The Mancunion

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Does contemporary art have a bad reputation?

What does it take to be a contemporary artist? Liv Clarke investigates the modern art scene

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During the summer I watched two documentaries, the first was about American artist Georgia O’Keefe, the other focused on British artist Cornelia Parker. O’Keefe is well known for her floral and landscape paintings which capture the essence of the American west. Contrastingly Parker explodes sheds, crushes objects and suspends things to create surreal installations. These women and their work are both generally praised by the art world, yet without a doubt the majority of people prefer the paintings of O’Keefe over Parker’s abstract sculptures, sticking to the comforting safety of the familiar and taking a sceptical approach towards the unknown.

Contemporary art can often be dismissed as being a bit pointless and lacking in skill. The clichéd “my five year old could do this” phrase is mentioned if an artists’ work looks too simple, and there’s always the jokes about staring at random aspects of art galleries, believing that used tissues and emergency exit signs are part of exhibitions. Yes, a lot of contemporary artworks do seem a bit basic at first glance, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t contain complex concepts — in fact, the ideas contained within these works are frequently more profound than those in much older (however more popular) paintings. And surely the more recent the artwork, the more relevant the message is for the modern viewer, right?

Rachel Maclean’s recent exhibition at HOME is an example of this. It featured bizarre wall hangings in clashing colours, grotesque sculptures and a disturbing video. It wasn’t an easy exhibition to experience and not to everyone’s taste, but the message it expressed of our relationship with social media and technology really struck a chord, more so than a lot of other artworks I’ve seen. There seems to be this ongoing belief that art should be pretty, a visual pleasure and nothing more. But art should conjure up emotions and provoke thoughts, even if they are uncomfortable and cause unease.

But is contemporary art worthy of our appreciation, even if it doesn’t require the skills used by more traditional artists? The sheer nerve to push the boundaries of artistic expectations surely deserves our respect; taking a risk is just as (or more) impressive than painting a half smiling woman. Furthermore, to publicly deal with issues that often remain unspoken, makes works such as My Bed by Tracey Emin culturally significant. It’s time contemporary art lost its undeserved bad reputation.