Eight Fallacies About Contemporary Art

05/13/2009 4:00 AM |

More than in any other field, misperceptions about contemporary art keep audiences from effectively engaging it. Even within the art world itself, I see people buying into myths that cloud the viewing experience. In an effort to give the gallery-goer a few more tools to make sense of what they see, this week’s column compiles many common and useless contemporary art misnomers.


This work generated so much discussion, it must be good!

Everybody talks about Lindsay Lohan, but this doesn’t lead people to conclude she is an excellent actor. The same rationale needs to be applied to art. Media starlets Damien Hirst, Banksy and Vanessa Beecroft generate media spectacle around their personality and art designed to elicit base response. Unfortunately, it works. None of them however, have made anything in recent memory worth the chatter their work produces.

Anything can be art!

Duchamp didn’t make every shovel art, just the one he labeled. In other words, while context and intentionality can earn a work the title of “art,” residual creative impulse does not.

Value is completely subjective.

No it’s not. There are methods of evaluating art, and just because viewers respond differently doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Unresolved aesthetic choices and lazy conceptual practice won’t receive a pass from me.

Anyone could do that.

A sentiment typically refuted with the argument, “But you didn’t.” A more common version of the myth circulating art circles, “It’s too easy” completes itself with “to take a compelling photograph,” or “to make a good collage.” In each case, the viewer’s actually complaining that it’s too hard to separate the good from the bad. There’s no easy answer to this dilemma, except to look at enough art to develop a mature eye.

Elitism rules the art world.

Actually, this one is true, but the unspoken fallacy here, is that it doesn’t also rule every other field. Class is far less permeable than we care to believe.

Pioneering artists are “ahead of their time.”

The idea that the art world understands something regular folk do not is patently false. Artists don’t have any special vision into the future; a few talented individuals will simply earn the unique burden of representing a strand of visual culture for the generation. I don’t believe in the concept of genius.

I don’t know enough about art to talk about it.

Anyone can discuss art well, few of us however look at it long enough to be able to do so. Trust your instincts, talk about what you see — don’t be afraid to be wrong. The beauty of an opinion is that you can change it as your response evolves.

Art professionals wear black.

Unless they wear pink.

15 Comment

  • Nice list. I think I agree about the elitism one, but I’d like to the see idea flushed out more. Perhaps it warrants its own post?

  • It’s funny you mention that as the subject came up independently in a twitter debate yesterday.

  • Everyone one of these deserves it’s own post.
    Expect maybe the one about wearing black.
    It is now my mission to ensure that every poor misguided would be critic of the art world sees this post. I may print it out and start leafleting gallery openings with it.
    Thank you.

  • Everybody talks about Lindsay Lohan because of her outlandish behavior which is a completely different concept than her acting. Perhaps we’re not reading the same media outlets, but I always see Damien Hirst, Banksey and Vanessa Beecroft mentioned in the context of their work, not their behavior. I’m not arguing that this inherently makes them “good” artists, but rather the fact that we as a culture choose to discuss them so thoroughly in turn reveals insights about our collective value systems. The fact that the work of these artists in particular woo us so makes them objects that pull back our own masks and reveal us for who we are. I think Hirst’s “For the Love of God” was the most repulsive thing I’ve seen in a long time, but I can’t deny the effect it had on our culture. From an artistic standpoint, I find that fascinating.

  • I think that the most important heading didn’t even make it to this list, but was mentioned only in Johnson’s blog introduction to this article : “I can get a sense of the work by viewing it online”, which should be expanded to say “I can get a sense of the work by viewing it through any reproducible medium (or something to that effect)”. I think this is most important because this is how 99% (guestimate!) of the world comes in contact with contemporary art, and therefore draws their conclusions and misunderstandings from an experience severed from actual contact with the art within a space. They do not know that a difference exists, or at least that the difference is important, and this is something I feel should be emphasized far above all else within this subject.

    Also, “Zummbot” makes a very important point that I second. Too often the (acknowledged) elitism and a reverence for the obscure (to those outside of the art-world, at least) overpowers those within the art community to discount (sometimes fairly, of course) popular art and popular artists. This rejection comes without a stringent consideration as to why this art is popular in the first place, why it has won the ire or devotion of those beyond the “art world”.

  • In defense of the Lohan comparison to Hirst, Bansky, Beecroft I cite the following:

    Beecroft: The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins (review vulture). All of it. http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2008/…

    Banksy: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit” referring to the high price his work fetched at Auction.
    http://www.artfagcity.com/2007/11/27/banks…

    Hirst: “This is my most mature work yet”
    http://www.artfagcity.com/2007/11/27/banks…

    or, now that the bubble has burst, the maker of the bazzillion dollar skull has this to say “It

  • I agree with chris. comletely. you hit the nail on the head regarding this topos. btw, do you have a blog?

  • Just to clarify, the statements cited above indicate a comparable amount of assine behavior to Lohan.

    To Chris’s point, while the dismissal of Beecroft, Banksy and Hirst may discount the work that earned these artists fame in the first place, my feeling is that of the three, Hirst makes the most compelling argument for deserved influence. He curated Modern Medicine and Gambler – which if I’m not mistaken were the first warehouse exhibitions of their kind in London. Certainly that’s been transformative. I don’t think anyone’s going to argue the butterflies paintings sold at auction in September are very exciting. (disclaimer: I haven’t seen them in person, though I have seen countless others so the opinion isn’t entirely without experience)

  • This is dangerous territory, by even mentioning these factors you automatically fall libel to at least three of your own myths. (“This work generated so much discussion, Anyone could do that,I don

  • “I don’t know enough about art to talk about it”….
    Artists love believing that access to art is open. What utter crap. People who went straight into art school at a young age forget how to think outside the box, and one of art’s abibiding self-mythologies is that it is available to people who haven’t had a tertiary art education. Anyone stupid enough to fall for this self-justifying fantasy instantly loses my respect.

  • Art can absolutely be judged from a reproduced medium. The presumption that basking in the aura of a work of art is the only way to approach it critically is nuts. Also, people talk about artists because of their behavior– artists, like actors, are public personalities who create a certain narrative. There are artists defined by their behavior and artists that are less defined by their behavior– it’s the same as Lohan. We just need a reality show based on artists– IMMEDIATELY

  • @JamesKalm Can you be more specific about how I fall libel to this myths? I’m pretty sure I don’t agree, but I’m not sure I understand your point enough to refute it.

  • “Art” is product generated for the market of rich collectors who want to accessorize their crap. Nothing more nor less. It’s an upscale version of the Thomas Kinkade phenomenon.

    “Anything can be art!” Yes, if an artist says it is and collectors accept it as such. The job of critics is to supply the rationalization for the transaction between artists and collectors.

    The three most popular art scams: the plagiarism scam (copying a commercial piece on a larger scale), the conceptual scam (labeling a piece of junk, carcass, etc. “art”), and the transgressive scam (“Ooo, blasphemy, scatology, perversity!” Yawn.).

  • # 9 – people have little respect starving artist. actually this is true.

    #10 – i am the best artist.

  • I wear orange.