Online Editor Helena Raymond-Hayling shares her thoughts on why contemporary art is for everyone.
In 2013 I found myself in a gallery in Oxford, standing beside a girl taking photos to research a school art project. We stood side by side, staring intently at the paintings before us. I can’t quite remember who begun our exchange, but we ended up discussing the artists and galleries we rate most highly, when I asked if she’d been to the Tate Modern in London. I recalled with fondness the trip I made there during my time at school when I had caught Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds in its final week.
She wrinkled her nose and said she had been and thought little of it, that the art she had seen was ‘just crap’. Slightly taken aback, I smiled and changed the subject. Years later, this conversation stuck with me, and made me wonder why she was completely uninterested in what she had seen. It took a quick internet search of ‘contemporary art rubbish’ to realise that she was not alone in her sentiments.
In an online debate forum typical comments included: ‘Paintings used to have meticulous and well planned details. Modern art merely nondescript objects’; ‘It doesn’t portray true emotion, as real art should’; ‘untalented modern artists portray their views using political and social pressure rather than artistic skill and hard work’.
I was deeply saddened and I deliberated about how I could respond to the girl I’d met at the gallery, and many others who share her views, finding contemporary art confusing, ugly, or simply boring.
To start this discussion it is important to understand where we stand in the context of art history. Until the late 19th century there was a focus on what is sometimes called ‘Academic Art’, art influenced by prestigious European academies. These institutions were the primary source of art and artists at the time and cultivated work under the Neo-classicist and later Romantic movements.
Paintings at this time were still taking inspiration from the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, awe-inspiring feats of bravery and heroism and stunning landscapes. This period yielded the beautiful works of William Turner, Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix. Rebellion against this style began with the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir) and later the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Seurat).
These turn-of the century artists started to test the boundaries of art that were set by these institutions, by experimenting with conventional methods of portraying light and dark and leaving deliberately visible brush strokes.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century even more bold movements appeared such as Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism which moved further towards abstraction and dream-like subject matter giving us the relentlessly unconventional but ceaselessly marvellous works of Picasso, Dalí and Kahlo.
Roughly speaking that puts us at present day, where we have seemingly lesser standards of artistic practise and seemingly bizarre or unsightly and cause outrage (lest we forget Tracy Emin’s bed).
It is also important to note that the movements that came out of rebellion against centuries of strict standards on art starting in the late 19th century are umbrella’d by the term ‘modern art’, whereas ‘contemporary art’ is what is meant by art produced from around the 1970’s up until now. So why exactly does contemporary art upset people so much, why such an apparent decline from the works of the renaissance painters, the old masters and the romantics?
Well the reasons we turn our noses up at art that has come out of the last 50 years or so has a lot to do with what art we actually see. Firstly, as previously mentioned a lot of this artwork came out of selective and prestigious institutions that were only accessible to and run by the upper classes.
This placed restrictions on the style and subject matter of the art that came out of them. The pieces that were exhibited in the great annual Salon of the Academie-Des-Beaux-Arts in Paris which throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was the biggest art event in the world, were the ones that recieved circulation and notoriety simply because they were a part of these wealthy institutions.
Secondly, the art we see from the past has been distilled and filtered in the time since production. Galleries, critics and educational institutions around the world have selected what they perceive to be as the best art from the past, and so what we see today is a ‘best of’ selection.
Art of all kinds of styles comes out from all classes, races, age groups, but what has made it into the history books has been unfortunately dictated by the palate of the white, Christian elite in Europe at the time.
I implore you to abandon the notion of ‘good art’
Today, what we see of contemporary art is broader, and artists no longer need the platform of a European art academy. With the rise of photography and later social media, art can travel further and be accessed by more people and its production is no longer a preserve of the ruling classes. What I’m getting at is that we look through a different lens nowadays: we see more of the art that is produced in the first place, which is itself inherently more diverse anyway.
One must bring in to question whether the notion of an absolute standard of beauty is even possible, and whether—even if it were- it ought to be the metric by which we measure artistic merit. One opinion I found time and time again online laments that work which appears to have little time or effort gone into it, is not worthy of being called ‘art’.
visual artists have people to please, funding to obtain and trends to follow
These sentiments are echoed in the dull phrase ringing loudly in the mind of the sceptic—’my five year old could have done that!’—almost always pertaining to Jackson Pollock, unfortunately for him. I implore you to abandon the notion of ‘good art’; believe that beauty is entirely subjective, and understand that apparent standards stem from arbitrary external forces.
When thinking of the widely discussed ‘high standards’ of classically beautiful renaissance or baroque art, it is useful to think of context. In years gone by, the norm was to paint with oils and depict some kind of important figure or biblical, classical or natural subject matter in a way which is accurate, visually appealing, and often dramatic.
Part of the skill in painting was out of necessity, since paintings were a way of recording or depicting real people and events. Inevitably, this melted away with the advent of photography, which coincided with the overhaul in artistic practise at around the turn of the century, the shift away from absolute standards of beauty grabs art by the balls.
The role of art in our lives has changed. Accuracy and conventional beauty is passe. So what is the point here and now? Art has is still of course used to tell stories, although presently this may be done less literally or directly. Artworks need a context, and it may not be so simple to merely take one look at a work and understand the sentiments of the artist and its layers of meaning.
On top of this, seemingly simplistic works have often taken more work to produce than expected. Returning to Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, it’s easy to overlook the 100 million porcelain seeds as something that is interesting because of its vastness alone.
This kind of criticism is common of works of scale such as Levitated Mass in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – a 340-ton boulder positioned over the heads of visitors entering the gallery. Likewise Cy Twombly’s Bacchus paintings—huge works of red on white—described by one blogger I found as ‘nothing more than a massive five-year-old’s scribble’.
However, each of Ai Weiwei’s seeds was hand painted in China, forcing us to ponder the ‘made in China’ phenomenon. The seeds are all unique, embracing individuality in time of the of complete loss of personal freedom under Chairman Mao.
The seeds were made individually in the city of Jingdezhen, a main producer of Imperial porcelain and the mere act of walking over the seeds, which visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to do, is rather poignant given the hours of work needed to produce them. Sunflower seeds have also a personal significance to Weiwei.
In the face of propaganda images of chairman Mao depicted as the sun with the Chinese people as sunflowers turned to face him, Ai Weiwei views sunflower seeds- a common street snack shared among friends- as a symbol of friendship, unyielding human compassion, and bonding amidst austerity and repression.
Pieces of art are like academic theses or dissertations mounted on the wall, how can you expect to take a brief look and understand all the content and complexities or the intentions of the creator? Art need not even tell a story, and indeed is often used to make a statement or shock the onlooker.
Offensive…artwork may not make you smile or look good on your wall, but it may make you think
Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided can be taken to be nothing more than a cow and it calf cut in half and suspended in formaldehyde, intended for little more than inducing repulsion. This work may be unpalatable, yet explores themes of birth and death and shows the psychological and physical separation between mother and child in death.
It parodies natural history museums’ displays whilst referencing the contrasting religious iconography of the Virgin and Child. Offensive, ugly or shocking artwork may not make you smile or look good on your wall, but it may make you think in a new way – perhaps question its message or purpose. To me, that’s as interesting an experience as seeing a technically excellent or conventionally beautiful painting.
Society is resistant to change. The world of visual art has made leaps and bounds in the last century and so we may still consider ourselves on an artistic ‘honeymoon’. It is actually unsurprising that we often reject it, it is an unknown quantity to us.
embrace the sensations of unrest and contention
The way in which art is presented and distributed has also changed. Like everything in the 21st century, art is shaped by things unique to modern life: the internet, social media, and consumerism. Art is expensive, there’s a lot of it, and is a commodity to be bought and sold. Just as with fashion, music and film, visual artists have people to please, funding to obtain and trends to follow and nearly every piece of art ever created is always just a few taps away.
Visual art is not immune from the concept of ‘celebrity’, so yes- works with a famous artist’s name attached will fetch more attention and money and won’t necessarily represent the best of what’s out there. Just because yet another Justin Bieber song has made it to the top 40, does not mean all current music is as abhorrent.
So next time you see an artwork you don’t understand or like embrace the sensations of unrest and contention; question yourself and fight it back. When someone next insists ‘modern art is a load of rubbish’, inform them that they probably mean ‘contemporary art’ (correct terminology before bashing things is simply good manners) and that they are seriously missing out.
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Featured image: Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917
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