Come on everyone, gather around, Andrew Frost is offering a hug…
If contemporary art were a person it would have sued the mainstream media for defamation by now. It is routinely libelled and misrepresented and mocked by art critics. Among the more common charges is that contemporary art is all about money, and that the artists who make it are dilettantes, while those of us who like it are nothing more than pretentious poseurs. And public galleries and museums who exhibit contemporary art have fallen for its fake glamour without realising they should only be exhibiting the sort of stuff that has wise hindsight and serious scholarship to argue its importance – exhibitions of 19th century landscape painting, that sort of thing. We’ve heard this all before, and will no doubt hear it again, but it did make me wonder, what does contemporary art actually stand for?
I don’t know if it’s possible to answer that question in the space allowed but the first step is to try to define it: contemporary art [if one can even define such a broad thing in even broader terms] is a mode of making art that is concerned with contemporary ideas, issues and beliefs. It is usually critical of these things [cue the flagrantly abused and misunderstood word “notions”] and is expressed in an array of generic forms and media associated with the practice [which is to say, new media, conceptual practices, installation, photography etc but, confusingly, also painting and other old media]. The word “contemporary” usually means now, or recently, but I’ve seen “contemporary art” used in a way that means “made in the last 20 years or so”. But regardless of how one defines its practice and forms it still doesn’t quite answer the question of what it stands for.
Let’s take a different tack – what’s not contemporary art? In the past I’ve used terms like “conservative” or “traditionalist” to try to describe this other art world, but neither felt particularly comfortable since wide and loose definitions like these are just as ridiculous as “contemporary art”. But again, there are a bunch of values associated with this other art that are familiar – things like the valorisation of craft skills, careful and thoughtful scholarship, a knowledge of art history, and so on. None of these values are particular to the conservative view of art but they the most identifiable values championed by its promoters.
Whenever a work of contemporary art is said to have failed it’s not because the artist who made it didn’t do a very good job it’s because the entire genre is a failure. It’s true that contemporary art as a practice has its tiresome and over familiar subjects, a deadening over-reliance on worn out theories and maddeningly obvious repetitions, but then again, so does traditionalist art. For every boring video art work there’s a terrible drawing show, for every trite series of photographs quoting the look and style of advertising there’s a new Brett Whiteley knock-off painting exhibition. If we were to only judge a genre of art by its failures then nothing would be good.
But of course this kind of reasoning is beside the point because when we ask what contemporary art stands for what we’re talking about is the values that get ascribed to it. I can’t speak for those that don’t like contemporary art because to be honest I don’t understand the animosity. Very often criticism of contemporary art is based on category errors in reasoning. An example here might help. Just this morning someone left a comment on The Art Life blog claiming that contemporary art was racist because non-Anglo artists could only exhibit their work in contemporary art galleries if their work was contemporary art and not the traditional art of their individual cultures. It’s an extreme and disturbing claim to add to the litany of charges already made against it, but racism as well? It is of course a fallacious argument to say that one type of art is excluded from a gallery or museum that specialises in another kind of art because of another issue altogether. This claim doesn’t make sense but is pretty typical of the more extreme and bizarre understanding of what “contemporary art” is supposed to be about.
My view is that contemporary art is a set of values that aren’t particular to art alone but are representative of one strand of our culture. The more conservative view of art is founded in a set of values that seem reasonable and sensible but in their extreme mode are just as deadening as the worst sins of contemporary art – these so-called “traditional values” are, in my view, a retreat into a culture that does not exist, the enunciation of a set of slippery and ill-defined “core values” that are code for an intolerant and reactionary conservatism. By contrast that thing we call “contemporary art” is for me a belief in the good stuff – egalitarianism, liberal philosophies, equality and yes, even beauty and truth. A bit of humour is welcome too. While it’s true these values can get distorted or completely forgotten, and even debased by the very people who would set out to support them, the failures of museum culture and the market [for example] are separate issues that have to be addressed individually, otherwise we fall into a morass of ill-defined argument and reductive position-taking.
I doubt that many people who would consider themselves traditionalists would seriously disagree with the values of contemporary art but perhaps simply dislike the often clichéd nature of their expression. On that we can agree. But can one really claim that the sweeping generalisations favoured by many mainstream art critics have any foundation in reality? I don’t think so. The one question I haven’t argued here is whether the people who like contemporary art are simply poseurs. Two thoughts occur. One is that people at gallery openings tend to be very well dressed. The other is that art shouldn’t be judged by the people who like it. That just wouldn’t be fair.