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Contemporary Art Doesn't Have to Be Pretentious and Confusing

We talked to one of Britain's leading art critics about trying to make sense of contemporary art.

by Amelia Abraham
Sep 2 2014, 2:00pm

Marina Abramović's durational performance at MoMA. (Photo via)

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.

What's the point in durational performance? How can just being be art?
These kinds of works-performances by Marina Abramovic or 24-hour videos by Christian Marclay or Douglas Gordon-are just as much about the act of looking as they are about what is or isn't art. Quite often the anxiety they cause is not whether just being alive can be art but whether being involved or being present is also part of the work; in other words, it is about our reaction and our interaction with a work.

"How long should I stay? Where do I look? Do I take part?" These are all elements involved in figuring out contemporary art, and they shouldn't be barriers to the enjoyment or understanding of art.

A Spartacus Chetwynd performance. (Photo via)

What about Turner Prize nominee Spartacus Chetwynd-I don't really get it. Is she so bad she's good? 
Spartacus Chetwynd is no more. In fact, she has changed her name and is now called Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, which shows you how quickly the sands of contemporary art can shift beneath your feet. But you're right; in many ways, her shambling, DIY style-her badness, as you put it-is indeed her trademark as a performance artist, and some would say one of her best qualities.

I have been known to sit through a few Chetwynd performances and come out converted and convinced, Damascene-like, of her "goodness" on the other side. The disturbing situations and creatures she creates might have the whiff of amateur dramatics to them, but that's also part of their charm. And she is often very funny, a much overlooked and maligned quality of contemporary art. Usually, people don't like you laughing in museums, but she doesn't mind.

Talking of which, is Martin Creed laughing at us, with us or all the way to the bank? 
His "Lights Going On and Off" is still a good example of the kind of work that gets people riled up. I read that work in many different ways, but essentially and least pretentiously I think of it as about the minimal requirements needed for a work of art-that is that you have a burning idea that just has to be materialised. It's the equivalent of the eureka moment, when a light bulb goes on in your head. All of Martin Creed's output has this clarity to it. Of course, the light bulb also goes off again, but this is a melancholic reading to his work. I prefer to see him as glass half-full kind of guy, so definitely laughing with us. 

How long does contemporary art stay "contemporary" for?
Not very long, although auction houses are trying to make it stretch back to the 1950s because it's currently trendy and therefore profitable to do so. For the purposes of Ways of Looking, I set the start point at the millennium. Indeed, some of the works I have included already feel resolutely of the 2000s, but I did so mainly to avoid that slightly tedious debate, which is an endless one that changes every hour of every day.  

(Photo by Carsten Reksick)

Is taking selfies in art gallery dumb, or is each selfie some kind of important statement about cultural reproduction?
Dumb. But just as stupid are the museums or galleries that don't allow people to take these pictures, because that is sadly how we tend to respond to everything nowadays, by snapping images on our phones. Obviously, I am no great fan of viewing art works through a tiny screen when the thing is right in front of you, but trying to ban the practice is also not realistic.

If art is subjective, then what makes a good art critic?
I'm not sure I was ever the best art critic; I was more often even-handed rather than bombastic or scathing in my responses. However, I do believe that a good writer should be able to simply explain or give clues to even the most complex works of art without using jargon or art-speak.

The book is essentially a homage to my time spent as a critic, walking into rooms and thinking, 'WTF?' then trying to make sense of it and finally putting these thoughts down on paper. The only difference is that I don't give too many judgements in the book. I leave that final task, which I call Assessment, to the readers, who should be allowed to make their own minds up as to whether a work is good or not. 

Thanks, Ossian.

VICE readers can get a 20 percent discount on Ways of Looking. Enter the code VICE20 at the checkout on the Laurence King website.

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More stuff about contemporary art:

I'm Sick of Pretending: I Don't "Get" Art

10 Ways to Make British Art Less Annoying in 2014

This Guy Ate His Own Hip for an Art Project