How To Look At Contemporary Art

Open your mind to the wonderful world of 21st century art

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Photo by Paul Bence on Unsplash

I’ve been looking at contemporary art for more than twenty years now. My excitement, and occasional bewilderment, at the things that go on inside contemporary art galleries continues to be exercised.

I also know that, for a lot of people, contemporary art can be difficult to understand or to even take seriously.

This is where I want to help.

At first it may seem impertinent to suggest a series of methods for looking at contemporary art. Anyone who has stepped inside a modern gallery in the last few decades will know how diverse the arena has become. If contemporary art is anything, then it seems to be a place where rules are perpetually broken.

So can a pithy list of ‘techniques’ begin to cover it?

Over the years, I’ve seen all sorts of things presented as art: a glass case with a cow inside it, a giant fiberglass mushroom, a wall-mounted neon sign saying “I WOKE UP WANTING TO KISS YOU”, televisions on plinths showing pop videos from the 1980s, a collection of several hundred pots and pans hanging by wire from the gallery ceiling, a cast of the artist’s head made from his own frozen blood, a room with a light switching on and off, a sculpture with the appearance of a massive lump of melting wax, a map showing a route the artist walked across countryside, and much more else besides.

The strange thing about all these diverse artworks is that they do, in fact, have things in common, and what they have in common can help a great deal in understanding what contemporary art is trying to do. Are you ready come venture with me into this wonderful world?

Let’s start with the biggest problem of them all…

Let me assure you, contemporary art is not trying to trick you. It’s time to leave that idea behind.

There is an American artist named Carl Andre, a very renowned figure these days thanks to his influential minimalist sculptures. Back in the 1970s, the Tate Gallery in London purchased one of Carl Andre’s works, a piece called Equivalent VIII. The event caused a storm, since the artwork consists of nothing but a series of bricks arranged into a rectangular block on the floor. It had newspapers and critics up in arms, asking why public money was being spent on such an artwork. The term “just a pile of bricks” stuck in the collective memory as shorthand for the dubious product that contemporary art sometimes appears to be.

It is common for visitors to a contemporary art gallery to wonder if the objects on display are perpetrating some sort of hoax, or at least sharing an inside joke that the rest of us are not allowed to understand.

In fact, Carl Andre was trying to make a sophisticated statement about the calm beauty of rational order and simplicity, and the relation of earthly materials to actual space. He wasn’t trying to trick anybody. Unfortunately, his wider conception of what a work of art can be didn’t match the public mood.

If you’ve never heard of Marcel Duchamp, then he’s worth a moment of your time to think about.

Duchamp was a French-American artist who created a revolution in art during the 1910s. Up until that point, he had more or less stayed true to the currents of modern art. Then he began to make artworks that he called ‘readymades’ and this changed everything. Readymades were simply objects which Duchamp had found and decided to present as art — not unlike Carl Andre’s bricks, in fact, but with quite a different meaning.

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Fountain’ (1917) by Marcel Duchamp (replica). Source

In 1917, Duchamp presented a readymade that would have great and lasting significance on the story of art. The work was called Fountain, and consisted of a gents’ urinal made of porcelain from a factory. There is little else to say about it. It’s a urinal. Expect that Duchamp had the temerity to submit it to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists as a work of art.

The idea that a porcelain urinal could be considered art was, naturally enough, deeply disconcerting. For centuries, art had consisted of hand-crafted paintings and sculptures. Not surprisingly, the show’s committee decided that Fountain was not art and rejected it from the show.

Of course, Duchamp wasn’t trying to compete against painting and sculpture with his readymades. Rather, he was making the provocative claim about what art can be. If something is presented as art — if the artist says it’s art — then who is to say whether or not it qualifies? In this way, Fountain addresses the wider questions of cultural tradition, habits of thought and the role of museums in regulating what we as a society deem noteworthy or merely ordinary.

The influence of this provocation has not lessened over time. Artists continue to ask the same sorts of questions, using their art to probe how and why we hold the cultural values we do. And by adopting the position that anything can be a work of art, then the breadth and array questions becomes almost infinite.

“What is postmodernism?” is a big question, but even just a brief sketch can give us a useful insight.

Postmodernism takes as its starting point the fact that culture and society have changed a great deal over the past hundred years or so, and that mass media, consumer society and global communications are an integral part of that change.

Our understanding of fundamental things, like identity, value, progress, meaning and even reality, has been reshaped by these changes. Just think of travel, for instance: A hundred years ago it would take weeks, even months, to travel between countries and continents. Distant places had a mythical air to them, the subject matter of explorers’ journals and the poetry of intrepid travelers. Today it takes a matter of hours to fly to the other side of the world. This is not to mention the effect of film, television and the internet. Our fundamental ideas about the size of the world are bound to change as a result. This is just one way in which our fundamental perspectives are changing through technology and culture.

Postmodernism treats everything as open to this type of questioning, including our news, our politicians, our institutions, our culture, and our grand narratives. Postmodernism is restless in this sense. To arrive at a single point of view seems inadequate. Change is everywhere about us, so our perspectives must continue to change too. Contemporary art has these ideas at its heart.

The concept of ‘narrative’ is very important in contemporary art. As postmodernism suggests, the ‘telling of stories’ is one of the primary means by which histories are written and societies understand themselves. As such, narratives can be seen a fundamental but also fallible.

An obvious example is the idea that ‘history is written by the victors.’ To realize this truth is to understand that narratives are not necessarily (if ever?) descriptions of truth, and that sometimes there are voices and stories that we don’t hear. Narratives are perspectives, with their own biases and limitations.

So, if ‘narrative’ is an unstable concept, then to try to tell any story must be fraught with some uncertainty. “Whose story are you telling?” might be the question we might ask of anyone who pretends to offer us an opinion.

Contemporary artists are acutely aware of this situation. For this reason, they do a very postmodern thing and purposefully adopt narratives all of their own. They demonstrate their awareness of the ‘problem of narrative’ by making works of art that display the very story of its conception and making.

This is why so many works of art seem to be about processes. Indeed, a whole field of contemporary art called emerged ‘Process Art’ emerged in the 1960s and 70s.

One of the simplest yet profound works of contemporary art that I ever saw was by a British artist called Richard Long. In 1967, whilst traveling between his home in Bristol and his art college in London, he stopped in a grassy field where he walked backwards and forwards, again and again, until he had flattened the grass enough to create a line, much like a track across the field. He took a photo and called the resulting work A Line Made by Walking.

For me, the work is an eloquent reflection on the role of time and change in our lives. Now, whenever I’m out walking in the country and see the pathways left by other walkers through fields and undergrowth, I think of this artwork by Richard Long.

In so many other ways, artists ‘perform’ their work to demonstrate the process behind it. Or else they use organic materials that change over time, or they use objects that already have a history of their own to imply a greater narrative. If the story of a work of art can be made explicit and transparent, it can point to the ‘constructed’ nature of all narrative. Make sense?

If you haven’t realized it by now, contemporary art likes to ask lots of questions. In fact, it prefers to ask questions than to take a definite position. That is the influence of postmodernism. It likes to probe the ways of the world and ask if our habits and expectations ought not to be questioned too.

It is useful to bear this in mind when looking at contemporary art, because so much of art that came before it seeks to express a particular, subjective perspective on the world. The unique eye of the artist, you might say.

Contemporary art says “no more” to single-perspective art works. That’s too limiting, too prone to bias.

This is not to say that contemporary art doesn’t pose an opinion. A lot of art is political and has something to say about the way the world is. Except that, instead of taking a dogmatic view and telling you “This is the truth”, much of contemporary art seeks to open a dialogue. In such as way, works of contemporary art tend not to try to impress you with technical skill, but to give you an experience that will make you wonder.

So when looking at a work of contemporary art, try asking yourself these questions: “What habits of thought is this work questioning? What assumptions is it over-turning? And how do I feel about the provocation it is making?”

There are not right or wrong answers. Just perspectives. Yours, mine, everyone else’s. This is what contemporary art wants to explore and celebrate.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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