a startling revelation: God was language. It seems unnecessary to unpack this phrase any further—this isn’t an essay on God, after all—but it shows how meaningful language is to me. At the age of seventeen, I could accept it as God.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I became interested in what is now termed historical Conceptual Art, which is to say work by artists who defined themselves as conceptual artists in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Three statements from this time—“Sentences on Conceptual Art” by Sol Lewitt (1969); “Untitled Statement” by Lawrence Weiner (1970); and “Untitled Statements” by Douglas Huebler (1968)—concern me here.
I have chosen these three statements to highlight the two points that fascinate me most about Conceptual Art. The first is that the idea (I use the term in a loose sense, rather than in the rigid sense given to it by Lewitt) is as important as whatever object might be produced from it. For Lewitt, Weiner and Huebler, neither the object nor the concept takes primacy; they are equal and can be seen as different only in that one is (usually) a material substance and the other is not.
Secondly, there is the idea that stating contains the act— rather, it is the act of creating. This differs from other notions of production, which emphasize affecting change upon materials. Coming back to where I started (the realm of religion and philosophy), I find this act of creation similar to that described in Genesis: “God said let there be light and there was.” (Gen 1:3)
I can’t help but wonder – is this what Lewitt meant when he described conceptual artists as mystics?