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October 2017
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The Art of understanding Contemporary Art

Why we should equally appreciate the night watch by Rembrandt and the stick men by Keith Haring.

Recently the new exhibition Keith Haring: The Political Line opened its doors in de Kunsthal, Rotterdam. As a modern and contemporary art enthusiast, I visited the exhibition within the first week of its existence, and to my surprise I wasn’t the only one. Never had I seen so many people in a museum. Apparently people are super interested in this mister Haring. However, lots of the visitors seemed to have a busy schedule that day, walking past every work of art, just giving it a quick glance. What a pity I thought, until I heard two middle-aged women with spicy short haircuts say to each other: “I heard this guy was super important but even I can draw these things..” Does this sound familiar to you?

As someone who loves art, hearing a sentence like this gives me the chills. Ever since I emerged myself into the marvelous world of art, it has become quite obvious to me that the general public is very sceptic about modern and contemporary art. Often it is compared to the famous works of great masters like van Gogh and Rembrandt, but why do people feel the need to compare? I’d like to plea for equal appreciation; it doesn’t matter which label we put on a work, art is art and therefore it should be cherished. And since I’m talking about labels here, what exactly do we define as modern and contemporary art? You might have thought that these two things are one and the same, and don’t feel ashamed, at first I thought so as well. However, along my way to becoming an art lover I learned one or two things.


First of all, everything that was made between, let’s say the 1880s up until the 1970s, is what we label as modern art. Most art schools teach that when the Impressionists (do the waterlilies of Monet ring a bell?) were close to their end, a new generation of fresh, new artists bundled their powers to create a lasting impact on this world. Unlike their predecessors, they were inspired by real life and expressed their visions on it by, ideally, experimenting and innovating as much as possible. Contemporary art, on the other hand, simply refers to art that has been created during our lifetimes. In other words, it is contemporary to us. We choose the 1970s as the start of this art era because it was also the time that terms like postmodernism popped up, simply indicating the end of the modern art age. So are you still with me? Because the wonderful world of art has more in store for you, namely, conceptual art.

To help me explain this component of contemporary art, I reached out to the fine art students of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. At the opening of a small art exhibition in TENT Rotterdam, I got the chance to talk with them about the topic in question. With a live performance act as background music and a glass of wine in our hands I asked them to explain to me the concept of conceptual art. A 22-year-old girl with passion in her eyes eagerly told me her metaphor: “If A represents the idea, B the performance and C the presentation, then conceptual art puts the emphasis on A instead of B&C. Whereas artists used to put the emphasis on B&C.” Shortly put, it is art where the idea behind the work is more important than the work itself. And important to note, conceptual does not indicate a time period, it simply is a way of making art. However, we often place it in the era of contemporary art.


I also confronted the fine art students with what I heard during my visit of the Keith Haring exhibition. I wondered how they would explain to someone that modern art is indeed art, even though it might not have been difficult to make the art work itself. After asking, the conversation turned silent for a brief moment, but then a short but sharp answer came from the 19-year-old Shani Leseman: “Whenever you make something with the intention of making art, it is art. It’s not about how well you can draw.” Instead of just making something that would look nice hanging in your hallway, contemporary art is about visualizing the way you think, it’s about how you see the world and react to it. Therefore you often see that artworks carry a political meaning or criticize specific aspects of our current society. Contemporary art has already proved that it can convey powerful messages and even stimulate movements. Take for example, mister Keith Haring again.  In his work he  reflects on sexuality, religion,  and  in his later work very heavily on AIDS/HIV. His work named  SILENCE = DEATH is almost universally  agreed on to be  an act of activism.  But many other modern artists, both implicitly and explicitly communicate some kind of activism.

Contemporary art, thus, does not have the goal to be just ‘plain pretty’. Contemporary artists want  to tell you a story and encourage you think about something. However, to understand what it is they want you to think about, you might want to stare a bit longer than five seconds to their creations.  Maybe even go the extra mile and read the description that’s beside the piece of art.  And I will promise you, suddenly, that stick men will mean a lot more to you. By Manon Dijkhuizen


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