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Contemporary art: is it all ‘Emperor’s new clothes? | Lights Going On

One of the questions I always get asked by people goes something like this:
YOU know about art stuff don’t you? So that Tracey Emin’s bed – what’s that all about? She’s having a laugh isn’t she (at us, the public, the ones that don’t know about contemporary art)..

Or another version::
That Damien Hirst  – is he really any good? Or is it all about the money?

Behind these questions lies a frustration with what contemporary art seems to have on offer these days. For many, it comes down to these two. I am then asked to explain why they are ‘any good’ – in a nutshell, in a few minutes, with someone who has already made up their mind that it is indeed, all Emperors new clothes. (and by usually just seeing one artwork – in Emins case it’s always Unmade Bed).

Even though lightsgoingon is here to make contemporary art accessible, I am not here to justify contemporary art. Far from it. But if you really want some answers to those questions, you need to find some time, to look at what else is out there.

There are many many other artists out there to look at; to not understand maybe; but there are also quite a lot to enjoy. It is so great to actually be this frustrated – far better than indifference – but if you really want to know more, you need to start looking at what’s really out there.

Those two artists..
To be honest, I see a fair bit of contemporary art that isn’t very good – but Hirst and Emin are not in that category. Both artists have enjoyed a long career so far. It started early in the late 1980’s when Saatchi bought their work. Who wouldn’t be ecstatic at having tons of work bought up, when you are only 22? And Hirst made such beautiful, incredible, moving works in the 90s. I remember seeing Mother and Child Divided in a huge old warehouse in Venice; and being moved to tears with the glory and death and life-ness of it all. Mother and Child Divided literally shows a mother cow and her calf cut in half, and sectioned into formaldehyde tanks. You get to see their insides; and to see them together but apart. The religious connotations are obvious, but it was where I saw it that felt so meaningful – just outside was a whole host of canals, of water, of silence due to no roads and no cars. In here was a petit mort, a little death, the death of us all.

As Hirst gets older and more and more successful, his work changes, becomes about the money, the glitz, the skull made of diamonds. And yes, I think Hirst is a showman, a businessman – a very good one – he (and his accountant Frank), earns a great deal of money. And I think, good for him; gone are the days of an artist dying before anyone buys his work (ie Van Gogh). But Hirst is just one person – and remember there are tons more out there, earning less than £ 10,000 a year – low earnings, and sometimes none at all; little job security; no pension or other benefits. It doesn’t mean they’re not any good; but that they didn’t meet the person with the money, the connections; or they don’t know how to talk about their work – they just want to make it (literally or financially..).

As for Tracey – Tracey Emin became famous for showing and telling all – her abortions, her naked body, her love life, the leaving, her crying, the pain, the loss, the joy. She lets us see it all; and some will love it and be moved by it (again, I have seen people crying in front of her monoprints – ones that show a very small girl being overshadowed by a massive penis for example); and some will hate it.

The benefits of looking
But that’s all OK – because there are other artists out there that you will love, I promise!
BUT here’s the thing /the deal – you have to look for them! You have to go to galleries and museums and, and then look at a lot of stuff, then work out what you like. Having an open mind is crucial. It’s an enjoyable way to pas the time, wandering around a museum or gallery. You can do it alone; with a friend or a group. You can talk in there (yes, you can, there is really no rule that says you can’t); you can start at the end, and go the wrong way to everyone else. But maybe that comes later when you feel like these are places are yours, are familiar, are like a second home (that’s how it feels to me).

Galleries and museums spend a great deal of time and energy selecting and exhibiting things through a network of dealers, collectors, patrons, curators, museum directors and, sometimes, artists (that’s another blog topic). A good way to start is go somewhere big like Tate Modern. They have rooms of free stuff that you can wander around as you wish. They will also have specific exhibitions that you pay to go into, but can be eye openers.

Or find a space that shows a range of stuff. I am currently enjoying going to the Hayward a lot, and became a member last year as I realised that they were organising fantastic shows that I wanted to see. Here’s some examples of what I mean:

Pipilotti Rist – could be called a hippy feminist – huge images on cloth, and colours all over the place, with cushions to lie on shaped like human beings. Small tiny videos in handbags and shells – I LOVED IT

David Shrigley on one floor, and Jeremy Deller on the other – inspired curating. Shrigley draws. He draws crude, almost child-like cartoons basically, and makes us laugh, little observations on everyday life – what’s not to like? Jeremy Deller makes work that involves other people – he did a reenactment of the Battle of Orgreave in 2001; re-playing out the confrontation between police and picketing miners in Yorkshire, during the 1984 miners’ strike. This is possibly one of the most powerful pieces of contemporary art you might encounter in the last ten years – It recontextualises an event a generation is familiar with and says something powerful about it.

Or the current Light Show on til 28 April (but very popular – you have to book tickets) –22 artists spanning a number of decades, showing work that uses light as material – some amazing things in there – political, funny, clever, beautiful.

There are a whole range of smaller galleries and museums all across the country that are really very keen to have new visitors. If you don’t like anything or are puzzled by it, ask someone who works there – they are there to talk to. Or ask me to recommend something.

So, buy yourself some time, and go and see some of these things. What stops you?

Next blog –Ten key questions to ask an artwork.

 

 

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