Contemporary Art and Social Responsibility

contemporary art

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I had not been a big fan of contemporary art, not until I spent the time on learning to understand it; similar to others I had found lots of contemporary artworks are often not aesthetically pleasing hence offer little room for swift visual and mind gratification.

These days we are so used to immediate gratifications: the likes on Facebook or Instagram, the numerous quick fix self-help books, the reward recognition present in many corporations for motivating employees, the one-click buy or delivery model offered by businesses. In a way, in a culture where business models that build on delivering immediate gratification are rewarded, it is not surprising that if we don’t get it such as contemporary art, we don’t like it.

From that sense my three weeks study at Chelsea College of Art during the past three weeks has been extraordinary, in that the contemporary artists that were introduced in the class prompt me to think about the role of artists and the role of contemporary art in the society that we are in today.

Take Anthony Gormley as an example, as a British sculptor Gormley was well known for often using his own body shape to build the moulds for his sculpture work. Some may view his work narcissistic or auto-biographical, but the real intention of the artist was anything but narcissistic:

‘I’m not interested in biography… I am interested that every work comes from a lived moment, in real times, that has been completely occupied. So each work starts from a moment of bare attention, where my concentration is completely integrated with this bit of the material world, which happens to be my body.’ Said Gormley when being asked the reason of using his own body for his work.

For me the understanding and affinity towards art or anything that are meaningful demands a grounded sense of curiosity, continuous learning, and patience. If we accept learning a new language takes time and practice, why do we expect to ‘get it’ immediately when viewing a piece of contemporary artwork that exists not because of its aesthetic value?

In the interview of Anthony Gormley included in Art Now: Interviews with Modern Artists, when being asked about the context of his sculpture work European Field, Gormley explained what the work expresses is an anxiety about what kind of world we are bequeathing, hence the work can be a pause point for the viewers to think about social context in a world with exploding populations but less resources.

Living in a society where individualism and self-expression are advocated, we inevitably focus lots of attention on things that we like to do and the social conscience or responsibility side of it are sometimes just too heavy to deal with here and now. From that sense I find many contemporary artists are courageous in that they are not afraid of taking on that social responsibility, albeit the process of producing a finished work often cannot be done without experiencing some forms of internal struggle or even crisis.

So when we see a piece of contemporary artwork next time, I guess what I am hoping to encourage is what our art teacher shared in the class: time, patience, and listen with an open mind: the beauty of contemporary art is that it is giving and forgiving at the same time, in that the meaning is present yet the viewers are free to interpret the work with their own language. For me if a piece of a contemporary artwork makes the viewer pause to examine and think, it has well served its purpose.

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