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“I could do that” is a phrase that reverberates throughout people’s minds when they think about and experience contemporary art. From its potentially offensive and absurdly jarring components to its underwhelming simplicity, contemporary art has often been regarded by the general public as too displeasing or too elementary, the latter being characterized within the first phrase of the paragraph. 

It’s no argument that contemporary art houses some of the most obscene imagery seen within art history. Art such as Petra by Marcel Walldorf, which features a woman in riot gear squatting and urinating, and The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili has received much backlash because it is seen as overtly controversial and objectionable. Other art pieces have struck people as too simple and too unskillful to be considered art, such as Levitated Mass by Micheal Heizer

However, despite the bizarre and seemingly unskillful tactics contemporary art can employ, its true power comes from the reactions and questions that it elicits. People usually have strong reactions to these contemporary art pieces, and that is for good reason. The true importance of contemporary art comes from the importance it places on the audience. 

Contemporary art was not the first artistic movement to cause turmoil within the time period that it existed. Almost every single movement within art history was met with some sort of friction. This is because these movements did not exist within a vacuum. They existed within a context of other movements that overlapped and coexisted with them, thus causing friction between the art and its audience. In short, every art movement was in response to another art movement. 

This can be seen with many different movements and artists throughout history. Most notably, Pablo Picasso was one of the first and most influential artists to break off from the standard way art was viewed at the time. Employing African influences within European artistic standards, Picasso synthesized a new form of art, hinging on the up and coming modernism movement. His art pieces, such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, were met with much resistance and criticism. 

However, an even more tame example of art being resisted could be seen within the broader impressionist movements. Impressionism, an art movement characterized by short and visible brush strokes to paint vivid imagery, was in direct response to the clear-cut and technical neoclassical art movements of the 18th century. 

Contemporary art can be seen as a continuity within art history, with it being characterized by going against norms and in response to the relatively standardized art movements of the past. However, if art history can be seen as a tree and its movements as each of its branches, contemporary art could be seen as a fractal, with it being characterized by many different “micromovements” that each contain their own artistic norms and set of rules. 

This is fundamentally what makes contemporary art so powerful. Each of these “micromovements” (that is, the term I’m coining to represent the individual artistic rules that seemingly each contemporary art piece abides by) questions and elicits a discussion about what we consider art and an art movement. In contrast to the avant-garde yet easily traceable progression of movements in the past, contemporary art fringes off in a million different directions, each direction questioning artistic and human identity. 

Now, regardless of the artistic trends and the context of broader art history, contemporary art can still be undeniably obscene. Within the public eye, it is still a stretch to call some contemporary art artistic. 

But how far are we willing to stretch to consider something art? How much of the obscenity or simplicity are we willing to overlook to determine if something is art or not? If we determine a piece is artistic, yet it still has offensive elements, what does that say about us? These are the questions that exist within the nature of contemporary art, and they are the same questions that give it value

In the words of Art & Design freshman Ellie Lee, “People are always going to try to analyze art, and if they can’t understand it, they’ll either get mad or stay confused.” The purpose of contemporary art is to elicit a reaction, whether it’s anger, disgust or any other emotion. Its purpose is to call attention to the experience of the audience. 

What is the role of art in the 21st century and more broadly what is art? These questions, brought up by different pieces of contemporary art, empower the movement. The movement itself hinges on the idea that the meaning of the art comes from within the audience and the importance shifts from whatever grandiose scene might be pictured in previous forms of visual art, to the person participating in the art itself. To use an example from earlier, Levitated Mass uses the audience’s experience of walking under it to place monumental importance on them.

The focus on human emotions is what has characterized art for centuries. Art & Design lecturer William Burgard details the premise and core of art as “making something that is informed by your emotions.” Contemporary artists use this focus on human emotions and manipulate it in a way to make the audience question their own identity and place within the world. 

Burgard also elaborates that “Artists will always deal with what humankind branches into,” which is especially important when analyzing the cause and meaning of contemporary art from a historical perspective. Now more than ever we see the commodification of art, such as poster prints at a supermarket, or NFTs selling for egregious amounts of money online. 

It is because of this historical progression of commodification due to neoliberalism, capitalism and globalization that artists are, now more than ever, focused on creating art for art’s sake. This is why contemporary art has been so uncharacteristically unique relative to other art movements. 

This trend seen with visual art does not exist within a vacuum as well. We can see similar processes happening with avant-garde jazz artists such as Wynton Marsalis, as the commodification of pop songs and hip-hop runs rampant throughout the music industry. 

The uniqueness of contemporary art empowers it. It brings up questions, raises discussions and challenges identity. Its very existence is emblematic of the discussions we are now having as a global community, which is why it is so important and why we must focus on it as we continue to streamline our global identity. 

Zhane Yamin is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at zhane@umich.edu.