what is contemporary about contemporary art? by kate busby

Every now and then I like to include works by other artists, and sometimes writers too, on PrettyGreenBullet. This is a piece by Kate Busby who I met six weeks ago. It was originally sent to me via email as a casual rant, the version of which I am using in my latest work titled ‘A Girl Called Kate’. And I often wonder how many overlooked artists have experienced the situation Kate addresses in her piece. And how many would applaud her for an opinion too many are afraid to admit.


Have you ever walked into an art exhibition and walked back out again? Of course you have, because maybe the sight of house bricks arranged across the gallery space didn’t do anything for you.

Have you ever wondered why contemporary art looks like this?

Here’s one answer: a lot of European and North American artists that are currently ‘hot property’ exhibit artworks that are the fruits of them picking apart intellectual theories about form and space from the 1960s. Their aim: to produce an idea or an object that catches you, the viewer, off guard. “What IS that?” these artists hope you screech upon clocking their masterpiece-a giant Father Christmas butt-plug inflatable – as well as other questions like “Why on earth is this in an art gallery?” And much to the pleasure of the artists, this is exactly what most of us do, because let’s face it: an enormous plastic butt-plug in the shape of Santa is always going to be somewhat disarming.

santa claus, 2001, paul mccarthy

santa claus, 2001, paul mccarthy

Perhaps the crucial thing that these artists miss, however, is that for most people who have not studied the history of art, or made art, that initial “huh?” factor will quickly bleed into boredom. And our indifference, the derisive “who cares?” that we might expel if forced to give our opinion, is what truly hurts artists most.

As contemporary audiences are oriented towards surface in practically all aspects of life (as well as hold certain conventional ideas of beauty) it follows that aesthetics – and playing with aesthetics-comes up a lot in contemporary artists’ work. But then again, when the intellectual underpinnings of the artwork take centre stage, any concern for powerful visuals quite literally falls by the wayside. This is a problem, because contemporary people are schooled to look at things and want to buy them, whereas contemporary art demands that we think about things that are more often than not, out of our price range.

And here we start to get to the heart of why it is so difficult to appreciate those house bricks, or even consider what that Santa Claus butt-plug might be trying to tell us.

Thanks to the Emperor’s New Clothes, there is another obstacle that must be overcome: it is truly hard to distinguish the great art from the stuff of clever people squirming to make minor discoveries that succeed only with fucking with your mind-forgettable discoveries, I think.

The battle of Good versus Bad, it’s all very personal – and who knows which artworks will be remembered in one hundred years’ time? But art school rhetoric-all the critiquing and referencing and arbitrary assembling to make Some Great Comment-it strikes me as inspiring only to a point, the point at which it becomes a gallerist’s chat-up line to a collector, persuading him or her to invest in the art business. And even sadder still, the motivation for naive students to balance dead spiders on vintage Scout badges and throw a noisy blast of electricity through the lot to consider the ‘narratives’ that waft from this ‘unstable object.’

For me, The Great Comment is a pursuit that shies away from the much tougher pursuit: The Great Effect. I agree that art should be defined by its power to astonish and crash into our lazy routines-but I don’t believe it should goad viewers to consider it an inaccessible conundrum either.

There’s something to be said about an artwork needing time to ‘unfold itself’ to the viewer, and maybe there is something good about not giving away its ‘Ace of Spades’ in the first second you glance at it. Maybe all good things come to those who wait-around in the gallery space, giving an artwork some thought.

But with certain artists, their work does not make me want to ask any questions. I don’t have time to twiddle pensive thumbs-because the work simply knocks me to the floor. Whoosh, how the hell did I end up down here, clean off my feet before this painting? Wow. That line with that hue, put in that place, arranged in that way-it makes my stomach burn with excitement.

In more idle moments, I suppose I do ponder an artist’s intent, his or her materials and way of looking at things, but mostly I bathe in the moment the artwork creates all by itself. Forget press releases and biographies to “help understand.” A good piece of art should ensnare you at first sight, and for no particular reason.

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