I recently attended a popular contemporary art exhibition by Korean artist Hwang Eun Sung in Moscow. Hwang’s “New Futuristic” style, characterized by black, white and colorful lines that gradually fade to dark do not reflect reality as much as they reflect the human interpretation of it. To me, Hwang’s work – all lines and dots and no other distinguishing symbols – resemble maps more than anything. This “New Futurism” creates an ambiguous feeling. Walking from canvas to canvas I tried to find a link between her works and I tried in vain to connect them to one another or find some similarities among the criss-crossing patterns of lines.
Finding none of what I have been looking for at the exhibition, I walked away disappointed. I found myself thinking that the whole afternoon had been a waste of time. I felt like I was lacking the foundation to appreciate or even understand what the artist tried to say with her work. Most people who – like me – are not very well acquainted with the works of contemporary artists, may feel disappointed or even dismissive of contemporary art. Why do we feel like contemporary art is so incomprehensible?
Cultural trends have always informed our understanding of art, but cultural trends are also the reason for why many are unable to appreciate contemporary art. Experts on cultural change tend to characterize modern society as one that has lost its sense of beauty. They say that modern society does not see the role of art the way that previous generations have seen it. Contemporary art today can be big business where paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars. What does it say about our society that we have started thinking of art as a commodity, rather than as an object of beauty?
In his work “The Power of the Masses”, Karl Jaspers claims that mass culture and “mass marketing” characterize the modern world. According to Jaspers, society is actively depleting and simplifying the spiritual life of the individual. The principle of “technicalization”, on which our society is built, allows people to feel more confident in having everything necessary in life. This ideology renders humans into “consumers,” and everything else into fungible, purchasable materials.
In order to meet our needs, we create utilities that we use and discard in huge quantities. The values of things, even cultural concepts or artistic works have collapsed from many dimensions to one. Worth has been reduced to nothing more than a price tag. Jaspers says that culture and art in the modern world have lost their transcendental content, ironically making it easier for us today to enjoy the centuries old masterpieces while failing to ‘get’ art made in our own lifetimes.
The 20th century brought new challenges. The new ideology of capitalism brought about a new way of perceiving the world. We started valuing or, better say, evaluating everything in our lives. Is it surprising that art has changed as well? Today we say, time is money. We value our time, we get used to the idea that we can grasp anything fast and easily, and take most of things for granted. This is why I felt frustrated and disappointed when I left the gallery with no understanding of what I had just seen.
“We value their classic works of art because they have been proofread by time itself.”
Our society has undergone significant technological and cultural transformations, but people still want contemporary artists to paint as classic artists did centuries ago. We value their classic works of art because they have been proofread by time itself. Works of the past were often designed to be more comprehensible and easy to understand, so it is no surprise we still appreciate them. Contemporary art, however, engages in a different project, one that requires more from its audience. We want to “understand from the first glance,” do it fast, but not to “feel and think” the art. We do not set the same criterion of “clarity” to music that we necessarily do to contemporary art.
However, no art can be understood without its context. It is hard to understand art without understanding the language of the artist. Without knowing that there was a novel with the same title written by Julio Cortazar in response to repressions in Argentina, a viewer would hardly understand the whole idea and tragedy expressed in the work of Rafael Gomez Barros “Taken house,” an installation which is made of 440 ants and devoted to the displaced people in Colombia.
Similarly, the mind is unable to fully comprehend the famous works of Bruegel, Raphael, or Ingres. We can appreciate their superficial beauty, but we cannot fully grasp the context around them. In our contemporary art, this first, easy-to-grasp-and-read-level simply does not exist. Artists today, are going further, perhaps exemplified by the anti-art movement, which is intended not just to present beauty but to say something broader about the society in which we live.
Questions like “What is art?” or “What is the function of art?” are relatively new. I brought these questions to Elena Khokhlova, a lecturer at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics who specializes in Art History and Korean art. Khokhlova points out that people often think about contemporary and modern art as something that is hard to understand or relate to. When we do not get the point of a modern piece of art, we immediately decide that we are not good, educated or ready enough to embrace it. “However,” Elena Khokhlova says, “art is mainly about feelings and emotions, both what the artist puts into a work and what the viewer takes away from it.” In fact, art that defies the viewers’ artistic expectations is a modern concept.
Elena Khokhlova says that in order for us to enjoy contemporary artistic works to the fullest extent we need to be willing to approach art in an accepting, open minded way, without expectations about what “good art” will necessarily look like. “Being able to open up your mind and heart for something new and be ready to accept it is very important, regardless of the painting’s origin. You look at and enjoy the work without any prejudices and after exhibition you may ask yourself different questions and think on what you have seen today.”
The purpose of art today is in the reflection of modern society and the social problems therein. Artists are able to help us broaden our views, better understanding the world in which we live. Art should show or tell us something, something important and valuable. Art speaks, exposes everything that is hidden, gives us food for thought and serves as a driving force to our imagination and creation.
Our responsibility then is to be willing to approach art in an open minded way, ready to learn from it. And the only right way for us to comprehend our art will be to look deeply at our own society, the world around us, at other people and at ourselves, even if what the art shows us is threatening or uncomfortable. We do not necessarily need to like all artistic works, we just need to be open to anything that hits our emotions and imagination. Yes, Renaissance paintings are beautiful but they cannot speak in the same way to today’s world, whereas contemporary art is uniquely able to do that, to make us think and reflect on the society in which we live , and to inspire us to create and discover new things.
“Taking a new step, uttering a new world, is what people fear most”.
A new beginning
The line from F. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment describes what people think and feel about art today. We learned in school that art is mainly great masterpieces created in times long gone by. However, we tend to forget in what world we are living now: modernized, fast, mechanized, multidimensional and diverse. Being a reflection of reality, art has always served mankind as a tool that is empowered to mirror problems and issues that people struggle to solve. Contemporary art is, or can be, a source for new discoveries.
Yulia, a young Russian designer sees modern and contemporary art as the basis for her inspirations. “I do not agree when people say today’s art is not art anymore and we lost all the sense of beauty and clue of what art actually should be. In my case, contemporary art is a place where I find new ideas for my projects. Artists inspire me, their techniques amaze me.”
A few weeks after the exhibition in Moscow, I attended a modern dance festival. Through objects like tapes or bags, and through the playful use of light, the dancers inserted ideas and emotions into their performances. It was utterly captivating. I could see, feel and relate to the story the dancers were telling through the movements of their bodies. Together with the dancers I could enjoy this moment of collective beauty and meaning as they performed the work of art before me. Unlike paintings, dances and theatrical performances cannot always be expressed in monetary terms, as they cannot be bought or sold. The only thing that remains of a performance is the memory, and perhaps the changes the experiences create within the audience.
Sung Hee, a professional dance artist, says, “It seems right to me when or if you try to grasp the idea of an artistic masterpiece, you at least need to think of a reason why that piece has been created, look at the environment around you, and imagine what it is about artist life that produced a piece.”
Contemporary art is as multidimensional as our world is, in ways both wondrous and terrifying. That allows us to look at usual things from unusual angles. New perspectives are valuable because they may yet show us new ways to live, new solutions to our old problems. Elena Khokhlova thinks that having an open mind gives us the chance to feel and understand works of contemporary art and this will lead to appreciating the art of our own century.
Now, after all my explorations, I find the works of Hwang Eun Sung seem less incomprehensible. I have realized that art through all its means has something to tell and show us. It is still our choice to listen or pay attention to it or not. It is our choice to embrace the feelings but not the attractive or obscure brushstrokes; to learn but not to judge. And finally, to stay focused on the journey, not the destination.