I’ll say it outright; contemporary art is terrible from a traditional skill standpoint. Something about conceptual and popular art in this period known as “Contemporary Art” is innately frustrating for both artists and the public alike. Maurizio Cattelan’s “The Comedian”, sold for $120,000. To the artist who has spent years honing his craft and studying traditional art technique, a banana taped to a wall hardly seems representative of “good art”.
In 2002, the artist Santiago Sierra created a conceptual piece where she invited esteemed art guests to a $500,000 exhibit in London. The guests showed up to the gallery only to find the whole thing boarded up. The point of the piece was to invoke frustration for not being able to access the building, which had parallels to economic and political access around the world. These modern art pieces and performances have something in common; rather than being art in the traditional sense of the word, with skillful paint strokes and the “thirds rule”, these art pieces invoked a strong psychological reaction from the viewers, simply because they defied traditional art.
Does contemporary art define an important shift in ideas from traditional skill and technique to perhaps social and psychological experiments? In his book “The Psychology of Contemporary Art”, Gregory Minissale discusses how we often associate beauty with traditional art, and how contemporary art is slowly redefining what society believes to be beautiful. In the 1970s, an artist named Marina Abramovic performed a conceptual art piece where she slowly damaged her scalp by brushing it with a metal comb, while repeating the phrase “art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful”. This artwork can be said to be beautiful not in its artistic rendering, but in its performance and intense psychological impact, which widely applies to contemporary conceptual art.
While “The Comedian” itself had artistic skill left to be desired, it invoked strong reactions from the public, inevitably bringing people to ask the question “what is art?” The beautiful thing about art is that art has no boundaries. What one person defines as art may not be what someone else has in mind. One person could connect with a painting on a spiritual level while another finds that he’s inclined to tear it off the wall and burn it. People have ideas of what art should look like, how it should be observed and interpreted. But perhaps the contemporary art period is so important simply because it has opened the other end of a spectrum that people didn’t know existed. Eric Wayne, an artist and critic currently based in Southeast Asia, commented on the vastly different ends of the spectrum that conceptual art and traditional art are placed on. “Because I’ve done conceptual art, including installation, performance, site-specific art, and text-based art, as well as lots of drawing and painting, I can easily see that they are very different disciplines, though each has an element of creativity” (https://artofericwayne.com/2020/01/07/why-people-hate-contemporaryconceptual-art/).
One is not better than the other because even from a neurological standpoint, beauty and art is subjective.
“The Psychology of Contemporary Art” by Gregory Minissale, pg. 83