Introduction to contemporary art

The early pages of Part One: Contemporary Art deal with the infamous(ly frustrating) question: What is art?

It’s a valid question, and one that has oftentimes struck me as I take in a confusing piece of contemporary art and resist the urge to make some ignorant or slightly cynical comment to myself, such as, “If only I had known all it takes to be a successful artist is to fashion a rolled-up sleeping bag to a wall” or “Great, another blue square,” or, “Really? An old pair of shoes just sitting there counts?”

If I’m honest, I’ve many times fought the urge to reassure my hypersensitive artist ego by saying, “Hmmph, I could have done that.”

But, as an artist friend of mine once said to me, “You didn’t do that.” And, of course, she was right.


The course material pointed me in the direction of Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith Lectures (accessed 16/02/17). I had never heard of him, but ended up listening to each of his four lectures several times over. Not only were they thoughtful, thought-provoking and unashamedly imperfect, they were accessible.and entertaining. It’s refreshing to be reminded that contemporary art can be tongue-in-cheek, that we can scratch our head and laugh at our experience instead of feeling intellectually defeated.


I took notes on Perry’s first two lectures and have paraphrased my key takeaways here.

Playing to the Gallery: Democracy has bad taste

Summary of learning:
For me the key takeaway from this lecture is that we struggle to answer the key questions around contemporary art for good reason: the responses are necessarily problematic. The public “we” is encouraged to consume and engage with contemporary art but—apart from showing up in droves at museums—ultimately an element of elitism (which many of us can detect and feel resistance to) plays a significant role in validating art and defining its quality.

The lecture’s title delivers it to us straight: John and Jane Doe have “bad taste” and generally just want to look at blue landscapes. The creation of Western contemporary art is informed by a long history with loads of key players, and appreciating and engaging on a deeper level with what we see may necessitate some knowledge of that history. Or, as Perry says, simply having time enough to really “live with” art.

Relevance to my own work:
This lecture really spoke to many of the questions I apply to my own experience of contemporary art, especially in museums and galleries. What really jumped out at me was the way Perry disposes of the word “beauty,” which is something I struggle so much with in my work. It’s not that beauty doesn’t exist, or that it shouldn’t matter, but that our experience of it is subjective, neither is it necessarily the right term by which to measure a work’s quality or contribution. In my own work, I often struggle with a tension between wanting to respect the physical experience of making art (or, most often in my case, simply drawing), which often means heavy-handed, continuous lines and quick, almost-aggressive marks. This process can feel really good for me, but I often feel repulsed by the results. They’re far from discreet and subtle, nothing like the illustrations I am drawn to as a consumer of art. Perry doesn’t provide a solution to this tension, but helps me see that achieving an “objectively beautiful” (in quotations because it doesn’t exist) result is perhaps the wrong measure of personal success.

Playing to the Gallery: Beating the Bounds

Summary of learning:
In his introduction to this lecture, Perry articulates his intention to explore the boundaries of art (according to him, anything can be art, but anything isn’t art) and the edges of the art world. I appreciated how he drew naturally and lucidly through a vast art historical context to show how definitions of art opened up over time, and what greater philosophical questions motivated that expansion.

At the same time, I wasn’t sure how seriously to take his questions/“guide” for identifying a work of contemporary art. Things like the “rubbish dump” test he cites use humour to point at the near-impossibility of discerning art from X, unless it’s in an obvious art context (museum, gallery—although even this gets tricky as we consider performance art, site-specifc art, etc) or is made by a self-defined artist. But perhaps that’s all there is to it and we just have to expect that, unless we invest (with time or with money) in our understanding of what constitutes contemporary art, we run the risk of not understanding at all.

Relevance to my own work:
What stands out for me is the seeming arbitrariness of something being art because an (self-described) artist made it. I love the simplicity of this, as it allows art to be art, and also liberated from the self-consciousness of its creator. I’ve always been really hindered by my fear of using the word “artist” to describe myself because I’m so amateur, limited in my skills, not formally educated, not devoting 150 percent of my life to a regular art practice. Similarly, when my friends ask to see my “work,” I insist on informal words like “sketches” or “doodles” that play down the reality that sharing something I’ve created makes me feel vulnerable and scared of being judged or pitied. Perry’s lecture doesn’t change how I feel about myself, but it reminds me that there is power in language and self-identification. Nobody will think I’m making art unless I tell them that’s what I’m doing. In the same way, I’m not an artist until I can say the word with reference to myself and believe it’s true. For me, that inner voice and difficult journey with (creative) self is a big part of what I want to express in upcoming projects.


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