Almost 50 years ago, the art critic Leo Steinberg published an essay with the evocative title “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public.” In it, he addressed what might be called the “understanding gap” between working artists and the public, along with the growing tendency of the public to be confused—if not completely put off—by what artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were then creating.
Decades later, that plight hasn’t diminished much. Looking at a lot of what is celebrated today as art, the public can register only confusion. If the plight is any less than Steinberg diagnosed in 1962, it may only be because the audience for contemporary art has simply shrunk so much that it no longer registers as part of the public in any significant way.
We are usually comfortable thinking of the paintings, sculptures and other things in museums as art, but what about the works being created today? Are they “art” in the same way? Is there an element of time that has to elapse before they become “art?”
It can sometimes seem a little presumptuous to say that contemporary art is museum-worthy without letting the added element of time slowly do its leavening work on the judgment of those in the know. Why should we rush to bestow the label of “Art” on, say, something that looks like nothing more than a florescent light hanging at a diagonal, just as we do on a portrait of St. Paul by Rembrandt? In 300 years will people be marveling at that? (But 300 years ago did they marvel at the Rembrandt?)
“Contemporary art is constantly inviting us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish,” Steinberg wrote, “while the positive cause, for the sake of which sacrifices are made, is rarely made clear.” He actually wrote this sentence thinking primarily of artists who sometimes feel like their own established styles are threatened when art spins off in a radically different direction. Matisse, for example, called Picasso a hoax and an outrage in 1907. A year earlier, however, an established painter named Paul Signac saw a new canvas by Matisse and thought it was disgusting. Matisse had “gone to the dogs,” he wrote a friend.
Yes, it’s true that every generation has its outrages, and today both Matisse and Picasso are regarded as brilliant and visionary artists, and their work, even though familiar, still captivates. But it’s also true that one of the more troublesome elements in our society is its impatience. Processes that by their nature take time are now somehow seen as illegitimate. Our hunger for immediate satisfaction in this regard can come in two contradictory ways: on the one hand it can be a demand that contemporary art be acknowledged now and held on a level with the Masters of the past. On the other hand, if a work is somehow difficult or an affront to our tastes (as Picasso was to Matisse), we want immediately to toss it aside as nothing more than a purposeful insult to what we hold dear.
Either position does no favors to art. Having a good eye for the contemporary, whether it’s a painting hanging in a gallery or a work of public sculpture that you drive by on your way to work every day, means being willing to take it on its own terms initially, and only over time begin to measure it against the great weight of the past. It takes an odd and perhaps paradoxical combination of patience, acceptance, and discrimination. But that’s the recipe for appreciating contemporary art.
This column originally appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald on September 29, 2011