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How To 'Get' Contemporary Art

01/02/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Huw Jones via Getty Images
New York City, Manhattan, New York, United States, North America

"I don't get it." I hear that a lot in the context of Art, art with a capital A, because it's made its way in museums and galleries, something Ernst Gombrich defined as non-existing in the opening lines of The Story of Art ("There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists."), but let's not go into that yet.

Over the years I have heard variations of that phrase -- "I don't get it" -- from friends and strangers and I have wondered why. Is it because most people don't understand contemporary art, or is it because they don't appreciate being the first ones to say "the emperor is naked" (read: this is bullshit)? Bottom line is the majority tends to steer clear of everything that has anything to do with art, avoiding it like the plague. Most would rather pay to watch a crappy film in a hall full of screaming children than spend half an hour in a gallery.

Most would rather pay to watch a crappy film in a hall full of screaming children than spend half an hour in a gallery.

Without even going into the distinction between high art and low/folk art, greatness and lack thereof, the problem lies in the fact that art has become, in many cases, far removed from daily experience so that its meaning doesn't jump out at us, which has resulted in a disconnect.

jeff koons

Balloon Dog (Yellow), by Jeff Koons

Experienced in controlled spaces, such as galleries and museums, and not making much sense otherwise, art is limited to the furthering of an idea that is attractive to only a small group of people interested in that exploration. Often we, outside that group, get the feeling that we are being hustled by the artist when we don't understand how appropriating popular consumer goods such as soup cans or mimicking blank canvas in the form of white paintings or enlarged versions of balloon animals could be worth millions of bucks. And often we get the feeling that we are not good enough for the (contemporary) art present before us, when we don't form that instant connection with it, arguing the devolution of art and questioning its high valuation.

Fact is nobody likes being hustled and nobody likes feeling stupid, and apart from a few who understand the historical and theoretical aspects of art that makes it "worth" something, its meaning is lost on most of us. So, we instead go watch a movie that has it all spelled out from beginning to end, a guaranteed return on investment, if you must. This is a shame because amid the con artists (clever, but not necessarily imaginative or skilled), there are some good seeds.

[O]ften we get the feeling that we are not good enough for the (contemporary) art present before us, when we don't form that instant connection with it...

My purpose is not to convince you to consume art with the fervour with which you consume fast foods. But I do hope that you will engage with it, visit galleries and museums, attend openings and lectures on art theory, communicate with the artists and ask any questions that you may have, because art is all about opinions and perceptions, with communication at its core. True, you will probably encounter a substantial amount of intellectual bullshit and mental masturbation, but it will also open you to new ideas, and, who knows, with the contextual gaps filled you might even begin to enjoy art. It's based on preference -- you may love an artwork or you may hate it with a passion, but that preference will come from a place of knowledge and understanding as opposed to being arbitrary and half-baked. So that the next time you see Damien Hirst's glittering skulls or Tracey Emin's neon signs, you can say with authority the only reason we are even talking about their works is because it's extremely difficult to separate their celebrity from their average talent and that without their "star power", their art would be immature at best, third-rate at worst.

[A]rt that challenges has mind-expanding qualities, which makes you think, rethink and question existing beliefs.

This brings us to the loaded question I have been trying to avoid: What is art? Simply put, any creation without real utility or function, intended to display the author's imagination and/or technique, by extension a symbol of power representative of a community, and to be appreciated for its beauty and thought-provoking content, could be called art. For example, a chair in your living room, mass produced and with no unique quality, serves a purpose, not aesthetic but utilitarian. Now, if you take the same chair and strip it of its utility, give it cultural significance and back it up with history (yours or someone else's), although still ugly, it becomes an object of art. How, you ask? I could say I had a groundbreaking idea while sitting on that chair, or that Ambedkar's buttocks graced the chair (seat of power) when he was drafting the Indian Constitution, thus giving it the status of an artefact/art object. Similarly, food whose purpose is to provide nutrition primarily can be art if it becomes the symbol of status of a community, like Italian pasta.

I said somewhere recently that art that challenges has mind-expanding qualities, which makes you think, rethink and question existing beliefs. So, it doesn't really matter whether you love or hate it as long as it opens up a dialogue between the art, the artist and yourself. And maybe the purpose of art, puerile or academic, is to evoke a strong emotion within you, for better or worse.

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