How To Understand Contemporary Art
Illustration by Mr Giordano Poloni
Baffled by the Turner Prize? Puzzled by the pieces on display in your local gallery? This new book is trying to make contemporary art accessible for everyone .
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.”
Naturally, the authors’ experiences working with the public, in galleries and museums, have deeply influenced their approach to the topic. Because, they say, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about contemporary art. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there is a disconnect between what the art world says contemporary art is and people’s actual experiences of it,” says Ms An.
THE CURATORS’ TIPS
Questions are welcome
As Mses An and Cerasi write in their aptly headed chapter “WTF”, it’s perfectly fine to admit you don’t understand a piece of art. A lack of understanding can make you ask questions, and the questions are part of the process. “I think people feel nervous about asking questions and seeming stupid, when actually for virtually any artist working today, provoking questions is exactly what they’re aiming for,” says Ms Cerasi
A little artspeak goes a long way
The art world is well known for its particular linguistic idiom, which often seems overcomplicated and esoteric. As one example of its quirks, Mses An and Cerasi note how art-speak creates new nouns. “‘Potential becomes ‘Potentiality’,” they write. “‘Experience’ becomes ‘Experienceability’.” It’s tempting to dismiss all this kind of thing completely, but, says Ms An, it all seems much less ridiculous when you understand that this is professional, technical language. “At work, I often end up adopting an ‘art’ voice,” she says. “To be able to speak and understand that language is important, just as you need to know the right terminologies if you practise medicine or law.”
You don’t need to be an expert
One of Mses An and Cerasi’s driving beliefs is that anyone can enjoy art, with or without academic knowledge. In fact, both types of understanding can exist simultaneously – it’s really up to the individual as to how they engage with a certain work or exhibition. There’s no wrong way to do it, says Ms Cerasi. “It seems to me there is a bit of an identity crisis within the art world about whether contemporary art should be accessible or not. There is this concern that it should be understood as a field of expertise that takes time to hone, and to open it up would undermine that. But I don’t think that’s true. It is a specialist field like any other and can lend itself to casual understanding in much the same way.”