Ingrid Schaffner gives talk on contemporary art

Ingrid Schaffner is set to curate one of the leading contemporary art survey exhibitions at the Carnegie Museum of Art. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Ingrid Schaffner is set to curate one of the leading contemporary art survey exhibitions at the Carnegie Museum of Art. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Ingrid Schaffner is an art critic set to curate the 57th Carnegie International. The Carnegie International is one of the world’s leading surveys in contemporary art. If you’re anything like me, just the words contemporary art make you fall asleep. It triggers thoughts such as “I could’ve done this” or “how is this any better than something a kindergartener draws?” However, for most people, including myself, this happens because of a lack of understanding of contemporary art. So in my attempt to be less close-minded on the subject, I attended a talk hosted by Schaffner at the Carnegie Museum of Art entitled “What is Contemporary Art?”

Shaffner began by presenting a list that divided contemporary art into the following categories: terrain, systems, reference, history, business, identity, form, ornament, alchemy, evocation, storage, resistance, and technology. Many of these categories are self-explanatory, however some required a deeper analysis. One of the first categories she discussed was systems. This was the idea of laying out a path for the viewer to follow. Schaffner discussed several artistic exhibits that only showcased dates or locations, which exist to highlight travels and the passage of time. While many of the exhibits that she spoke of were very simplistic, Schaffner explained how they told the story of time passage through their dates. This made me understand a little bit more about the intentions behind contemporary art, but I pressed on to find out why I still felt like it was so simple to execute.

Another important category discussed was reference. This explores the idea that everything that could ever be created was already done by modern artists, so post-modern artists are forced to simply copy and repeat what has already been done. The focus of this was works of art that recycled or sampled previously used ideas. Schaffner’s main example for this was Andy Warhol’s pop art work that resampled pictures of iconic figures in various colors. It was at this moment that I realized that contemporary artists don’t have it that easy. No one will ever paint another Mona Lisa, so are all contemporary artists left to just scavenge through bits of recycled art? Is that why no one even bothers to make art that resembles Renaissance level work?

One of the most peculiar categories that Schaffner discussed was ornament, art used as decoration. She showed a sculpture of a completely hard couch to show that the difference between furniture and ornament is the functionality of the piece. Schaffner rationalized that the purpose of this art was not only in the decoration, but also in the placement of it. On the other hand, the concept of evocation was about much more than just decoration. This aimed to evoke an initial emotion out of the viewer before they are allowed to focus on what is actually happening. These are the very emotional pieces that feature artifacts and remnants from the artist’s past. Whether it’s happiness, sadness, frustration, or elation, the aim is to make the viewer feel something. This is the art that I find to be much more relatable just because the artist puts more of their personal experiences into it. This is the contemporary art that makes sense to me because even if it is not a beautiful painting, it is still an expression of self.

Another concentration of contemporary art that Shaffner discussed was technology. This focused on art that not only was about the rise of technology, but art that utilized various forms of digital media to convey a message. This is the aspect of contemporary art that I have often found the most confusing because it seems so abstract sometimes. Schaffner explained however that much of the art in this category is in the creation of the piece as opposed to the actual work itself.

Schaffner attempted to give me the tools to be able to dip my toes into the contemporary art world. I enjoyed the way she broke up the different elements into categories and explained the art through the lens of each category which helped it make a little more sense. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert by any means, but I do think that I am more aware of the thought that goes into creating the art despite how simple i perceive it to be. I embarked on this talk with one goal in mind: to finally understand what the hell is happening in contemporary art and to not think so negatively of it. Do I now know what’s happening in most of these pieces? Not really, but I will now be making future attempts to be a little more considerate of the feelings behind the blank canvases with a single square painted on them.