A Fort Called Contemporary Art

A deconstruction of the stigmas surrounding modern contemporary art.

In an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Danny DeVito’s character pretends to be a “high society art type” named  Ongo Gablogian to convince the gallery owner to visit  an art exhibition at a bar. He streams into the gallery, pointing at the walls and exclaiming, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Derivative!” And then he stops and says… “That…I love! I absolutely love!” To which his companion, the gallery owner replies, “That’s just the air conditioner.”

“I want it! It’s everything. I mean, look at us. We’re just air conditioners. I mean, after all, we’re just walking around on the planet, breathing, conditioning the air. I condition it hot, that conditions it cold. I mean, it’s symbiotic! You know? We’re just air conditioners, walking around on this planet, screwing each other’s brains out!” he croons. The gallery owner begins nodding intently and says, “That’s so true, I never thought of it like that.”

The world of art prides itself on its exclusivity. You can only appreciate it if you’re an insider, otherwise you merely remain ‘curious’ about it. Yet, even the most prestigious works of art have become public treasures, part of the collective conscious of creative history and human achievement. While we may remain ignorant to the majority of art throughout history, both traditional and modern, there does seem to be a common appreciation of it, even if it’s only understood in layman’s terms. However, the world of contemporary art remains elusive and out of reach.

In a few months time, 85 galleries will come to Carriageworks for the 2019 edition of Sydney Contemporary, Australasia’s International Art Fair. The website advertises the fair as “five days of curated exhibitions and ambitious programming that appeals to the serious collector, art lover, and those curious about contemporary art.”

Since Renaissance times, art has been institutional — an aspiring artist would pay to be an apprentice to a master. They would receive patronage for the arts and what they produced had great significance to its time, whether for political statement or an expression of beauty. Apart from this, their aesthetic conception of art emphasised the Greek word techne, meaning ‘craftsmanship’ or ‘art.’ Jump forward to modern contemporary art and art isn’t as much about beauty or craftsmanship as it is about the idea behind the work. The essentially teleological model of art progression has seemingly ended, where there is now a myriad of highly individual interpretations drawn from various sources, very often beyond art itself, as we know it. Multimedia, installation, and performance art question the very nature of art and much of its meaning is what we give to it, like Danny DeVito as Ongo Gablogian, ‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp, a readymade sculpture of a porcelain urinal, or Rene Magritte’s ‘Treachery of Images,’ a painting of a pipe with the writing below “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). It is art because we say it is. But is this enough? Famed Australian art critic Robert Hughes notoriously despised contemporary art. In his series ‘Shock of the New,’ he discusses his problem with contemporary art and the significance of art as a whole: “I don’t think we are ever again obliged to look at a plywood box, or a row of bricks on the floor… and think ‘This is the real thing. This is the necessary art of our time. This deserves respect.’ Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t, and nobody cares.

“The fact is, anyone except a child can make such a thing… because children have the kind of direct sensuous and complex relationships with the world around them that modernism in its declining years was trying to deny. That relationship is the lost paradise that art wants to give back to us, not as children but as adults. It’s also what the modern and the old have in common: Pollock with Turner, Matisse with Rubens, Braques with Poussin.

“The basic project of art is to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling. And then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you and then to pass from feeling to meaning.”

It’s in this space, where intellectualism and conceptualism take precedence, that the emotional impact of art is lost. Intellectualism and conceptualism is needed for progress in the arts but it is easy to lose sight of meaning in the name of progress. Much of the meaning of art lies in not just what is expressed but how it is expressed — the message being in the medium. One of the various purposes of art is to challenge the audience, of course, but if the audience is made to feel they are inferior to understanding contemporary art forms, then we must ponder the new significance of art and to whom it is directed.