Why do we often say that Contemporary art is ugly?

It was sometime in 2003 or 2004 when I spoke with a friend, who is a painter, and somehow very spontaneously (and to be honest – quite amateurish) said: ‘Oh, but Contemporary art is so ugly. You can’t understand anything from these artworks’. Of course, these words caused much laugh from the painter’s side. And my friend’s reply was short: ‘I’ll teach you how to ‘look at’ and contemplate Contemporary art. You’ll see that you’ll like it. And will begin to understand it’.

It took me at least 6 months before I began to ‘see’ anything in contemporary artworks. And many more years, lots of books, video lectures and several art appreciation courses to begin to ‘understand’ what I see (I purposefully put ‘understand’ in quotes, because during all these years I learnt that ‘understanding’ is something very subjective. As well as ‘liking’, by the way….)

So, why does often our first reaction to contemporary art is that it is ugly and that we don’t understand it?  I want to highlight that here I share my personal opinion and many artists, curators and gallery owners, as well as art experts may not agree with it. But – in art everything is subjective and vary depending on our individual preferences and feelings.

In Classical art and the so called ‘Old Masters’ everything looks clear, beautiful and in a perfect order. Images are according to the universal proportions, perspective is easily visible, and colours and shapes – natural. Somehow everything looks ‘according to the natural order’. To a large extent this is because Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque painters and sculptures follow Classical proportions for Beauty coming from the Antiquity, as well as the well-established Academic rules.

Modern and Post-modern artists, on the other side, dare to experiment – with colours, forms, techniques, materials and patterns. Thus, the most important thing in their works is not following the rules but rebelling against the norms (and the Academic style). Their purpose is to express their subjective feelings, searches and topics, not to follow the established patterns and approaches or to depict well-known subjects.   

In this way, the Impressionists (like Manet, Monet, Cézanne or Degas) ‘played’ with colours, the Cubists (like Picasso and Braque) – with forms, the Surrealists (like Dali and Magritte) – with subconsciousness. Other artists tried to depict music through images, and this is how Kandinsky’s pure abstractions were created. The Expressionists (like van Gogh, Kirchner, Munk, Otto Dix, etc) revolted against social inequalities, alienation, loneliness, and coldness of the contemporary world. The list is long and the movements in Modern and Post-modern art, as well as personal searches of contemporary artists – diverse.

So, to understand a contemporary artwork, we should delve into its author’s inner world and ‘open up’ our senses. We should try to look at it from the perspective of abstraction and otherness, but also – seek for personal ideas and feelings, which the artist wanted to transmit with their work.

Thus, when you contemplate a contemporary painting, sculpture, installation or other type of work, focus on how the artist ‘plays’ with lines, forms, shapes and colours. But also, how different elements are distributed around the work, how they balance or contrast with each other. Pay attention on the movement and the rhythm of the whole composition as well as on the interaction and the entire performance, in which the artist involves viewers. Then – you will see that ‘ugliness’ will suddenly disappear, and an entire new world will emerge, which mirrors not only the artist’s inner world, but also your own.

To achieve this, we have to be creative and brave enough to free up our imagination. We need to learn how to build our own (and entirely subjective) link with artworks, to find what actually ‘speaks’ to us, and to start ‘feeling’ contemporary works, not trying to ‘understand’ them in a rational and logical way. Then, we will start to see their beauty.

Author: Mariana Petrova, initiator of Artied – Art Inspired Education