You don’t like contemporary art. Or someone you know doesn’t. It’s not art, I don’t think that is art, its just a load of [object], I prefer the older stuff. There is a strong trend that indicates that the newer the art gets, the less interested and more dismissive those people become. A cloud hangs above contemporary art in the eyes of the many, it is seen as easy nonsense that speaks to no-one but the few, a ridiculous set of things thrown together that has some vague ‘meaning’ to someone presumably. There is a severe disconnect between potential visitors and the umbrella term ‘contemporary art’, where a confirmation bias rules above the simple fact that regularly available free art will make you feel better.
And that’s it, art will make you feel better; it is escapism, it will make you think outside of the day-to-day doldrum of modern life or laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Art can exist outside of personal and international politics, gossip and drama or it can be enrapt in its own drama, inviting you to lose yourself in its internal conflicts. It is beautiful, it is ugly, it is anything. It can be anything you’ve heard or seen, felt or observed, or it can invite you into the lives of others. Gone are the days when style was directed by the elite or deviant artworks frowned upon by an artistic establishment, we now live in a time where the most insignificant of objects could be decried art by the most unsuspecting of artists, from anywhere in the world. There is a tendency to take contemporary art too seriously, as always making some kind of comment, being intellectual, when much of the fun comes from the humour in what you’re looking at, the ridiculousness of what is composed in front of you.
Contemporary art is a reaction to the world around it, around all of us, it is the truest connection to how we think and feel today. Work made today will have come from similar experiences that we all face, the fears and worries that plague us, the hatred that can overcome us, and the joy that we all revel in. Its relevance is what sets it apart from the more traditional museums that litter city centres across the country, an excitement in the now, the new, in the horror and beauty of our modern lives. The variety of art available to us reflects the variety of this century, the differences and similarities between the 7 billion people walking this earth; their intimacy and vision becomes our interest, our escape, our fascination.
Crucially, it costs nothing to fall in love with it. One of the brightest lights in Blighty’s cultural landscape is free admission into most galleries, often world famous and internationally renowned. You can visit on a lunchbreak, on a whim, on a day out, on holidays or because the weather is grim, as much or as little as you fancy without reaching into your pocket. We are lucky to be living in a time when anything can be art, and in a country where it costs nothing to see that art, it is a perfect storm of value-for-money entertainment and escapism. Journey across into Europe or over into America, on the other hand, and you’ll discover a wallet shattering fee to enter any gallery you venture near, regardless of the treasures it holds inside. Collections are prestigious and amazing as ours would cost an incredible amount to view if they were anywhere else, and it is something that we do not shout about nearly enough.
So, what’s gone wrong? Why do so many of us look upon contemporary art with disdain, harbouring a vendetta against the conceptual and the bizarre? It is the failure of what surrounds the art, rather than the art itself, that has caused this disconnect between the viewer and the viewed.
Much of the writing about art does one of two things, it either assumes knowledge or a lack of knowledge. The first finds itself nestled in the pages of oversized art publications and exhibition catalogues, revelling in dense language and impenetrable insight that makes up its content, obsessing over the word ‘oeuvre’ until you’re dizzy with confusion and forced to slam the magazine shut. The other finds space in the free newsletters and newspapers, online and otherwise, determined to patronise or talk about the art in as banal a way as possible, treating the reader as if they know nothing. This kind of writing leaves no space for the acknowledgement that anyone anywhere can love art and contains no encouragement that this is so much easier than they think.
Because of this, contemporary art appears to operate on a plane above regular lives, aloof and ridiculous, pandering to those who already know what they’re looking at and why they’re looking at it. The white cubes that house these artworks appear to ooze elitism in an untouchable world, impossible to understand because you need to know enough to understand it. The art seems out of reach from our environment, too ridiculous and obscure to give a second thought, and as a result we dismiss it. It’s not art, that collection of nonsense on the floor doesn’t look nice and doesn’t mean anything, what’s the point of it. But look again, linger on the pieces, if this art was presented in an accessible and approachable manner, then the quality of the country’s artistic experience would improve dramatically.
No one is screaming that this art is free, this art is fun, this art will enrich your life. This seems to have been left behind in favour of writing that clouds contemporary art in an unknowable haze, the kind of attitude that assumes people either already know, or will never come and see, the masterpieces on show. There is a way forward, encouraging the love of art through clear, beautiful writing and advertising, demystifying a world that few feel they have the right to enter. A way to make art accessible to everyone can be found, simply because it is.
All art was once contemporary, but it is an immense privilege to live in a time where anything can be art. For free. For everyone.