Contemporary Art - It’s Not That Deep.
By Millie Elsey
I’ve overheard the same ambiguous question more than once: what do you see in this work? Eavesdropping is no foreign language to me; I thoroughly enjoy witnessing the public acts strangers so unknowingly display. There are nuances in their interactions, mannerisms that distinguish one individual from the next. And yet, despite this, they all ask the same provoking but pedantic query.
New art museums today all fall along a common thread. Each is unique and individualistic, but they can all be stringed together to create what the ‘knowledgeable’ art critics would call “the face of modern creativity.” Although I am aware this era is filled with new facets of originality and artistic thought, I seem to long for a simpler age. I repeatedly stumble my way into the modern art sections and frown upon my lack of connection with the pieces. White washed canvases cover the blank walls. Critics, lovers, and city wanderers who lack credentials extract deep meanings from these empty scenes. Shadows created by the overhead LED light bulb fall strategically upon a draped tea towel pinned to the wall - yes...a tea towel.
What do you see in this work?
There is a constant silence that follows you while you browse the multitude of themed rooms in a museum. I might hear the light thump of dragging footsteps or whispers from guards repeatedly instructing me to “keep your bag on one shoulder”, but neither could ever overshadow the stillness of the rooms. I love this feeling. Alone with my thoughts, I am left to ponder the complexity of the techniques, colors, and intentions of the artists. I guess the price of each piece and compare it to the value of the next, a lovely continuance of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow game - my weekly opportunity for unsubstantiated historical speculation.
I stood amidst others in the balcony region of the National Gallery of Art last Saturday. Brightness from the skylights overhead and the floor-to-ceiling windows filled every corner of the room, all areas were exposed. I observed a 14-foot black and white structure possibly constructed from plastic or paper mache. The shaggy-haired man in the couple in front of me asked the exact question I so desperately struggle to answer.
This abstract figure, that didn’t resemble absolutely anything of earthly existence, sparked a “zebra or giraffe” debate - a surely terrific argument to spend time on! The color scheme of the piece would surely remind you of a zebra... stripes wore its back like a tasteful patterned evening jacket. But the shape was off, its extended body resembling the neck of a Giraffe, held far above my head. The woman shrugged off his question and proceeded to leave. I suppose she saw nothing.
Nowadays we feel less and less. Technology seems to numb us to human connection; instant gratification is virtually guaranteed. Society is constantly molding to accommodate progress. We delete, edit, and embellish the present, desperately aching to produce something better and newer than before. Art remains to be one of the only constants; it’s old age is valued, its outdated techniques are praised. It seeks to make you feel something. I don’t know what or how I feel as I examine a white canvas, I cannot emulate the passion (or lack thereof) of the artist who painted it. So if you ask me that same question that all others beg to ask, I’ll tell you that I know exactly what I see, but not at all what I feel.