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How to understand contemporary art

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Nov - 21 - 2010
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It is a frequently heard and repeated comment, and sometimes complaint, that contemporary art is created by artists who don’t actually know how to paint. This need not be a negative thing, however; for example at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts there is no separate department of painting and drawing, not because the artists cannot paint or draw, but because the philosophy of the Academy is that everything is included in design, and therefore that it is appropriate to teach it altogether in a school. The idea behind teaching skills in this way is that contemporary artists should first of all be able to think, not create blindly and thoughtlessly. There is no doubt that technique is important but without thought, an artwork will have no idea and soul, which means in turn that it would not touch modern viewers in a meaningful or lasting way.

Today’s high-tech era supplies us with cameras, and day by day they have more and more possibilities. These cameras can capture the landscape even better than a painter, when it comes to simple accuracy, so a real painter must add something from himself (he must express his idea in the work) in order to make his landscape a masterpiece. In other words, contemporary art finds inspiration and importance in the idea that the idea behind art is more important than the physical form it takes.
An authentic piece of artwork has many levels of perception and associations. If different viewers have a different reaction to the artwork it just underlines the artistic quality of the work. The principal goal of most contemporary artists is to push the public to think.
Many people can`t understand contemporary art because it requires some knowledge of what has already been done and what is going on in art now. This can come either from education or from an interest in art. When you are buying a new washing machine, don’t you read the instructions before use? The adoption of new technology takes some time and we take that as a matter of course. Contemporary art expects the same, and also demands that we put the effort into understanding the background that informs what is in front of us.
The problem of understanding contemporary art occurs because the majority of people often mix up the definitions of contemporary art and the art business, and they are not the same. Why is it that more often we hear conversations about prices than about the artworks? The answer is that money is a factor that can be understood by everybody. You might not have a clue about the painting (about what it is, what is valuable in it), but you will understand its price very well. But at the same time, cultural value is not always directly proportional to its financial expression. Art that is able to change and influence the world, that is a powerful not only cultural but also political and social force won`t be selling in the supermarkets in the capacity of Christmas presents. It requires knowledge and sensitivity to appreciate its value.

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