Archive JourneysReise

TimelineBiographyThe Art SceneArt MovementsFurther Information
Public Reactions to Minimalism and Conceptual Art

Bricks are not works of art. Bricks are Bricks. You can build walls with them or chuck them through jeweller's windows, but you cannot stack them two deep and call it sculpture.

Keith Waterhouse, Daily Mirror, 19 Feb 1976

Daily Express cartoon satirising Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, 19 February 1976
© Express Newspapers

Minimal and Conceptual art shocked and outraged the public when it first began to be widely exhibited. Its refusal to comply with the notion of authorship, challenging the convention that an artist must personally manufacture the work of art went against everything that people believed art should be.
Daily Express cartoon satirising Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII

Visitors to exhibitions wanted to see the evidence of the artist's hand in the work, the swirls of Van Gogh's paintings, the splashes of Jackson Pollock, to confirm their perception of the artist as a uniquely sensitive and expressive being pouring out their feelings onto the canvas. The extreme simplicity of Minimalist art, with its sense of 'almost nothing there', bothered them. Reactions to Conceptual art were similarly hostile. What artists saw as the democratisation of the art world, suggesting that artists did not have to be exceptional individuals and 'anyone can make art', made the public feel conned.

Perhaps the best known example of such public hostility was the controversy surrounding the exhibition of Carl Andre's sculpture Equivalent VIII, more popularly known as 'the bricks'. Constructed of 120 firebricks arranged in a simple rectangular formation, its display at the Tate in 1976 caused a huge public debate about modern art. Articles and cartoons appeared in the press lampooning the Tate and modern art, and letters poured in to the Gallery from outraged members of the public.

(You can read more about the 'Bricks' controversy in the Tate History Archive Journey.)

Another exhibition at the Tate, of work by Robert Morris', also caused controversy. Morris exhibited a series of sculptures that were designed to encourage the public to interact with them. The exhibition resembled an assault course wherein the public were invited to drag concrete blocks up slopes, balance on balls and wires, or crawl through a tunnel.

Daily Telegraph, 'Assault course at Tate Gallery, 28 April, 1971 Though in its first five days the exhibition attracted 2,500 visitors, it had to be closed after just five days as members of the public were injured when engaging with the interactive work. The press had a field day, with some reviewers claiming the exhibition encouraged over-enthusiastic visitors who went 'mad', 'jumping and screaming' through the exhibit, suggesting it was inappropriate for a gallery to encourage such behaviour and accusing the Tate of a deterioration of standards. Others, though acknowledging its value as an attempt to break down the elitism of the art world, dismissed it as a novelty exhibition:

the entire exercise remains disconcertingly superficial. A lightweight affair that leaves no lasting impression even on the person who has undergone the complete sequence of tests.
Richard Cork

Daily Telegraph, 'Assault course at Tate Gallery, 28 April, 1971
Richard Cork © Telegraph Group Ltd.