Every single time I’ve been within hearing distance of someone who doesn’t understand contemporary art, here’s what I usually pick up …
“What kinda CRAP is THAT?”
“You gotta be KIDDING me!”
“Seriously? I could’ve thrown that together myself in two minutes FLAT!”
Okay. We need to break this down on a couple of fronts. Hang with me here. I think you’ll enjoy the ride.
First off, I think that everyday people know more about contemporary art than they even realize. You don’t have to have an advanced degree in art history to know great art when you see it. Of course, having that degree would be very valuable and would expand your understanding of art, but I dare say that even a dog knows a masterpiece when it sees it.
Okay, I’m exaggerating, but play along. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Secondly, what disturbs me most about those comments is the underlying tone. Believe me you, I’ve heard those comments and much worse inside art galleries. I’m sure you have as well. But what always gets to me is the indignation, frustration and even venomous distrust behind such comments.
It’s as if the people seeing the art in question feel that someone is trying to pull a fast one over on them.
Wait a minute … Is someone trying to pull a fast one? Hmm.
I think it’s good that we all have a healthy amount of skepticism about whatever it is that we see. Keep in mind, I’m writing this as America is going through a historic Presidential campaign and I’m astounded that I’m not seeing more indignation and frustration over what’s going down in this country. If we saw the same outrage over a particular campaign that we often hear about contemporary art, we’d be living in a much more evolved nation right now.
But I digress.
I think that the strong emotional pushback that we often see regarding contemporary art really stems from discomfort, fear and lack of confidence in one’s ability to discern art ... even though there are kernels of understanding beneath all of the distrust. I mean, why is there always this instant, immediate and rage-filled push to verbally destroy what we don’t understand?
Think about the negative comments that you’ve heard about art. They’re usually dead set on tearing down, rejecting and destroying the character of the artist who created the art in addition to the art itself.
We’ve got to stop this. We’re not children. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “bullcrap.” Notice I said, “necessarily.”
Not all art is about portraying beauty and making us feel good. Nor should it be. Some art or rather a lot of art really should serve to stimulate dialogue and cause us to look at things – and ourselves – in different ways.
I LOVE looking at beautiful art like landscapes, still lifes and portraits in museums, but it’s also important to me that I see things that are going to smack me right in the face and WAKE ME UP to what’s really going on in the world.
Could it be that when we’re angrily reacting to something that we’re seeing, we subconsciously KNOW that it’s smacking us in the face, waking us up and forcing us to look at WHO we are?
Could it be that the very “art” that we’re questioning is really questioning US and we’re getting mad at the art because we don’t have the answers?
Could it be that calling something “bullcrap” is our way of self-protecting and self-medicating in the face of a challenge we feel we’re losing … and so, we resort to what basically amounts to third-grade, name-calling?
Could it be that we just don’t want to do the work that the art in question is requiring us to do?
Hey, I think I’m on to something … the words are flowing. When the words are flowing, I have to keep going.
Look … we seem to be in this toxic period now in the world where people think it’s noble to dig their heels in the sand and refuse to listen to reason and grow … even when they KNOW they’re wrong. What’s the deal with that?
Do you know what’s happening there? That’s when those menacing, little, invisible twins, ignorance and arrogance, are frolicking about the gallery. They’re giggling and dancing around unsuspecting visitors whose hearts and minds are closing with each tick-tock spent in the presence of the art they don’t understand.
It’s beyond cliché. It’s parody … as you see I’ve just written … at this point. I dare say that not a single day goes by in any art gallery where this scene isn’t played out somewhere in the world … particularly North America.
Art galleries and museums KNOW what they’re doing. God bless them. If you’re seeing something in a museum or gallery, believe me, it’s highly likely that it’s art … in some form.
I say, “in some form” because that’s the point. ART IS SUBJECTIVE. We have to keep driving this point home to people. We need to nudge people PAST the point of questioning the validity of art and encourage them to examine at WHAT the art might be SAYING TO THEM.
I remember a few years ago, I was seeing a show with an artist friend in a prestigious museum. We stopped and looked at this long, tall, shiny red piece of fiberglass propped up against the wall. That was all there was in the entire space.
My artist friend looked at me and said, “Come on! Really?” We both cracked up laughing.
But isn’t THAT the GREAT thing about contemporary art? The fact that it provokes reaction, emotion, indignation, frustration, anger, solace, calm, confusion, happiness, activism and whatever else there is to feel … isn’t THAT the point?
Nothing does this better than art. I must say that even when I see something myself that I may think may be, “bullcrap,” I’m always glad that I’ve got the eyesight to see it and vision to discern it.
I dare say there are plenty of blind people out there who’d rather see a bunch of crap than not see at all.
Contemporary art exists to open our minds and give us the intellectual, emotional and social tools needed to look at things critically and responsibly rather than immediately dismissing things we don’t understand.
Any art that you don’t understand holds the seeds of understanding within it. That’s precisely why it’s there. All you have to do is spend a little time with it … OR … how about simply reading the exhibition statement?
Art helps to recalibrate us. It reinvigorates us, resets our internal clocks and brings us back to center in this crazy world. It reminds us about what’s really important.
In short, in order to understand contemporary art, you’ve got to spend time with contemporary art … just like basketball, football, math, science, computers or whatever. You don’t go in for the first time knowing everything there is to know. You must apply yourself. It’s all about you.
Look … this is not an argument for “bad art.” This is not an excuse for mediocrity in art galleries and certainly not museums. Again, I just think that whenever we visit an art gallery or museum, we need to let them serve their true purpose. Let them move us. Let them provoke us. Let them challenge us. That’s why they’re there.
Unless it’s particularly vile or offensive, I dare say that whenever someone demands that something be removed from an exhibition, they’re being lazy. They’re not doing the work. They’re not looking within and doing the interior work on themselves. Instead, they’re blaming something outside of themselves for their reaction. They should be asking themselves WHY they think the art is bullcrap.
What they’re actually doing is “outing” themselves by letting you know they’re not comfortable with something. The answer is always within. It’s NOT the art itself. The art is just sitting there minding its own business. (Wink! Wink!) This is when we should call in a professional …
“DR. PHIL! PAGING DR. PHIL!”
“What is it about this art makes you uncomfortable? Let’s dig in, shall we?”
Contemporary art shouldn’t spoon-feed you. It’s human expression. Some of it’s great and some of it’s not so great. You can take it or leave it, but you’re the one who loses out when you immediately dismiss it.
I believe that YOU know great art when you see it. This doesn’t make you an expert, but is the art asking you to be an expert? All the artist and the gallery are asking you to do is merely CONSIDER what you’re seeing.
Consideration takes time and guts. Consideration isn’t about spoon-feeding you. It’s about you growing up and taking a look at yourself through the art you’re experiencing. It’s communion time.
Contemporary art forces you to put on your big-boy pants along with your thinking cap. Remember thinking? Let’s bring “critical thinking” back. You’ll be amazed at how you can use it in other areas of your life.
Is contemporary art bullcrap? OR … Do you need a re-boot?