Conceptual Qualities?

I was recently in conversation with the DP Visual Arts Chief Examiner, Subject Manager and Principal Examiner for Exhibition SL.

The Subject Manager was interested in particular in our interpretation of the ‘Conceptual Qualities’ Exhibition criterion.

A teacher had suggested that students who focused on styles and formats of contemporary art in their final art exhibition may not do as well as students who worked in more traditional forms (e.g. painting and drawing); in effect the suggestion was that contemporary art was ‘penalized’ in comparison to traditional art forms.

‘Contemporary Art’, of course, is a loose and broad term.

See below for definitions.

But, however you define it, does he have a point?


‘Conceptual Qualities’ is Not ‘Conceptual Art’

One issue may be a misunderstanding of the exhibition assessment criteria, and specifically, of criterion C Conceptual Qualities.

If the teacher is talking about conceptual art within the ‘contemporary art’ umbrella then yes, it’s true, conceptual art will not automatically do well.

The ‘Conceptual qualities’ criterion is not about conceptual art: I think this is may be a common misinterpretation.

The Conceptual qualities criterion will not reward conceptual art unless that art does the things referred to in the descriptor: ‘Conceptual qualities’ rewards the ideas, whether these ideas refer to old art or new art or some other kind of art. Basically, conceptual qualities relate to the degree of sophistication in the student’s thoughts and ideas.

Chief Examiner:

The Chief Examiner stated ‘Conceptual qualities refer to ideas and the development of ideas, which can be explored through any style/genre/medium etc.  So I don’t see this criterion as privileging any one style, medium or genre over another….There is a need to distinguish clearly between conceptual art and conceptual qualities’. 

She’s right (of course!).


Looking for sophisticated thinking…

For example, art as protest is a comparatively recent development and exhibition moderators see a lot of that, but very little of it shows the things that would score highly in criterion C; for example, very little protest art shows evidence of sophisticated or sensitive thought about the issues involved: we often see trite, obvious and predictable imagery. Neither the idea nor the manifestation of the idea is interesting.

Another example is the use of found objects in the exhibition. In a number of cases in the last session the exhibition consisted almost entirely of found objects, accompanied by lengthy exhibition texts that tried to explain their significance.

An old pair of shoes represented migration and the problems of immigrants, the struggles and oppression of the thousands who have been displaced due to conflict, hardship, despair etc.

A ‘soldier’ toy (doll) represented gender stereotyping, sexist assumptions, etc.

None of these ideas are challenging or interesting, but more to the point, they also don’t achieve anything in visual arts assessment terms.

It would be a mistake to assume that work will score well simply because it reflects some aspect of ‘contemporary art and design’ any more than because it reflects some aspect of 18th century painting.

Its all about the descriptors

Contemporary art has the potential to do very well in the visual arts programme but it needs to be intelligent, thoughtful and sophisticated.

Without wishing to state the obvious, work that achieves well according to the criteria will score well, and it may or may not be ‘in touch with the realities of contemporary art and design’.

Moderators assess using the criteria and will reward conceptually strong/sophisticated work accordingly…it’s all about the descriptors…


‘Contemporary Art’ definitions

The Tate Gallery says, ‘The term contemporary art is loosely used to refer to art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature’


The J. Paul Getty Museum says, ‘Strictly speaking, the term “contemporary art” refers to art made and produced by artists living today. Today’s artists work in and respond to a global environment that is culturally diverse, technologically advancing, and multifaceted. Working in a wide range of mediums, contemporary artists often reflect and comment on modern-day society. When engaging with contemporary art, viewers are challenged to set aside questions such as, “Is a work of art good?” or “Is the work aesthetically pleasing?” Instead, viewers consider whether art is “challenging” or “interesting.” Contemporary artists may question traditional ideas of how art is defined, what constitutes art, and how art is made, while creating a dialogue with—and in some cases rejecting—the styles and movements that came before them’.

Photos by author