There’s this young lady I know who is a tad skeptical about contemporary art. She’s well educated, articulate and has a genuine interest and talent in art, but when it comes to this modern stuff, she says she just doesn’t get it. And she’s not unlike a ton of other people I know. Most of my family and friends would share her concerns and heck, 20 years ago I pretty much felt the same way.
This young lady was a student of mine years ago. I saw her skepticism about the content of contemporary art during my first semester with her but my job was only to teach her about design. Our debates then were brief and I would only try to give her a nugget of concept to chew on. After her second semester with me she graduated and moved on with her life. (Married, job, happiness – I’m very proud of her.) Over the years, every once in a while I’ll hear from her through the interwebs and she’ll pose a question or seek some clarification on her thoughts on contemporary art. Her established role is that of the funny skeptic. Mine is that of the artist hoping to get her to connect and engage with contemporary art. From my perspective, she’s a trained artist with skills and she’s trying to figure out what to do with them. What is it that she’s supposed to draw or paint? Do you do it just to show off your ability or is there some more valuable purpose for creating art?
Recently I posted a photo of a new drawing online and she left a comment saying, “I would like an explanation of this drawing”. For those of you who do not speak Sarcasm, that translates roughly into, “This is one of those contemporary artworks that I’d really like to understand because right now I think it’s a bunch of jibber-jabber!”
I grew up with this same skepticism about contemporary art. The last thing I wanted to be was one of those contemporary artists who made weird stuff. I learned all I could as an undergrad about materials, processes, design, composition but I came away with only a slight understanding of concept. Sure, I could make a drawing or a sculpture “about something”, but it was generally “about” it in the most elementary and straightforward way possible. It was the kind of work you understood almost immediately after reading the title. The kind of work that doesn’t engage your mind or cause you to put forth any effort as a viewer. I took my abilities to grad school and one of the first things my sculpture professor told me was, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” He wanted me to think about my purpose and focus on why I was making something. You want to have an existential crisis? Spend a little time thinking about your purpose. And then do that with a few deadlines hanging over your head.
Worldview is important to consider when you contemplate why you are making art and what sort of art you want to make. And your worldview may be influenced by things beyond your control as well as by things in your control. My worldview came from a rural upbringing in the South. I was taught to believe in God, to help people, to do my best at all times and to laugh. These were not my ideas at first, they came from my parents. I grew to doubt and question each one and eventually I grew into a real knowledge and belief in each one. Their ideas eventually became mine. So now when the question is “Why”, the answer is usually, “Because of the Divine, because they need help, because it’s your duty to do your best, and because if you really think about it, it’s pretty funny. My worldview is who I am.
I grew up thinking I would make masterful portraits like the Renaissance celebrity painters. And I could create posed portraits focusing on airbrushed realism and drapery, but that’s not who I am. I could do it, but it would be empty. No one loves the coast more than me and I could sit in the sand and paint armies of paintings of waves caressing the shoreline, but that’s not who I am. It’s not what I’ve experienced through my worldview. And when you make work that is not true to who you really are and what you’ve experienced, that work is hollow and in my opinion, without real value.
When I was a teenager I went to the local museum to see the Andrew Wyeth collection. I was in awe of these very traditional paintings of people, landscapes and old structures. I walked into the next gallery and there on the wall was a huge canvas featuring a de-skinned lamb. It was soaked in the red that can only be blood and in stark contrast to the Wyeth paintings this one was unapologetically not pretty. At that moment I was torn. Why would someone want to paint something so disgusting? What does it mean? And while I did not want to look at it, I also could not force myself to move away from it. It was oddly compelling. This artist did not know the back roads of Maine and it would have been a lie for him to paint the things that Wyeth painted. This artist knew something less panoramic, less photogenic, but perhaps it was just as filled with truth and value. The lamb seemed to be symbolic, perhaps of religious origin. Though this canvas was not pretty, it had a setting, a cast of characters, there were props and so there had to be some kind of story being told. In this way, there was a connection to Wyeth’s paintings in the next room. The characters looked different, the setting was less inviting, the props were kind of scary, but there was a story. Maybe it wouldn’t look nice above the couch or on the mantle, but the artist was sharing his worldview.
I think this gets to the root of the problem for most people. On some level we want art to be pretty. We want the beautiful models, the quiet shoreline and the tranquil meadow of wildflowers. And maybe there are artists who have those stories to tell. But if we are honest, our lives are not always composed of beauty and peace. Some might even argue that you must first experience the chaos and turmoil before you can really appreciate that beauty and peace. So aren’t the stories about the chaos and turmoil just as important? When you browse contemporary art it’s not difficult to find the stories about negativity. There’s violence, grotesque portraits, graphic nudity and emotionally disturbing images around every gallery corner. I can be honest; this is tough for me because my personal aesthetic leans toward the humorous and positive. But I’ve learned to appreciate the beautiful and sublime content in these dark and negative stories. Especially when you consider that these artists must have experience with the stories they are sharing. It doesn’t make me more negative to listen to the story; in fact, it likely gives me more of an appreciation for the positive. I don’t have to like it in order to benefit from it’s sublime value.
Here’s something I’ve always struggled to understand and if you even know what “Sunday School” is this will be familiar to you:
I’ve always thought that “Blessed are the happy” must have been omitted by some clerical error. Some monk spilled his ink bottle on that part and it became illegible, right? It’s taken me many years to realize that “Blessed are the happy” is not one of the real Beatitudes because Jesus was being honest about the world he experienced – about the world his audience was experiencing. Real life is not all peaches and sunshine. I think it was the Dread Pirate Roberts who said, “Life is pain” (or maybe that was Buddha). Regardless of your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, contemporary art seems to be a narration of the world of the Beatitudes. Contemporary artists are not afraid to show us the world where the poor are literally stepped over by the rich. Contemporary art shows us the people and places of hunger, emptiness, grief and shame and it forces us to get a little uncomfortable because if we are honest, this is the world we all know. This is the world we experience each day. And even in a world like this, we find beauty – disarming and awe inspiring beauty.
Sometimes we find it because a contemporary artist reveals it to us.