Contemporary Art Doesn’t Have to Be Pretentious and Confusing
Ossian Ward is one of Britain’s leading art critics. His new book, Ways of Looking, sounded a little patronizing from the title, given that anyone with eyes should probably have that down already. But reading through, it does provide a very helpful guide to the understanding of contemporary art, which—to me, at least—often seems as aimless as someone standing in a gallery repeatedly turning the lights on and off.
Ossian advises against pretentious art jargon, suggesting the only way to approach contemporary art is with a clear, open mind. Since he seemed so nice and obliging, I decided to ask him some of the embarrassing questions that pop into my mind when I’m in a contemporary art gallery (other than, ‘Where’s the café?’ and, ‘I wonder how much Marina Abramović is going to make from sitting in that chair.’)
VICE: Hi Ossian. So is contemporary art just having the balls to do something either so outrageous that it’s shocking or so banal that it’s shocking?
Contemporary art is not yet a verb, nor does it have balls per se—though I’m sure Tracey Emin would take exception to that—but it does occasionally shout at you from across the room and it can be provocative, challenging and even scary. I have found myself in rooms kitted out to look like murder scenes, brothels, or a terrorist’s stronghold.
I have also tiptoed past various spring-loaded man-traps, risked severe burns at a gallery where I was greeted by a flame from the opposite wall, told not to drink from a fountain supposedly laced with LSD, warned that the tiny globe before me contained a bomb that would explode a hundred years from now… I could go on. Confrontational art is certainly one of the ways that artists aim to grab our attentions nowadays.
A Tracy Emin work. (Photo via)
Do you ever think that Tate and MoMA are a bit like the Westfields of art galleries, as in there’s just too much stuff?
If only the works were on sale at knock-down prices, with special bargain bins for obscure works of Surrealism. I would like that. But yes, our large art institutions can be bewildering places full of mysterious and exotic objects, which is essentially why I wrote my book.
We shouldn’t fear the complexity, abstraction, or randomness of contemporary art, but embrace them as reflections of our culture. I often invoke Hollywood blockbuster films, theme-park rides and other forms of entertainment as reference points, rather than art historical movements or philosophical theories, as frankly not everyone has that level of interest or experience.