Dear, ugly and incomprehensible, contemporary art? Responses to six shots are often heard


The International Fair of Contemporary Art (FIAC), which opens Thursday in Paris, illustrates many of the flaws reported by the defenders of this environment. Critics who are not all rejected by the players of this thriving market.

From Thursday 18th to Sunday 21st October it takes place "the funniest event in Paris", at least in the eyes of the animator Pascal Praud: the FIAC, the great contemporary art fair that invests the Grand Palais every year in Paris. Fervent defender of the "common sense", the television reporter does not miss an opportunity to describe contemporary art as "the biggest scam of our time", and had mocked the FIAB in 2014, on RTL, explaining that we could see "Armored Gogos for the ISF (…) faint in front of a sculpture representing a dog poop".

>> VIDEO. Are you completely airtight at contemporary art? These four works could make you change your mind.

He is not the only one to have this point of view. The event, aimed both at collectors and on the curious, crystallizes every year all the usual critics heard on contemporary art. Many skeptics return to the mouth, whether they are hermetic to art in general or more particularly fanatical painters and sculptors of the previous centuries. And maybe you, who are reading this article, are part of it. We have tried to answer six widely spread statements when it comes to beating contemporary art and discovering their share of truth or caricature.

"I do not see why I like bad things"

You have noticed that contemporary artists do not necessarily want to be beautiful. The journalist and art critic Elisabeth Couturier herself recognizes this beauty "it's not what you expect in priority" in the middle "We hope especially for a job that questions us, destabilizes us". You can not share this opinion, but it is widespread among those who create contemporary art, those who expose it and those who recommend it in the media.

That said, contemporary art did not invent this approach. Take Gustave Courbet, a nineteenth-century painter you will probably appreciate – this is certainly the case with many detractors of contemporary art. You can find his work "beautiful" by his mastery in painting, but "when he painted A funeral in Ornans, such realism was considered the worst thing "explains Elisabeth Couturier. "We thought that art should transcend reality".

But if you're looking for beauty, it still exists. Jean Blaise, creator of the contemporary art course Le Voyage à Nantes, cites as an example the Oceanic snake Chinese Ping Huang Yong, installed in 2012 in Saint-Brévin (Loire-Atlantique). In the spirit of the artist, this snake skeleton that enters and leaves the water at the rhythm of the tides "came to announce bad news for the planet". "But besides giving a message, it's a breathtaking job, which was quickly adopted by everyone", remember.

The "Serpent of the ocean", a monumental fake skeleton installed by the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping in Saint-Brévin-les-Pins, near Nantes (Loire-Atlantique), seen here on March 25, 2013. ( JACQUES LOIC / AFP)

And vice versa, doing "ugly" sometimes makes sense. So, in 2009, Jean Blaise is looking for a job to have in front of the new architecture school in Nantes: "Seeing this beautiful building, we thought it would be more interesting to provoke it"rather than installing a statue that would have melted into the furniture. His team chooses the Dutch collective Van Lieshout, which he designs "a kind of big chewing-gum baby blue", cutting with the modern perfection of the school. Jean-Marc Ayrault [alors maire de Nantes] I did not really like it, because it shocked a wonderful job. But after a long discussion about the role of art, he understood our approach and accepted ". This shows that you are not the only one to be skeptical, but that you can reconsider your positions.

"My 5 year old daughter could do just as well, and I could do it too"

If what you admire in art is the gift of Caravaggio to paint the light, you can understand that you are perplexed by a blanket entirely covered in white, or that you intend to direct your children towards a profitable career of the minimalist painter. Although the monochromes date back to the early 20th century and are not a contemporary invention, they illustrate what worries many people to contemporary art: a form of simplicity. but "try, you'll see, it's not so easy to paint a monochrome", warns Beatrice Joyeux-Prunel, professor of history of contemporary art at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. These canvases are distinguished from one another by a work on geometry, texture or shade of white, which is never totally pure (this video of Vox, in English, will tell you more ). But their interest also lies in the artist's approach.

A visitor in front of an abstract painting by the French-Canadian painter Agnès Martin, at the Tate Modern in London, on 2 June 2015.
A visitor in front of an abstract painting by the French-Canadian painter Agnès Martin, at the Tate Modern in London, on 2 June 2015. (GUY BELL / SIPA)

Yep, "everyone can have the idea of ​​a monochrome, but they still have to do it", believes Beatrice Joyeux-Prunel, and, a priori, this is not your case. And if, tomorrow, you try to sell to a gallery owner a canvas simply covered with white paint by your children, you're not sure you bought it. "For this to be considered art, it must be dubbed by the medium", writes Elisabeth Couturier, who wrote Contemporary art: the guide (Flammarion, 2015). And this recognition of museums or criticism is attributed when they see it "the artist takes the thread of the story, borrows the paths opened by other visual artists before him and opens them even more". In short, that brings something new.

Take for example fountain, the most famous work of the visual artist Marcel Duchamp: it is a porcelain urinal, inverted and signed by the artist. You too could buy one in the trade and try to do the same "job". But by presenting this object at an exhibition in New York in 1917 – it was rejected – Duchamp showed a revolutionary twist, which helped redefine what is a work of art, and continues to influence current artists . This is the approach that makes it an important piece.

Today, therefore, it is totally accepted in the art world to present works that do not require any technique from the artist. And they can be acclaimed by critics. Elisabeth Couturier takes for example Mathieu Mercier, a contemporary French artist, author of a series of installations, Drum & Bass, "that are made only with items that you can buy in a hardware store, but when you look at them, you're like a picture of Mondrian", which you have probably already seen (without necessarily knowing) the minimalist and colored grids. "When we are involved in the game, we understand that we can make figures with something different from a brush and color".

"Pretend to find it deep inside, but it does not make sense"

You may have laughed a lot when you read it in 2016, a visitor from museum of San Francisco Modern Art he had put his glasses on the floor and some visitors thought it was a job. If it's just a prankster, is it also the case of Marcel Duchamp and his urinal? "You might think he's a scammer, but there are entire libraries full of writers whowho have spent their lives contemplating his genius, sweeps Elisabeth Couturier. "It still means that he touched something, he opened up thousands of perspectives". Andy Warhol, whose work is largely based on the fact that works of art are emblematic of the objects of consumer society, would not have existed if Duchamp had not redefined what could be a work.

A spectator observes "Fontaine", a constitutive work of Marcel Duchamp, during an explosion at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, on 3 October 2017.
A spectator observes "Fontaine", a constitutive work of Marcel Duchamp, during an explosion at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, on 3 October 2017. (GUY BELL / SIPA)

So you will have difficulty convincing generations of historians that the Duchamp urinal has no meaning. But, of course, it is up to the defenders of contemporary art themselves to find some artists, but recognized, completely devoid of interest. Stéphane Correard, himself a gallerist, is not convinced by the work of Daniel Buren, the author of the famous columns installed in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal in Paris. "He has a very strong theoretical discourse, but in reality, his work has been" spectacularized "over the years, and today has become purely decorative", He says.

As for music or cinema, you can find a recognized artist perfectly without interest. Stéphane Corréard summarizes: "There are things that we like and others, no, what makes no sense is to be in favor or against contemporary art as a whole".

"I do not want a warning to understand the works"

You are not the only one: even the subject snatches the amateurs of contemporary art. "In art schools, an artist's speech about his work is almost more important than the work itself", Stéphane Corréard complains. "For me, the truth of a work must be in the work itself, it must remain something that we can rediscover several centuries later and understand".

How much information should the viewer give? The size of the signs that accompany the works varies considerably between the museums. "You have to give some keys, but also make it clear that this is not the most important, when you have learned how to approach the art, the keys, we will try ourselves"says Jean Blaise, who has spent his career in the installation of contemporary art in public space. Above all because a work does not necessarily have a meaning, determined by the artist. For Elisabeth Couturier, "a strong work evokes many things, which the artist has sometimes unconsciously put".

And it happens that there is nothing special to understand. "An artist like James Turrell appeals to the body and the senses"with its empty pieces, where the light plays, explains the art critic. "You enter and you are immersed in an atmosphere of color, blue, black.You can not see the edges of the room, it makes you lose your senses, you hardly dare to walk..

A man plunges into the "Aural" light installation by James Turrell at the Jewish Museum in Berlin on April 12, 2018.
A man plunges into the "Aural" light installation by James Turrell at the Jewish Museum in Berlin on April 12, 2018. (WOLFGANG KUMM / AFP)

"It's about making money"

There is no doubt that the Fiac, with its 193 stalls where the works are for sale, is not the event that will convince you otherwise. Stéphane Corréard finds it surprising "the main contemporary art event of the year is a fair". In the world of art, "the legitimacy brought by the market has exceeded that brought by museum curators"the critic and the collector are worried Being sold expensive will do more good to an artist's career than to be admired by museums, which will eventually be followed by collectors: Stéphane Corréard notes that the Center Pompidou in Paris "90% of the stars in the market".

You are not wrong in imagining that money influences at least a part of contemporary art. Even the well-known and very political Banksy street artist does not escape the fact that his works are auctioned – and when he stages the self-destruction of one of his paintings, it takes on value. For artists it becomes difficult to make a name and live their art without appealing to the great collectors, "multimillionaires who do not necessarily have a huge artistic openness", says Stéphane Corréard. "If the musicians were to be financed by Bernard Arnault or François Pinault [deux milliardaires français et mécènes importants de l’art contemporain], keep it going, are there hard rock or rap? "

François Pinault (right), France's third fortune, in front of a collection of his own production,  "Very Hungry God " by Subodh Gupta, together with Councilor Alain Minc, during an exhibition at the Kering Group's headquarters in Paris, 15 September 2017.
François Pinault (right), France's 3rd fortune, in front of a collection of his collection, "Very Hungry God" by Subodh Gupta, with director Alain Minc, during an exhibition at the headquarters of the Kering group in Paris, September 15th 2017. (MEIGNEUX / SIPA)

Critics see the emergence of artists "Who defeats the market e which one asks why they are proposed ", esteem Elisabeth Couturier, except for the fact that they satisfy those who have the means to buy them. Remember in particular the "zombie formalists", abstract abstract painters in 2014 "and they are no longer worth a nail today". Their paintings had no strong idea, but they were "perfect for decorators", summarizes the New York magazine.

But before rejecting contemporary art because it would sell its soul, know that this is not new. Author of The artistic avant-garde. A transnational history, Beatrice Joyeux-Prunel recalls that many of these avant-garde movements "could innovate because the artists sold a more classic production next door", like Monet, sent to paint views on the Côte d'Azur because they liked American collectors.

On the other hand, this phenomenon takes on proportions never seen before in the case of some of the world's most expensive artists. The production of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons has become an industry that employs dozens of people to meet the demand. "I think that today they are closer to what is a fashion house than to an artist", believes Stéphane Corréard: brands that produce creatively, but to sell to wealthy customers. Imagine even a future in which these stars would have "vocation to be replaced one day, at the head of the claw, by young designers who bring new ideas". The metamorphosis of some artists into brands, which you may deplore, would be complete.

Like many works by Jeff Koons,  "Balloon Swan ",  "Balloon Monkey " and  "Balloon Rabbit ", here at the Gagosian Gallery in New York on May 9th 2013, they are available in five different colors.
Like many works by Jeff Koons, "Balloon Swan", "Balloon Monkey" and "Balloon Rabbit", here at the Gagosian Gallery in New York on May 9th 2013, they are available in five different colors. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

"We will never remember these artists as we remember today in Van Gogh"

That you do not know, and also the professionals of the art. "I myself, I often ask myself this question"admits Jean Blaise. "I do not think we know which contemporary artists will remain posterity". What is certain is that contemporary art has a handicap with respect to the currents that preceded it: it is contemporary, in fact, and the "sorting" of history, which makes it possible to distinguish the great artists of others, not He still did. "At the time of Van Gogh, there were hundreds of Van Goghs, less good", play with Elisabeth Couturier. But they have fallen into oblivion and can not see them on the walls of museums.

Also, you may be aware that many of the artists who entered the Art Hall of Fame have also been very critical of their times. "Once upon a time, 99% of people thought that Picasso was not an artist", recalls Jean Blaise. "Today, when I look at the people waiting in line to admire Picasso's last show, I tell myself that at the time they would probably hate".


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