… And I’m still ambivalent to contemporary art

Before the artsy masses jump down my throat, let me clarify the title of my post: I do like SOME contemporary art, but not much of it, even though I tend to see a lot of contemporary art these days. There seems to be an attitude about art that if you don’t like it (which tends to preemptively assume “don’t get it”), you clearly are not an art person. Sure, people can have artists that they like and dislike, but if one targets a general period like contemporary, a certain amount of ignorance is presumed to be a factor. I admit that I am at least partially biased because I majored in modern art for my Master’s degree (perhaps for obvious reasons); furthermore, much of my professional experience weighs heavily in my mind when looking at art in general. My issues with contemporary art can be largely attributed to three major factors: construction, the art market, and classism.

Jon Pylypchuk, “The Pack”

My first beef is, perhaps in the eyes of contemporary aficionados, the most superficial because it has to do with the physical nature of an artwork. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot (but, again, not all) of contemporary art is poorly made, oftentimes because the emphasis is on the idea of the work and not the execution. For hundreds– if not thousands– of years, the “best” art was believed to have superior technical skill, thus the logical progression towards the poststructuralist paradigmatic shift in art was to focus more on the idea behind the piece. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades were the first pieces that demonstrated the importance of the artist’s intent and declaration that a piece is “art,” but I consider Minimalism to be the first movement in Western tradition that focused more on an idea, which resulted in seemingly simple execution. I also consider Minimalism to be the dividing period between modern and contemporary art, and it has been linked as a direct precursor to Conceptual art (which, incidentally, is a genre I truly abhor. The fact that Michael Asher won the Bucksbaum Award at the 2010 Whitney Biennial still irks me to no end because it was only an IDEA. He didn’t DO ANYTHING).

I am not a huge fan of Minimalism, but having looked very closely at a few Donald Judds in my life, the construction of some Minimalist art is definitely not as simple as you would think, particularly if you have experience welding or polishing steel. That being said, there is some stuff out there that has crap construction. Just absolute crap. One artist I am continually underwhelmed by is Jon Pylypchuk: his cigarette figures, an iteration of which can be seen above, are roughly assembled with acidic materials (untreated wood, foam insulation [in hardened jeans painted to look like a cigarette], hot glue, etc). The poor assembly of the pieces is just asking for them to be broken, and it will look terrible in 10+ years as the materials begin to degrade. Of course, here is where I am revealing my professional bias, as my backgrounds in conservation and collections management make me think about archival qualities. It can be quite distracting no matter what kind of art I am looking at: for example, when I went to the In Wonderland exhibition at LACMA last year, I saw a painting that desperately needed to be re-keyed, and I actually struggled to look past that fact so I could enjoy the piece.

Li Songsong, “Escape” (detail)

I am intrigued by the work of Li Songsong, but my problem with his pieces (such as the one detailed on the right) is that many will not last because they are made up of extremely thick layers of oil paint– I’m talking several inches of paint. As I learned in my first conservation class in Florence, a standard oil painting takes about 250 years to fully dry. When it does start to dry, you start to see a lot of cracking, particularly when a piece is not kept in a proper climate, because the oil that bonded the paint molecules is now dried up and the canvas beneath can expand and contract with fluctuating temperatures and humidity. My professor said that art conservation was invented because of oil paintings: the medium was first used during the Renaissance, and around the mid- to late-1700s, these paintings started exhibiting wear and damage. If you have a painting with thick impasto oil paint like Li Songsong’s works, it admittedly will take even longer to dry, but when it does, you will likely see severe cracking and loss. I would not be surprised if these paintings fell apart completely in the distant future. Furthermore, while the paint is still wet– which will be for centuries– the piece is a total pain to move because too much shock will make the paint start sliding off the canvas. You would see a similar issue if there is too much heat in the area where it is being displayed or stored. If I were to buy art, I would go for something that is constructed well and made to last for a good long while, as I consider art to be an investment that requires long-term care, and I would additionally make sure that it is properly mounted and displayed. Of course, nothing is made to last FOREVER, but it would be nice to prolong the work for as long as possible. Nevertheless, I cannot invest in fine art, which leads me to my next point: the BS that is the Western art market.

Anyone can collect art, but not everyone can collect “high” art. High art, in this case, is defined by what is considered to be blue chip, something that is popular and/or likely to accrue monetary value or significance over time. This type of art collecting or commissioning has long been a pastime of the wealthy, from the ancient Egyptians to the Medicis of Renaissance Italy to today. There have been instances in which collectors are not wealthy but have a knack for spotting things that will one day be considered extremely valuable, such as Herbert and Dorothy Vogel of New York City, but this is not common. Many of today’s collectors are financial (or at least financially-minded) people– hedge funders and the like– which means they are damn good with money. Contemporary art is a sound investment for the not-so-uber wealthy because there is a “buy low, sell high” dynamic at play: the work of newer (or newly discovered) artists can be bought relatively cheaply, and in the future, depending on the popularity of the artists, the work can be sold for outrageously high prices. This is what happened with contemporary Chinese art, which, ironically enough, is now waning in popularity. On the other hand, art that has long been established as significant and valuable, such as works by Picasso, Monet, and other legends, has a “buy high, sell high” dynamic. This has more risk for a lower return on investment, particularly if tastes shift away from the genre when the collector wants to sell. This is not to say that there is less of a market for non-contemporary art, but it perhaps has a different crowd than that of the contemporary market.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the wealthy can decide what is considered significant and valuable in art, and therefore what we think is good has often already been pre-determined. When looking for “the next big artist,” wealthy collectors do follow their own tastes to an extent (or the tastes of their art dealers, whose influence should never be underestimated), and once they have someone, they can use their power and influence to promote the artist amongst their wealthy friends, museum curators, and the press. These works can later appear on the auction block and sell for far more than they were originally valued at. Museums are the most common place for the masses to see art, and are by their very nature considered to be the institutions that define what is “good art”; consequently, contemporary art history scholars focus much of their research on what is happening in the museum world (or vice versa), further establishing the perceived significance of a given artwork or artist. Wealthy collectors can make large monetary donations to museums with the caveat that they lend pieces for exhibition. When they have established themselves as major benefactors of the museum(s) or in the wider community, they can donate their collections, often with stipulations that the works must be displayed at some point or cannot be deaccessioned from the museum’s collection ( it should be noted that this latter scenario may be on the verge of changing, as museums are increasingly having difficulty coping with the cost of maintaining overcrowded storage spaces). Interestingly, the symptom of poor quality of construction in some contemporary art, which can cause conservators, collections managers, and registrars alike a lot of headaches, can be considered demonstrable of the dispensability of money to some wealthy collectors. Perhaps someone like me is more likely to value something for being well made because it will last longer and have fewer costly issues. Of course, I am not in a position where I can just throw money at whatever I want, therefore quality and longevity may not be a big concern to some collectors because they are in a position to deal with numerous issues with their art down the road (or they just don’t care and will buy new stuff to replace the objects that have fallen into complete disrepair).

Calvin and Hobbes: always spot on.

Having established that the art market and taste can be defined by the trends of the wealthy, I will now move on to a somewhat related topic: the classism of the art world. Aside from the obvious definition of and differences in class– i.e. upper and lower classes– I am also talking about the classism of the art world in general. Language can be a huge barrier: artists’ statements, a staple of contemporary art, are often filled with jargoned and overly complicated wording that overshadows the pieces themselves (check out this article from Hyperallergic to supplement the hilarity of the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic on the left). This reinforces the notion that only those who are educated and cultured– which, by proxy, can be indicative of “wealthy”– are the only ones who are capable of understanding and appreciating such art. This is appallingly exclusionary. And don’t get me started on academic art historical scholarship. Seriously, there is no need for a scholar to assert their intellectual superiority by writing in such inflated and excruciating prose, because really, only a handful of people read their stuff anyway!

Ben Jackel, “IED”

There are caveats to each of my major arguments. Not all works of art in history have had great construction or were made to last, such as the collages of the Dadaists (check out these examples by Hannah Hoch, which are made out of materials filled with inherent vice). And as I said before, there are some contemporary artists that I find provocative and even admirable. The first contemporary artist whose work I was really taken with was Glenn Ligon: when I was at the Art Institute of Chicago in Summer 2002, I saw his piece “Stranger in the Village #13″ on a tour. This piece features black charcoal on a black canvas, and the charcoal forms words from James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village.” These words occasionally obscured, making the artwork seem messy and even incomplete. My wonderful Grandma, to whom this blog is ironically dedicated, turned to me and scoffed. “I could do that!” she exclaimed. However, I was greatly affected by the story behind Ligon’s work, particularly the estrangement that he felt growing up black in a white-dominated area and how he obscured the words of James Baldwin because language cannot fully convey the experience of racism and discrimination. I have been an admirer of Ligon’s work ever since. More recently, I discovered Ben Jackel, who is remarkably versatile and has AMAZING construction skills. Not only does he have an extraordinary attention to detail, but he handcrafts his own hardware if the piece has a need for it (for example, he hand-carved his own screws out of ebony for one piece. HAND-CARVED EBONY SCREWS).

It could be argued that the entirety of the art market is absolutely ridiculous, particularly because the rise of the “megaprices,” which were first seen in the late 1980s and 1990s, now make many works of art created across all time periods inaccessible to anyone other than the wealthy. As far as contemporary art collecting goes, I was once part of a group interview session with a prominent collector who said that contemporary artists have a one-in-ten chance of being remembered 10 years from now; therefore, investing in contemporary art is not a guarantee for a huge return, but again, it could be seen as a smarter monetary investment compared to more established artists because there is less money at stake. Some artists are very conscientious of the classed divides in the art world: artists Jennifer Dalton and Jennifer McCoy opened an alternative gallery that sells affordable artwork, which is designed to “promote more collectors among the 99 Percent.” The collecting of contemporary art is not necessarily one big marketing ploy, as it could be argued that most contemporary collectors genuinely like what art has to say about today’s society, creative and intellectual trends, and the state of the world.

My gripe about classism is partially negating a post I wrote a few months ago about how art history does not have to be elitist. However, I personally do not believe that art history HAS to be this way– there are some writers whose works are accessible and even fun to read (I personally get a kick out of Amelia Jones’ and Erika Doss’ writing)– but jargon-laden language nevertheless often makes itself more elitist than necessary. It should be acknowledged that elitist art historical writing is not limited to contemporary art, as you can find it in many scholarly works on ANY period. Indeed, this may be a larger symptom of academia and “intellectual property” overall, which has recently come under scrutiny for its lack of accessibility. As Aaron Swartz said, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”

Claude Monet, “Impression, Sunset”

A couple months ago, when I was expressing my issues with contemporary art, a friend of mine brought up a great point: all art was contemporary at one point. Most modern movements were controversial and even hated when they first started. The Impressionists, for example, were accused of having vision problems and no skill because their paintings resembled underpaintings, and my beloved Surrealists were seen as plain crazy. I am perhaps revealing my own ignorance about the contemporary art world with this post because I am unable to take into account its full scope. Perhaps I am too much of a traditionalist. Or perhaps my consistent work with contemporary art in the last 2.5 years has jaded me. I fully admit that I may just need to get out more to get a better picture of what is happening now in the art world, for what I see at my day job is only a sliver of what is out there (indeed, I am being neglectful of other major issues in general with this post, such as postcolonialism and globalism, but I’ll save those for another time). I can also concede that my qualms are not just a symptom of contemporary art, as they can be found in art created in any period, especially when it comes to scholarship and the art market. Nevertheless, what I would really like to see happen in the art world, both in terms of scholarship and the art itself, is an increased move towards wider accessibility. Art is, after all, a testament to human history; therefore, all humans should be able to enjoy it without feeling excluded or alienated.


2 thoughts on “… And I’m still ambivalent to contemporary art

  1. Pingback: Rediscovering my love of art through Vincent van Gogh | Florence and the Historian

  2. You’re not alone on contemporary art. Perhaps we’ve plateaued in the progression of art. I can only hope that we can eventually exercise skill and depth of meaning again. You would think the world of art would be less plutocratic by now. Who knows what will happen.

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