Art for Art’s Sake?


There’s nothing quite like it: the feeling of being in a stuffy gallery, dodging tourists, craning your neck to get a glimpse of the piece in front of you. And there it is – a banana taped to a canvas. You stare at it. It seems to stare back. In that moment, you’ve never felt so far out of the loop.

It’s safe to say that for many of us, contemporary art feels largely unattainable. Roped off and untouchable in galleries or hidden away in the collections of the rich and famous, the walls have been built so high around contemporary art that they feel impenetrable. Much like any market that tries to capitalise off of creativity, the art market draws in billions each year. Following the same pattern of wealth and elitism that has existed throughout art history, contemporary work has become a symbol of the rich and influential. This, confounded with the experimental nature of contemporary art, can leave many of us feeling disconnected from something that should promote authenticity and feeling.

To understand why contemporary art equals money, we need a quick history lesson. Art has always been in the hands of the rich and wealthy: Kings and Queens commissioned pieces for the Royal Court, the Medici family funded the Florentine Renaissance and more recently, the Parisian bourgeois went mad for Impressionism during ‘La Belle Époque’. In an age where commissioning or patronage was the natural way of things and an interest in art was just a rung to climb on the ladder of social hierarchy, the link between art and elitism was born.

This begs the question: with such an engrained link between art and wealth, are we now simply creating art for art’s sake? Well, a lot of contemporary artists actively seek to reject this culture that has been forced upon them. Think of Banksy’s ‘Girl with a Balloon/Love is in the Bin’, the 2006 painting which self-destructed using a pre-installed shredder in 2018. The piece had sold for over a million pounds only moments before shredding, and in doing so, Banksy had made a statement about the value, both culturally and monetarily, of art in the current market. While his statement was an attempt to defy these standards, it resulted in the piece gaining value, eventually being priced at almost £23 million. In an attempt to reject artistic tradition, he finds himself becoming only more engrained within it. And if Banksy, one of the world’s most famous contemporary artists, can’t shake off this culture, then how can we?

The answer is simple: perhaps we never will. But as with Banksy, much of contemporary artistic culture seeks to deconstruct or reject the canon. Prior to the invention of the camera, artists were employed to create visual representations and tracings of the world. As technology developed, we lost the need for realism and instead artists began to engage with their innermost thoughts and feelings, creating abstract and individual views of the world. And this is what they want you to see– each piece is personal, shaped by the viewer as much as the artist. Your feelings are as vital as the person who put paintbrush or body or any other crazy means to canvas. With this in mind, contemporary art is more democratic than ever.

Take Mark Rothko’s large painterly rectangles on canvas. It’s the kind of art that people snort at, proclaiming ‘Anybody could paint that!’, but the very essence of his work is that it is a spiritual experience, transportive for the viewer. Rothko knew his job in the artistic canon well, saying ‘I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however … is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.’ 

It seems that there are some eternal truths: the art market will always be incredibly saturated, and will always be driven by money. But despite the money, the pomp, and the gallery culture, contemporary artists show us that art can still be a democratic experience. After all, most galleries are free– we can enter, we can engage, and we can find inspiration. Many artists seek to share their work, and with it, open up a dialogue. If you believe in looking past the tradition, there is still joy to be found in contemporary art.

[Jessie Campbell]

image credits: https://speakingvisuals.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/talking-theory-art-for-arts-sake/

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