A crowd of black suits and luxurious gowns weave in between works of spectacular opulence and grandeur, sipping on expensive glasses of sparkling champagne, muttering tame and polite phrases. The crowd slowly begins to gather in front of a work on a bleak white wall, a work that is yet to be unveiled to the world, surrounded by the copycats of Van Gogh and Monet alike. The anticipation builds and the red velvet sheet drops, unveiling the new artwork. Silence. The elites stare, taking in the work. No applause. No polite admirations. The work is eventually met with gasps, looks of horror and the smashing of those ritzy champagne glasses.
‘The arts’ reflect the diverse lives we all live and just like one’s life, they too transform, grow and evolve, reminding us of our humanity and challenge the very core values of our beliefs. As eras have passed and art movements been shaped, society is now subject to an array of eclectic art forms and works, though not all are as widely accepted and appreciated as ‘art’. If art is about emotions and expression, should it always be respected or is there a boundary as what art should or can represent?
The turn of the 21st century has seen artists take risks and experiment within their works, redefining what art can be. These risks have, in most instances not only pushed the boundaries of the art world, but also in some cases, have completely broken them. Performance artist, Marina Abramović is just one artist who is actively pushing the concepts of art. Active for the past three decades, Abramović believes that “the position of the artist today is more demanding that ever before. Art is more important than before because before there was a religion and now people don’t believe in anything anymore. Art has become some kind of connector between a disturbed society and nature”. Abramović works focus on the nature of confrontation, pain, blood and the limitations of the human body and experience and whilst such themes may be deemed as confrontational to audiences, Abramović still argues that she “could not produce a single work without the presence of the audience, because the audience gives me the energy to be able, through a specific action, to assimilate it and return it, to create a genuine field of energy”. Whilst art instillations and works may be provoking to audiences, it does become apparent that the modern day artist does feed on audience reactions, regardless of the emotion. This in itself has become a unique and intrinsic relationship within the art world, and challenges the notions of traditionalistic forms of art and appreciation.
Heather Riley, a third year Bachelor of Performance student at the University of Wollongong and admirer of Abramović is yet another artist who not only respects art that is deemed as confrontational, but also is actively creating works to push the ideas of preconceived artistic restrictions.
“You don’t learn anything when you’re comfortable. You learn when you’re uncomfortable. You will never learn anything talking to people with the same ideas, and the same goes for appreciating art. Sometimes you need to be scared, to change the way you think”.
Riley believes that the role of art within contemporary society is to ‘enable comments and discussions about the ways in which we are living; to make a comment on the audience’. Riley’s most recent work, a performance instillation, sought to bring light to the ways in which women are objectified and marginalized within society. Riley performed her two hour piece within the confinement of a glass room, parading up and down dressed in a provocative schoolgirl uniform. The space alone was something that mirrored the Red Light District of Amsterdam, the European sex district infamous for it’s abundance of prostitutes and sex shows. Riley continued to parade up and down the space, silhouetted by a red glowing light, interacting with audiences who stood and watched her. Outside the confines of her space were a series of cards from which audience members could choose to hold up to Riley, who would then complete the requested action. “A lot of the cards were misleading. There was one which said ‘take it off’ and a lot of people thought I would take off my clothes, though I would take of my makeup”, Riley explains as she reveals the intent of the piece is to make the audience reflect on societal issues and the unconscious powers and influences that they have over other individuals.
“People would hold up cards and be like do it; though once I did it you would see the looks in their eyes change as they realised, oh, I just made her do that”.
Riley laughs as she shares that some people turned and walked away and that even one audience member in particular actually complained about the piece. Riley however questions how audiences can complain about her art performance, when the issues which she is trying to shed light on are so prevalent and toxic within our contemporary society.
“It’s a crazy feeling to know that you’re horrifying people”.
Having conducted research before developing an artwork that could be met with controversy is also an imperative step within the contemporary artists art making process. “I wanted to make sure I had my statistics right because a lot of people, when you start talking about something risky, a lot of people want to shut you down”. With controversy comes responsibility, a responsibility to show audiences that the artwork is trying to convey a deeper meaning, an intent which brings to light to an issue that needs to be addressed.
Traditionalist artists however also argue that art doesn’t have to have purpose or provide audiences with a new perspective and that sometimes it is just best to admire a piece for the raw talent and beauty that it is. Penny Harkyn-Wynn has been a practicing traditionalist folk artist for the past 30 years of her life and admires artists and art for their skills and elegance. Harkyn-Wynn believes art to be the expression of whatever the artist sees and feels that if art were to ever make audiences distressed or confronted then the artwork itself has become “a waste of time”.
“Artists of confrontational art are people who don’t know how to properly express themselves or their works”.
Harkyn-Wynn questions the skill behind some art instillations, such as the performance pieces of Abramović and Riley, explaining that it has taken years for her to refine her skills as a painter.
The openness to art subjectivity may indeed be heavily influenced by generational bias. The concept of art has, throughout history, evolved to be both admired and feared. Artworks have ignited revolutions and been burnt and destroyed to protect the societies of which the artists are trying to reflect and portray. The arts will continue to grow and the cycle of being confrontational to acceptable will continue to turn just like the swirls of an artist’s paintbrush.
The concept of art is very similar to a mirror; a mirror that society must hold up and look into to view contemporary life. However, just because one individual does not like the reflection, it doesn’t mean that the mirror should be branded as broken or laid back down. Art is about the risk. Art is for the individual. If not, art could quite possibly cease to be purposeful and diminished to purely be that pretty, dusty painting sitting on a bleak white wall, met by the quaint smiles and respectful nods of the audiences who pass by.
If you trust the artists and their works, if you are inquisitive and brave, if you are able to see past the work’s eyes and into its soul, then you may make history and leave with a pair of new eyes; eyes which bring a new light to our new world.