Last October, sitting amidst fountains outside the Somerset House in central London were cast stainless steel sculptures by the contemporary artist Marc Quinn. He is the archetypal member of a group of contemporary artists called the YBAs (Young British Artists). This contains an artist who fashioned a figure formed of his newborn son’s placenta, a sculptor who moulded a self-portrait incorporating ten pints of blood and a painter who exhibited a canvas streaked entirely with excrement.
Quinn’s newest constructions - overlooking the Thames - melded the jagged elements of seashells with the grace of passing waves. Somerset House, the eighteenth-century project of Sir William Chambers, showed last year a union of traditional neoclassical architecture and contemporary artistic creation in its courtyard.
When considering art, I find myself relegated to the versatility of adjectives. Contemporary art has been called a number of things – shocking, lazy and self-centered, for example. Unlike the bold Van Gogh brush strokes that produced in his paintings a mix of madness and fantasy, or the nuanced Monet depictions of sunlight against still landscapes, the visual simplicity of modern art often engenders scepticism.
On a visit to the Tate Modern in London today, one would find Katherine Bernhardt’s 2015 painting ‘View Finders, Sharpies, Coffee, and Cigarettes’, a colourful spray-painted illustration resembling – perhaps intentionally – a child’s artwork. In the Baltic ‘39 in Newcastle, Cath Campbell’s recent ‘My mum was a beatnick/Canary yellow with royal blue’ installation took the form of open hardcovers spread out on six wheeled tables lined up on a sparse cement floor. Another contemporary art gallery, the White Cube in London, is home to Ellsworth Kelly’s 1986 ‘Dark Gray Panel’: a dark grey panel.
We are, it seems, past the age of grand brush strokes, of a preoccupation with detail and complexities in design. Perhaps a reflection of the present-day, there is an expediency surrounding contemporary art. This disrupts the expectations of the viewer, and moves us to question what it means to be an artist.
Traditional art tended to balance on a particular axis: Mesopotamian art, for example, was positioned on a warrior civilisation, ancient Egyptian art on the afterlife, and Edo art on classical literature. Contemporary art, however, is centred on pluralism; it has no centre. It may draw stimulus, then, from Rembrandt and Kate Moss, or Abanindranath Tagore and Instagram. There is no apparent particularity of style expected in newer art; it is grounded on multiplicity, a personal response unalike, shocking or sometimes, entirely familiar – think the unmade bed of Tracey Emin, or Ai Weiwei smashing a Han dynasty vase.
Different from the years it took the Paul Cézanne to paint the post-Impressionist ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’ series, much of contemporary art has seen a displacement in focus on physical process. Instead, in newer art, there is a principal concentration on intellectual, more than aesthetic, projection by the artist. One misses the point, therefore, when newer artists are criticised – as they often are - for lack of tangible skill.
In the institutional premium placed on perceptible effort, aesthetic significance and historic depth, an appreciation of traditional art often comes naturally. But, a different and, yes, more contemporary frame of thought is needed to realise contemporary art. The openness of both realms of artistic expression may evoke inspiration through understanding in the observer – perhaps the basis of art in itself.