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Navigating the Pitfalls of Contemporary Art

The world of art can be full of rich, posh and snobby people who merely pretend to know what the significance of the cow facing west means. Here are the things you need to know about contemporary art and how to spot the true artists and the imposters.

Article by Joey P. 

“Yes,” you hear from a whitewashed corner of the gallery space, “I simply love his work. The macabre lines are rather Egon Schiele or Bacon-esque, don’t you think?”

Turning with trepidation, you spy the decadent fur lining of the speaker’s coat, standing in a private circle with a bunch of other young, hipster-looking creatures wearing an assortment of creepers, Doc Martens and hippie bandanas like some lost tribe of the 80’s. Oh god, you say to yourself for the hundredth time this evening (normal behaviour at an art opening), why am I here?

The most likely reason is because you’re the friend of a friend’s friend. You’ve come to this art exhibition not expecting much, except that most probably you’re going to be forced to view some avant garde piece of work you initially thought was some rubbish on the ground. What is art, you wonder despairingly as you lean over the shoulder of your friend and whisper: “My grandma could paint that in her sleep!”

Your friend turns and says, “Yeah, but would it be intentional?

Don’t Think About Art for Art’s Sake

Which one is the art again?











Image by Brother O’Mara

Too often, we differentiate “high art” and “low art” and come to view contemporary art as some kind of elitist gesture mostly peddled by art institutions and snapped up by the rich and famous. Is this true, to a large extent? Most probably. We artists have the moral compendium of trying to juggle monetary worth with artistic integrity, and sometimes we lose to our baser desires – namely, you know, hunger and a roof over our heads.

But sometimes it’s as simple as not viewing art like it is “art”. Don’t put it on a pedestal. Art is a cultural, social phenomenon like all the other branches of disciplines. William Hogarth once said, Pursuit is the occupation of our whole lives. As artists, we like to believe we are pursuing something greater than ourselves. Like writers. Like scientists. And like philosophers.

Aesthetics should be concerned more with how it is said rather than what is said.

–          Umberto Eco

So rather than looking at a piece of work as if it’s crawled out of some crazy art concept, try to remember that it has probably been informed by everything society has to offer: science, philosophy, psychology, media, politics, the Internet, fiction, fantasy – or, my steadfast favourite, science fiction.

There’s this persistent belief that artists are somewhat illiterate. While it is true most of us prefer not to write, most of us do read. It’s where we get our concepts, our ideas, and our theories: the main difference is that we then try to “solve” or “address” the issue or idea through a visual format. Art isn’t objective truth, like science aims to prove. It’s a pataphysical solution: looking to create its own meaning irregardless of the laws of reality.

Rather than immediately saying, “what does this artwork mean?” try to experience “how” it is communicating to you. You don’t always have to have an explanation. Sometimes, the aesthetics of the work stimulates your senses and you have a feeling that it has moved you, and maybe that is enough.

“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”

– Anaïs Nim

Name and Terminology Dropping

Image by Churchh

Yeah, yeah, you say, but what about actually getting through an art private view without looking ignorant? We’ll skip the fashion and move straight to the attitude.

Artists, art students, curators, collectors – I won’t deny that there’s something about our specialised vocabulary and cultivated earnestness that can grate the ears of a normal, sane person.

“I sometimes feel that I have nothing to say and I want to communicate this.”

– An actual quote from Damien Hirst. No lie.

How can you fit in? Normal conversation usually works. You’d be surprised how many people are actually standing around talking in hushed tones about the anticipated afterparty and whether there’ll be food, or otherwise you’ll have to go grab some hot wings from the local fried chicken store.

Failing that, learn some artists’ names and basic art terminology. If you’re going to frequent art exhibitions and openings, you should at least be able to fake it, because that’s what everybody else is doing.

Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Maria Abramovic, Mark Quinn, Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama… buy a book or read an article or two about the most successful contemporary artists and at least know about the Renaissance and art trends over the past hundred years. Have a favourite artist, and know Félix Guattari, Walter Benjamin and Slavoj Žižek. Artists have butchered their concepts for ages.

Tip: If all fails, just keep repeating, “I just feel this is so bourgeois, you know?”

Remember Why We’re All Here

The pursuit of happiness











Image by thisisbossi

Honestly, the most important thing is to remember why we are all here: the booze. And the social connections, the afterparty and – oh, yes – the art. But it’s the unspoken promise of alcohol that draws the largely destitute artists from their studios to the inebriated mecca of liquor.

Don’t take it too seriously, and don’t be afraid of saying something wrong. That artist probably isn’t going to make it big anyway and in all likelihood he won’t remember your embarrassing faux pas in the morning.

Actually, It Probably is Rubbish

Literally rubbish












Image by Ambernectar 13

After everything I’ve been saying to you about understanding the importance and celebrating the diversity of contemporary art, it’s vital to remember this: that piece of work probably is rubbish.

This is the great thing about art. It’s subjective. Critics’ negative reviews can make or break the career of an artist but it doesn’t necessarily have to affect your judgment of it. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that, and you shouldn’t feel like you need an “explanation” before you come to a conclusion about an artwork. If it doesn’t speak to you or move you, you don’t need to justify your dislike or apathy.

Learn to Judge Fairly

ART THOUGHTZ: How to Make an Art. Hennessey Youngman shows you how to art.

Yet it’s also critically important to come to the table with an open and informed mindset. Don’t judge everything as “crap” immediately before giving it a chance to interest you (particularly relevant for video and performance work), or because it’s not what you traditionally recognise as “art”. Times change, and art does too.

At the end of the day, what I think is most important about art is that it should be sincere, even when it’s being satirical. It should be genuine, even when it’s pretending not to be. And it should show this sincerity through some display of skill, whether this be actual paint strokes or mastery of software or brilliance in organising social events.

Contemporary art is difficult to categorise, and can be even more difficult to understand. But with an open mind, it’s easy to appreciate. Just learn to experience with all of your senses coming together in the horizon of your mind.

“Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art.”

– Félix González-Torres


Joey P is a writer for the Writers’ Academy and designer for the Creative Academy.

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  1. Trisha de Borchgrave

    October 8, 20134:28 pm

    Beautifully articulated with plenty of unpretentious reasoning.

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