Where Contemporary Art Comes From

Jessica Backus
Jul 6, 2013 1:51AM

Sometimes, when two artworks love each other very much, they come together through the miracle of an artist’s creation and create a third artwork. Or, well, maybe they just end up on the artist’s radar, seep through their unconscious, flash before their eyes, or however else one takes in the things one sees. Of course sometimes ideas can come in a flash of inspiration, but oftentimes art comes from other art.

Willem de Kooning once declared the genesis of his work: “I have no message. My paintings come more from other paintings.” The starter kit de Kooning used for much of his work was to be found in the mass of drawings and transfer prints in his studio, his “stew” or, punning on “culture”, his “yoghurt,” which he would pick up, remix, and riff on in the creation of new work.

Most M.F.A. programs - the terminal degree many artists pursue after their undergraduate education -  require the completion of at least some art history classes, and any artist working conceptually today is expected to have at least a general understanding of important milestones in conceptual art especially since the 1960s and 70s. Picasso once said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” To steal, you have to know what is out there for the taking. Although all artists have different processes, especially given the number of artists these days completing M.F.A.s and, yes, P.h.D.s, this starter kit becomes a full on arsenal built up over years looking at art – their own and others', past and present.

So what does this mean for their viewers? Do you have to have a PhD in art history to appreciate art?

The answer is an emphatic no. As critic Jerry Saltz has said:

there are no "gatekeepers" in the art world anymore. . . it's mainly a wonderful chaos. It's like the scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen crosses into Cambodia and asks a soldier, "Who's in charge here?" The soldier, unaware he's in a place where old rules no longer apply, panics and replies, "I thought you were!"

There is no counsel of elders that dictates some common art historical curriculum. But it does help to have a bit of background about some broader recent developments to have a sense of where we are now. It can also help to get more out of individual works of art. Artworks themselves can be thought of as gateways to a collective history, and the more you want to dive in, the more you’ll get out.

Perhaps one of the basic premises of contemporary art goes back to the avant-garde and their concerted assault on  “good taste.” Then the 1960s changed everything again; high and low taste were inverted not only in art, but also in everyday life (witness: New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix. Items on the index can be so bad they’re good, or brilliant and low brow at the same time). What this means is that there is no one right taste – you can like what you like. While most music listeners – and most of us do listen to music – have long known this to be true, for some reason many people think art is still beholden to the same restraints of taste it was in the 1950s. 

Jessica Backus