What Really *IS* Going on with Contemporary Art?

The New York Times asks a very pertinent question this morning: “What Is Going on with Contemporary Art?”  Unfortunately, despite the eye-catching headline, the article does not actually attempt to answer the question.  It gives us a good opportunity to ask the question ourselves, but before that I hope the reader will indulge me, if I first take a detour through the increasingly dense and dank malaise known as Contemporary Art.

If we look at the Christie’s Contemporary Art sale, which concluded last evening in New York, as the article reports the final hammer prices were simply extraordinary.  Yet doesn’t it seem rather odd that, despite its moniker, the auction contained so little that is actually contemporary? Yes, gentle reader, this means that I am going to split hairs, so hang on for the ride.

Take a look at some of the artists whose works fetched top prices, and the date that the works in question were created:  Warhol (1962); Kline (1956 and 1957); Diebenkorn (1971); Basquiat (1981); Rothko (1957); Lichtenstein (1995).  What do all of these artists have in common, apart from their profession and the fact that all were American? The most obvious answer is that they are all dead.

It is true that there were the works of a few artists in the sale, such as Jeff Koons and Ellsworth Kelly, who are still alive and working today.  However, the aforementioned artists and their works were produced decades ago – and in the case of Warhol, Kline, and Rothko, more than half a century ago.  This begs the question as to what the term “Contemporary Art” actually means:  would you consider yourself a contemporary of someone old enough to be your grandfather?

Common sense would seem to dictate that an artist living and working today is creating art contemporaneous with his existence, which therefore could be considered “Contemporary Art”.  Regrettably, common sense has had increasingly little to do with the art world.  Many in the black turtleneck brigade would absolutely refuse to adopt such a stiff definition, preferring instead something so fluid as to be laughable.  Jackson Pollock has been dead since the Eisenhower Administration, and yet some art critics would consider him to be a Contemporary Artist.  The term simply has no connection with reason.

Going back to the Times’ original question, the rather obvious answer to their query is that the works of many artists produced within the last several decades are achieving greater and greater prices these days, because these works are proving to be increasingly popular with art collectors.  What is not obvious however, is why they are becoming more popular in the first place.  I can only attempt to address some ideas on this point briefly, at least in the space of a short blog post.

Whether you are purchasing an electronic gadget, a car, or a coat, generally speaking we humans aspire to buy what is popular, so that we will have the approval of our peers.  This is something which we in the West have ingrained in us from the first, as part of our consumer culture. If you ever whined to your parents about owning a particular brand of athletic shoe, because you wanted your school friends to like you, then you know how consumerism takes an early hold of the psyche.

The rich may be different, but they are subject to the same peer pressures: they simply indulge in it on a vast scale, because their peers are different, too.  Generally speaking, those buying the types of works featured in this sale are looking to show off to other rich people, thereby expressing the same, very human desire to be well-thought-of.  Few of these types of buyers actually take the time to question the art experts who are telling them what they should purchase, or to ask themselves whether the art which everyone is telling them is so wonderful, isn’t really rather awful when looked at in the cold, hard light of reason.

Please do not mistake my meaning, gentle reader: I am not of the “all paintings must look realistic” school.  In fact, I collect art in a wide variety of styles, both representational and otherwise.  What I do mean, and which the Times does not have the courage to state in its piece, is that the answer to the question, “What is going on with contemporary art?” is, “Insecurity.”  Such astronomical sales figures as these, for art of such questionable merit, gives a very public, quantifiable example of the inherent weakness of human nature – particularly when that nature employs no rudder by which to steer itself.

Detail of “Untitled” by Franz Kline (1957)
Sold for $40.4 million at Christie’s New York on 11/14/12

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One thought on “What Really *IS* Going on with Contemporary Art?

  1. Pingback: ‘New Photography 2012,’ at Museum of Modern Art | Michael John Burgess

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