Contemporary art: which bit is the ‘art’, exactly?

It’s important to know what to look for, otherwise you won’t ‘get it’.

Jakob Zaaiman
9 min readOct 13, 2021


Scenario: imagine someone presenting you with a plate of food. You hold the plate up to your ear and declare ‘I can’t hear anything. Not a thing. This is not music! My five-year-old could do better.’ Now imagine someone going into an art exhibition and thinking to themselves ‘What is this shit? My five-year-old could do this.’

You can see what we’re up against.

This short article is about the essential difference between art and craft, and why, if you want to understand and enjoy contemporary art, you need to be able to see that art goes beyond mere crafting and into a realm of its own.

‘Art’ — especially as in ‘contemporary art’ — continues to baffle and confuse people, because something happened to destroy the simple certainties that existed before the advent of the modern era. What happened ? Ultimately there was a switch from the aesthetic to the narrative — meaning a change from an obsession with beauty and skillful crafting, to the emergence of a new realm of artistic expression, this time involving theatricality and ‘narrative states of mind’ — and this new realm remains poorly understood and very often not even recognised! This is why contemporary art leaves many people utterly bewildered.

There are all kinds of problems with explaining this new conception of art, and, given the fact that they involve encouraging people to connect with difficult perspectives and unusual ways of looking at things, these problems are most likely insoluble — at least in the short term. In other words, for many people, having to think of contemporary artworks in terms of weird narratives, rather than as sophisticated and cultured ‘eye candy’, is altogether too much of an ask.

What’s the basic problem here?

Basically we’re talking about a clear understanding of the distinction between two key concepts, and the way that these differing concepts are then applied. This may sound ridiculously simple — and it is — but as we shall see, many people — including art professionals — if you can believe…



Jakob Zaaiman

Artist and writer; artworks, prose and poetry.