Books: Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art?

I picked up Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art? (2017) by Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi in the library in an attempt to demystify contemporary art. Reading through it gave me a few ideas for works of art which I have jotted down below. I liked this book as it was very accessible and unpretentious. The authors were very encouraging about just going out into the art world and questioning everything.

I am very intrigued by artists that make social or political commentary part of their art and have listed a few interesting artists below for further research. This has a long history (often outside of commissions) and it is interesting to see the contemporary versions. Do you have more freedom giving art away i.e. Banksy than attempting to earn money from it as you can make contentious statements. Ironically I can imagine that he has earned a significant income in recent years precisely because of the reputation he has garnered.

The other theme that interests me is the separation of ‘art’ from ‘craft’ which is something that Grayson Perry talks about. Why is sculpture classified as art whereas pottery seems to have a lower status of craft when both can be constructed out of the same materials and use similar or indeed the same techniques? Intuitively it seems to be that if the object serves another function then it is craft whereas if it is purely decorative then it leans more towards art. Perhaps this was traditionally the ‘lower’ class method of bringing creativity and beauty into day to day life, making something utilitarian beautiful.

Idea: A painting of people on a bouncy castle doing seated drops, could you tell which uses a wheelchair?

Idea: Something to do with the idea of missing out? A painting where the focus is where the person cannot be whilst there is something amazing behind/in another direction?

Idea: Council will only replace paving slabs when they are raised 20mm or higher. Painting in bright colours the edge of raised paving slabs (chalk is washable but may find a more vibrant option) that present a trip hazard to photograph as “Not a Trip Hazard”

key resources:


How far back does the term Contemporary stretch? Historians agree that there was a break point in 1960s and 70s with Pop Art. Marked the moment when artistic development no longer was a coherent succession of movements and artistic groups. Cutting edge was no longer in one city among one group of people -> globalisation

It is for the visitor to decide whether to call out the emperor’s new clothes. Put aside the question of whether something is art and ask ‘is it any good?” Our perceptions change with time and future generations may appreciate something more -> How can you judge if something is any good? Does everyone come with their own criteria? 

‘art for art’s sake’ notion was promoted by French art critic Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) by arguing that art had inherent value and should be assessed without reference to history, politics, morality or religion. -> Is this truly possible if everyone’s perception is tainted by a version of these things?

Whose story is the story of art? Art history is predominantly white, male, ‘high-culture’ which is based on bias in gender, class, race and other art is classed as ‘craft’, ‘primitive’, ‘exotic’ etc. -> why is creating a table or bowl a ‘craft’ whereas painting a canvas of said table or bowl is art?

Can art build a better world? Hito Steyerl and others such as The Yes Men aim to set the world to rights. Jacque Servin (Andy Bichlbaum) and Igor Vamos (Mike Bonanno) use parody and humour to bring media attention to ‘mechanisms that keep bad people and ideas in power’ and ‘the dangers of economic policies that place the rights of capital before the needs of people and the environment.

What about works that contain outdated technologies? Conservators have to stockpile to replace faults as an interim measure. Some artists stipulate that when the technology becomes obsolete so does the art. Which part of the art is art?

Installation artwork, objects or materials are not to be viewed as individual works, but as an entire ensemble. Some installations are designed to be walked around and others restrict the view to what can be seen from a doorway.

‘Conceptual Art’ – mid 60s to mid 70s where finished object was secondary to the meaning it conveyed.

Public art almost often elicits mixed response. How much is the public actually considered? What’s in it for the average Joe? links with Banksy: Who is street art made for? Who protects it and who determines its future? Who owns a work of street art? Who can lay claim to the street?

There was a great mind map for putting on an exhibition that may come in handy at some point in the future although I have contacts from Worthing Open Houses that will be happy to help me figure it out.

Suggestion of asking for the press release from a commercial gallery. Do not be afraid to ask questions! Talk it out and trust your judgement

  • What does this piece of art do?
  • Does it draw you towards it or push you away? Why?
  • What was it like for the artist to make it?
  • Why do you like it? Or why don’t you?

Interesting Artists Mentioned

El Anatsui Earth’s Skin (2007) – site specific piece in that it takes on a different form wherever it is exhibited

Tino Sehgal This is So Contemporary (2005) – so site specific that there are no images as Sehgal does not permit his works to be photographed.

Carl Andre Equivalent VIII (1966) – with other like-minded sculptors in US wanted to free sculpture from expectation that it had to represent something. Wanted to focus on the medium and emphasising basic forms. Taking artwork off the plinth Andre positioned his work against the art that came before-> Is this a tautology as the sculptures now represent that sculptures do not need to represent something? Is representing nothing still representing something?

Piero Manzoni Artist’s Shit (1961) – Does what it says on the tin….or does it?

Joseph Kosuth One and Three Chairs (1965) – conceptual art of a chair (physical, photograph and definition)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy spills (1990-93) – “Untitled” the weight of the work is the approximate weight of a healthy person. Each piece of candy taken by a visitor is a reminder/acknowledgement of the weight loss of Ross Laycock who died of AIDS related illness.

Those who use technology:

  • Nam Jun Paik TV sets
  • Dan Flavin fluorescent lighting tubes
  • Manfred Mohr HTML code
  • etoy.CORPORATION (online since 1994)
  • Evan Roth web-based landscapes

Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art? (2017) by Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi Thames & Hudson


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