Confused by Contemporary Art? Don Henley Can Help

Hello readers! Our class finished our first full day in Strasbourg, and we have discovered that we very much enjoy France, even if it's a little colder than Italy. Our agenda today juxtaposed a tour of a grand gothic cathedral with a trip to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and the drastic changes between these two styles definitely made for an interesting day! 

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art 

A Passage for Those Who Don't Like Contemporary Art

Before I dive into what we saw at the museum, I have a confession to make: I have a great deal of trouble embracing contemporary art.  Renaissance portraits of Mary and impressionist landscapes are well within my comfort zone, but pictures of shapes and bouncing cubes are a challenge for me. In the past, I never knew what I was supposed to get from contemporary art, so I avoided it. However, now that I'm taking a class about art through the ages, my excuses for ignoring the art that's being produced in my own era are no longer valid. Though I recognize this, there was still a part of me that was silently reluctant to pass through the doors of Strasbourg's Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art this morning. 

When we entered the first exhibit it seemed as though my worst fears were being realized. At the forefront of the room lay an enormous yellow painting with sporadic splotches of color lining the edges. The piece was titled Balls and Tunnels by Valérie Favre. We all took a minute to absorb it, and after that my peers began to dissect the painting, picking apart the emotions it evoked and its many possible meanings. I will not dispute that Favre's work is beautiful --it most certainly is-- but I could not seem to extract half of the information from it that my classmates could. 

If there are any Harry Potter fans among my readers, you may recall a moment in the series when Hermione Granger, an exceedingly bright girl, is frustrated with her Divination class. She likes books and lessons that plainly state their purpose, and thus struggles with a class that focuses on seeing the unseeable. I'm certainly not comparing myself to Hermione's genius, but I sympathized with her as I wandered uncertainly through the rooms full of artwork that  adamantly refused to claim one single easy-to-understand message. 

Still feeling like a confused Hermione, I continued through the corridors of the exhibit until I happened across a cluster of paintings titled, Les Ghosts, the inspiration for which came from Francisco de Goya's Flight of the Witches. After spending a few minutes scrutinizing the first in this group of paintings, I was joined by a classmate. She was having the time of her life in this museum, and when I asked why she was so taken with this style of art, she responded "It can exist on so many different planes. These things," she motioned towards the ghosts in the painting "look like people, but they could be something totally different to someone else." We talked a few minutes longer and then I was left to my own thoughts again, at which point I had an epiphany. 

There isn't one thing that viewers are supposed to get from contemporary art. The artist may paint or sculpt or film with a message in mind, but in the end it is the viewer who extracts their own meaning from the artwork. In fact, this very sentiment was echoed by the lead singer of the Eagles, Don Henley. If any music savvy readers are familiar with the hit Hotel Califronia, you'll know that the meaning of the song is hotly debated. When Henley himself was asked to divulge just what the Hotel California represents, he refused, arguing that the beauty of the song is that can be interpreted differently by everyone who hears it. 

The same principal applies to contemporary art. You might not know exactly what a chair placed against a wall alongside several meticulously staged photographs means to the artist, but that shouldn't detract from the art itself. As long as someone can find significance in the piece, then it's art, just as much so as Giotto's portrait of Mary. True, some works of art are objectively better than others (Jacque's post about the competition panels discusses this in depth), but all art has a purpose and meaning entirely its own.

So, if you find yourself struggling to understand contemporary art, know that's it's not because you're not intelligent enough or smart enough to; you just need to get used to the style and find your own meaning in each piece, whatever that may be. If someone else has a different interpretation, consider it, but recognize that it in no way nullifies your own. 

The Museum 

Now that my not-so-brief commentary on the world of contemporary art is over, I'd love to tell you all about what we saw at the museum! Many of the pieces we came across are difficult to describe, so I'll attach pictures to this post soon. What I can say about the pieces is that they are designed to make you think. Maybe this is because I spent so much time searching for meaning, but I found many of these works of art to be thought provoking. Our class came across several paintings that, from across the room, looked as if they were from the '80s or later. However, upon closer inspection it was revealed that these were painted in the '30s and '40s! It was interesting to see that such a different style emerged in the same era that produced depression artwork and the ever-recognizable Rosie the Riveter. 

There is also a respectable portion of the museum devoted to Tristan Tzara, a man widely credited with beginning the Dada movement. Proponents of this movement, which took place in the wake of WWI, felt that the war was the outcome of a society that was too socially restrictive. Thus, to counteract this effect Tzara and his followers encouraged uninhibited emotional expression. Tzara has since passed on, but his legacy and that of the Dada movement remain and continue to influence the world of art --and arguably politics-- today. 

I've spent a lot of time talking about contemporary art, and you may think that its definition is interchangeable and synonymous with modern art, but that's not so. Modern art is just art that has been produced in the modern era, after the modernism movement began. You may find it interesting to note that Monet and his contemporaries were technically modernists, and their work is featured in the museum alongside more challenging abstract pieces. Monet's landscapes were much easier for me to process than some of the other art housed in the museum, and I found that I was most often drawn to his paintings and the like. The softness of impressionist paintings provided my mind a much appreciated reprieve from the museum's more challenging artwork. 

Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg 

Strasbourg's cathedral was not nearly as mentally taxing as its art museum, but it was just as stimulating. Construction of the church was begun in 1015 and was then stalled until it was resumed in the 12th century. Finally completed in 1399, the cathedral is a gorgeous exemplar of gothic architecture, complete with a triangular structure, a detailed facade, stained glass windows, and innumerable statues and towers. You can read more about the history of this building.

Much like the Duomo in Florence, Strasbourg's cathedral boasts a functioning clock crafted by a mathematician. What differentiates Strasbourg's clock from Florence's is that first, the French clock is astronomical, and second, it's size and intricacy border on absurdity (see photos). I won't bother trying to explain this extraordinary time piece myself, it's quite a sight! 

It is always humbling to stumble upon pieces of history that connects us to the past, and few things do this better than ancient graffiti. The walls and pillars surrounding the clock were covered in carvings and initials of vandals from long ago. Our class quite enjoyed deciphering scratches left behind from as early as the year 1600! It was a bit of a humorous comfort to see that even in the Middle Ages, people misbehaved in church. 

Stay tuned to hear more about our journey through France, and as always thank you for reading! 

Your Friendly J Term Blogger

Kate Koch 

An example of contemporary art
The Museum
Graffiti from 1649!
The anatomical clock!
Inside the Cathedral in Strasbourg
Monet painting