The Attitude Problem of the Contemporary Art World

The contemporary art world is intimidating, confusing, and incredibly self-important.  Gallery spaces are so minimally chic they're uncomfortable.  They offer no information about  the artist whose work you're viewing except for a copy of their press release which is filled with unintelligible gobbledygook.  And if you try to ask a question of the girl in black behind the desk, you either get a blank stare, or a response calculated to make you feel like a fool for asking the question.

Last year's (April) Vogue magazine had a wonderful article about the typical trials of an intelligent, open-minded, sophisticated woman trying to buy a decent piece of art.  Rebecca Johnson tried Sotheby's auction house and said that "trying to figure out the art world by going to an auction was like trying to understand the Middle East by reading the newspaper."  Tobias Meyer, head of contemporary auctions at Sotheby's asked her point blank "Do you want to buy a painting, or a work of art?"  What an incredibly off-putting question- calculated to make her feel stupid.  Then, she went to an art dealer who turned up her nose at the idea of buying something simply to have it hang over her sofa in the living room. Next, Rebecca tried an art consultant who did the same thing. Finally, she found a painting she liked. The artist, however, further discouraged her for liking his "old work", which he thought lacked originality now that his new work represented a more "with it" tangent.  What a tale!  No wonder the contemporary art market is so small.  

Why contemporary art is difficult:  I postulate the following reasons:

  • Think about what it must be like to be a young artist today.  The whole thrust of the avant-garde since the 1890's has been to innovate in art - to shock - to "epate le bourgeoisie". The artist is a genius seeing the world in a new way. Any serious young artist is stuck with the problem of how to be different when everything has already been done?  So, the artist is pressured to become more and more shocking in order to stay in front of the pack- all the time knowing that the pack is bigger than it ever has been. Kids are graduating from art schools around the country in record numbers. 
  • More and more artists are using unfamiliar media. Many young artists today are working with photography and video as their primary tools.  But you have to recognize that these kids have grown up in a different world - a world of movies and videos; kids today are overwhelmed by an abundance of images.  In every aspect of their lives, they have less of a connection with the well crafted object - less of a love of paint, of surface -than the boomer generation.  And they make art about what they know - so that much of the subject matter of contemporary art is based on deconstructing the media.  Of course, the media is the largest thing in their lives, and their art reflects that.
  • Like other aspects of academia, many contemporary artists are influenced by the French philosophers and deconstructionists. They use their art to deconstruct the art market, gender, and media - anything and everything that occupies their thoughts. Their creations are philosophical, esoteric, and not supposed to be beautiful.  Even painters who paint beautiful landscape paintings say their work connotes a breakdown of how we view nature in a media dominant age; without such theorizing their work would not be accepted as serious. Today, being beautiful or authentic is not enough. 
  • So many people in the art world need to feel important. Think about it: the art world has its appeals. Money, however, is not one of them.  Many people in the art world such as artists, writers, curators, and even dealers are constantly broke but doing what they love.  They are all smart enough to be making tons of money in an ad agency or new media company - but they've given up their financial future for an often financially insecure world.  They have to make what they do - the art they make, curate, or sell - important enough to justify that sacrifice.  This has to do with a large part of the ego-driven, self-important aspect of the art world.