On Contemporary Art

In response to a comment on the difficult nature of comprehending contemporary art, submitted via Tumblr
—April 26, 2013

Artists and admirers of art are all converts. Art isn’t something you’re born ready to accept—some of us accept it sooner and more easily, but it’s a human invention that requires openness and deliberation to get used-to and to respect. Contemporary art is especially difficult because it’s so enormously about what’s beyond the surface. It’s also uniquely polarizing to the uninitiated (and initiated) because it’s so inherently subjective; that’s what can make it powerful and personal to each viewer, but also strenuous to fathom (as if figuring things out is really all that important anyway).

Double Poke In The Eye II (1985) by Bruce Nauman
(Flick Collection, Berlin, image source)

I once regarded contemporary art as visually and intellectually abrasive. In some respects I still do, but I’m sympathetic to all art now, whereas I could be dismissive of it before. Perhaps that’s difficult to imagine given my complete immersion in it now, but, for what it’s worth, I’ve often found that truly excellent things are first met with great resistance—it’s one’s gradual openness that makes it that much sweeter. Years ago, if I found myself at an exhibition of recent art, I would silently mock the “absurdity” of what I was prompted to look at. It was as if the very context of art itself—requiring me to ponder such ambiguous things—was an affront to the facts and figures I’d been taught to seek-out, acquire, and maintain. But that’s precisely the mindset that so much art seeks to break down today; I was the target without realizing it.

Some years ago it took a really good professor in a really interesting contemporary art class to tear down those barriers for me (granted, I’d been a lover of art my whole life, but my feelings toward contemporary art had been hardly warm and mostly frigid). I had built up so much resistance because I had become so accustomed to gathering fast answers. Even my academic study of art history up to that point had taught me to think of art in strict, scientific terms: to analyze the technique, gauge the quality, and narrow down the meaning based on a rubric of expectant meanings. Prior to my awakening of sorts I couldn’t appreciate that questions, and not answers, actually mean more. I still believe contemporary art questions our world rather than determines it.

A really exciting symptom of appreciating art’s role in culture has been my interpretation of new kinds of aesthetic beauty; what had once been boring or ugly to me began to feel, rather than simply look, beautiful.

I think art is a gateway drug to generally regarding the world in fewer extremes and with less certainty. That can be terrifying, but it’s what saves us.

—Chad Wys