How To Understand Contemporary Art Or Why Your Child Couldn't Paint Like This

The ‘artist-artwork-viewer’ triangle - the ability of the audience to listen

BY Oleksandra Osadcha POSTED 8th of July 2018 17:00 GMT


understand contemporary art


When googling “I don’t understand contemporary art” you find 139.000.000 results. Yeah, 139 with six zeroes behind. It occurs that facing the art of the recent years is problematic for a wide percentage of people, so let’s try to sort this problem out.


Modernism Definition - Emancipation of Art

First of all, we need to start with the fact that the modern notion of art has emerged only around the 18th century – it’s the product of the Enlightenment epoch. Before that time art had had largely a utilitarian purpose as a part of the religious tradition or manifestation of the owner’s wealth. Even the word ‘art’ itself was used to the whole range of the fields that now are not even considered as close to art – from shoemaking to rhetoric. Even the term ‘fine arts’ (‘beaux arts’) appeared only in 1690. As secularization of the society progressed, and the bourgeoisie class shaped up, art gradually started to evolve into the separate and self-sufficient field. Masters got engaged in exploring the essence of visuality and its unique features. Impressionists, like Monet, Sisley, Degas were among the first, who paved the way to that “complicated and weird” contemporary art: without completely rejecting the presence of a plot, they already started stressing the qualities of oil painting as an object – character of texture, painting surface, interaction with the space of a viewer.

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Artists strived to assert the independence of their works from any other spheres of life, form social, political or historical context. “Art for art’s sake” was the famous motto among French, British and American artists and writers of fin de siècle. It was the powerful reaction on two interconnected factors: (1) Industrial revolution, which led to the extensive growth of mass production and, as the result, the excessive commercialistic approach towards art; (2) protest against the middle-class perception of art’s mission as moralization and instruction of a viewer. Many masters of painting, sculpture, and graphics believed art isn’t meant to preach. Therefore, they put the aesthetical side of their pieces in the first place.

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The members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, James Whistler, who were the passionate followers of “Art for art’s sake” still worked in line with the conventional vision of fine art, with a story behind their oil painting and life-like modeling of figures. However, gradually that principal started getting more radical forms, as Modernist art movements shaped up. Post-impressionists (Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin), Fauvists (Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) challenged the concept of art as replicating of the reality, letting visual means of expression (color, line, composition) to play the first flute. And if before those changes the key issue was WHAT is depicted?, now the focus gradually shifts to HOW is it depicted? Such exaggerated accent on the formal side of works (mostly oil painting) led to the huge gap between artists and public since it was sometimes difficult for an average viewer, who was used to classical canons and had no artistic training, to appreciate the author’s delight with a brushwork or palette. Modernism became the elitist art for artists.

Probably, we should name Cubism (Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque) as the point of no turn, leading to the complete deconstruction of form, which finally resulted in the development of Abstract Art and abstract painting (Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian).


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Avant Garde - Challenging the idea of art

Such detachment of art from society caused the counter-reaction in form of the avant garde movements. Avant garde originated in the realm of Modernism, yet was a sort of the protesting gesture against it. Modernism, driven by the idea of the autonomy of art, has significantly transformed its norms, yet it hasn’t evolved into the critics of the institution of art itself, and, generally speaking, didn’t break up with the tradition, applying classical genre system and subjects.

Avant garde, in contrast, was targeted at rejecting the ideas of artistic autonomy and ‘high’ culture. Futurists (Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla), Dadaists (Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp), Constructivists (Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky) Surrealists (Salvador Dali, Max Ernst) believed in the importance of reestablishing the connection between art and society and the ability of their works to make real social changes. That is why they often voiced politically charged positions, promoted the necessity of revolution not only in art but in life as well. Masters ironized over typical for the Modernistic image of the artist as genius and belief in originality as the main definition of art. The border between art and life was almost eliminated in Avant garde: it is enough to remember the scandalous gesture of Duchamp, when he put the manufactured porcelain urinal on display at the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, entitling it Fountain. The new attitude was represented through the innovative artistic forms as well, like collage and readymade, particularly popular among Dadaists and Surrealists.



The aim of art was the efficiency of the statement – it is supposed to shock, excite and provoke. One of the ways to achieve it was letting art out of the specialized locations like museums and galleries, and entering the public space. The desire of progress pushed artists into cooperation with political systems that turned out to be totalitarian and suppressed the creators, as it was in the USSR. Even when masters refused to work on them (like Bauhaus in Germany), Avant-garde was still just another side of the same coin totalitarianism belonged to. Both phenomena were driven by the sense of the upcoming great transformations and utopian confidence in the possibility of the New World.

Going through the tragedies of two world wars, society got disappointed in the positivistic attitude of Modernism, giving the way to the new philosophy of Postmodernism.


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Postmodernism Definition – the emergence of contemporary art

Postmodernism of the 1960s-1980s can be seen as the starting point of the contemporary art as we know it today. As one can sense from the post- prefix in the title of the movement, Postmodernism was still connected to the previous period: it was the connection through the negation of its values. Let us discuss four main features of Postmodern art and show, how they changed in comparison to the Modernism epoch.

  1. The world as text. Modernism attempted to reveal the integrity of the world. That led to the upraise of Utopism and, as a consequence, totalitarian systems. Postmodern philosophy treated everything in the world not as a single unity, but as a set of the intertwined semantic constructs, or, saying in other words, a text. Text can be understood on the variety of levels, therefore, the main issue of Postmodern art is promoting the pluralism of readings – one art object can have numerous meanings. Artists start prioritizing concept over the object. Not surprisingly such approach was the impulse for the origin of Conceptualism (Sol LeWitt, Allan Kaprow), which reduced the presence of material in projects to the minimum, often replacing art with its description. One can find the influence of this movement in the long and elaborated artistic statements that accompany almost every contemporary art exhibition.
  2. Citation. As a part of Modernism, Avant-garde strived to get rid of tradition; it was hypnotized by the idea of the new visual language and ignored all classical methods. Postmodernism saw the failure of the attempt to deny the Past because art is muted without it. If you can’t conquer something- cooperate with it! Since everything is a text, all things can be deconstructed, recomposed and quoted. Citation (obvious or hidden) of some pieces from the previous centuries, a combination of references to different epochs, was one of the main instruments for the movements like Pop art (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein). Pop Art used and aestheticized images of advertisement and mass culture (like celebrities).
  3. Interactivity. Connections in the modernistic society had a vertical structure, even in art: artist, who was perceived as the Demiurge, is on its top. His creative will produces an artwork, which connects him with the viewers. Postmodernism decline such hierarchy, suggesting a horizontal system of connections instead, when all elements are not divided into levels and are equal. Hence, all participants in the artistic process (artist-work-public) have a similar impact on its interpretation. Moreover, after being completed, art object starts living its own life. The personality of the author fades into the background. A prominent French philosopher Roland Barthes expressed that thought in the essay “Death of the Author, which doubted incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in the analysis of artworks. Viewers became the active participants and co-authors of works. This is especially obvious in such types of artistic practices as performative art, actionism and happenings (Joseph Boys, Marina Abramović), which involve the public directly or by focusing their attention on the action. Moreover, instead of canvases and brushes, masters apply their own bodies, sometimes to voice political issues.

Another form of interactivity in Postmodernism is creating projects in public spaces: street art (Banksy, Frank Shepard Fairey) cooperates with the cityscape and impressions of a random passerby.

There are several details that Postmodernism has inherited from Avant-garde, particularly, the elimination of boundaries between art and life. Dadaists were the first to use daily objects for their pieces. This idea brought into being one of the most powerful contemporary art practices – installations (Ai Weiwei, Allan Kaprow). Recent technologies also play a significant role in the formation of contemporary art, as video (Wolf Vostell, Marco Brambilla) and sound art (Samson Young, Janet Cardiff) that flourishes in the recent decades. They are often merged into an immersive conglomerate, added by some kinetic and spatial elements.

Postmodernism is over, yet its artistic methods gave a very powerful inertia in the development of the visual culture after the 2000s. The term that characterizes the situation in the post-millennial art world is still being discussed. The variants are post-postmodernism, metamodernism, transmodernism. Their definitions are rather vague due to the lack of distance for the critical comprehension of the current atmosphere.

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So, anyway, how to understand contemporary art?

We completely realize that all previous historical information might be too very insignificant to help approaching contemporary art. Too many questions are left open.

- How to distinguish a top-notch contemporary artistic project from a provocative and talentless PR?

- How to explain, why those pieces are being demonstrated in the museums and sold for millions, although it seems even your child could have done the same?

The easiest way is to give up and just calm yourself down with the thought “Contemporary art is just an epic fake.” But in reality, we should always blame two for a misunderstanding. When it comes to the Bermuda triangle ‘artist-artwork-viewer,’ the ability of the audience to ‘listen’ to an artist (to contemplate his/her pieces) is equally important to the ability of master to ‘speak’ (to create works). The talent to look at art is no lesser than the talent for producing it. It requires not only some analysis but a serious experience that allow understanding of the context and the background of any piece.

‘Training an eye’ isn’t the simplest thing, especially when you find yourself in the situation when ‘Cool’ / ‘Not-Cool’ verdicts are not enough. The trick of the contemporary art is in motivating the public to get into the dialogue with the author, interpret and react. When dealing with classic art the joy of contemplating the work is enough for us to feel ourselves arbiter elegantiarum without putting much effort into it, such an attitude isn’t efficient with contemporary art. It is meant to be a ‘bedcrumb’ that wakes us and makes us move.

If before communicating with art was similar to a game of squash, where a viewer was mainly a passive wall, now it is a real tennis, where the very possibility of art’s existence without a viewer is questionable. And you have to get into the artist’s head and follow the route he or she followed, to grasp the piece to the fullest. Sometimes the author can get too excited and serve the concept with the intensity a viewer isn’t ready to handle. But can art be different in the age of internet and AI? Like any organism, it has to remold itself, since changes are Life. And one cannot resist Life.

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