Understanding Contemporary Art: Did I Miss the Point?

How do you feel when an artwork in such a formal space doesn’t make sense to you? A piece might have a hollow taste to it, or maybe its radical complexity or simplicity leaves you scratching your head and moving on after only a few seconds of observation. You could leave a museum wondering to yourself, “Did I miss the point? Am I not sophisticated enough to understand this art?”

Art is pretty popular right now. That may sound like a no-brainer, but I mean it in the sense of art museums and galleries seeing a surge of visitors in recent years, artworks being sold for record prices at auction, and public appreciation of art reaching a high point. We appear to have come to a societal agreement that art is important and has significant cultural value.

Contemporary art museums in particular have been placed on high pedestals, so it’s not strange to be overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) when visiting a museum. We pay often steep admission fees to have a particular experience or perhaps feel what the cultural critic Walter Benjamin described as “aura,” describing a very specific sentiment we encounter when seeing an original artwork in person. The modern museum is charged with intimacy and potential for life-changing encounters with art.

But if you’re not getting it, you’re not alone. I often find myself confused, even though I’ve dedicated my life to studying the arts. It’s not always so simple as not understanding or being uneducated, and there isn’t anything wrong with you for not getting art. The art world primarily revolves around wealthy patronage, so it’s no wonder the general public can feel left out or disenchanted.

One major problem art viewers face is figuring out why an artwork in a museum or gallery is on display. Why was something deemed strong and relevant enough to be housed in such an esteemed institution? When we engage with an off-putting piece of art, we’re left assuming that it must be good based solely on its placement in a formal space. When you’ve paid money to see it, there has to be some reason for its inclusion, right?

Of course some people don’t comprehend popular art, good or bad, but there is a great deal of art that makes no sense while still being held in high regard by the art world. Such art was sometimes made for the market, not for the public. It doesn’t always matter what the content of an artwork is because when wealthy individuals and organizations decide they are worth thousands or millions of dollars, those artworks are bought in auctions and tend to wind up in major museums and galleries.

Because of this patronage, art that is conceptually complex or even nonsensical may find a home in the art spaces frequented by those with substantially less money. We are left to interpret whatever was dealt to us, regardless of whether or not the art has any underlying relevance to common people.

There is also plenty of bad art out there, and much of it on gallery walls. Some might be well-made in a technical sense, but concepts may be poorly conveyed. Famed artists like Robert Rauschenberg have broken down the core formal elements of paintings in the last century as a way to challenge the medium, resulting in the production of highly-priced modern artwork that sometimes consists of nothing more than purely white paintings. This plain white canvas on a wall trope has consistently stumped and frustrated museum visitors. The art world will say you’re simply not getting the point, that you’re missing the big picture of what the piece is really about.

Though more people are visiting art spaces and upping the value of art, we don’t always know how to interpret a lot of it. This is why I want you to be critical of what you see in art spaces. If you don’t grasp an artwork, question why that is. Is the piece actually good in your eyes? Was it made to be understood by the public? This kind of skepticism is critical for everyday gallery-goers and even once-a-year museum visitors to hold art institutions to higher standards.