City Lit Blog

Facing the fear of contemporary art

Story added 30th Sep 2020

This article explores the challenges and pleasures of Contemporary Art, encouraging you to visit, study, and experience the richness and madness of 21st Century culture.  Ian Tucknott is a teacher of contemporary art, art history and art theory, and is Head of School for the Humanities & Sciences.


Let’s be honest, contemporary art is rarely easy.  The expansion of art through the 19th and 20th centuries took art practices into unknown and unexpected territories. It even expanded into realms that are usually the reserve of other types of practice – performance, music, technology, and even business.  For many of us it shifted from something familiar such as painting, sculpture, and drawing, and from something comfortable – representational, recognisable, beautiful - into something unrecognisable, sometimes uncomfortable, and often into something far from ‘aesthetically pleasing’.  Contemporary art can be anything, really.  It can be beautiful still, but is also equally likely to be interesting and ugly, confusing and pretty, overwhelming and terrible, thoughtful and sublime.  Contemporary artists are let loose on the full spectrum of human emotion and experience.  They can play to our fears and our humour as much as our happiness and comfort.  Perhaps this is part of the challenge of contemporary art, but it is also part of its pleasure.  Immersing oneself in the unknown, not knowing exactly what it is we may be looking at, hearing or experiencing.  Allowing ourselves, sometimes, to feel out of our depth.  This can be a great source of self-expansion, of soul expansion even. Challenging what we think we know. Pushing at the edges of human experience.

Damned concepts

Conceptual art is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but it has a lot to answer for.  When Conceptual art (with a big ‘C’) emerged fully in the 60s, it brought with it the art of the idea.  Ideas then attracted theories, and theories made art heavy and complex and in many cases, let’s be honest, a bit boring.  Theory was King when I was at Art School in the early noughties, and it often felt like we were no longer expected to be artists, but illustrators of theories.  We’ve got over this somewhat, but theories are still there (and I hope so, because I teach art theory).  So too are ideas and concepts, but again, art has always been about ideas.  Concepts provide ways of thinking about our world, they turn ideas into images, and thoughts into metaphors and stories and wonderful objects.  I don’t know how conceptual art made concepts into something other than ideas, but it seemingly didn’t go down well.  Which is weird, because ideas are great.  Perhaps it’s just that the obsession with concepts seemed to fully shove aesthetics from centre stage, and some of us will never forgive concepts for what they’ve done to beauty.  But art today can be anything, as I’ve said.  Aesthetics are back (if they ever really went away), and there’s even some ‘traditionally’ beautiful contemporary art here and there for those that want it.  Art is both thinking and feeling, concept and form, and in the best art these things are perfectly married and synthesised.  A lot of the time they’re not.  When I teach art I always describe it as an attempt.  Artists attempt to achieve something, but they’re rarely perfect. Art works are rarely perfect.  Nothing is. Let’s give art a break, and join artists in our own attempting.


I guess the other challenge of contemporary art is its contemporariness. It’s very nowness.  Artists are immersed in their times.  They may draw on and learn from the past, but they are also likely to reject and subvert some rules, some values, some of historical art’s demands and expectations.  It may not seem like it, but they’re also often quite respectful of the past – learning from it, copying it, but with a contemporary spin.  Artists respond to the world, to their experience of it, and in turn translate that experience into objects, images, spaces, films, websites, sounds, smells and movement, for us in turn to experience, feel and reflect on. Contemporary art tells us about now, what it means to live and breathe in the 21st century.  It can teach us about the world around us, about our changing relationship with imagery and technology and nature and our very selves. It reminds  us what it means to see, hear, touch, feel and think.  It can politicise us or challenge our biases, it can connect us to those who are different to us, give insight to a whole array of lifestyles, cultures, lives, and ways of living.  Contemporary art is expansive and expanding. It is global.  There’s something for everyone, if we search for it.

For the love of art

I implore you, for the love of art, give it a go. Why stay safe? When the galleries closed as a result of the lockdown, it felt like a huge part of me was missing… briefly.  But artists responded, as did galleries, and the internet and social media became our remote galleries.  Zoom and Google became annexes to our studios, our crit spaces, and our bars and cafes.  When artists started to fear for their livelihoods, I feared for them – they need our support, as audiences, as art appreciators, as teachers, as learners and (if you have the money) as collectors… more now than ever.  But history also tells us that times of great upheaval – revolution, war, depression, plagues –give birth to some of our greatest art, or spur on some of its most exciting developments.  Now is the time to get stuck in, because what emerges now will be written into the history books.  Embrace it whilst it’s live.  Know it as best you can in its becoming. Love it, because human creativity – as it always has been – is what really makes the world go round (if you’ll excuse the cliché). Art, culture, creativity – this is what makes us human. Art connects us of our humanity in all its strangeness, messiness, complexity and joyful wonder.  Forget all that other stuff, because art is really what we’re here for.

Contemporary Art History at City Lit

At City Lit, we offer a broad range of Contemporary Art History courses and guest lectures. Some are short, some longer. Some courses will help you with the basics while others will invite you to delve deeper into a specific area. For example, you might be interested in some of the following: