It’s understandable: feeling intimidated, or shy, or as if your somehow out of the loop when first visiting art galleries or fairs is common. I’ve felt the feeling of “not getting it”.
A recent Vice article, though (as well as its preceding piece) seemed to be not so much a sincere admittance of “not getting” art and more of hipster posturing under the “You Smelled It, You Dealt It” principle. That is, no one hates on hipsters more than other hipsters. I suspect something similar is going on in these Vice articles. Below are some personal responses to the most recent article’s three main lines of faulty reasoning.
ART BASEL MIGHT BE THE WORST PLACE TO TRY TO “GET” ART
If you are sincerely trying to “get” art, is there a better place to do it than Art Basel? Yes. It’s called “anywhere else.” If you are seeking to make a last-ditch effort toward a deeper understanding of art within an art world context and you chose Art Basel and its satellite craziness, I would know at least one of two things about you: (1) You are insincere about your effort, or (2) You put poor forethought into your decision.
I don’t want to sound like I’m hating on Art Basel or any of the other fairs – I had an amazing time this year. However, it sounds like our Vice writer went to the Zach Morris of the art world when he needed Screech. We don’t go to Basel to get art. We go there to just get it…as in buy it. Thus, we don’t treat art fairs like art museums.
Typically, the work at Basel lacks artist and curator statements. There is a lot of art; you can either give most of the work very little time (as in “I’ll slow down as I walk past that booth”) or you can give an appropriate amount of time to a small fraction of the art. Few people have time to have meaningful conversation on what art “means” – had you found me, I’d have been able to give little more than a bon mot, far short of meaningful critical discourse.
If you want to “get” art, perhaps the common sense thing to do is spend a long time alone with it, have a serious conversation about it, do some honest introspection on how it does or doesn’t affect you.
SO YOU DON’T “GET” THE ART MARKET. NOBODY DOES.
Our Vice writer seems to be the victim of an important (and annoying) mix-up: he’s confusing art with the art market. It’s vital and bears repeating bolded, underlined and italicized: Art and the art market are not the same thing. There is a lot confusing and morally ambiguous about the way art is bought and sold. However, it shouldn’t have much of a bearing on “getting” art (except, of course, for art that comments on the market). That said, if you don’t entirely understand the art market, it’s alright – nobody does. Accordingly, people who supposedly “get” art, level the same complaints at the way its bought and sold and admit a similar confusion with the forces behind it.
MAYBE THERE ISN’T ANYTHING TO “GET”
Finally, we arrive at the reason I keep surrounding the word “get” in quotation marks: it makes no sense. Using the word “get” in this sense reminds me of jokes – you either get them or you don’t. There is a punchline with a singular interpretation that makes the joke funny. I’m thankful that this is not at all how contemporary art works.
I understand the feeling of being the only one not laughing at a joke, and can see how this feeling could crop up at a gallery reception or art fair. However, unlike a joke, meaning is not pulled out of contemporary art as much as meaning is put into it. In today’s art, a viewer’s interpretation is just as valid and relevant as the artist’s. To a large degree, the artist and their work exist independent of each other; when an artist releases art into the world they also relinquish control of its interpretation. Whereas Modernist art may have had specific messages, contemporary art is more of a setting for conversation – perhaps, akin to the difference between books and video games.
Admittedly, artists have intentions behind their work and often articulate them in horribly convoluted jargon-filled artist statements. Still, this is no reason to shy away from making any critical connection with the work. If you don’t understand the artist/curator statement, it’s likely not your fault and definitely not your problem. Give the artwork due consideration and find out what it does or doesn’t mean to you personally.
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There is a lot wrong with the art world – wages, compensation, racism, sexism, elitism, and the list extends ad nauseam. At times, complaining about the art world seems to be what the art world does best. But to write off contemporary art completely is either shortsighted, myopic, histrionic, or just naive. If you’re looking to raise your hipster hit points, blanket hating is often the most efficient way doing it.
If you are sincerely looking for the value in contemporary art and haven’t yet found it, keep looking with an open mind – I promise it’s there.