Alexander Ostrovskiy: How to understand contemporary art?

New and incomprehensible irritates and causes rejection, so the viewer often finds it easier once again to turn to traditional painting than to try to unravel the message of a contemporary artist. At the same time, interest in contemporary art grows every year.

But it’s one thing to go to exhibitions to be on trend, and another thing to really enjoy the view, expand your own horizons and have the opportunity to look at familiar things from a different angle. How to do it, if you can’t tell the difference between a painting by a famous artist and a child’s scribbles and you’re still genuinely surprised by the cost of Malevich’s black square?

Alexander Ostrovskiy, as an art historian specializing in contemporary art, tells us what it is and how to begin to understand it.

Modern art is…?

There is no clearly formulated answer to this question. Someone thinks that these are works created during the last 100 years, and someone classifies in this category only those that appeared in the last couple of decades.

That said, we can say with certainty that:

  • Any classical art at the time of its appearance was modern. By the way, the Hermitage was also originally a modern art gallery;
  • In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a crisis of genre painting: with the advent of photography, radio, and the beginning of the film industry the traditional canons and norms of art disappeared, paintings ceased to be objects of representation of real life.

The picture plane became an open “screen”, a space for a new visual language, designed in various ways to communicate the ideas that characterize modern reality. Along with this, the viewer’s perception of paintings also changed. 

It was during this period that post-impressionism, primitivism, cubism, futurism, suprematism, dadaism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop-art, conceptualism, minimalism, and postmodernism appeared.

The next major transformation of the art world occurred in the last few decades. Thanks to modern technology, the artist has received many new tools to reveal his ideas in a variety of forms.

His visual vocabulary today is composed of everyday reality and virtual reality, so he can create not just paintings, but multi-component projects that include video art, painting, installation, performance, and so on.  Linear perception has become multilayered and multitasking, the picture has gained more freedom in terms of visual perception, and following this the viewer’s perspective on it has changed again.

How do I understand contemporary art?

The question of understanding contemporary art is beyond the subjective evaluation of “like/dislike”, but few people can give clear, understandable advice and recommendations to the common man. We have analyzed the literature on this topic and made a short review that can help make the first steps toward understanding contemporary works.

Historical Context

Will Gompertz, in his book “The Misunderstood Art,” suggests looking at art through the lens of time. In his opinion, contemporary art works reflect events in the world and artists’ attitudes toward them, so the first thing you need to know to understand is history. According to the former director of the Tate Gallery in London, “The starting point is not to judge whether it is good or not, but to understand its evolution from the classical works of Leonardo to today’s formalized sharks and unmade beds,” and “everything you need to comprehend the basics you will find in the proposed history of the last 150 years, when art was changing the world and the world was transforming art.”

The second component for comprehension is to accept the rule that no one can understand or briefly explain contemporary art over a cup of coffee.

In the Flow of Time

Ossian Ward in the pages of “The Art of Looking. How to perceive contemporary art” looks at the problem of perceiving the works of contemporary authors in a slightly different way. The author, on the contrary, urges us first to refuse the general historical context, and to perceive each work from a blank sheet of paper, through the prism of our own sensations. In his opinion in our world, where time flows swiftly and information noise follows us 24 hours a day, only the strongest works are selected and worthy of our attention and one of the key skills a modern viewer should have is the ability to look at each work as if you were looking at it for the first time.  The so-called art of gazing or the “tabula rasa” method. T – patience, A – association, B – background, U – assimilation, L – better to look again, A – analysis. It is only in the letter B, the third step, that Ward suggests diving into the artist’s background, rather than into the entire history of art, to find clues to understanding.

Ossian Ward tells us, “The old routines of not touching the work and reverently contemplating exhibits one by one in reverential silence are also a thing of the past, and now you may be required to participate directly in, interact with, or finish the work.


The method of artist Simon Morley, who has developed his own technique of perception and described it in his book “Seven Keys to Contemporary Art”, can be helpful in understanding contemporary art.

From his point of view, works should be viewed comprehensively in seven contexts:

  • Historical: the best way to understand the new is to compare or contrast the old;
  • biographical – the work reflects the conditions and circumstances of the author’s life; 
  • aesthetic – the object is seen as a visual artifact that evokes an emotional and intellectual response. 
  • Empirical – the viewer’s response to the multisensory experience that the art object offers;
  • Theoretical – answering the questions: “what philosophical ideas does the work carry?”, “what is its value?”;
  • skeptical – the high appreciation and acceptance of a work of art by viewers, critics and other artists does not mean that we have to agree with it unconditionally. 
  • Market-driven – the work of art is part of the capitalist economy.  “Art operates within an economic system that it both supports and paradoxically criticizes and undermines” (S. Morley).

4 questions for understanding contemporary art

According to collector Sergey Gushchin and artist Alexander Shchurenkov in their book “Contemporary Art and How to Stop Being Afraid of It,” one of the main reasons for rejection of contemporary art is the fear to admit that we do not know or understand something and, as a consequence, the fear to ask about it.

In order to overcome it, you firstly need to honestly admit it to yourself, and secondly, on your next visit to the exhibition, ask yourself only four questions:

  1. What do I see before me?
  2. What materials and techniques were used to make this work?
  3. How can I fully describe what I see?
  4. What emotions does the work evoke?

The answers to these simple questions, along with an explanation of the painting that can be found at each exhibit, help bring us closer to understanding contemporary art.

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