We were looking at a painting that was really a painting of nothing. It had swirls, it had colors, it had, in my mind, a blob that looked like the outline of Jennifer Lawrence drinking tea — but that could just be because the man next to me was talking in a British accent about his love for the band Fun. and I wanted to go all Hunger Games on his booty. But, it wasn’t really a picture of anything in particular.
We were at the Oakland Art Murmur, an event held on the first Friday of every month, featuring live music, food trucks and art galleries that you can stroll through for free. The artwork showcased in the various galleries was distinctly contemporary. The usual complaints people have about contemporary art started to seep into my mind: that it doesn’t make sense, or that it’s stupid (as a single dot in the middle of a blank canvas stares back at you) or how like, OMG, I could have totes hella made this cray shiz myself, bro.
I have had these same thoughts before, too. But, while meandering around the galleries last Friday, I concluded that contemporary art has it’s own unique charm, and, simply, there’s nowhere else for art to really go.
I smirked over at my friend while doing the arrogant swishing of the upturned palm maneuver and started to delve into a serious explanation about how the painting represented the story of a grasshopper who was going through a divorce and the yellow color obviously showed that he was happy about it and was about to depart on a drunken romp around Canada, which is where all the single, scandalous grasshoppers reside.
In this lies part of contemporary art’s charm. You decide what the painting is about or what it is trying to evoke, rather than it obviously being a perfectly shaded lemon on a counter. Of course, you can spend hours interpreting and dissecting a classic painting from centuries past, but it all ultimately makes sense, whereas contemporary art, a lot of the times, simply does not, leaving the made-up stories endlessly possible.
Me scoffing that I, too, could have easily gotten a canvas and then gone ape shizzles with some paint and put it up in the gallery turns out to be another facet of this artwork’s charm. It gives a sense that anyone can participate. Anyone can be a producer of culture rather than being mere passive consumers.
This is not to discredit the artists that create these works, however. There was a wall at the Murmur left for people to make their own art, and the face I tried to paint looked like an electrocuted, constipated Rosie O’Donnell that honestly no one would find joy in looking at, even in a contemporary art gallery. The important part is that contemporary art gives that democratizing idea, an idea that anyone could participate in making art, even if the results do resemble a certain American television personality — which itself makes it feel like the art is our’s instead of a select elite’s.
If modern artists whipped out dozens of pieces like the “Mona Lisa” or “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” it’d be like, “Oh, cool, thanks for pushing the envelope a grand total of zero inches.” It is commendable that modern artists are being as innovative as possible and expanding the definitions of art. What comes to mind is when people complain that a majority of Hollywood movies these days are just recycled hybrids of dozens of previous films. These contemporary artists are fighting against the same repetitive, static status. The first one to put a block of solid purple paint above a block of solid blue, like Mark Rothko, becomes famous for doing something unique, despite how simple it may seem.
I admit, I shrugged and grimaced and shook my head at some of the artwork I saw while meandering around the galleries in Oakland because some were truly stranger than drunken grasshoppers. But, that’s OK, because its strange and nonsensical nature has a refreshing charm that is leading art in new directions.
Taran Moriates is the arts columnist. Contact him at [email protected].