The High School Student News Site of The American School in London

The Standard

The High School Student News Site of The American School in London

The Standard

Check out our latest issue

Chronicling Contemporary Art

The art of today

Eleven years before his death, 56 years after his birth, Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci crafted a series of charcoal and black-and-white chalk drawings on eight different sheets of paper. Superposing the papers on top of one another, he created a work that embraced dimension in an unprecedented way: The luminosity of the figures’ skins, the human expressions of their faces, the fixating power of their gestures and looks all breathed reality into the flat oeuvre. It is the Burlington House Cartoon, better known as “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist”.

400 and some years later, French artist Marcel Duchamp (who ironically would deface da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in his moustached–version “L.H.O.O.Q”) would submit a urinal, entitled Fountain, with a distinctive inscription that reads “R.Mutt” on its rim, to an art contest. The sculpture, radically unconventional then as it is now, was blatantly rejected by the competition’s committee, even though they were supposed to give each work undivided attention.

Today both of these works fall under the definition – if it can be called a definition – of the word art.

In 1464, the Operai, a Florentine committee directed with redecorating the local cathedral, received a phenomenal – huge and of high-quality – block of marble from a northern Italian city. The marble would come into the hands of two artists, and spend ten years in warehouse–limbo, before reaching the hands of Michelangelo Buonarroti. The 26–year–old would come to sleep, live, and eat in the company of the rock, seldom spending a waking moment not chiselling the marble. Three years later, David was born, and paraded through the city like a returning conqueror until being placed in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria.

Charles Saatchi, one of the most prominent art collectors of today commissioned from British artist Damien Hirst in 1991 a work, any work of Hirst’s pleasing. Hirst went on to preserve a tiger shark, caught off the coast of Australia, in chemicals for display. The work, which is described as “simultaneously life and death incarnate” by the New York Times, is entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Both of these sculptures, though so different in creation and idea, are immortal and often discussed works today.

ASL Parent and contemporary art collector Maya Rasamny, who also chairs Tate’s Middle East North African Acquisitions Committee, is involved in many cultural institutions in the U.K. and abroad. Her passion and dedication to the arts is deeply rooted in both her culture and her interest in history. “My positions entail being an ambassador to my own culture through art because art opens up discussions. It is an international language,” she said.

Rasamny is Lebanese and has been exposed to Middle Eastern history and tradition through art. “Throughout history, the artistic medium has been incredibly important,” she said.

Contemporary art – “the art of today,” as Rasamny coins it – is difficult to define.

ASL Parent and contemporary art collector Ingrid Advaney said, “There are no real boundaries [for defining contemporary art], as long as it is not an industrial process. As the ideas generated today continue to extend their horizon, the boundaries will extend even further.”

Society moved on from the Renaissance ideal, past the story-telling 19th century works, through the oeuvres of Van Gogh and Cézanne and into an art form “more abstract and diverse in [its] use of materials and technology,” Advaney continued.

AP Art History teacher Judy Kisor has been teaching the course for 16 years. While not much emphasis is placed on contemporary art in the exam, Kisor believes that analyzing contemporary art helps understand society today and the influence history has on modern day. “Understanding the broad historical context in which the work was produced – ideology, prevailing values, beliefs, understanding, hopes, fears, goals of a culture – can all be seen in the structure of a work of art,” she said.

Kisor notes that contemporary art stemmed from the past, with a direct association to previous art movements. “The manipulation of classical [artistic] vocabulary and playing with the viewer’s understanding of that is what contemporary art is,” she said.

Rasamny believes that contemporary artists are challenging the traditional view of art. “The modern artists were considered contemporary and before that, the Impressionists were the contemporary. If you look at major artists, they were all considered contemporary during their time,” she said. “This is because contemporary art is about the present. It’s about the ‘now’, not about the future.”

Consider the Impressionists in the 19th century. They never wanted to be called the “Impressionists” because they were contemporary; their style was new and innovative. A group of artists put on an exhibition at the Salon des Refusés in Paris but the Salon did not fall into the norms of the Royal Academy of Art. “The academics were concerned because these artists were pushing boundaries and they were rebelling against traditional methods. Beautiful art, what people were expecting, wasn’t there anymore and this came as a shock to people,” Rasamny said.

Just as the Impressionists did, contemporary artists are innovating. “Artists always want to rebel against what is there already and they push the boundaries to achieve just that,” Rasamny said.

David Knaus, an art philanthropist whose curating work ranges from photography museums in Morocco to photography collections in Arizona, describes contemporary art as indescribable: “Contemporary art is very multi–disciplinary and not media specific – it can be film, architecture, craft, design, pairing, photography, and so forth.” In short, art can be anything and really is everything.

Advaney, who has been an art collector for more than 20 years, notes that the primary facets of contemporary art – the business and the art itself – have been morphing into two very distinct and yet indistinguishable directions: Business is getting younger, though it’s not completely young, and the art is becoming crazier, in a way that’s virtually unquantifiable.

Business as usual

Where the Midas–touch of capitalism exploits, business thrives, and art is not one to be spared.

Basic economics apply to art: Supply and demand dictate the field. Previously, supply had been quite limited, and demand too, as an interest in art was not consolidated and entrenched in any distinguishable social group.

Rasamny attributes the increased production of art to the rapidly developing and changing millennium. “Now you can buy a work that is being sold in China or see works that are being sold somewhere else across the globe,” she said. Developing economies and societies have influenced the way people view art. “More people want to consume and learn and everyone wants to adorn and admire,” Rasamny added.

Advaney encapsulates this contemporary attitude to contemporary art: “The ‘threshold’ for going into museums has disappeared; large parts of the population today feel very comfortable with museum visits. Art today is seen as a safe investment rather than an expense.”

This comfort is one that transcends tourism at the British Gallery into million–dollar transactions at Frieze London – an art fair that, yearly, flourishes in the October grass of Regent’s Park. Whereas the fair is mostly for displaying art and transactions rather than acting as a philanthropic museum, Frieze Art has become a tourist destination, as people of all ages and all demographics walk through the makeshift galleries.

As art fair attendance – synonymous with demand – goes up, and art production – synonymous with supply – follows. “The rate of art production is much higher than demand because many artists – Damien Hirst for example – are using large teams of people to produce. Anish Kapoor’s studio has a 20-strong technical and office staff,” Advaney said.

Big artists aren’t content with the orthodox production of art: They are turning art into a methodic business. And, to be sure, no one is sure what that means for art as a whole.

Rasamny notes that collecting contemporary art has to be looked at from a different perspective than collecting historical pieces. “Investors try to think about what contemporary art will be like in the future, but it’s about today,” she said. “Buying contemporary art for business doesn’t work. You have to have a passion and a dedication to the arts that stretches further than interest purely for the sake of an investment.”

Furthermore, the capitalistic art craze is one that is fuelling productions in regions previously unproductive. ASL Parent and gallery director Ariburnu, who directs her own gallery in Istanbul (Galeri Mana) as well as sitting in Tate’s Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee, notes a cultural shift. “There is an ever-growing rate of art production that has paralleled the development of new markets such as China, the Middle East and India and Southeast Asia, where art production was artisanship before,” she said.

The allure of this global market has communicated new vocations and opportunities to artists who previously were bounded by an un-globalized world.

Exponentially expanding art has created a need for committees and fairs to organize the unleashed madness. Knaus, serving on a few of these, including the Photo Acquisitions Council at the Tate Modern, notes that art is not the playground of the white-haired anymore. “The members are getting younger, it used to be sort of something people did in retirement; boards are getting younger and are more pro-active that way now.” Ariburnu said.

“Definitely more middle aged females [are now serving on boards and galleries],” Ariburnu continued.

Advaney added, “The current contemporary art ‘fan club’ is increasing exponentially; the contemporary art ‘fan club’ is growing younger and cooler. The contemporary art ‘fan club’ is spreading to the East.” In explaining this, she cites the prevalence of new art fairs, like Art Basel Miami Beach. Art is not only getting younger, it’s moving to places that are more fun. Whereas art business, in larger scale practice, started with an aristocratic Florentine family, the Medicis, it is now expanding across the oceans and the continents; Christie’s, an auction and private sale house for art, “has now opened sales rooms in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Mumbai,” Advaney continued.

More stores equals more customers, an economist would say. And yes, that, too, is a trend the art business is witnessing. In November 2013, the most expensive auction house-sold painting, Francis Bacon’s 1969 abstract triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”, went for $142.2 million. Not only that, but this sum been outdone by an almost double price-tag ($250 million) in a private sale of Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” to the State of Qatar in February 2012.

Knaus attributes these extravagant prices to simple demand. Advaney holds that it is rarity that peels the multi-million dollar checks out of wallets. Whereas Visual Arts Teacher Martin Drexler says it’s the rise of fortunes, especially of nouveau riche fortunes.

“There are more millionaires now than in any other time in history – bankers, rock stars, property developers, football players – the list goes on. A considerable number of these folks are being advised to see art as investments and there is a huge industry to help them spend their money,” Drexler explained.

Is this the corruption of a beautiful threshold of humanity? Surely not, Drexler expressed. “The arts have always relied on the kindness of others. The arts need money and luckily there are people with money who love the arts,” he said.

Drexler added that this is not new, going back to the Medicis. “Patrons would tell artists: ‘If you put x-amount of lapis lazuli, I’ll get you x-amount of Florins. If you put me down by the bottom of Christ, I’ll give you this, if you put my wife [in the work], I’ll give you this more.’” Big money stimulates big art; it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Looking forward

The artist’s intention for creating a work has changed throughout history. During the medieval times, artists wanted the viewer to connect to Christianity. Throughout the Renaissance, artists tried to highlight man’s potential. “Historically, art has been about making us feel, reminding us who we should be and what we should be doing,” Kisor said. Contemporary art should be considered from a different perspective, for, “At it’s core, contemporary art is about making us think,” Kisor said.

Rasamny agrees with this notion. “Artists don’t want you to think of their work in a normal and conventional way because that’s boring and stale,” she said. Contemporary artists are concerned with their creativity and finding new ways to represent their ideas.

Art is also a way of re-examining the past and shedding light on important historical events. Incredible art works from the past have only inspired modern artists. Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” was not only a new painting, but a way of documenting Japan’s history during the 19th century, when it was first printed.

At first glance, the viewer observes Mount Fiji in the background, a ship sailing off into the distance in the middle ground and an overpowering wave in the foreground. However, when you look more closely, one starts to see the symbols of the period it was created in. At the time, Britain and the United States were looking for new sources of materials but Japan didn’t want to be part of that global economy. The Japanese decided to shut down all links to Japan except for one port that was selling to the Dutch and Chinese merchants. The blue color, that is present in Hokusai’s masterpiece, was brought from Prussia to Japan via the Dutch. While the Japanese economy was selective, there was still a large western influence that one can see signs of in the print.

Rasamny believes that artists are always indirectly representing their culture and their history. “[Artists] are archiving and re-archiving their culture,” she said. “History is always omnipresent in paintings and the same will be true of contemporary art in 100 years from now.”

While it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the next artistic shift, the factors that will help shape the new market are predictable. “Just as we have seen in history, changing fashions, wars, disposable incomes and philanthropy will all contribute to the change,” Rasamny said. “Maybe the artist you think is amazing today will still be good tomorrow, but because of the developing world and the new innovations that we are seeing everyday, there might be someone even better tomorrow that we just haven’t discovered yet.”

Art gone wild

And so is the case for most art, private art that is. Editor-in-Chief at Vandalog ( and ASL alumnus Michael “RJ” Rushmore (’09) described his experience with street art: “The beauty of the art that I’m most interested in [street art, graffiti, internet art, gif art] is that it is meant to be seen for free and it’s very difficult to collect in the traditional sense.” Art has strained the bounds of an everlasting business and is becoming a medium for isolated expression.

Knaus puts this trajectory – that of art becoming everything – into a few words: “I draw [no boundaries]. That’s for the artist to do.” And so they do, as we see nearly every possible medium – from video to paintings – in show in contemporary art galleries.

In categorizing art today, Rushmore was clear and concise: “There is no word for all that [art],” he began. “How can you lump a conceptual video artist in with a hyperrealist painter and an abstract expressionist sculptor and a pop-surrealist painting?”

Art is not simply a painting-and-sculpture job. Furthermore, it’s not only a crazy mode of expression; it has taken on features of utility and design that were previously unheralded.

Drexler epitomizes this transition with an anecdote: “My dad was a mechanic. And back then they would have engineers design cars, for efficiency. And now you go to Cleveland Institute of Art, or Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, or any art school, and car companies are subsidizing these schools massively. They’re part-design schools.” Artistry is a mode of expression as much as it is a mode of perfection: The iPhone, the car, the Shard – they are all as much the work of a specialized designer or builder as an artist.

This newfound profession is transcending from practice into education. Drexler, who has taught in and observed many universities in the U.S., said that in regards to art institutions, such as Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), “They want students to understand proportion, they want students to understand pictorial depth, how to render a drawing to make it look that it has mass, weight, form, gravity, how to render light from lard, chiaroscuro.”

Because, Drexler iterated, “Once [a student has] got those things, whether [they’re] getting a major in gaming industry, or product design, or 2D design, it’s all pictorial depth, pictorial space, same it doesn’t matter – whether it’s on a piece of paper, a canvas, a computer, its the same thing.” Art is everything and everywhere today.

However Ariburnu holds that notions of what artists are and what artists do still persist: “However, it is not enough anymore. Art today comes in many different mediums, such as performance and sound, but it requires a great knowledge of the past. Yet the great artists of the past, present and future are all quite similar as they are brave enough to take the steps forward that no one else dares to. The scope of that today is larger than ever.”

When scouring in his head for who could possibly define art, Drexler, composed and resolute, conceded, “No one can define art. And I’m not sure it’s all that necessary.”

In a book he recently read – The Shape of Time by George Kubler – Drexler said this idea was eloquently put: “[The idea of the novel] went something like this: If we could stop thinking of useful or useless thing, in other words a tool versus a piece of art, if we could start thinking in terms of everything that is man-made, then we would have a broader idea of humanity.”

Rushmore reiterates this idea in how he classifies something as art: “My rule of thumb is, if the creator calls it art, it’s probably art.” In short, what you want to be art, can be and will be art. Contemporary art has broken all of the boundaries.

And this, this boundlessness –  this new, invisible frontier – can be attributed to the change of society and economics, as it has almost always been the case. “Not only has the world population multiplied itself over and over, the world is also a smaller place, globalization for example,” Ariburnu said.

In three words Knaus accredits this transition to: “Money, globalization, democracy.”

Some painters created scenes of chaos and destruction, perhaps their economy was dying, others depicted figures of perfection and characters of mythology, perhaps their society was enamored by Greek classicism. Today artists depict everything, artists create anything. There are no more boundaries. And perhaps that is only a result of society now being able to embrace everything, to interlace everything, to think of anything.

So what is contemporary art? What will historians, 100 years from now, categorize the work of this epoch?

Rushmore answers: “Looking back to 100 years ago, the art world was small enough that, at least within Western art, we can say ‘well, Cubism is the or, at least, a movement of the times.’” And then came something else and then something after that. It wasn’t entirely linear, but it was a lot more linear than I think it is today. Now, art is so big.” There is no name for contemporary art.

Drexler, on the other hand, holds that “maybe, maybe, and you have to be pretty arrogant to say what this time period will be called a hundred years from now, but I can see it having something to do with globalization, simultaneous communication.”

Leave a Comment

Comments (0)

All The Standard Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *