The artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres was my introduction to conceptual art. At the time, I had no idea how profoundly affecting his work would be in my life and on my understanding of art. Nor could I have imagined how his artworks would allow me to acknowledge the history of the AIDS crisis he experienced. When I encountered the large piles of individually wrapped candy and the carefully arranged stacks of printed paper that constitute his artworks, I was thoroughly amused but exceedingly confused. And there was little hope that I would be able to get what was happening in the work of this leading conceptual artist based only on that one experience. My mind went to shallow and uninteresting questions like “how is this art?” or “does each piece constitute an artwork in its own right?”
But I was introduced to the work by a good friend who was pursuing an MFA in painting at the time from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and he was willing to entertain my confusion and redirect my amusement toward appreciation. He talked with me about the different layers within the work and how it functioned on multiple levels at the same time. Of course, the layers in Gonzalez-Torres’s works were conceptual as opposed, for instance, to the physical layers of paint built up on a canvas, and yet they were no less affecting—perhaps more so.
Manifestable works like the candy spills or the paper stacks were designed for ongoing interaction with the public. Such offerings were meant to be offered to the public and, in the process, depleted—one by one—through the public’s consumption. More than that, the artist understood their depletion as the only effective path: “Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.” As will become clear, such works not only change the way we think art operates but also revolutionize what we do with it. They harness our attention and make even large issues feel personal, intimate, and inescapably ours to consider.
Gonzalez-Torres’s work is a fitting exemplar for the ironic disjunction between what many museum visitors might perceive about the appearance of contemporary art today and the richly layered but inescapably cryptic associations embedded within famous works of conceptual art. As art critic and educator Lance Esplund puts it, “Is it any wonder that the art-viewing public is bewildered, even intimidated? What are they to make of the range of possibilities offered in galleries and museums” or of the “jarring objectlessness” of conceptual art? Yet, despite its unorthodox approach, the influence of conceptualism is nearly without equal in contemporary art, and that enduring influence suggests that many museumgoers receive some degree of experiential reward from these works. For instance, we may experience the shock of encountering piles of candy in a gallery, and that shock may be meant to test us and stretch our cognitive responses. When viewers can accept that challenge and have their assumptions tested, conceptualism empowers viewers with a greater degree of imaginative agency through self-reflective thinking with art. Viewers become participants, and, in some sense, they earn the right to collaborate with the artwork on creative accounts of its meaning. This earned playfulness, it seems, is what most artists aim for with conceptual works.
To return to Gonzalez-Torres, his candies are little helped in their curious display by their obscure titles, such as “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) or “Untitled” (Rossmore II), which might be easily dismissed as fun or novel. The apparent frivolity of candy spills belies the depth of ethical import possessed by these works. For instance, several of these candy works specify an ideal weight that corresponds to the body or bodies for which the work serves as a portrait. Such details present haunting resonances given that Felix and his partner Ross—as in the Ross of “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)—were both casualties of the AIDS epidemic. The consumption of candies, then, rehearses the way in which that autoimmune disease depletes and ultimately destroys the body. Along these lines, Gonzalez-Torres said the following about his reasons for manifesting artworks just to have them depleted through public participation: “In a way this ‘letting go’ of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favor of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes.” Examples like this necessitate that we recast our challenging experiences of contemporary art in a different light.
BUT I DON’T GET IT!
Grappling with the challenges of contemporary art may first require answering some preliminary questions. For example, what is conceptual art? And why does it make my head hurt? The most strident forms of conceptualism emerged in a tumultuous historical context unsteadied by the Vietnam War and growing social unrest. The interactive or participatory nature of conceptualism that grew out of that historical moment has not disappeared but rather evolved and assumed new delivery systems for introspection—land art, installation art, performance art, social practice art, and video art, for example. Despite a short-lived phase as a discreet avant-garde movement, conceptualism now exerts a broad and ongoing influence today, as most works of contemporary art have been either directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of conceptualism, and many contemporary artists view conceptualism as the most influential art-making strategy.
More specifically, when I speak of conceptual art, I am drawing upon a definition from the artist Sol LeWitt’s influential essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in which he states that “in conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work” or that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Or there is the wisdom of Joseph Kosuth: “The basis of a conceptual practice is not what you see but what you understand.” In other words, a pile of candies in a gallery is probably more than just a pile of candies.
The art historian Tony Godfrey has described the experience of conceptualism in this way: “We are being made to think of ourselves thinking.” In other words, if your head hurts, that’s not an accident. The practice of conceptual artists, Godfrey notes, embraces a reflexive orientation, such that the artist works in “a state of continual self-critique.” But this posture is not reserved for the artist:
Conceptual art is concerned both with intellectual speculation and with the everyday. Conceptual art asks questions not only of the art object: “Why is this art? Who is the artist? What is the context?”—but also of the person who looks at it or reads about it: “Who are you? What do you represent?” It draws viewers’ attention to themselves, making them self-conscious.”
The strategy of conceptualism, then, has not been to dissolve or simply undermine the aesthetic priority of art but to utilize all the cognitive strategies available to make unfamiliar and somehow revitalize an embodied perception on the part of the viewer. Godfrey concludes that “the legacy of conceptual art is not a historical style, but an ingrained habit of interrogation. It is in the act of questioning that the subject, reader, or viewer becomes himself or herself.” In this way, the novel enthusiasm of taking a candy from the gallery pile gives way to introspection and reflection along avenues of private or personal meaning.
How, then, should we understand the often-confounding experience of conceptual art as a potentially positive or productive activity? A community of researchers are studying art appreciation, and they find this question particularly vexing. We may take as representative the way in which Anjan Chatterjee treats conceptualism in his work The Aesthetic Brain,where he asks, “Can scientific aesthetics say anything useful about conceptual art?” Due to its complex layering of meanings, Chatterjee has serious doubts: “The richly textured meaning of individual pieces of art that gives art its power is inherently variable and open to many interpretations and thus closed to neuroscience. . . . Conceptual art, with its emphasis on meaning shaped by culture, is hard to bring under scientific scrutiny.” The challenges that conceptual art presents for empirical aesthetics means that a highly influential and fascinating development in contemporary art might go unconsidered by science. Furthermore, at this point, it seems that much of the scientific consideration of art appreciation focuses on celebrated masterworks in major museums. Understandably, these scientists want to control for the best scenarios possible, but that bias toward the classics overlooks the revolutionary impulses and innovations of contemporary art, which, in part, is to overturn such conventions. Thus, new questions must be asked, and new approaches must be developed.
Put simply, we need a psychology of art that is responsive enough to account for the aspect of “I don’t get it!” as an integral part of the experience. In comparison with other forms of art or media, conceptual art challenges the viewer at each stage of the encounter, and unlike more immersive or manipulative forms (e.g., theater, film, or virtual reality), viewers are continually made aware of their own cognitive engagement in the process. Certainly, it takes some concentration to see the pile of candies as an artwork and thus contemplate its meaning. In these kinds of ways, participants are encouraged toward a greater degree of imaginative agency through self-reflective thinking with art. Thus, the curious case of conceptual art necessitates both a new perspective and a new approach.
On the first count, we can make use of Robert Solso’s idea of visual dissonance, which he defines as “a state of psychological tension caused when one experiences a disparity between what one expects to see and what one actually sees. . . . In the case of unfulfilled expectations, the viewer is required to resolve his or her tension, or simply to abandon the piece and consider another.” Solso developed this idea to account for how we react to modern and contemporary art and particularly, it seems, to the readymade. This visual dissonance has become more the rule than the exception in modern and contemporary art, and Solso admits as much when he also makes clear that “the technique of producing unexpected visual forms is widely practiced by modern artists, who seek to gain our attention, and further intellectual effort, as we attempt to reconcile our expectations with what we see.” Solso, then, identifies three potential strategies for alleviating the burden of visual dissonance: (1) reduction—“reducing the importance of one of the dissonant elements”; (2) revision—“changing one of the dissonant elements”; or (3) reinterpretation—“reinterpreting one or more of the elements.” Reinterpretation is, thus, the operative category, and the cognitive work it implies seems to be precisely what conceptual artists intend with their works. The confusion that viewers typically experience when encountering works of conceptual art is, then, just the beginning of a more complex and extended cognitive process.
Along these lines, then, we can assume that rather than creating obstacles or gimmicks, conceptual artists intentionally deploy disruptive or disorienting conditions for their work, and these efforts are actually creative uses of visual dissonance. In other words, “I don’t get it!” can become a surprisingly meaning-filled experience. A simplified account of that process would involve at least three phases: conceptual confusion, conceptual integration, and conceptual production.
First, viewers experience conceptual confusion. This is the initial zone of visual dissonance wherein viewers encounter seemingly nonart objects within the art-viewing context or in proximity to objects they know to be art and are faced with a perceptual dilemma (e.g., “Why is there a pile of candies in this museum?”). Such encounters can be particularly unsettling and off-putting, forcing viewers to determine whether or not they wish to attempt a cognitive reconciliation of the seemingly out-of-place or anti-aesthetic display. If they choose to persist in the encounter, they progress to the next phase, conceptual integration. Here, viewers perform a sort of dialectic reasoning, balancing the artwork’s challenge of artistic consistency (e.g., “I have seen what seems to be nonart in museums before, like readymades”) and artistic innovation (e.g., “This work is unlike any art I have seen before”). They thus draw upon their visual perceptions and their memory and then apply fresh reasoning based on contextual clues in the actual space. Then, once viewers achieve a level of restored comfort and the cognitive dissonance has been somewhat resolved, they are able to progress into the most advanced phase, conceptual production.This is the zone of reward, wherein the hard work of holding the aesthetic tension of the encounter and working to integrate the experience receives a payoff in the form of imaginative confidence to engage in fresh meaning-making (e.g., “If these candies function as an artwork, what does that mean?”). Here, the cognitive resonance of the artwork within the imagination of the viewer is all that matters. The traditional categories of correct or incorrect assessment (i.e., historical, aesthetic, or otherwise) are replaced by new associations and extensions imprinted with the viewer’s personal background and sensibilities but granted a measure of appropriateness based on the checks and balances of the process.
“Untitled” (Death by Gun), 1990: A CASE STUDY
I now turn to another kind of manifestable work by Gonzalez-Torres, shifting from his candy spills to the stacks of paper that form the focal point of the 1990 work “Untitled” (Death by Gun). Our experience of this work likely begins in confusion, as we encounter an unassumingly simple, perhaps minimalist, three-dimensional rectangle on the floor of the gallery. Upon closer inspection, we find that the shape is, in fact, a stack of large, individual sheets of paper. On the wall near the paper stack, a description of the work usually provides the cryptic title, specifies its ideal height as 9 inches and its dimensions as 45 × 33 inches, and informs us that the work is made from “endless copies” of the same printout. Each sheet of paper displays an expansive grid wherein we find the names, ages, and, in most cases, faces of various victims of gun violence. In some cases, we can even read a sentence or two about how each life was ended by a gun.
The effect of the text oscillates between unspeakably heartbreaking and truly confounding. What are we to do with the object before us and the mass of information it provides? That is not initially clear to many gallery visitors. The puzzling form of the artwork and its somber nature confronts participants with a demanding choice. To engage the work likely means getting closer to the names and faces of the deceased. And that will require humility and patience and curiosity.
Indeed, the work of conceptual integration will involve a few key operations. First, it will be helpful to understand that many of Gonzalez-Torres’s works center on a simple gesture of communication. Here, that means that the information found on the printouts should not be seen as a creation of the artist. The printouts display many faces and statistics, but they appear to us not as memorial portraits but as the obscure remains of black-and-white images that have been photocopied too many times. In fact, Gonzalez-Torres appropriated his content from a photo essay originally run by Time magazine, which recorded the 460 lives lost to gun violence in the United States over the course of the first week of May in 1989. From this important detail, we can more clearly see the artistic gesture represented in the artwork: Gonzalez-Torres is not here playing the part of a journalist or memorialist but instead serving as curator in the economy of attention. “Untitled” (Death by Gun) is not a report on the plague of gun violence; it is an imaginative, embodied conduit for accessing that plague, a fresh artistic gesture that preserves both the sobriety of the content and the integrity of the form. In this way, the participant is called not to fixate on the surface images but to ponder the intractable nature of such losses.
Second, it is vital to appreciate the participatory dynamic initiated by the artwork. As with all of Gonzalez-Torres’s manifestable works, ownership of the works or authority to manifest them requires providing for their distribution and dissemination through the participation of gallery visitors. Thus, the collectors become mediators for the artist’s creative vision, in that they are required to provide access to the work and replenish its supply continually. In the case of “Untitled” (Death by Gun),this stewardship ensures that each visitor to that piece has the opportunity to take a printout with them. As the artist reflects in conversation with the artist Tim Rollins, the possibilities for such conceptual artworks expand through the engagement of the public:
TR: Are the works a metaphor for the relation between the individual and the crowd?
FGT: Perhaps between public and private, between personal and social, between the fear of loss and the joy of loving, of growing, of changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and then being replenished all over again from scratch. I need the viewer. I need the public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in. I tend to think of myself as a theater director who is trying to convey some ideas by reinterpreting the notion of the division of roles: author, public, and director. Your question is more puzzling to me than I had previously thought because, yes, an individual piece of paper from one of the stacks does not constitute the “piece” itself, but in fact, it is a piece. At the same time, the sum of many pieces of the identical paper is the “piece” but not really, because there is no piece only an ideal height of endless copies. As you know, these stacks are made up of endless copies or mass-produced prints. Yet each piece of paper gathers new meaning, to a certain extent, from its final destination, which depends on the person who takes it.
This erosion of the barrier between private and public life, as the curator Nancy Spector explains, “forms the very essence of the work,” and in this respect, “Untitled” (Death by Gun) is a particularly strong example of the artist’s efforts to develop a form of public art that is personally or privately experienced.
Moreover, the point in this merging of the public and private is not simply to give away candies or prints. Interaction with such pieces is meant to facilitate an ongoing process of thought, a fuller consideration of what the artistic gesture might represent. In this way, then, when we collect a print for ourselves, we are not only aiding the artist in his creative project. Carrying home a print not only serves to verify one’s physical participation in the piece; it also indicates potential imaginative or ethical explorations as well. For “Untitled” (Death by Gun),such engagement likely involves a more intimate consideration of the typically incomprehensible toll of gun violence. Although tracking the loss of 460 lives in one week is, in a sense, more manageable than a monthly or annual report, the artist knows that a more immediate and personal encounter is necessary to effect any change in the American social consciousness. Preserving the memory of such tragedies requires that participants kneel beside Gonzalez-Torres’s stack and choose to roll up a print for themselves. Hidden within such a simple commitment lies a profound acknowledgement of shared sorrow, grief, and despair. In this way, the dynamic form of the piece aims at the artist’s goal for minimal means with maximal meaning.
The final stage of conceptual production, then, allows for individual participants to form their own connections and associations with the artwork. Such contemplation will be difficult, because we are invited to form a renewed, perhaps more intimate, relationship to an unwieldy issue, like gun violence in the United States. Whereas the common practice of many communities is to plant a tree or erect a sculpture to mark a tragedy in a public way, “Untitled” (Death by Gun) operates with a different imaginative logic. The public ceremony to install such memorials might draw a large crowd and provide a momentous event, but in time, the impact of the artifact of corporate mourning will usually fade, and the memorial will become another piece of civic furniture. Conversely, Gonzalez-Torres gives a gift of imagination and contemplation, something to meditate on for as long it remains in our possession. When the spectacle of shared grief fades, the collected print still effects a haunting reminder. The personal acquisition of such prints thus creates a vehicle for closing the distance between a diffuse corporate guilt and an activated sense of individual responsibility and compassion through a process of embodied, empathetic participation.
There is no guarantee that this will be the response of the engaged viewer, but the possibility surely exists in a lively way through the work. As the art critic David Deitcher explains, “Immersing the serial products of industrial systems within the social matrix of individual association and memory, this healing art attempts to restore wholeness to the everyday.” Such wholeness surely means not dismissing, forgetting, or avoiding these forms of tragedy in our world.
Another way to describe the artist’s gesture is by comparing it to what Jacques Derrida calls “the very ordeal of the undecidable.” For Derrida, undecidability names the elusive closure that we seek but cannot attain in matters of justice where each political choice carries with it the haunting possibility to act otherwise. Undecidability, then, activates genuine lament through its agitation of a sense of responsibility, and all the prepackaged rituals of public grief for gun deaths in America, wrapped as they are in the formulaic speech of partisan politics, do little to preserve the poignancy and necessary disquiet of undecidability for the issue. Through its mechanisms of intimacy at the edges of mourning, “Untitled” (Death by Gun), then, returns us to the threshold of responsibility and thus restores some undecidability to the pernicious epidemic of gun violence.
A SUMMONS TO RESPONSIBILITY
Toward the close of After the End of Art, Arthur Danto reflects on dilemmas related to art audiences and museums. He writes that “what we see today is an art which seeks a more immediate contact with people than the museum makes possible . . . and the museum in turn is striving to accommodate the immense pressures that are imposed upon it from within art and from outside art.” He goes on to describe the audience as the “thirsting millions” and explains that “what they thirst for, in my view, what we all thirst for, is meaning: the kind of meaning that religion was capable of providing, or philosophy, or finally art.”  There are, thus, unavoidable consequences from this loss of meaning, not the least of which is the inability to mourn.
It seems clear that we are experiencing a crisis of empathy in our world, and contemporary art can provide remarkable, if surprisingly confrontational, help. Yes, the arts provide us with worlds of wonder and innumerable avenues for the imagination, but the help that we really need, the thing to satisfy our thirst for meaning, is unlikely to come about by revisiting art’s more traditional benefits like visual pleasure, artistic expression, or even political agitation. Rather, in light of the distractions and divisions of our time, we need an art that creates the conditions for a disruptive effect. We need an art that not only aims for spectacle or shock but moreover ushers—or even startles—us back from our betrayals of responsibility. Historic forms may rehearse familiar feelings, but contemporary art demands an honest response.
When we embrace contemporary art’s alternative forms of perception and assume an approach of inquiry rather than flat affirmation, we gain access to art’s critical spirit, which the proponents of conceptualism see as integral to interrogating our own being. Through such encounters, we become more aware of our context and social location—the cultural geography that dominates our lives and informs our imaginations. By engaging with contemporary art, we can reorient ourselves to the world, especially the overlooked aesthetic aspects of our lives. We also may find art providing new means for solitude and spirituality, new ways for the soul to breathe. In other words, we find help to restore both sobriety and wonder to our desperately distracted lives. The “jarring objectlessness” of conceptual art, then, is not a disturbing absence but an arresting space to mourn and recover our responsibility.
 Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (New York, NY: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1995), 57.
 Esplund, The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2018), 2.
 These specifications can be reviewed in the official cataloguing of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation: https://www.felixgonzalez-torresfoundation.org/works/c/candy-works.
 Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Tim Rollins, Susan Cahan, and Jan Avgikos, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Los Angeles, CA: A. R. T., 1993), 13.
 See Gregory Minissale, The Psychology of Contemporary Art (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), xvi.
 LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, eds. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 12; and Kosuth, “Exemplar,” in Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Los Angeles, CA: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994) 51–59.
 Godfrey, Conceptual Art, Art and Ideas (London, UK: Phaidon, 1998), 142 and 12.
 Godfrey, Conceptual Art, 15–16. He continues: “Conceptual art is not a style, nor can it be limited to a narrow period in time. It is, arguably, a tradition based on the critical spirit” (16).
 Relatedly, Godfrey reflects that “because the work does not take a traditional form it demands a more active response from the viewer, indeed it could be argued that the Conceptual work of art only truly exists in the viewer’s mental participation” (Godfrey, Conceptual Art, 4).
 Godfrey, Conceptual Art, 424.
 Anjan Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 142 and148–49. Chatterjee also writes the following: “Does science have anything useful to say about meaning in art? The ultimate reach of science is hard to predict, but to my knowledge there has not been any serious attempt to think about the science of conceptual art. Consider the critical aesthetic triad of sensations, emotions, and meaning. Scientists have typically focused on the connection between sensations and emotions. Art, as long as it slides along this sensation–pleasure groove, is amenable to investigation by empirical methods. Scientists can look for hidden stable regularities of light and line and color and form in artwork that are pleasing and relate them to the kinds of neural tuning for which our brains seem to be designed” (The Aesthetic Brain, 147). For other scientific or neuroscience considerations of contemporary art, see Semir Zeki, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999); Arthur P. Shimamura and Stephen E. Palmer, Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012); G. Gabrielle Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013); Eric R. Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016); and Susan Magsamen, “Your Brain on Art: The Case for Neuroaesthetics,” Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, July 19, 2019, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32206171.
 See Jon O. Lauring, An Introduction to Neuroaesthetics: The Neuroscientific Approach to Aesthetic Experience, Artistic Creativity, and Arts Appreciation (Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2014), 149–50.
 Solso, The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 235, emphasis added.
 Gonzalez-Torres, Rollins, Cahan, and Avgikos, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 23.
 Gonzalez-Torres, Rollins, Cahan, and Avgikos, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 23; and Nancy Spector, Press Release for Felix Gonzalez-Torres,Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, March 3–May 10, 1995, https://www.felixgonzalez-torresfoundation.org/exhibitions/felix-gonzalez-torres21.
 Deitcher, “The Everyday Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” in Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Stockholm, Sweden: Magasin 3 Stockholm, 1992), 4.
 Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 5–6. Niall Lucy describes this undecidability in this way: “Every decision is the result of a process. However right and natural it might appear, and even if it seems to take only a split second, each decision undergoes a struggle before it is made. Once made, every decision could always have been otherwise. . . . It’s a problem primarily (it would be tempting, but wrong, to say ‘only’) when responsibilitylooms as a question—and yes of course there are times when the question of responsibility pertains to matters of style. So undecidability appears as a problem when, for example, it comes to choosing whether to vote left or right, to speak out against injustice now or later, or to defend a welfare system in spite of knowing that every system is open to exploitation” (A Derrida Dictionary [Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2007], 147).
 Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 183 and 188.
 For instance, the exhibition Room to Breathe at the Manchester City Gallery is testing the effect of mindfulness breathing techniques on the quality of public engagement with artworks. See https://manchesterartgallery.org/event/room-to-breathe/.