“I could have made that”
“My child could have made that”
Well, they didn’t. And you didn’t either.
Contemporary Art often is seen in a dichotomy of lights. It can either be a seven headed monstrous beast, too furry and complex for average human comprehension or some piece of garbage found on the neighbours alley, someone somehow decided to drag into a museum.
It usually tends to be neither, although don’t get me wrong, it could be both, and that is exactly why people are afraid of it. Because, yes, it can be anything.
The problem nowadays is that a lot of people say they don’t like Contemporary Art, which is a bold statement given that it can take any form, time or space. What would be more accurate, would be to say you don’t understand Contemporary Art which is a completely valid argument that I would say a majority of people might agree with to some extent.
In this article, I’ll try to give you a very small introduction to Contemporary Art and why next time you visit a new city you should give their version of MoMA a chance.
Let’s, first of all, lay the ground rules: there is no single definition of art and most probably there never will be one. Also, it is hard and dangerous to make definite statements in the art world, as anything can be contradicted and there is always an exception to the rule, given that there are no rules… I believe that uncertainty and ubiquity is what scares people off. Life is so uncertain, most people often prefer the comfort of Naturalism or Neoclassicism and veer off things like Surrealism, Abstractionism or worse yet Conceptual Art (ewww). Philosophising about life is hard enough, so why bother still bringing in incomprehensible ‘art’?
There is also something I want to make clear here, that I was told time and time again in art school. Often Contemporary Art and Modern Art are used as synonyms, despite being very different periods of time. Modern art is art made during the period of around the 1860s to the 1960s – Modernism. Contemporary Art is usually what came after that and what is made in the present day, which is a fairly difficult time to define. Also, since we are into definitions, Contemporary Art is not a movement but a period, currently we can have art based on expressionism, conceptualism or abstractionism which does not influence the period of time in which it was made.
In my simple business assertion of art nowadays, inspired by Grayson Perry, something is art when an artist says so and such a statement is validated by a curator and supported by a critic. For that matter, an artist is someone who has entitled themselves as such. On a very blunt personal explanation, this is art currently for the art market.
This definition probably offends some artists who make art for the sake of art and want to stay off the grid or combat the capitalist society. Often an artist simply identifies something as art without external validation which can also give the ‘something’ the qualification, but it will not play in the grand scheme of things in the art world. However, this is not what we are talking about right now, the matter here is contemporary art you see at galleries and museums. Art that has been through the art market and that has a pre-estimated monetary value.
So on what basis can something be validated as Art?
This is the hardest question, as there is no checklist every curator takes when looking at a piece. It is something deeper, an ingrained concept, a way of communicating somethings or of criticizing or revolutionizing. What is interesting about contemporary art is understanding what it is trying to communicate and what has happened for it to be there. You cannot simply look at a piece and give your verdict right away, there is some background work necessary, knowing its name, knowing the artist and in which circumstances it was made, why it is there and what it is trying to say. I think people are often afraid of Contemporary Art because it might make them think about things they have not considered before, it can expand horizons or break barriers through introducing other people’s perspectives.
What most people are afraid of is the unknown.
Many centuries ago, art was about technical skill, but long gone are the days when that was the only assertion of art, however some people have stopped in time because the present has become too multiple and confusing. I think the epitome of when art left skill behind was when Marcel Duchamp presented to the Society of Independent Artists a urinal turned on its back on top of a plinth, called it a ready-made, because he did not make it and changed its context. In that moment he asserted that art had to do with the thought process of the artist, its lack of functionality and the insertion of the object into a new context.
I hope this has worked as a small debriefing of what sometimes might seem so scary and specifically designed just for a small elite but that shouldn’t be thought of as something for only a restricted few.
Next time you visit a city look up their contemporary art museum, or give it a try at your hometown even, since we are living in weird times. A lot of them tend to be free, so go in unassumingly, walk around the gallery and approach something that catches your eye. Picture the first few images and words that come to your mind when looking at it. Check its name, make a few more simple associations, how does the name relate to your first thoughts? Not at all? That’s okay, it’s your own unique interpretation. Now look up the artist. Who was that person? Can you relate the piece to the person? Why would they make this?
Finally, look up the specific piece. Read a little about it. How does it all come together as a final picture? Does the representation resonate with you? Look at it one final time. Smile, you just appreciated Contemporary Art. Turn around, leave the museum, enjoy the rest of the day, maybe remember this experience the following day.
Come back whenever.
P.S. Just because I really want you to do your homework, here’s a list of some of the best (and my favourite) Contemporary Art Museums around the world. Some mainstream, some not so much, I want you to start enjoying contemporary art so maybe a more mainstream approach is more desirable for beginners.
If you are interested, you can read about my experience with a clown party at Arken here.