My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I didn’t know much about contemporary art for a long time. I didn’t know that it even existed, in a way. I tought art and I thought about the traditional images of art; the oil paintings on the wall, the statues in the gallery, the black and white photographs hung in a row.
But then I went to university and accidentally started to specialise in the subject and my mind exploded. Cindy Sherman. Tracey Emin. Barbara Kruger. Jenny Holzer. Richard Serra. Rineke Dijkstra. Douglas Gordon. Shirin Neshat. All of them doing things with text and image that I longed to do, that I hadn’t known it was okay for me to do, that I hadn’t known that I wanted to do, and now that I did know this, I knew that I would never let it go. That this way of writing, of seeing, of thinking, was something that I liked, something that I subscribed wholly too and something that made my writing better.
It changed my life. Can you tell? It’s because of that that I have a strong interest in art books for children because, in a way, I want them to have the opportunity to have that feeling. I want their mind to be blown. I want them to realise that the creative boundaries that may have been imposed on them (“every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and you need to know this before you begin”) can, could and maybe should be broken.
‘What is Contemporary Art?’ is a challenging book for me to review in that I felt there were certain areas of it that worked really well. I love that it exists, firstly. I love that it’s selected and discussed some bold and challenging work (“Adjustable Wall Bra” by Vito Acconci, for one, and “Untitled (bed)” by Rachel Whiteread, for another). I love that it’s not afraid of asking children to look at Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. The curation of pieces for this book is really, really strong.
And yet, in another way, it’s a little bit frustrating. The endpapers seem a wasted space, an apparent abstract design on the front, which we come to realise is “Butterfly Kisses” by Janine Antoni and then get to see again when we come to finish the book. I’d have welcomed some sense of experimentation with these pages rather than what feels like a slight redundancy in using the same image twice.
I also had some difficulty with the descriptions. There’s a little bit of ‘artspeak’ in there which, I suspect, could lead to a prerequisite of ‘why’ questions (both a positive and a negative, but one that I suspect would frustrate a cynical mindset). Sentences such as “his chessboard is no longer a battlefield, but a landscape of the imagination” beg to be challenged and discussed (which is again both a positive and a negative, come to think of it.)
One final thing to note though is that it has a really good and useful glossary covering such terms as ‘assemblage’, ‘found media’ and ‘urban intervention’. This is great, though the highlighting of these words in the body of the book has suffered due to the advent of internet speak. They appear in the text *like this* which gives an odd emphasis to terms and phrases. I’d hope that this maybe gets reviewed in a newer edition.
So where do we sit with this book? It’s good, it does have some very good points, but I found it frustrating and a little confusing with the voice. In a way, I’d have liked it pitched younger and a little ‘freer’ with some descriptions in order to both loosen up the stiffer parts of the book and to also broaden the appeal of the book and the artwork within.