As an art student, you balance your time between making your own art and learning about work made by others—in order to inform your own techniques, inspirations and methodology.

With this in mind, I have noticed from my time looking at contemporary art that moving with the times and staying relevant within the art world is not an easy task. I have never heard an artist talk of the apparent ease of staying relevant. 

While there is much to be gained from the infinite wealth of previous artists, there has always been an undoubted importance placed on the necessity to be contemporary—to be new and fresh—and to create something—whether it is a physical piece of art or a way of operating or thinking—that will have you remembered in the future. But the term “contemporary art” itself has such a remarkably ambiguous description; no wonder that the pursuit of its creation is so tough for any given artist.

Contemporary art is described as “art produced at the present point in time” which gives very little information about the essence of that actual art. “Produced at the present point in time” simply speaks of when that particular piece has been created, revealing nothing about what the piece contains, nor what style or artistic movement has been the catalyst in its initial conception. It would be more relevant to touch upon how that piece encapsulated the zeitgeist. I cannot help but feel that the definition of contemporary art, or at least good contemporary art, should surely contain something regarding how that piece differed from those around it, and in some way changed the way we view its main components; the styles in which it was made, the materials used or the subjects that inspired it.

This brings me on to an important lesson I have learned through my relatively short time at University. It was only a year or two ago that I initiated my love affair fine art. I was more of a graphic design guy growing up, so the idea of conceptual art—pieces that relied heavily upon their concept and meaning, as opposed than their execution or presentation— seemed alien to me. I always found myself turning my nose up at them. 

However, since starting University, I’ve learned my lesson, in every sense of the phrase, and my opinions have drastically transformed. Now, as much as I still love the clean, formulaic, often business-like approach of graphic design, I adore fine art and I’m honestly surprised it took me so long to finally come around. 

Since I was young, I have always been a deep thinker, someone who loves to question the meaning of things, the meaning of life and debate any thought or situation, especially art. Now, a day without writing about fellow artist’s work on my blog Caux Collective or making plans for my own conceptual art is almost unheard of.

Being surrounded by like-minded people that thrive on concepts and ache to find meaning in both their own art and that of others has strengthened my passion for fine art. This pattern of learning and this lifestyle taught me the importance of meaning and concept. Whereas before I would see a conceptual installation, something that looked incredibly simple or innocuous in appearance but was rich in meaning, I’d more than likely dismiss to go stare at the brightly colored painting. 

Now it’s almost the opposite. I am tempted to look at the more obviously attractive piece as immature, but I don’t really think it is. However, it was certainly the more immature part of me, the part that was slightly uneducated or inexperienced in the field of conceptual art, that was lacking, and it is that very part that I am now more excited than ever to explore. 

Late last year, art website ArtDaily reported on an art exhibition being held by British Artist Keith Coventry at the Pace London Gallery for his newest project “Junk Paintings.” In the report, ArtDaily spoke of how the artist “proposes a new visual language that focuses on elements of the instantly recognizable McDonald’s logo” and in the same article, Coventry himself says that, “[he is] moving from the objectivity of the logo to the non-objective abstract field, purifying it from the commercial dimension.” 

Keith Coventry's Junk Paintings
Keith Coventry’s Junk Paintings

This is a perfect example of the sort of art that splits my opinion. Firstly, do I like it? Well, yes. The OCD-like tendencies of my character, in particular, are certainly drawn to this. It is very careful and concise in its execution and its appearance contains little more than dissected shapes and block colors. There are no negatives to be drawn from this style, but I wasn’t initially convinced.

A lot of modern art that you have seen is often summarized by the mock equation Modern Art = I Could Do That + But You Didn’t. Sometimes this is perfectly valid. On the surface, Coventry’s exhibition seems to contain examples of I could do that because, despite all of the perfection and careful execution visible in the work, it is very minimalist. However it’s less in appearance, and more the concept and meaning which precedes and inspires this seemingly simple work that you couldn’t do yourself. 

What sets minimalist art like this aside from its generic competitors is the consideration I have mentioned: the education and intelligence exhibited in its concept and execution. As I said, many of us could make work that looks just like Coventry’s, but could we all have gained the inspiration to do so from discarded fast-food packaging? Or could we justify it by saying that the “yellow, red, and blue of the company’s visual identity mirrored [your own] palette” and reference the color choice to their original use by the Russian Constructivists, as Coventry does? I doubt it, which is precisely what sets it apart, and draws the attention it deserves from the art world. 

Similar justifications can be used in favor of many artists’ work, throughout the last century in particular. Piet Mondrian is a universally acclaimed artist. The Dutchman is highly regarded as one of the most influential painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, though many would be excused for seeing his art as little more than grids that could be replicated with a set of color by numbers. However, when you study Mondrian’s influences and aims, you discover that this incredibly talented artist devoted his entire life to working in this manner. He strived to achieve “a universal form of expression, by reducing form and color to their simplest components,” which changes what you see immensely. Mondrian said himself that “it is the task of art to express a clear vision of reality” and by living and working within the confines of his own self-imposed rules, of exclusively using primary colors and rectangular shapes, he looked to perfect his unfaltering vision. 

Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian

Of course, anybody can make art, and that is the true beauty of it. It is an expression of the purest kind. But when you are faced with something that appears so easy or simple to do—something that you come across in a gallery that you perhaps feel doesn’t deserve to be there—it is important to consider the historical or theoretical implications that the work brings with it. Because that is what sets it apart from everything else.