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Artist and writer; artworks, prose and poetry.

Appreciating contemporary art

The superficial made profound

Jeff Koons ‘Pink Panther’ (1988) (Wikiart fair use)

Summary: Art is about the exploration of the strange and disturbing; it is not about classical fine crafting. Artists use artworks to exteriorise their inner landscapes, thereby allowing others to experience their take on life, at least vicariously. It is this exteriorisation which is ‘art’, not the aesthetic features of the individual artworks themselves, which are properly the domain of crafting and design. Aesthetics cannot explain the work of many major modern contemporary artists, because it fails to locate the underlying unifying ideas. Jeff Koons qualifies as an artist not because of his production of standalone objects, but because behind…

And even when it thinks it has won, it will still have lost

Diary of a Nurse film poster 护士日记 (Wikicommons public domain)

Regrettably, this article will consist almost entirely of sweeping generalisations, because it’s not possible to make really ‘interesting’ points without resorting to them.

This is all about the quality of life, combined with the idea of letting human beings be what they are. These are both difficult and elusive subjects, and yet both, in their strange way, are absurdly crucial to judging whether or not life is worth living. Because if you don’t have a certain enjoyable ‘quality of life’ and you’re not free to be who you are, what the point of anything ? …


Masterpieces of modern/contemporary art №1

Joseph Beuys ‘Fat Chair’ (1964–1985). Displayed through WikiArt under the Fair Use Rationale.

This essay is not going to be about domesticating difficult and perplexing contemporary artworks by explaining them away in conventional terms. Rather it’s about connecting directly with the works themselves and then letting them speak to us from their own mysterious and impenetrable realm.

Fat Chair looks, at a glance, to be some kind of emergency storage attempt, though perhaps only temporary. The fat has been deliberately smoothed off on one side at a 45° angle to form a kind of wedge triangle. Maybe it’s waiting to be put to use. …

Understanding modern/contemporary art

Because it greatly enhances the encounter with art itself

Jeff Koons: Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP album cover (Wikiart)

Modern art has yet to be properly explained and given its own distinctive and authentic philosophy. It is almost always portrayed — openly or subliminally — as if it were somehow striving for much the same objectives as classical art, though perhaps by very different means. This has the effect of making modern artworks look slightly ridiculous in comparison with the grandeur of their classical counterparts, at the same time as making it an uphill struggle to try to argue the case for their supposed value.

The whole problem stems from the fact that modern artworks cannot meaningfully be judged…

Understanding contemporary art

The search for a simple, practical and illuminating answer

Joseph Beuys art objects

Summary: ‘Art’ still needs a practical, useful definition, not of the academic variety, but rather of the plain and simple sort that you can usefully take with you into a gallery, and apply directly to what you see. People want to know, with a basic clarity, what it is they are looking at, and how to judge the good from the bad. Because if you don’t know what ‘art’ is, and you think it’s all about ‘classical fine crafting’, then you are missing out on a very special type of experience, and an entire realm of imaginative possibilities. As it…

Understanding contemporary art

There is more to art than mere beauty

(Author artwork)

‘Art’ is an elusive quality which some artworks mysteriously possess. It means they are strange and disturbing. Any artwork that isn’t strange and disturbing, isn’t art. It’s as simple as that. Art has nothing to do with aesthetics, or skilled craftsmanship. Art is something special.

How can we possibly arrive at this, given what even informed people normally think about art ?

What follows here is not a definition of art by decree. Nor is this some kind of art manifesto. We are not saying this is how art should be, or could be, but how it is, if you…

Because they don’t know what contemporary art is trying to do, and so can’t appreciate it.

Balkan Erotic Epic — Marina Abramović (Wikiart Fair Use)

There are two main reasons for this, both equally important. Firstly, most people’s implicit conception of ‘art’ — picked up from school and along the way — tends to be narrow and blinkered, and fixed on the idea that ‘art’ is all about beauty and skilled craftsmanship — of the sort you find in state museums and national galleries — and not about anything else. This is an easy perspective to hold on to, and easy to apply, and it fits with a wider conception of what life is all about: striving to achieve special skills and abilities that are…

By realising that it’s about narrative, not classical beauty

Joseph Beuys’s “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (Source Wikiart: Fair Use)

When people dismiss contemporary art as ‘pretentious rubbish’, the chances are they don’t understand what contemporary art can do, and are instead approaching it with mistaken ideas, and the wrong criteria. It is like judging music by the clothes a musician wears or assessing intellectual intelligence by a person’s height: it’s a form of very basic ‘categorical error’, and betrays an elemental misunderstanding.

Contemporary art is not about classical aesthetics and museum standards of beauty and crafty skill. Contemporary art is basically narrative theatre, using artworks as props in a very mysterious and allusive form of ‘storytelling’, inviting you into…

Answer: they don’t

Digital artwork (Source Wikicommons: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

When all else is said and done, an NFT is basically only a ‘cataloguing gimmick’, a digital ticket or catalogue card, listing (or associated with), an artwork (or other object) — but not even remotely offering a solution to the problems of marketing, authenticity or ownership.

(Basics: what is an NFT ? NFT stands for ‘non-fungible token’, which is a piece of cataloguing data stored in a blockchain (and linked to cryptocurrencies like Ethereum) and which, once recorded, cannot be altered. It amounts to something like a unique digital listing in a digital sales ledger which, underpinned by an open-access…

The critic Robert Hughes thought so

“The Hoerengracht van Edward en Nancy Kienholz, foto LA Louver” by Amsterdam Museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But he was profoundly wrong, because he never understood what contemporary artists were either trying to do, or managing to achieve. And in an odd way this is understandable, because in many instances, neither did they.

This may sound bizarre, but there’s a convincing logic to it.

Let’s start by analysing exactly what Hughes had to say, and work back from there.

This is a transcript of Hughes’s conclusion to his televisual survey of modern art (The Shock of the New), and the last words to camera in Episode 8 ‘The Future That Was [End of Modernity]’. …

Jakob Zaaiman

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