Is contemporary art, art?

By Scotty Ninh, March 5, 2024

The current landscape of contemporary art has seen the rise of the minimalist genre with pieces that focus on saying more with less. Even within Cal Poly Pomona, galleries have highlighted several artworks that leaned more toward a simplistic palette.

Many people have responded to this genre with a heavy amount of criticism. Much of it comes down to how people feel as though these types of pieces might not seem difficult to recreate.

“If it looks like the work wasn’t difficult to do physically, then people sometimes feel that the value is inflated, and you get the ‘my kid could do that’ response,” said Alison Pearlman, a professor in the art department.

It is understandable why people can have this sentiment, as contemporary art pieces do not show much effort when looking at it purely from a visual standpoint. This can make it look like an artist is being praised and rewarded for what feels like a less technical showcase of their skills.

Part of the value in minimal artwork tends to come from the intentions behind each choice an artist makes for their piece. Slight differences in how an artist approaches the making of their work can have a strong effect on the end product and forces the artist to be careful with their decisions.

“Untitled (Red)” by Mark Rothko shows very little visually, but demonstrates how the artist had made deliberate choices throughout the making of this piece. Rothko intended on communicating a sense of romanticism with this installment of his “Untitled” series through the use of a specific variant of the color red.

“It’s more than just material or technique, but it’s also how the artist uses what’s around them and how an artist manipulates these different forms,” said Isabelle Valmores, a visual communication design student.

Historical context of a piece also matters when considering its significance as it provides an idea for what the artwork meant to its audiences at the time. Depending on when a piece was created, the context of what was happening at the time can tell an audience what influenced the piece, how the piece influenced culture during its time or what it meant to capture from its period. 

“Convergence” by Jackson Pollock was created to represent the freedom of expression and rebelling against societal restrictions during a time of war. 

“As an art historian, you can appreciate that art is always a dialogue with the past,” Pearlman said. “And sometimes when you see a work in a museum just hanging on the wall by itself, it’s out of context, and you don’t see what it was responding to.”

The way a piece is interpreted can affect its value. If an artwork causes the audience to feel one or multiple different ways, it can help give that piece more recognition among a general audience. An example being, “Entrance to Subway” by Rothko which depicts the lonely feeling one may get from traversing through a New York City subway station.

In the area of simple contemporary art, it can be a bit more arbitrary as to how it is meant to make a person feel. For some, this factor can make this genre of art more appealing as there is a sense of open-endedness for the audience.

“It (contemporary art) is not meant to give one certain feeling, and although there are some that would rather gravitate toward that, I feel like most contemporary art is more for your opinion or how it makes you feel,” said Miko Miranda, a visual communication design student.

None of this is to say the criticisms are outright unjustifiable. The minimalistic genre of art can be quite jarring to many people, especially in pieces that include small amounts of visual content. 

“Not everyone’s going to get it, and that’s OK,” Valmore said. “I think that, as an artist, you’re going to kind of have to accept.”

While everyone is entitled to their preferences and opinions, it is good to be open-minded in understanding what can make an art piece praised. In doing so, people can better appreciate what these stripped-down works of art can mean beyond its face value. This appreciation can then help open new perspectives for how the world of fine arts works and to be more understanding as to why someone enjoys specific genres of art. 

Feature image courtesy of Lauren Wong 

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