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Contemporary art: Of what use is it?

Marcia Tucker, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, recently came north to give the dedication address for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's latest addition to the museum scene -- the Albert and Vera List Visual Arts Center. Her remarks, excerpted below, soon went beyond the Cambridge occasion and spoke to audiences anywhere who become interested rather than put off when they see something they don't understand. I first met Vera List in 1976, when I had organized an exhibition of the work of sculptor Richard Tuttle at the Whitney Museum. To say the show was controversial is an understatement, since Tuttle's work is often very small (about an inch wide), rapidly executed (perhaps a minute and a half), and made of inexpensive materials (wire, shadow, pencil). None of these characteristics is held in high esteem among the general public in America, which tends to value time, size, and materials over ideas. Vera's joyous response to the exhibition was that she didn't understand it, and was therefore intrigued, perplexed, provoked, challenged, and intensely interested in the work. Similarly, Abe's quiet, longtime, and far-reaching commitment to the arts, like Vera's, has been one of continuous support for the organizations, institutions, and endeavors which present the most interesting and often radical art of our own time.

I'd like to talk briefly about why contemporary art is important -- why something which is so often disruptive, confrontational, disorienting -- why something which continuously addresses what we don't know, rather than what we do -- why something which by its very nature prompts such heated and passionate discussion that we might as well be talking about religion or politics as about art -- why this activity, this enterprise, should be essential to our lives.

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I know that it may be difficult to see how contemporary art affects the world we live in, although it isn't difficult to see how our world affects the art we see. Art certainly seems increasingly powerless to effect political and social change -- I remember the Angry Arts Festival in the late 1960s, the New York art community's way of protesting the Vietnam war, which only served to polarize the artists (withdraw your work! drape it in black! make art which is socially relevant! . . . and so on). Or I think about works of art with specifically feminist content, produced in the wake of the renewed awareness that the women's movement engendered in the early 1970s. And I think of the many artists who are concerned about people in Nicaragua or other countries beset by political turmoil, and respond passionately through the images in their own work -- to little or no avail, or at least not that we can immediately see. Certainly art alone hasn't stopped war, deposed dictators, or put food in the mouths of the hungry.

And it's also difficult to see art as a pure endeavor, as one which exists in the realm of aesthetics alone, one that creates for us a vision of perfection, unity, and harmony in the midst of an inharmonious world. This is because most of the work we see today doesn't look beautiful by any conventional standards -- its colors are discordant, its shapes awkward and primitivistic, its size overwhelming, its message distressing, its presence intrusive. The words ``art'' and ``beauty'' are no longer synonymous and haven't been for almost two centuries, depending upon how you look at it.

Moreover, art no longer exists outside the marketplace, as it were, because, while the majority of artists, young and old, are still struggling, and while parents throughout the country still recoil in horror at the words ``Mom, Dad -- I've decided to become an artist!'' art has become big business . . . or at least some of it has.

Paintings by artists in their early 20s are selling for tens of thousands of dollars, and recently, in an unseemly urge to become as infamous as any rock star, an artist boasted of wearing $800 Cardin suits to paint in. It is also possible to state unequivocally your desire to become the most famous artist in the world, to have your face, your home, your children, and your choice of socks splashed over the pages of Vogue or even People magazine . . . and possible to find someone to help you do it (for a fee, of course!).

But for the most part, artists have little visibility and less glamour, and their lives are full of trying to balance jobs as carpenters, waitresses, or paste-up artists with making art late at night in the studio -- or behind the washer-dryer. And, as the composer Morton Feldman pointed out, ``For an art to succeed, its creator must fail.'' The best art, certainly, is one which learns from its failures, and not from its successes.

So: Of what use is it?

Well, contemporary art does in fact move us -- to laughter, to anger, to contemplation, to tears, to exasperation -- but more important, if you agree that the heart and mind are inextricably connected, it moves us to think. And to think, really think, is to learn, and ultimately to grow. What does contemporary art make us think about? Well, about biology, architecture, psychology, mathematics, philosophy, religion, linguistics, archeology, history, sociology, physics, and even the murder mystery.

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I once heard, many years ago, a brilliant lecture on the relationship between camouflage activity in insects and perception as it applied specifically to the visual arts, and it turned me around completely, wooing me away from the ranks of formalist analysis, from the lure of the picture plane and the framing edge, forever. That lecture, which I attended by accident, with a friend, was given here at MIT, and convinced me beyond a doubt that the only question of interest was the way in which art related to the real world, to the world at large.

Works of art can provide us with our greatest education; they can, and do, prompt us to read, to question, to analyze, to think, not just about art, but about relationships of all kinds. This is one of the many reasons that the new Albert and Vera List Visual Arts Center belongs at MIT, because art and science, art and technology, art and experimentation of every sort (or almost every sort!) belong together.

The wonderful thing that contemporary art can do for us, and for society, is to remind us of our essential freedom in all things. It's not just that artists don't have to conform to any dress code -- it's that the freedom to think and act at the very limits of one's intelligence is as essential to being an artist today as the ability to draw once was.

And that freedom carries over to us, the viewer, for whom the breadth and complexity, the audacity and intensity of the artist's imagination -- cajoles, seduces, threatens, and demands of us a similar exercise of the intellect. It forces us to reach beyond what we know into that arena of possibility, into that forbidding and dangerous place where we have not been, and where, if we're fortunate, we also can enthusiastically welcome what we don't understand.

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