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How To Understand Contemporary Art

February 2017Words by Mr Adam Welch

Illustration by Mr Giordano Poloni

It’s easy to make fun of contemporary art. So easy, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to know where to start. Should we be groaning about the fact that the latest nominee for the Turner Prize seems to have cobbled together their entry in five minutes flat? Or should we dwell on the inscrutable gibberish that accompanies it in the exhibition notes? Maybe there’s more to be said about the prices, which seem to spiral ever closer to infinity as the years drag on. Or perhaps we can have a hoot at the collectors, or advisors, or curators; aside from stalking around empty rooms wearing lots of Jil Sander and Issey Miyake, what do they all do, anyway?

Of course, the riposte to all the above is that making fun of something is always easy. Understanding it is much more difficult. And this is especially true of the art world, given that many of its conventions, practices, conceits and historical precedents are only really common knowledge to those firmly in the know. Seeking to redress this situation is new book Who’s Afraid Of Contemporary Art?, a comprehensive (but thoroughly readable) A-Z guide to the contemporary art world by experts Mses Kyung An (assistant curator at The Guggenheim, New York) and Jessica Cerasi (exhibitions manager at Carroll / Fletcher, London). “We’ve been looking for a book like this for years,” says Ms Cerasi. “Something light-hearted and punchy that we could buy our families, that was informative about the kinds of art we were working with and what our jobs actually involved. In the end, we just decided to go ahead and write it ourselves.”

In the course of the book, Mses An and Cerasi delve into a wide range of particularly thorny art issues, explaining much-bandied-about but little-understood concepts such as “conceptual art”, “new media art”, “business artists” and more, as well as answering a series of common-sense questions such as “What makes it art?” and – crucially – “Why is it so expensive?”. Throughout, the authors’ points are illustrated through wide-ranging references to everything from renaissance genius Mr Leonardo da Vinci to self-proclaimed “minimalist in a rapper’s body” Mr Kanye West, alongside explanations of some of the inner-workings of the art world, such as how curators put together the show, and just what exactly is so important about Art Basel. All of this is achieved – thank goodness – with a minimum of “art-speak”, or “International Art English” as it’s come to be known in the art world. “We tried to be really careful of that,” says Ms Cerasi, “as we always thought of talking about art in plain language as a central feature of what we were trying to do.”