What Is Contemporary Art & How Does It Matter?

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In its most basic sense, “contemporary art” refers to art dealing with themes and ideas of the present. But like any moment, it’s nearly impossible to have a historical view of the present. In that sense, contemporary art is more of a question than an answer. Here’s another way of thinking about it: Jackson Pollock is not a contemporary artist. For one thing, he’s dead. More importantly, however, his art making—the act of composing paintings by dripping paint onto a surface—is exemplary of art that is rejecting past traditions in favor of experimentation. That is to say that Jackson Pollock is a Modernist. If an artist were making drip paintings today, he would be making them in the tradition of Pollock.

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Postmodernism is a rejection of or reaction to modernism and, in particular, to notions of universality, authenticity, originality, and, in many ways, the traditional mediums of Modernism. Postmodernism is a rejection of the avant-garde and the privileging of technology. (This is why there is so much bad Postmodern video.) One of the greatest contributions of Postmodern art, however, is the breakdown of distinctions between high art and low art; between fine art and popular culture.

I think we’re at the end of Postmodern art and a major theme of contemporary art is how artists are wrestling with what comes next. So many sub-movements of Postmodernism (deconstructive conceptual art; classical realism; electrical installation art; digital art; inter- and multi-media art) led down so many dead ends that artists struggle to be relevant. I-married-an-artistThe artist has become a self-referential joke. An image making the rounds on social media shows one girl whispering, “She’s an artist,” into the ear of another girl who replies, “Oh, I thought she was just weird.” In 2008, a c-print by Anne Collier and Matthew Higgs was the appropriation of a Billy Button book cover that showed a woman weeping with her head in her hands. The title of the book was I Married an Artist. Ask an artist what impact they want to have and what you often get is a scuffle of confusion, insecurity, and vagueness.

Transitions between cultural movements are often presented as a crisis and a response to that crisis. Our culture is in no great crisis. We haven’t had a World War in a generation. We are programmed now to digest new technology. Our world is known to us and new discoveries tend to fill in the gaps of our knowledge rather than completely altering our understanding of the world. Nothing is really that shocking. Most of us living in first world countries will never experience famine, displacement, large-scale disease outbreak, or the sort of oppression that defined generations of human history. That is not to say that we have achieved world peace and prosperity for all, but, chances are, if you are reading this, you live in a stable society. For those interested in the advancement of culture, the greatest cultural crisis is a lack of crisis. Artists have a unique ability to put the world back together when it is broken. Think of Anselm Kiefer and his work’s ability to confront the taboos of German history or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and its ability to convert the horrific carnage of the Spanish Civil War into a painting that champions peace. The most recent collective crisis seen in the Western World was the AIDS epidemic among gay men of the 1980s and 1990s. That experience generated the largest piece of public kitsch ever made, the AIDS Quilt, but it also created art like AA Bronson’s Felix, June 5th, 1994, a portrait of the artist’s partner on his death bed, after he had died, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), a 175-pound mound of individually-wrapped candies that corresponds to the artist’s deceased partner’s body weight. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy, and the diminishing amount parallels Ross’ weight loss and suffering prior to his death. These works play an important cultural role in affirming humanity at a time when humanity is questioning itself. They also advance ideas of painting, sculpture/installation art, and, in the case of AA Bronson, the diffusion of art and ideas.

The greatest challenge for today’s contemporary artist is relevancy. Without a collective crisis, artists seem to be milling about, goofing off. Perhaps this is why art seems so trivial. But what an opportunity! For the first time in millennia, artists have the opportunity to forge new ideas that are not simply a response to human tragedy, but a propulsion towards greater human capacity, meaning, and joy.

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In October 2012, a number of high profile art writers, among them Sarah Thornton and Dave Hickey, declared they weren’t going to write about the art world any more. Hickey called contemporary art “nasty” and “stupid”. Hickey said“Thirty years in the art world and hundreds of biennials had not prepared me for… the conferences, committees, agendas, proposals, symposia, position papers, tourist boards, prize adjudications, directorial appointments and preening philanthropists.” Thornton complained that reporting on the art market, which she had made a name for herself doing, “implies money is the most important thing about art.” Complaining about money and art has been around forever. Andy Warhol found it amusing. In 1975, he declared, “I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.” Collector Charles Saatchi complained in The Guardian about contemporary collectors, “Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognized, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth.” But there is no real crisis in contemporary art. The people pretending there is one have a limited view of art. For them, the art world is a very small sliver of big-name, high-priced, globally-traded artists.

Art is incomplete until it is received by the viewer. Just as artists need to evolve, society needs to evolve as well.  Before the message of the contemporary artist is relevant, the audience has to be able to receive it. We need to learn how to read art again.

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Lawrence Weiner created a poster in 1991 for Printed Matter that said just that: LEARN TO READ ART. He explained it to Marjorie Welish in BOMB magazine in 1996 this way, “That phrase is advertising a particular means with which you can go through life, it doesn’t tell you that if you don’t learn to read art you’re going to be fined, it just says: Learn to Read Art. I don’t see that as an imperative. All artists are attempting to communicate, in whatever form, and if you can learn to read that form then you can either accept it or reject it. If you can’t read it, then it doesn’t mean shit to you.”

Relevancy. Connection. Communication. The collective experience. Those are the themes and ideas of today. If artists can make art about those ideas and if we as a society can learn again to read them, then contemporary art will be that force that propels us to greater capacity, meaning, and joy.