the i-D guide to talking about modern art

Stuck at an after-Frieze party this week? Want to pretend you know what you’re talking about? Read on…

by Dean Kissick
06 October 2016, 5:37pm

Photography Linda Nylind

With the opening of Frieze this week, here is a short reader of some of the more interesting ideas floating around the art world today, and some of the more unorthodox positions you can take while talking about art. A good place to begin is with the question of why contemporary art is so popular at the moment; could it be because the artwork is a magical object?

Photography Mark Blower

Art has long been associated with pagan or religious beliefs, and has its origins in fertility idols, cave paintings of spirit animals, and religious icons. In a godless society such as ours, art has become one of the places where we look for meaning instead. Most of us visit museums far more frequently than churches, mosques, or other religious buildings.

Now, German philosopher Walter Benjamin, in his influential 1936 essay The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, suggested that modern art no longer had a ritualistic function in society, and that the technologies of mechanical reproduction such as photography had stripped it of its aura as well. For instance, how much can one really appreciate a painting at a crowded fair with hordes of visitors taking selfies in front of it? However present-day philosopher Timothy Morton maintains that a great artwork in an appropriate setting can have an enchanting effect on us, giving the example of Mark Rothko's non-denominational "Chapel" in Houston, Texas. "The more committed you are to Benjamin," he writes, "the less time you will want to spend in the Rothko Chapel, which is around the corner from where I live. That's because the Rothko Chapel emits an undeniable, very affecting aura; and because it's not easily dismissible as 'only' art or as (someone else's) religion space. So far, Benjaminians (roughly a half of those whom I've taken there) have needed me to rescue them after a maximum of two minutes." In other words: great art can have a strong, auratic effect on the viewer. And if you don't believe this you only need visit the Rothko Chapel, or go see his series of Seagram Murals in Tate Modern, which have such an unusual power that visitors sometimes stare into them for hours or attack them.

Others believe that art is a way of looking into the future. Swedish curator Maria Lind, writing in her introduction to this year's Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, suggests that art is "a seismograph and sniffer dog, often detecting changes and other things before the rest of society, whether the artists are conscious of it or not. [It is] a kind of visionary knowledge and practice." The idea here is that exhibitions should be contemplated in the manner of a crystal ball, and that the studio is a laboratory and a future-telling space of experimentation.

Photography Mark Blower

Sometimes people complain that they don't understand contemporary art, but it's possible that there's not really anything to understand. There is no hidden meaning that only those inside the art world can see, and no secret code for deciphering artists' intentions: making art is about asking questions rather than answering them. However, good art should make you think or feel something that you haven't thought of or felt like before. Great art should make you feel like you're falling in love, all warm and fuzzy on the inside. If that happens, who cares whether you wholly understand it or not?

Or perhaps this lack of understanding is actually what's behind the rise of contemporary art. BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis has spoken often about how confusing the world has become, and linked this confusion to ideas from the realm of conceptual art. He is releasing his next documentary HyperNormalisation on iPlayer on October 16, which will connect diverse subjects including Donald Trump, the war in Syria, and the New York performance art scene of the 60s to tell (according to the BBC) "the extraordinary story of how we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion — where those who are supposed to be in power are paralyzed — and have no idea what to do."

Curtis thinks we are living in an age of great confusion. So rather than seeking to explain what it all means, it may be that the reason we like contemporary art is precisely because it is so confusing. People like to be confused, and they like weirdness.

Photography Linda Nylind

Art has always been intertwined with sexual frustration: just think of Vincent Van Gogh mailing parts of his severed ear to a woman he loved. It often takes an erotic subject and has been filled with naked bodies since antiquity. According to Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion fell in love with his ivory sculpture of Galatea and began to bring her gifts, and kiss and caress her, until eventually the goddess Aphrodite brought Galatea to life and he married her.

Wander around the fair today and you'll still see a lot of works with an erotic component, with an attractive body worked into them somehow, selling for a lot of money. One theory is that collectors start collecting as an alternative to sex, because it offers another thrilling form of beauty and desire. Another is that they are attracted not so much to the works themselves, as to the personality of the artist behind them. In the words of Parisian art collective Claire Fontaine, the subjectivity and taste of the artist becomes "almost erotically exciting for the collector." According to this reading, making and selling art becomes a process of seduction, with the wealthy turned on by the artist's presence and their ideas; so they are attracted not to the ivory body of Galatea, but to Pygmalion who made her.

Photography Mark Blower

Creativity is seen as a virtue these days, but one way to talk about art is to question this, and whether it has led to the celebration of mediocrity. Most of the artworks in any given art fair are really bad, but why is this exactly? Well, it's probably because of 60s and 70s counterculture: blame flower power, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the Vietnam War. Through the Summer of Love ideas of anti-authoritarianism, peace, and sexual revolution somehow became twisted together with the celebration of creativity, experimentation, and a bohemian lifestyle. After that artistic urges were seen as a force for good. Throughout the Seventies Joseph Beuys repeated his mantra that "everyone is an artist;" meaning everybody is capable of creativity in their own field, whatever that might be. And from the Nineties onwards, whether having painting classes in nursery school or watching psychedelic children's television shows, we're taught from a very early age that we're all visionary and inspired. Except it turns out we're not, and that's why so much art is so bad.

Those are just four ways of talking about contemporary art: it's magical, or it's suitably confusing, or the figure of the artist is eroticized and desirable, or everything is awful.


Text Dean Kissick
Images courtesy of Frieze London

contemporary art
Frieze London
frieze 2016