Conceptualism emerged in the 1960’s and was first defined and promoted as a movement by Sol LeWitt in 1967. Its central claim is that art is a 'concept', rather than a material object. There are strong precedents for Conceptualism in the work of the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp.
Conceptualism is shaped by four basic tenets. The first is that the art work is an idea, or concept, rather than a material object. To understand the idea that shapes an art work is to understand the work itself - so it is possible to understand an art work without ever having seen it.
Conceptualists deliberately blur the distinction between language and art when they define the art work as an idea or concept. Regardless of whether a Conceptualist art work employs wood or canvas, the real work is the idea and the language used to construct, manipulate and explore it. The artist's intention and the spectator's response are an integral part of the art work itself. This has radically affected the materials used in Conceptualist art, and the way such works are made.
Conceptualism also criticises the commercialisation of art. In a capitalist economy commercial value is attached to tradeable objects, especially those which support and endorse current social arrangements. Designating an object as 'art' can be a sure means of increasing its material value, so it can be bought, sold and insured for enormous sums. When Conceptualists assert that the art work is the idea, not the material object, they hope to disrupt this trade, or at least problematize it.
Finally, by emphasising the concept over the art work Conceptualists attempt to disrupt the process by which ownership translates into social status and cultural authority. Individuals become important collectors because of their wealth, not because of what they know about art. However, institutions such as museums and galleries can shape and influence our experience of art through their powers of selection and omission.
Sol LeWitt - Cubes in Color on Color (2003)