Why Is Contemporary Art Important?

The contemporary arts are often the ones that are met with the most confusion, disdain and at times even disgust. There are arguments that the contemporary doesn’t really matter anymore, that it’s simply self-indulgent and self-celebratory (an argument I once heard is ‘the contemporary arts have just become a pissing contest on who can create the most stupid art’). In a way there’s a feeling some people have that contemporary art doesn’t have much place in the world anymore, and we should be looking at the old masters and celebrating them instead of the new minds.

Personally, I believe this to be an archaic way of thinking and that we should celebrate the new, and that the contemporary arts are more important than ever. The works of The Renaissance, The Impressionists, The Pre-Raphaelites and The Pop-Art masters were, in their time, contemporary and were seen in the same light that this wave of contemporary art today is.

The contemporary arts are largely ruled by conceptualism, a very dividing sort of art. Marcel Duchamp, famous for the piece ‘Fountain’ (the urinal with his signature) denounced what he described of as ‘retinal’ art and moved in favour of work in which the thought behind it is more important than what it looks like. And so is the very brief history of the birth on conceptual art. The irony is that great artists such as Da Vinci also focused more on the emotional thought behind art’s creation, something that those who shun conceptualism do not seem to realise.

By many people’s standards it is the works of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Gainsborough etc. that hold the golden standard of what ‘art is’. I must point out that in the times these artists were alive, art had a very different purpose to what it has now. When Michelangelo reigned the main use for art previously and at the time was to emulate Holy texts as the majority of the population were unable to read, and with no photography the most logical way of recreating the stories was indeed to paint and to sculpt. The same idea echoes throughout history, every art movement served its own purpose and was equally innovative as the last, so why can contemporary art not be seen in the same light?

In a world where technology moves faster than we can blink, and we buy and buy and buy the constantly upgraded versions of things, it’s a wonder that this isn’t something echoed in every aspect of life. If we want new in technology and other forms of art like films then why do we not welcome new art?

The visual arts are most certainly not dead. There are the contemporary artists like Tracey Emin who bare all and offer what has been called ‘self-indulgent’ (I say candid and brave) and others like Jeff Koons who are playful and witty, if not a little bit eccentric. But there are also the art graduates, the students and the ‘folk’ artists.

The Internet is a really wonderful source for lesser-known artists to display their work, whether it is via Instagram, Twitter or a blog,  the Internet has provided a huge platform for new artists to be found. I would be in disbelief if someone could come out and say there’s ‘no talent’ in art anymore after seeing how many people there are on social media displaying their varied and wonderful talents, it is simply that the nature of displaying art has changed.

Apart from for the Internet, universities are a fantastic way of finding new work. If going to a degree show isn’t possible, most art school will often have ‘mini’ exhibitions of end of semester work, or the lecturers will show work in spaces around the schools. Not only would students be more than happy that members of the public are going to see their works, they would also be more than happy to talk about their work. Going directly to universities you’ll not only get to see new work, you would also get to see how much work goes on behind the scenes, and how much passion there is. You’d soon realize there’s a lot left for the arts.

The artists now have a pretty hard job, it’s difficult to be noticed, it’s hard to get the all important patronage, and more than anything it’s hard to create something new ad exciting that’s not been done before. Yet they do, there is constantly new work being put into the big and small galleries, there’s always something that is worth going to see, or if you’re not going to a gallery, there’s always something to be found online.

Not only is art still flourishing, it’s still important. Contemporary art is important because – much like how the art of The Renaissance was a documentation of the time then – contemporary art is another documentation of today, of the now. While we have constant access to the news, and constant access to different thoughts and opinions, we forget that we have art as a reaction too. An artist could be sitting in their studio in one country, hear something that’s happened in another distant land and feel strongly about it, then create a piece as a comment on what’s happened – that said piece could potentially last as long as the Mona Lisa has. Being more connected than ever means that there are thousands of topics for artists to work with, and a huge, almost endless amount of people to be able to reach the work.

Because the visual arts are usually language-less and open to the interpretation, not only does it mean there’s not a right or wrong answer, it means there’s no age limit on who can see them, children and adults alike are able to see the same thing and interpret them as they wish. Contemporary art offers this more than older works that are usually landscapes or portraits, with contemporary art there’s a lot more going on that can be read in many ways, and this subjectivity is one of the beautiful things about it.

While this may seem like an attack on the masters, it’s more a celebration of the new order. The new is perhaps a little scary and intimidating, but the new is a great thing to embrace, and with a much more connected world, our art is more connected and more important than ever before.

Words by Selene Mortimore

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