When it comes to things to make fun of, contemporary art is one of the best options. With all its eccentricity, remoteness, abstraction, contemporary art is a world of chaos — are there any objective standards left? Are there even any minimum requirements still? Naturally, the ‘contemporary’ doesn’t have the golden test of time to appeal to. The audience is free to applaud or ridicule; the room for contemporary art is always the crisp and light-hearted, whispering curiosity rather than reverence.
But first, what is ‘contemporary art’? Does pop culture count — including radio station top hits, and Marvel movies? Or, does street art count? What about watercolours sold along the Seine, or the not-too-dissimilar dusty paintings of art school graduates? These are certainly contemporary; these may or may not be art; but these are not what we think of when we talk about ‘contemporary art’. Let us say, then, that contemporary art is the kind of work that makes its way into reputable museums and galleries, that gets a listing on artsy.net and an opinion piece or two in magazines. Contemporary art is a pretentious term; let’s treat it as it is.
The art scene, as such, offers us a bountiful miscellany of absurdities. From the incumbent Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to little Shanghai galleries, I remember watching long, senseless, and (dare I say) boring videos — more often than not titled ‘Untitled’ — involving horse-headed puppets, squeaky chickens, or bleak empty landscapes; tangled objects that make me want to scream ‘what do you mean!’; and gigantic installations so peculiar that they simply scared me away. Each time the question haunts me, ‘what is art?’; each time the confusion only compounds.
One may say that art today is different from before insomuch as it has ceased trying to be beautiful. Somewhere in the twentieth-century things went wrong: Andy Warhol and his soup, Marcel Duchamp and his fountain, Andres Serrano and his Christ. Somehow, this bunch stopped trying and people started to think that not trying was cool – if you couldn’t appreciate their nonchalance, it was surely you that wasn’t sophisticated enough and you that was missing out on the essence of life. It is in response to this loss of coherence, combined with a certain arrogance associated with the ‘art persona’, that people have generally come to think that ‘art’ is now up for the grabs — and if there’s no standard, there’s no respect.
Has art ceased trying to be beautiful? Certainly not. Contemporary art, with its new mediums and new narratives, can be stunning like never before. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Pont Neuf Wrapped is nothing but beautiful — the artists wrapped the bridge in yellow silken fabrics, creating an image of such vibrant smoothness that, although the project itself was intentionally temporary, even the photos can immediately evoke awe and delight. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, though more provocative than Pont Neuf, still expresses beauty with its tight composition, thoughtful lines and immaculate lighting. In addition, in defence of the somewhat flooded format of the video, I have to mention my all-time-favourite, Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue, an ambitious narrative of human history, saturated with poetic delicacy and moving imagery.
Yet, a different and more difficult question is, has art ceased trying to be meaningful? In previous epochs, art could be about the ideal (Greek sculpture), the divine (Medieval cathedrals), heightened depictions (Dutch paintings) or realistic expressions (the Impressionists). Some would argue that, in the present century, accurate depiction as the objective of art has been effectively defenestrated. We certainly still have art about the beautiful, about the ideal, about the divine, but the majority of contemporary works, even if they are actually expressing something at the heart of human life, make no sincere effort in communicating to the audience what ‘the point’ is.
It would be hard to argue that contemporary art is friendly to its audience. From a cynical angle, it is even deliberately unfriendly, making pretentious, exclusive gestures with its empty sophistication, only for pretentious, exclusive people to cluster around it into self-select social circles — something like Luis Bunuel’s surrealist film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
But all this does not mean that art has gone down the drains. Our intuitive judgement isn’t necessarily right — perhaps after all, art is supposed to be ahead of its times, thus it ought to be somewhat despised by contemporaries. People hated the Impressionists when they first started, but now everybody loves them. Perhaps the nineteenth-century populace wondered ‘just what the heck are these dots?’ in the same way we now wonder ‘just what the heck are these metal wires?’. It’s likely not true that fewer people now care about art than before. Art was never down-to-earth; it’s supposed to alienate, then transcend, then break boundaries.
Contemporary art is no different from the old masters in how much it engages and how far (and close) it is to our lives. It is different in its scale of disorder — but that is, as ought to be for art, an accurate reflection of the human condition: the disorder of contemporary art is very much in sync with the general chaos of modernity (from exponential technological growth, to physical theories, to the political disasters of the past century). It is very different, however, in its increasingly global nature and its market implications.
I have been drawing examples from the European art tradition due to lack of confidence in commenting on other traditions. Contemporary art is a global dialogue, however, with various incorporations, transportations and fusions of historical and cultural elements. But artists of different origins and traditions, if hot and alive on the international scene, tend to show a certain convergence to European mediums and techniques — thus just like other aspects of globalisation (think: jeans, fast food restaurants, coffee shops), the globalisation of art has a tinge of cultural imperialism to it.
This transitions us smoothly to the elephant in the room: the billion-dollar global art market. Perhaps after all, what we object to when we say ‘I can draw/make this too’ isn’t how minimalistic the work is, but what an absurdly high price it commands. When Marx said the culture that bourgeois society claims to defend is all class culture, he probably didn’t expect contemporary art, vehemently rebelling against the arguably patriarchal propriety of the olden times, has come to be even more bourgeois in effect.
The various biennales and auctions everywhere are strange gatherings of the elite; the best artists are those who know how to market and sell. The art market really reflects a two-fold inequality: the inequality among artists (selling none or selling millions, with barely anything in between), as well as the inequality among the audience (is the demographic that shows up in museums diverse at all?). If merit is subjective, price is not. How to cash subjective value into hard digits? There is something twisted going on.
Art for art’s sake is not useless. Art has always been somewhat ‘higher’ above, somewhat transcending the conflicts and tribalism of ordinary life. Art should never be an instrument of political righteousness (there is really too much watered-down propaganda going on); but equally, art should never be an instrument of ‘class consciousness’, of signalling one’s position in the social hierarchy. Contemporary art is vulnerable to both, especially with the billion-dollar market combined with the cult of genius. In this world of acceleration, for contemporary art, just as for everything else, opportunities come together with traps.
Hyper-connectivity and the explosion of available mediums mean that on one hand, new forms of art — from photography to light installations to experimental multi-dimensional online projects — come with restless potential and evolve with delectable creativity; on the other hand, a dilution of focus and loss of purpose make the dialogue between the artist, the art, the market, and the audience a massive confusion. The distance is not between art and people; the distance is really just between people.