Contemporary art is forever making the headlines, which shouldn't be surprising as everyone has an opinion about what art is and what they think that it should be. Art is one of those subjects that people say that they know nothing about, and then spend the next ten minutes pontificating on. Most of the public look at contemporary art, as seen for example at events like the Turner Prize, and believe that the up and coming artist deliberately looks for controversy and sensationalism.
The majority of the population thinks that art should make a clear, easily understood statement, and should be, in general, representational. The minority is less rigid in their thinking and believes that arts important qualities are more to do with imagination, originality and expression.
Hours of television, press and radio time is spent discussing the two sides of the argument, but whatever our own conclusions are we must remember that one of arts most valuable and fundamental aspects is its diversity. It is easy to scorn and criticize art work that we don't understand or that doesn't correspond to our own ideas about art. But, if we turn back the pages of art history, we will find that artists that we now consider as great, and years ahead of their time were often lambasted when their work was first exhibited to the public.
A recent television art docu-drama series about the Impressionist painters gives examples of this. Manet's "Olympia" is one of the most popular prints published, and is on millions of walls all over the world. What could we possibly find offensive about this painting? Obviously nothing considering its world wide popularity.
But, when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1865 it was considered crude and not up to the standards of the Salon. It was subject to so much hostility that it was removed from its original spot in the main hall and re-hung in a less conspicuous position, so high up the wall that it was impossible to view it properly. We now regard this painting as one of Manet's finest paintings, and many art critics would consider it a modern masterpiece.
Picasso, Turner, and Van Gogh - the list goes on forever of artists that could have been used to illustrate the point. It is paradoxical that we want to see great art produced in our own time, but we are seldom ready to understand it. This brings us back to our original question. Are the up and coming artists of the day sensationalists, or should we give them the benefit of the doubt and let history judge them? Is Tracy Emmin's "Bed" and Chris Ofili's elephant dung paintings art? Or are they, as many would have it, symptomatic of the lowering of standards that we are coming to expect from a bunch of over hyped, under talented so called artists?
In all fields we will find individuals that play the system, are confidence tricksters and will attempt to "get away” with anything that they can. But, most artists are genuine and are deeply involved in their own creativity and ideas. It must be up to us to try to understand what these younger artists are trying to do. If we look and study and still can't understand let us at least appreciate that we may just be people of our own time and as art history shows we may be looking at people who are a step or two ahead of us.