The Purpose of Contemporary Art

"Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos"
- Norman Rosenthal, Director of the Royal Academy of Arts, London
As time has moved on and contemporary art has moved with it, controversy has somehow always managed to keep up. Going back to the beginning of art historical study we can find cases of both individual artists and groups who have rocked the artistic status quo with their innovative contributions to the art of the day. The 20th century was no exception.

Contemporary art has a purpose. The purpose is simply to beautify your surroundings with intrigue. Ok, but why do people pay so much for what looks like a canvas with some paint thrown on it? Abstract paintings can actually be very affordable if purchased from an up and coming artist. And believe it or not, most often there was a deliberate attempt at where that paint landed on the canvas. The beauty of abstract art, both for the artist and the viewer, is that anyone can take what they see and interpret it however they see fit.

There are many different interpretations of contemoporary art. An artist can be completely non-representational, or he/she can conjure up recognizable forms and symbols. In a broad spectrum of contemporary  art paintings, you can find landscapes, seascapes, natural objects, and colorful shapes and forms. All and all, abstract paintings tend to have a strong focus on color patterns, and/or texture. Nowadays, with photography, digital art, and the ability to create prints, it's no wonder why artists are seeking to make it perfectly clear that what you see on the canvas was in-fact created with a more personal human element. How you ask? Through building up layers of texture, depth, or using a glazing technique that collects and redistributes light, making the paint appear luminous.

There is so much joy in painting abstractly because the walls of rigid preconception are torn down. Many artists are using abstract art as a means to release feelings, and also as a way to freely express what they have seen in nature. When something is done in spirit and spontaneity, it's obvious and it shows in the work. The purpose of contemporary art is to capture this essence and bring this joy into the lives of others.

But not all contemporary art is so inocent. The article starts with the words of the man behind the exhibition that has caused the biggest Sensation of recent years. Words that suggest that he had more than an inkling of, in fact wished for, the furor that would follow. It seems implausible, however, that he would have anticipated the scale of the revolt. More accurately, Rosenthal was just one of the men behind the show; the other was the advertising mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi.

Examining the exhibition catalogue, it is interesting that many of the artists - there are 42 in total - are far from "notorious," and their work is unlikely to bring them any such accolade. The works include a significant number of paintings, and while Jenny Saville's works may pose a challenge because of her eschewal of models of conventional beauty, the clear, bold, colorful works of Gary Hume, Britain's representative at the 48th Venice Biennale, seem positively tame. In the place of Tracey Emin's bed was her tent, embroidered with the names of all her sexual partners, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. The evident skill in the crafting of the piece does not save it from the critics of the show, and indeed of contemporary art, whose favored argument is to question whether such works "merit" the title of art.

The crescendo begins with the more clearly distressing Dead Dad (1996-97) by Ron Mueck, an eerily life-like silicone model lying prostrate on the floor, and Self (1991) by Marc Quinn - a perspex sculpture of the artist's head, filled with his own blood and displayed in a fridge, which disturbs in the tradition of the Surrealists. And then we reach the Chapman brothers and Damien Hirst. The shock tactics favoured by Jake and Dinos Chapman are deemed puerile and infantile by their detractors; Great Deeds against the Dead (1994) presents us with mutilation and castration, Ubermensch (1995), with its model of the scientist Stephen Hawking about to plummet off the edge of a cliff in his wheelchair, favors cruelty and insensitivity over political correctness, while Zygotic Acceleration, Bio-genetic, De-sublimated Libidinal Model (Enlarged x 1000) (1995) and Tragic Anatomies (1995) feature genetic freaks made up of girl mannequins morphed together, many with the Chapmans' trademark phallus nose and rectum mouth. Damien Hirst found controversy and fame in Britain for his practice of cutting up dead animals and preserving them in formaldehyde when he won the Turner Prize in 1995. Several of these works are featured in the show, including perhaps the most famous exemplar, the shark, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).

Some of these works sparked controversy, but it was in fact two other pieces, by different artists in London and New York, which caused the biggest uproar.

In London it was a painting by Marcus Harvey, a monochrome canvas entitled MH (1996-98). The image, made up of prints from a plaster cast of a child's hand, depicted the infamous imprisoned child murderer Myra Hindley. The work became the subject of a fierce tabloid campaign, with one newspaper paying for the mother of one of Hindley's victims to attend the show. The media was successful in fueling a frenzy, and ink and eggs were thrown at the painting by a member of the public. The vandalized canvas was taken away and cleaned, after which it was reinstated, behind glass, with the Royal Academy preaching the defense of freedom of expression.

The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)
Chris Ofili

It was Chris Ofili who found himself at the center of the storm in New York. Ofili had already experienced controversy when he too won the Turner Prize in 1998. His intricately patterned mixed-media works draw on his Nigerian heritage and are characterized by their inclusion of elephant dung. The focus of the outrage was The Holy Virgin Mary (1996): a mixed media painting/collage depicting a black madonna, surrounded by images of buttocks, with the addition of the ubiquitous dung. Ofili stayed well out of the affray as his work was branded blasphemous. [1]

And the list continues because the show must go on, right? Is the purpose of contemporary art to provoke a reaction even if it's an ugly one? The purpose of art was never only pure beauty or merely decorative. But nowadays, probably more than even art became more intertwined with our day by day problems and issues, like traffic lights in our eyes, trying to get our attention about the present we have here in front of us. Sometimes contemporary art can be naive and colorful but most of the time it is like a bell that rings in our ears the message: live your live, don't let your life pass by you.