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What do people want from contemporary art right now?
Lulu asked in post What do people want from contemporary art right now, and Molly even started an answer in post . I think this question deserves a topic of its own.

When you go to a contemporary art exhibit, or when seeing a contemporary art work, what do you want?
Still waiting with anticipation since March 2009 for this thread to be filled with the wisdom of fellow members... My contribution below is completely off-topic, though.

My taste in art would probably be classified by most people here as exceedingly conservative, but that is only because they don't know me. In fact, it is rooted in ignorance, rather than reaction (though I admit there's little difference between the two; that being humility, or the absence thereof). I acknowledge that I don't have a clue what it all means. I would like to think I have some refinement when it comes to aesthetic aspects, but art has departed from those a century ago.

I visited an exhibition of contemporary painting today, and I got to a point where I just said to myself -- who am I kidding? I find it neither appealing nor interesting, apparently in order for me to appreciate contemporary art I must be well educated, with the skills to recognize subtle hidden meanings and such. Of course I could pick up a book and have art explained to me -- I find this idea objectionable, like explaining a joke. If you missed the point, there's little left to do to save it (and then there are all those who didn't understand the joke but laugh anyway). Contemporary art is apparently exclusive, naive appreciation is frown upon.

On the other hand, would I expect a novice to understand the work of a contemporary mathematician? I would probably send him off to learn some basic math first. Who am I to complain? Why should art stoop to accommodate illiterates like me? I am so embarrassed to even post this here, shall I use an alias?

Although it is hopeless for me, I am still curious about those who can appreciate contemporary art  -- what do you want, indeed?
Damian, I enjoyed your post and its many questions. Is art more accessible than mathematics? Should a well-educated person have an appreciation for both (visceral, intellectual)? Math has its own specialized vocabulary which gives an obvious barrier to entry. But to encounter an artist you have to understand his or her language as well. In that sense math is more accessible because its language is more standardized and more general. On the other hand, even though art often speaks of things of the greatest urgency and relevance to all people, it sometimes does so in a language which is private and obscure.

I agree with you that it can be dangerous, not to mention unsatisfying, to read books which give opinions and interpretations before one has had a chance to think/feel through things for oneself.  I don't have any objections, though, to reading books which give one the tools to refine one's perception -- education, obviously, has a huge effect on one's ability to appreciate, judge, and respond emotionally to things. Even the simple fact of knowing the title of a painting can dramatically change one's impression. If I were going to another culture I would expect to have to do a certain amount of research before being able to appreciate the visual culture. Of course, traveling makes this easy: you are surrounded by impressions and variations. I imagine that a trip through an enormous museum in which the entire discourse of twentieth-century art were laid out would make fantastic traveling -- and that one would not need to pick up a book to see what's going on. But otherwise our experience of modern, not to say contemporary, art is often so fragmented and so drawn out that it's almost impossible to piece together a response based only on casual perception.

I occasionally see pictures of archaeological finds and aesthetic treasures from the past and wonder what innovation was involved in their production, what artistic vocabularies and movements they took part in, which have since been lost. Why is it that our own time seems the most remote? Is anyone left cold before the abstractions of Lascaux?

Hi Solveig, Hi Damien-
I'm pretty new here and find this topic quite interesting. While I have to agree that contemporary art often leaves me cold, I find that understanding is often enhanced by knowing the artist's personal background.

For example, the large scale works of Mark DiSuvero  look like big jumbles of steel I-beams and one could reasonably ask where is the creativity here? But if you know that he was injured in a fall down the shaft of a freight elevator, it helps a viewer to access that sense of panic and trauma that he certainly must have felt.  The piece here at the Toledo Museum of Art (Blubber) has a gigantic tire split open and hung from it like a swing, and the public is permitted to play on it. I find this touching in that DiSuvero has thus transformed his traumatic experience into something joyful for the greater populus, and so the work represents, to me at least, a healing of the human spirit.

To speak of other work in the Toledo Museum, I saw an exhibition of photos by local artist Lynn Whitney that documented the recent construction of a major highway bridge over the Maumee river. Her large format silver gelatin prints are absolutely exquisite in composition and execution - think Robert Mapplethorpe without the sexuality. Many of the prints caught glimpses of the workers, glorifying their everyday jobs (think Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, for example) and gave the bridge an added sense of humanity - several lives were lost during construction. Even more impressive is some inside knowledge that the block and tackle (which is almost ubiquitous hanging from the many cranes seen throughout the work) is a truly personal icon, as Lynn's father sold the devices when she was a young child. In this way, every photo becomes in a way a portrait of her father. (By dumb luck, I happened to be in the gallery when she was giving him a tour.)

I see a posting on the left about Joseph Beuys. I know there is some way to go over and link it in, but I am not that tech-saavy. He is another artist I like because many of his works use a very personal vocabulary of materials (like heavy felt) that relate to a survival trauma of his own. The tactile nature of the pieces appeal to me, exuding warmth and comfort - though I must here confess that I am thinking of some specific older works and he might not be categorized as contemporary. I am pretty sure he is dead now.

Anyway, for me the thing I look for in contemporary art is the ability to tell a story - often the artist's personal story - in a similar way to what we look for in good books and movies, just not with words. Most often it is necessary to have an understanding of the full body of work and not just one piece. Things that are merely pretty and/or well made really don't do it for me, although I do have a love of good design.

I have to say that there is a whole lot of work out there, even in prestigious museums, that just leaves me flat. I don't think that is a crime. I don't connect to things that are overly intellectual; my favorites always have some sort of sensual quality. I'm sure there are people in the world who feel the opposite, or even completely different. There should be art in the museums for them, too.

Lascaux - ahhh! I don't know how anyone could be left cold by such a primal survival story.
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