Coming to terms with contemporary art

2 minute read

Now that I’m interested in art again, a few background comments might be in order, especially since my main interest is in contemporary art, a field both inscrutable and risible in the minds of many. In the work-related discussion I alluded to in a previous post, a colleague brought up Damien Hirst’s infamous shark in a tank; he seemed incredulous at this being considered art, but at the same time happened to remember the exact name of the work (something I myself had forgotten). This seems to encapsulate the paradox of contemporary art: it’s dismissed as silly and inconsequential, but at the same time has wormed its way into public consciousness.

Back in my obsessive phase one of the books I read and enjoyed was But Is It Art? by Cynthia Freeland. It’s a good introduction to definitions and theories of art, especially as applied to some of the edge cases of art produced over the last hundred years. (It also quotes and endorses one of the better definitions of art I’ve read: culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium.) I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about what’s going on in the artworld.

Even without getting into deep philosophical questions, it’s clear that familiarity and context are two important (and related) factors in understanding art. Anyone who regularly enjoys watching music videos encounters and appreciates artistic techniques that would have been totally alien to almost anyone living 50 years ago, let alone people living 100 or 1,000 years ago. Many of those techniques were pioneered in contemporary art of the past, and then crossed over into popular culture. We recognize such techniques as being deployed in an identifiable context (we know what a music video is, and how it is different than other video forms like sitcoms, news reports, or televised sports events), and by watching hundreds of videos we learn to see connections among different examples of the form and with the larger world of culture and society, and acquire at least a rough ability to judge relative aesthetic worth.

Appreciating contemporary art is essentially no different. Like a lot of cultural endeavors it can be a fun game for those who play it and/or watch it, and in its better moments it can be something more than just a game. I’m the rankest of amateurs at it, but occasionally even I can understand and appreciate what’s happening on the field.