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"What is art?" or "What has art become?" (specifically but not exclusive to contemporary art)

I started learning art and craft before I could remember I was born left-handed. In the art class, the teacher grabbed my right hand at her own convenience. My mom told me about this years later that one day I came home and started using my right hand. I dreamed of becoming a scientist and artist when I was a kid, because I thought my room was messy enough for being one of them. I liked visual art classes at school, I love drawing, I played the piano, tried dancing "slightly", I love drama, whether on front stage or in backstage, I like taking pictures. I love art.

Yet, I didn't study art for my undergraduate degree. I was kind of academically? or professionally strayed away from art and delved into multimedia production and design for years, with some drawings or painting from every other half a year or something. To me, pursuing a MA in Fine Art is like coming back to the art world, in a comparatively mature age. This time, art looks different to me. As I brought the questions with me in my applications to art schools, I am quite lost about art, and specifically contemporary visual art.

From my observations, some form of arts are striving much better than the others, like concept art, 3D art, illustration (especially by Japanese illustrators), photography, architecture etc. are getting really good and advance. While in place like museums where art is made (Jacques, 2009), some conceptual art or something similar are occupying the spaces in museums, where there should have been more well-made art displayed. Why is something like Duchamp's Fountain still a thing after so many years? Like people can just put a display of declaration on something to say it is art, and without too much efforts to put have their work displayed in a museum or gallery.

The person (theodor132) is probably not referring to modern art but contemporary art
The kind of contemporary art that I think is legitimate. Yayoi Kusama's works are really captivating and they say something about her. This is really like something you see at the end of your life, or like Intersellar, you are in another dimension. Source:
But this is also contemporary art? Indeed, who would actually care who made this and why? (a piece of work I saw in Stedelijk Museum) Is art a guessing game now? Any meaningful reflections upon looking at this?

I read a speech delivered by Thierry de Duve, the text version of which being "When Form Has Become Attitude — And Beyond", the first 15 pages of his book about contemporary art. The text delved into historic transition of models of art creation, education, and appreciation, with the main focus being the highlight of their differences, so as to breakdown the query of why contemporary art is the way it is.

Thierry de Duve began with depicting traditions of art being destroyed in the process of avant-garde movement, under the historical context of industrialism, social movement, scientific advancement and changes in ideologies. Artists were trained in a new academic, or pedagogical? model. The subject matter and the source of inspiration changed from the observations in the world and imitation to the investigation of one's mind and its expressions.

The Bauhaus played an important part of modernism and had a huge impact on art teaching, which De Duve referred as the Bauhaus model. The Bauhaus model of art teaching is the opposite to the traditional one, referred as the academic model. De Duve pointed out that they are both obsolete, but the art world, or art education is still under the shadow of the clashes of these two models. He summarised three major consequences from the introduction and turning to the Bauhaus model, in terms of three antithetical scopes, namely "Talent and creativity", "Métier and medium: and "Imitation and invention".

The main takeaway is that modern art was subversive that it turned on itself and the art education not just aesthetically but also the whole process of nurturing artists, appreciation of art and the fundamental factors of judgement of whether a piece of artwork is good or bad. The constant creation of totally new works makes it hard to track students' progress and discuss the content of them. The encouragement of rejecting to follow traditional art making leads to declination of skills and aesthetics. De Duve emphasised that he had no intention to say which model is better nor to claim that we should return to the academic model. While he had spoken and organised what I am exactly thinking about in my mind, our aesthetics are more or less subject to the current trends of the definition of beauty. We would still see Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci the masters of art and beauty, while considering "simple is the best" and finding the elegance in minimalism. Like what de Duve mentioned about industrialisation, it could possibly because of the fact that life is becoming more complicated than what is used to be in the past, made us turn to simplicity and peace of mind we get from it. But minimalism did not play that a big part in the revolutionary "paradigm shift", nor did many pieces of artwork from the most prestigious (or high profile, if that's more accurate) contemporary artists bring people peace of mind.

One way or the other, the keys to become a master of arts, namely visual arts, which being the talent, the skills to intimate and the expertise are replaced by creativity, the frequency and originality of invention and the medium. According to de Duve, nowadays art schools still follow the Bauhaus' legacy, "creativity-medium-invention", but the model itself is not without self-contradiction in every sense that without looking back in history art will lose substance and without rules and conventions one would be drowned in the impossibility to find a subject matter and work on anything.

Kandinsky. One of the key figures in the Bauhaus movement. Source:

After the "creativity-medium-invention" model failed, "attitude-practice-deconstruction" supplanted it. With cultivation of art in a traditional way, and not in the west, "attitude" is all new to me. De Duve consider the exhibition in 1969 "When Attitudes Become Form" gave birth this new concept which would soon be adapted in most art schools, and nothing much as changed except students would be expected to have a "critical attitude" and their interests, subject matter to be politicised. This is all too clearly a trend where in contemporary art museum such as the Tate Modern, every piece of work or artist is introduced in the format starting by saying "(the artist) uses (the medium) to (question, explore... etc.)", as if to me the art is merely a tool for something else that is not about art. It strikes me as what people value the most in visual art these days being the message, or the "ATTITUDE", to a point that it is the threshold for entering museums and big public galleries. It is different with other arts like music, or dancing, where if the skills are lost then there is also nothing left. With visual art, strangely enough that we are still willing to pay for some bizarre objects or installation and find the redeeming quality in peculiarity.

Another new concept introduced by de Duve is "practice" which I have never heard of before enrolling into an art university, although we are referred to what we usually do, or "practice", like "painter". I just came to realise what a traditional person I am because I find it rather odd to describe myself as an "interdisciplinary" artist. I would prefer just the word "artist" and also due to my belief that the crux of art is the artist himself or herself (or themselves or whatever people like) and what I practice is irrelevant to what makes me who I am nor to define what I do because if I only paint then I would be more generally known as a painter and if I do all sort of things then I am an artist all in all. It is just, surprising to learn the modern (contemporary) art history that "practice" emerged in the 1970s, because of conceptual art like what Duchamp did. I am just thankful to all the previous art teachers in my life that they actually taught me art in the traditional way, to look at and observe the world and also classic pieces. Otherwise all I could produce would only be the kind of million dollar worth abstract expressionism artwork, instead of having to try hard to improve my eye-hand skill and all sort of drawing skills that I think I am not good enough at. De Duve argued that with "artistic practice" being institutionalised, the "essence" of art is somehow alienated, or generalised to a type of doing something persistently.

Moving on to the final part, de Duve took us on the ride of deconstruction by Derrida. In the end of the 60s, when there in a culture is nothing more to look forward to without having to look back, and with people who refused to accept the reality, philosopher like Derrida came up with the idea to dismantle opposite ideas. The influence of deconstruction is prevalent in popular culture (perhaps low art), for example Neon Genesis Evangelion's deconstruction of anime (Austin, 2020). But what does deconstruction mean for art teaching? He pointed out that in the 80s, deconstruction was somehow a torment for art students who "haven't had the time to construct an artistic culture of any kind", illustrated with a vivid example of his experience of a class that deconstruct anything including student's work which was created for the very purpose.

It is worth to notice that this speech was delivered in 1994, and there are continuously revolutionary changes in technologies that opened a new era, or genre of art — digital art, and now even AI art, which must be unimaginable for anyone at that time. Yet, some of the arguments remain valid and it appears to me that art teaching, at least where I am studying now is still more or less operating in the "attitude-practice-deconstruction" scheme. It is undeniable that this approach of art teaching sometimes makes me doubt myself and feel lost. But I am trying to find my way through.

Having all that being said, it is inappropriate to conclude that we should go back to the old ways, or that contemporary art is dead, at least not every part of it is degenerating, since every artwork produced now is supposedly part of contemporary art. I am constantly amazed by artists on Twitter, Art Station, YouTube and Instagram and not every work there is digital art. With AI art, it should be a powerful and refreshing force for humans' aesthetic development and ideas about subject matter, as for the time being it generates art from humans' input. Just how interesting and pleasant it is to look at art online, compared to a bunch of mystifying blend occupying 80% of the space in contemporary art galleries and museums. It is perhaps time to re-examine what art making is about, and what magical power is left in fine art which is more than a concept and a declaration, in order to resonate, in such an era of unpredictability, uncertainty and unrest around the globe. Or maybe just look into other cultures and countries and think about what way artists and art education should go in the future, if it is about humanity instead of art for art sake or for whatever else's sake that is irrelevant to art.


Kocur, Zoya. Leung, Simon, Theory in contemporary art since 1985, Chichester : Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

And I found this powerful article:

Original text where the article is based on:

Other references of less importance:

Carpentieri, Austin. Hand to God : Neon Genesis Evangelion’s gnostic gospel of deconstruction, 2020,

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