How to understand contemporary art.

How to understand contemporary art with the analogy of an oaktree in a grassfield. For everyone who is unsure what to think about the art you see in contemporary exhibitions. You will feel less lost when looking at contemporary art after reading this.

Photo Gilly Stewart /Unsplash 

Photo Gilly Stewart /Unsplash 

The analogy of the oaktree and grass is my favourite visual analogy to explain the art world in contemporary times. This stockphoto of a skew tree, is even more telling, as it visually works as a symbol of the dominating Western art historical canon. A canon that creates a linear and hierarchical knowledge system.  

The analogy

The analogy of the (oak)tree and the grass is my favourite visual analogy to explain the art world in contemporary times. This stock photo of a skew tree is even more telling, as it visually follows the Western art historical canon that supposedly started in Egypt and then moved on to Greece, Europe and then finally tracked over the Atlantic to the United States of America. This western colonial view of the art world casts a long shadow over our understanding of art and the value we place on art and artists.


This canon has been severely criticized in academic and professional art circles but keeps on informing most peoples view of the art world. We no longer subscribe to the notion that there is one definitive artistic genius as the art canon insinuates. This oak tree grew, while another growth was explicitly squashed or ignored.


Instead, we should consider art not as the oak tree with roots in Egypt and Greece and flourishing branches of modern art that sprout from this one singular tree. But consider the art world as a large pasture of grass.


 A blade of grass symbolizes each artist and art. They are all artwork. But not all the artwork can be connected, despite their similarity. The health of the grass is further burdened by the extended cultivation of the oak, large parts of the art pasture is severely dehydrated, others lushly sprouting far away from the oak, by loving devotion of art admirers. Some grass has thicker blades, and other needs to grow. Some patches beneath trees are struggling to survive. All the grass is part of interlocking roots that spread across various styles, influences and philosophies. The patch of grass in the North might be more accessible to you, and that is the patch of pasture you learn to love and admire. They are further cultivating and watering that space for it to thrive. 


It might then be very confusing to understand why the grass under the oak never grew or why the patch in the South is unfamiliar to you. All that is expected of you is to be open to the other gardeners and learn about the different types of grass. Have a curious and open mind. If the grass by the water doesn't capture your attention, you don't have to engage with it. It's about curiosity and exploring the vast pastures around you for your enjoyment. 

When is something art?

The art world exists the moment something is created. What follows is a more significant connection between creation and audience. In our postmodern or even post-studio world, there are no longer titans in the art; the grassroots of artwork is the complete art world with the remnant of the historical art canon as the oak casting shade over our understanding of art. The oaks long shadow stifling the growth of the grass underneath its dominating shade.

In contemporary times, the tree is no longer the only context 'real' art can thrive in. There is more diversity in our contemporary art world. If you want to understand and enjoy contemporary art, find a patch of grass you relate to and enjoy. Is it paintings of kittens in funny hats that you enjoy, just as valid as an in-depth critical think piece in the art. Contemporary art is not about key pivotal figures but about multiplicity. The art world is not the canon symbolised by the oak tree. Instead, it should be seen as unwalled pasture around the oak tree, which is watered by amateurs and professionals alike. Artist sprout, but it is the viewers that keep fertilising and watering the artists work. It is a mutual enjoyment, where all actors have agency.

Questions abound about contemporary art

I have heard from countless individuals; the same thing in their rhetoric. What the heck is the art world? Artist and first-time buyers all wonder what and where this ethereal and even unreal world exists. Who and the what? Where are the gates of this club, and who is the gatekeeper? When do I cross the threshold of the actual art world?

Institutions like museums, galleries, and auction houses are physical spaces to enter a part of the art world. However, these places have a long social and economic history of exclusion, despite modern trends. And even if social and economic stigmas did not exist, these are not spaces of ownership in the art world, here most if not all are only viewing a window into a history of the art world. The worth of art in these spaces are compounded by years of colonial power, institutions and professionals. Here you can only view the work at a museum with many others, and only one can win the auction at staggering prices.

Is this where we enter the art world? Is the price of membership several average annual incomes or seeing something only for a sliver of a day? Is an artist only an artist when they enter these spaces?

Who is making art?

Let us start from the grassroots up. They are creating art. People make art. Luckily artist, see themselves as an artist quickly enough, their creation of something is an indisputable fact of their profession as an artist. They may sell or not sell their work, but their work exists.


The artists are creating work and are, therefore, an artist, whether a larger society has recognized this or not. This recognition of artists was delved into in the previous post on levels of art. 


You can read more here about the idea that all art is the marriage between the artists understanding of the world and their technical implementation of these ideas. 

Circulation or marketing of art

The artist will then show it to their family, art group, gallery, and Instagram followers and attempt to exhibit their creations. That is, if the artist is not plagued by crippling self-doubt of their worth/creation. As the institutes mentioned above cast a long shadow pertaining to the value of art and, therefore, the artist.


A value that most living artist cannot live up to. So artist should focus on where they are now. Creating and then exhibiting those creations. Showing the artwork is marketing artwork and the artist. The art world exists in the interaction between the creation and the people viewing it. It does not matter where the viewer engages in the art. The art world exists in this space of interaction which might mean seeing art in libraries, churches, public spaces and café's, and museums and galleries. The more people see it, the bigger the chance that someone will connect to work. And more importantly, when a work is not seen, it is lost its value as art. When art no longer engages with the world, it stops existing as art. It might still exist as an object, but it stops being art. It will soon be lost to the ages when it fails to elicit admiration, hate, amusement, interest, provoke analysis or conversation. 


So you are the art world; the artist creates and shows. They are starting a domino effect of engagement and interaction with the world. It can be a tiny sphere of interaction. A small intimate audience that grows stagnates or explodes into the consciousness of the world. The artist is tasked with the herculean effort of creating and exhibiting. And it is us that chooses to water and grow the artist's voice. A voice might be as far removed from the great oak of an art canon or close by. Either way, it is for the viewer to continue the relationship with the art. Viewers have to be confident in their curiousness and explore the visual world around them. Just as artist use that confidence to create and keep on creating.



With Love,

Tascha Sciarone

Art Historian

A curious lover of art,

exploring the visual stories artist have made.

Watering the garden of those who have caught my attention.

And by no means a definitive connoisseur,

but simply a curious individual.

I want more!

Sadly, all I can leave you with this week is: Read the other posts, or wait until next week. I have no recommendations this week. There are some links in the text. Or you know, write back to me, let me know where I am wrong, not nuanced enough or just coming over as too much of a now it all.

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