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January 18, 2019

How to Look at Art: Contemporary art does not bite

'Red Slate Circle', 1988, by Richard Long
'Red Slate Circle', 1988, by Richard Long


or many people, contemporary art spells difficulty, confusion, and even protest. It is worth mentioning the gallery visitors physically attacking Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ when it was displayed at the Tate. But if you know how to ‘read’ contemporary art, it stops becoming uncharted territory.

Audience creates meaning. The first thing to understand is that we, the audience of contemporary artwork, decide on its meanings. Simply put, artists make artworks and we find their potential interpretations.

To make meanings, we need to experience and practise the visual language of contemporary art, writes educator Lucy Dawe Lane*. Like in any ‘parental language’, there are many dialects. Look at the works of Richard Long and Michael Andrews, illustrated here as an example. Both are landscape artists, but their approaches to the subject almost totally exclude one another, with Andrews painting his primeval landscapes, and Long installing his landscapes out of rocks and pebbles. To understand the ‘dialects’, one must learn the whole contemporary art debate, in all its complexity.

Ideas and intentions. One of the reactions to the contemporary artworks is that they ‘lack skill’ and are incomprehensible. This is because we misunderstand the relationship between ideas and skills in contemporary art. Industrialisation and new technologies have shifted the focus from manual to mental activity. The goal now is creativity and invention, rather than imitation of nature. The capacity to originate is the real skill. Artists generate ideas and use all methods and materials to put them across.

When looking at artworks, do not look for ‘mistakes’. There are no ‘mistakes’: artists thoroughly deliberate the physical appearances of their creations, with nothing left to chance. Look for ideas and intentions. Understanding artists’ ideas and intentions is essential for ‘reading’ contemporary art. Once you discover them, do not just swallow them whole. By all means, agree or disagree, treat them with critical rigour and create your own meaning.

Attitudes to creativity. Contemporary art, more than anything, shows us our double standards towards creativity. On one hand, we love the new: new fashion, cars, technology. On another, we are suspicious of anything different. We advocate for self-expression and individualism, but prefer it to be ‘within the box’.

When asked: ‘What do artists do?’ most of us think of practical skills such as dancing, painting or singing. Creative thinking, resourceful problem-solving, self-motivation — the very skills that ‘make’ successful people in all walks of life — is what should come to mind.

Value. Contemporary artists want their art valued for their ideas. Precisely because of the ideas and their importance to the development of intellectual thought and culture, the contemporary artworks have high market value. Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ was sold for £2.5 million. However, contemporary art buying is seasonal. In bad economic times, art does not sell. This is not only because of the money; in conservative times, most buyers become more conservative.  

Using contemporary art. Visiting artists’ studios is a good opportunity to get to know artists and their art. Contact galleries and see if any of their artists would let you see how they work. Getting to know even one artist can make a huge difference. Go to art galleries and attend courses. Books, galleries’ catalogues, and art magazines are good sources of reference, too.

The important principle is: to ‘read’ contemporary art with ease and confidence, you should experience its rich practices.


Alla Tkachuk is a creativity and innovation consultant and training specialist, Twitter: @MASKcharity.

*Lucy Dawe Lane. Using Contemporary Art. Teaching Art and Design, edited by Roy Prentice. Continuum, 2002.

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