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The Rife Team

Is All Contemporary Art Pompous?

Head on by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Burton asks himself, should young people care about contemporary art? Especially if on the outside it looks really pompous and smug? How can we possibly get involved?

When I say Contemporary Art, what do you think of?

It’s a question that I don’t think is asked enough, because often it can seem quite alienating. It can conjure up images of sterile white walls, strange installations projected on the walls, and 200 monochromatic blue paintings. Yes, that last one is an actual thing. The artist Yves Klein created nearly 200 paintings of different shades of blue.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Yves Klein created the monochrome paintings as a parody of traditional artist catalogues. Rather than a collection of elaborate pieces, his was just solid colours. People would attribute deeper meanings to the paintings. His work wasn’t about making something nice to look at, but instead performance art. He would challenge people’s ideas about what art is and what sort of reaction they should have.

But is that all contemporary art is?


Sure, contemporary art can be guilty of some of the things I’ve listed above. But it’s important to remember that it’s so much more than its stereotype. Rather than some elitist art movement, it is ‘art that has been created during our lifetimes’.

I’m a part of a group associated to the Arnolfini called the Young Arnolfini. We are a group of young artists/creatives who work to make contemporary art more accessible to young people. Lots of young people feel that the art world is something exclusive, because they  aren’t one of the arty stereotypes that are a part of it already. Friends have told me that they don’t feel like they can go into the Arnolfini – that because they ‘struggle with modern art’, they ‘try to avoid it’, and don’t feel welcome. And that’s exactly the view that needs to be challenged.

The Chapman BrothersWhilst I might think that Klein’s work is creative, challenging and innovative (though slightly pretentious, I’ll admit) the majority of people my age will look at it and think ‘what a load of rubbish’. When I say contemporary art to my friends, I get responses like ‘different’, ‘a pristine white gallery with sculptures and weird paintings’, ‘hipster’, ‘Splats of paint or straight lines with some kind of meaning’ or ‘chaotic’. We need to start getting young people involved in the other side of the art world. The side that isn’t as pretentious and where there are still pretty pictures of landscapes and portraits. There are so many projects – not just by the Young Arnolfini – that aim to challenge the view of contemporary art, and get more people involved. Bristol Biennial brings art to the streets, in a very public way through lines on the pavement and blindfolded adventures back home. Watershed’s project ‘Shadowing’ helps to make the city fun again as part of the Playable City by projecting shadows onto the street.

The Chapman Brothers2There are already so many things aiming to help make contemporary art more accessible to everyone. At Young Arnolfini, our aim is to do exactly that, and bridge the gap between young people and contemporary art.

Okay, but how? And more importantly, why?

That’s a pretty big task for one group – providing young people for a platform within the art world. But I think we manage, and the key is to trick everyone.

I don’t mean that in a deceitful way – we don’t trick everyone into becoming artists or anything. Not all young people are necessarily interested in the art world and don’t feel as though they can be a part of it. There have been countless times where I’ve started talking about something arty to someone to hear them reply ‘Oh, but I know nothing about art’, and I just think to myself ‘You’re missing the point!’

Sometimes, you don’t need to be ‘arty’ to have an opinion about art. Contemporary art is not just for those people with an art degree, it’s for everyone – including young people. So when I ask why you should aim to make contemporary art more accessible to young people, the response should be simply ‘why shouldn’t it be accessible?’

But it’s a long process. As I’ve said, other young people tell me they don’t feel comfortable in galleries, and we really should have more young people in galleries. The Arnolfini even says on its website that it aims to provide ‘accessible content and activities for people of all ages and backgrounds’.

YPFoI'sThrough things such as our Young Peoples Festival of Ideas series, we got young people inside the gallery, talking about things they were passionate about and interested in – not art. It gave them a platform where they could share their opinions with other like-minded people, without thinking ‘I’m in a big scary art gallery’. It made them feel comfortable.

Once young people start feeling comfortable in places like the Arnolfini, THEN you can start talking to them about Klein’s series of blue paintings.

It doesn’t stop there. We’re taking every opportunity to improve everything we’re doing and expand. Sure, getting a few young people into the gallery is a start – but when you’re aiming to bridge a gap between Young People and Contemporary Art, you’ve got to aim high. We are starting a bunch of new projects: from expanding our Young People’s Festival of Ideas series to workshops to a proposed takeover of the Arnolfini.

The biggest way you can make contemporary art more accessible for young people though, is generating interest and discussion about it.

So when I say Contemporary Art, what do you think of?

Young Arnolfini are currently looking for new members. If you’re interested, check this out for more information.

What do you think of contemporary art? Is it all pompous? Or is there something for you? Tweet us thoughts…NOW: @rifemag