On a visit to the Tate Modern about four years ago, I looked at Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ and said to my friend: “Well that’s just ridiculous, why is that in the Tate?” One art degree later, I know much more about reacting to and understanding contemporary art, and can sum things up in these five points: 

Spatial Concept 'Waiting' 1960 by Lucio Fontana 1899-1968

Artists make art for themselves, not for you

Contemporary artists more often than not start out with a feeling or a concept rather than a visual idea. Some of the most well-known contemporary artists have achieved their public success by making their work about their own experiences, feelings and opinions – Tracy Emin, for example, is practically a household name, but her inherently personal work is often accompanied by the opinion of “well that’s a bit weird, isn’t it?” She is one of the most controversial artists of today, but is undoubtedly passionate and a lot of people love her work for that reason – they identify with the person behind the work and what the art means to her instead of only looking at the visual image. Successful work always has origins in self-expression: a very intangible quality that is recognised more on instinct than anything else, but that always adds an edge to an artwork.

If you’ve reacted to the artwork, then you have understood it – even if it’s just a little

Contemporary art is often as much about the reaction to the art as it is about the work itself. If you feel irritated by a piece of work, then you’ve probably reacted exactly as the artist intended. A piece of art could be aimed at repulsing you, inciting nostalgia, making you angry; the whole spectrum of human emotion is an artist’s tool to use as they wish, and any reaction from you means that, even subconsciously, you have some comprehension of their intent.

Simple doesn’t mean bad

Artworks that are seemingly too simple or plain are often the ones that fall prey to criticism, but it is not necessary for a high level of technical skill to have been employed to make an effective piece of art. To reference my own experiences of the Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ piece, my original thoughts were that it was just a canvas with a cut in the centre of it. Now, four years later, the piece is indeed still a mutilated canvas, but I see the process of a flat object being made 3D. The work now raises the question of the difference between 2D and 3D – is it a painting or a sculpture? A physically simple piece indeed, but with hidden depths.

It’s not necessary to like what you see

It is a common opinion that art should primarily please the viewer. While there are certainly types of art that aim to satisfy the many and not the minority, that is by neither the limit nor the definition of what art can be. The human element of art means that it is as wildly unpredictable as people themselves, and therefore has many of the same characteristics as human interaction – some you just don’t get click with, some can annoy you for no apparent reason, and some you immediately feel positive towards, and to recognise this about contemporary art goes a long way towards understanding it.

“But you didn’t”

When it comes down to it, the main obstacle people have in comprehending the validity of contemporary art is that the actions required to make the piece of work could be easily replicated by the average individual, or that the materials and objects used are not special and do not deserve to be put on a pedestal and called art. The cry of “I could have done that myself” and its reply of “but you didn’t“ have been discussed over and over until weary, but the point raised is valid still – while the work may have been physically easy to assemble, you are looking at it as a viewer and not its creator. You didn’t have the same thoughts and feelings that led up to the creation of the work, and therefore even if you replicated the exact physical motions that went into it, you have not made the same work – what you make will mean something completely different to the original.

My personal opinion of contemporary art is that if it has made someone feel something about it, whether it was negative or positive, then it is valid. After all, there’s a reason why the term “the arts” covers forms of expression such as music, theatre and literature – the purpose isn’t to please you, but to make you feel something.

Amy McLelland