A Theory of Conceptualism
This book brings together Terry Smith’s five most important texts
about Conceptual Art as a movement and the broader conceptualist
tendency in art. Written over five decades, the first in 1974, the most
recent in 2012, they amount, in my view, to an important, and distinc-
tive, theory of conceptualism. This theory transcends the contingencies
of its occasional presentations to become a set of strong, generalizable
claims about what conceptualism is and why it is of the utmost signifi-
cance for the history of art since the middle of the twentieth century.
By yoking its constituent parts together, this introduction aims both to
define Smith’s theory and to unpack its relationship to the now quite
considerable historiography of Conceptual Art and conceptualism. My
specific goals are threefold: first, to explicate Smith’s theory by identi-
fying its core concerns; second, to show how those concerns relate to
the concerns of other scholars; and, finally, to consider the implications
of the fact that the theory, in the course of its articulation, came to
possess many of the very qualities that it ascribes to the conceptualism
for which it accounts.
Smith’s work on Conceptual Art and conceptualism is, I want to pro-
pose, a dispersed but consistent account that challenges conventional
distinctions between artistic practice and scholarly theory. To make
this case, I will argue three related claims about it by closely reading
Smith’s texts and locating them relative both to other scholarship and
to the conditions in which they were written. First, I want to suggest
that Smith’s theory of conceptualism is coherent because it maintains
a constant focus on the importance of concepts and, especially, concep-
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