I recently had some private conversations with artists that changed how I understand contemporary art. Though they each only said a few sentences on the topic, they independently conveyed roughly the same basic idea.
This essay attempts to explain this view of contemporary art. I’ve never seen this written down or explained before, not in the many books I’ve read on this topic recently, nor during my own undergraduate art degree. Yet, this view seems crucial to understanding the art world.
These conversations with artists each began when I mentioned some neural network artists I admire and was told, effectively, “that’s not really art.” This puzzled me the first time it happened: here are cutting-edge artists, showing their work in art exhibitions, selling art in art galleries—how could it be that this isn’t even considered contemporary art?
Contemporary art is art that interests the contemporary art world. While this statement might seem meaningless at first, I think it is actually the key starting point, because there is a lot to say about what interests this community and what it values. Art is not defined primarily by its appearance or form, but by its relationship to a community. And what matters to the contemporary art community depends on the particulars of that community’s interests, preferences, history, and ongoing dialogues.
The community and the conversation
The contemporary art world I’m talking about here comprises primarily a collection of fine art museums, artists, dealers, galleries, critics, collectors, and art fairs, and I’m talking about a very “high-end” subset of contemporary art here. Broadly speaking, this is a shared-interest community. Like many such communities, there are different factions and subsets of this community, there are no clear boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out”, and the community continually engages in debates to define itself and its values. Here are two examples of critics criticizing trends in their own community: of “zombie abstraction” and “big fun art”; similarly, witness the activism over toxic donors, and this critic musing about his role in the era of social media.
For decades—or, depending on how you count, centuries—this community has been engaging in a sort of conversation, a discourse about art and art’s role in the world. When someone does something really new that intrigues this community, it creates a desire to evaluate it and debate its merits, and to understand why it does or doesn’t work. As one artist once told me “Every work of art is a statement of the form ‘Art is …’” Critics and other artists will respond to that statements. For example, for Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, he wrote that the artwork itself wasn’t the drawings themselves, but his instructions for creating them. This work made a significant step in the development of conceptual art, in addition to being visually striking. Of course, the possible topics of art aren’t just art itself; this community also cares about art’s role in cultural, social, and other issues.
Contemporary artworks are not just the objects or actions themselves: as another artist told me, “Visual works of art are not images, but ideas expressed through images,” and pointed to John Baldessari’s text paintings and commissioned paintings as key works here.
This leads to a central point: contemporary art is art that engages directly with the discourses of the contemporary art world. Suppose you paint a Rembrandt-level masterpiece, with the same level of technical skill, but with no particular idea behind the work besides painting a nice painting. This, on its own, is not interesting to the art world, because it doesn’t engage with the interests of the community, in the same way that you don’t just pop into the middle of a conversation to say things that people have already discussed to death and they’re tired of hearing about, or to change the subject entirely. Likewise, this community has no more interest in those shallow undergraduate “but is it art?” discussions.
I have come to see contemporary art as a genre, rather than, say, the apotheosis of the arts. Understanding contemporary art this way has helped me appreciate it better. Contemporary art is one community, one set of tastes and styles. Like any other genre of art—whether indie filmmaking or Broadway musicals or Japanese textiles—some of it can be truly great and significant, much of it is boring and derivative, some of it is easy to appreciate and some is obscure, but to fully understand and appreciate it you have to learn about the specific history, interests, and discussions amongst its practitioners. This shared cultural knowledge is so vast and fast-changing that becoming conversant is quite difficult. Many contemporary artworks are hard to appreciate at all without understanding the context of the conversation in which they’re taking place. If you’ve ever delved deep into some niche form of art or literature or sports fandom or science fiction fandom, you may have become passionate about debates or activities within that community that are boring to outsiders, and some contemporary art operates like this as well.
Analogies to other communities
If this community-based definition of art seems obscure, it may be helpful to think about other creative communities. For example, think about all of the debates around the merits of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, which films did or didn’t deserve to win, or how these films are relevant to society in different ways, e.g., the discussions around “Joker” and “Parasite,” or “Moonlight” and “La La Land,” and the way that various movies change the state of filmmaking; could any of those movies have been made and nominated a decade ago? Or think about the interests and debates of whichever community you care about, whether academic societies or a political groups or sports fans.
An analogy that might be useful to my academic colleagues is in conference and journal publication. You can’t take an undergraduate physics course and then be ready to publish cutting-edge research in theoretical physics. Likewise, you can’t just submit any graphics idea to SIGGRAPH; the paper has to address problems that SIGGRAPH reviewers care about, presented in a way that they are used to, discussing in depth how it relates to previous work in the space. Industry computer graphic practitioners are often surprised when their papers are rejected because they didn’t understand this important point. When I first started reviewing for SIGGRAPH, I was puzzled by the question on the review form “Is this paper of interest to the SIGGRAPH community?” because it seemed like the question should be whether or not the paper was relevant to the topic of the conference. I now see the wisdom of deciding acceptance this way, since it has helped the topics of the conference evolve organically.
This kind of definition of art originates in a 1960’s paper by philosopher Arthur Danto, who coined the the term “the artworld,” and proposed the first version of what is now known as the institutional theory of art. However, that theory is purely classificatory, defining what is and isn’t art, rather than what kind of art is valued. The art world won’t accept a work that doesn’t match its interests and tastes, regardless of the form of the work.
What does this community care about?
Within this conversation, there are many different ways for artworks to function, whether as abstract painting or performance art or even more unusual forms.
Nonetheless, there are at least two things that just about all contemporary art must have. First, the work must engage in current debates, trends in contemporary art, social issues, and so on. How does it advance the conversation? This often shows up in the artist’s statement and their discussion around the work, rather than being plainly obvious in the work itself. Sometimes this component may seem uninteresting, but it needs to be there.
Second, artworks making a concrete statement are not valued; ambiguity is. Artworks should conjure up assocations, they should raise interesting questions, they should defy easy interpretation. A work should make you want to study it and to discuss it and the ideas around it. Visually, this corresponds to the notion of indeterminacy, of visual art that suggests the appearance of familiar objects and scenes but can’t quite be interpreted as such. On the more conceptual side, one may try to assign meanings to the works, e.g., why did Warhol paint repeated reproductions of celebrities? They are so many possible explanations and interpretations—relating, for example, to the nature of celebrity and mass production, to his own fascinations—many are convincing, but none are definitively true or false.
The art world resists works that could function in other domains: a computer animation that looks too much like typical computer animation, or clothing that just looks like fashion, would probably not be accepted as art without a good rationale for how the work specifically functions as contemporary art. The community seems to define contemporary art in opposition to other kinds of art, perhaps in the tribal way any group defines themselves as distinct from other groups.
Two main engines drive the art world: market forces on one hand, and museum/festival curation on the other. Painting is king, because it is the most market-friendly medium. Curators have tremendous power to highlight artists and grant status, and they may sometimes be more interested in more conceptual work; they may be driven by hidden agendas or very individaul preferences. (Personally, I usually have trouble engaging with a certain kind of work in musems and festivals for which the experiential component is absent or ho hum.) The Price of Everything and Seven Days in the Art World are two excellent places to learn more about the functioning of the contemporary art ecosystem. It does seem that these worlds are being transformed by social media (e.g., artwork designed for Instagram showings) and our current upheavals, but the underlying structures are likely to persist in some form.
The best contemporary art functions on many levels. Ideas aside, Sol LeWitt’s work is visually striking and unique to see in person. Shows I’ve enjoyed in the past several years included Mark Bradford, Ron Mueck, Christian Marclay, Damien Hirst: all of whom were doing something provocative and fascinating, which often led to interesting thoughts and ideas afterward. Amy Sherald’s portraits (which I’ve unfortunately only seen online), seem unique and modern as portraits. As pure performance art, I find Marina Abramović’s performances fascinating (sadly, I also haven’t seen them in person). All of these artists are doing things that, for various reasons, could not have been 100 years ago, and they’re doing these things extremely well.
Judgements of Art and Artists
In Modern Art—and, in the way I learned art history in college—there was a sense of progress over time. It is easy to tell the history of Western art as a series of new developments and discoveries arising from the Enlightenment and ending, say, at pure abstraction like op art and abstract expressionism, or at conceptual art. However, since the 1970’s, notions of progress in art are dead; one also does not discuss “beauty” and one is very reserved with problematic absolute value judgements like “good” and “bad.”
What about what I was told at the beginning of this essay, of being told that specific artist’s work is not art? Art practitioners and critics occasionally use the peculiar linguistic device of criticizing a work by saying “it’s not art.” Saying that a work “is not art” is a sort of lazy shorthand to mean that a work doesn’t engage well with the contemporary art community’s interests. I am told that this casual phrasing is not good criticism, only to be used in casual conversations, though I’ve found examples of this usage online: this tweet, this review of artwork in an art gallery made by artists: “It’s a nice effect, but not art,” and this artist asking whether film can be art, which, taken literally, seems like an absurd question to ask—of course many movies are great works of art!
Computer artists have struggled with the contemporary art world ever since computer art began in the 1960s. The book When The Machine Made Art describes decades of prejudice and dismissal from the mainstream art world toward computer artists. Some of this can be explained by computer artists’ lack of engagement with (or, even, awareness of) the contemporary art world’s particular interests and language, together with the mainstream art world’s historic antipathy toward computing and technology.
Background and networking are important to an artist’s success. Most artists who gain recognition in the art world come from a few prestigious art schools, and, from there, gain representation from a respected gallery, which, in turn, can signal your seriousness. It doesn’t matter that computer artists show artwork in art galleries; many of them don’t show their work in the right galleries.
There is a lot to be cynical about the contemporary art world, and its practitioners often love to complain about it too. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t love it too, the same way you may complain about your relationships or your hometown because you care about them. I complain about some of my own communities, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them.
I am indebted to Jason Salavon for many illuminating discussions on this topic. Thanks also to Robert Pepperell and George Legrady for comments and discussion.