Elmgreen & Dragset, City in the Sky, 2019 (detail), Polished stainless steel, aluminium, LED lights, Presented at the “Encounters” sector of Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 by Kukje, Massimo De Carlo, and Perrotin galleries,, Photo by Studio Elmgreen & Dragset
Our annual printed publication – the CoBo Supplement strives to increase awareness by serving as a platform to develop conversations pertaining to contemporary art. This year’s edition, released to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong 2019, features the opinions and viewpoints of over fifty influential, global art leaders on eleven dynamic topics addressing significant ongoing discourses in the art world. To kickstart on our conversation on Good Art Must be Difficult? we bring to you the musings of Elmgreen & Dragset, Russell Storer, Thukral & Tagra, and Frédéric De Goldschmidt.
Text: Elmgreen & Dragset, Russell Storer, Thukral & Tagra, and Frédéric De Goldschmidt.
Images: Courtesy of the Contributors.
Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Artists
Must Good Art Be Difficult?
The parameters of what may be considered “good” art are fortunately as diverse as the art audience itself. First of all, we must remember that aesthetic judgment derives from something as basic as taste. What makes an artwork worth looking at, or thinking about, or feeling challenged by, naturally depends on the viewer. There is no consensus, even within the inner circles of contemporary art criticism, about what art should aim for, on what qualities it should be based or what functions it should ideally have – if any. We all come to exhibitions with our different backgrounds, our different desires, beliefs, and worries – and these factors determine how we perceive things.
Should “good” art be difficult? Well, what is difficult for some may be easy for others, and the accessibility of a work also depends on the context in which the artwork is displayed. Both the institutional framing and the geographical location play a role in the reading of the work. We dare to claim that the meaning of most works also changes over time. Whereas some works may become more understandable over time – through being channelled to a wider audience via various distribution systems – other works might lose some of their immediate relevance, for instance if they closely refer to historical contexts that no longer exist. How difficult an artwork may appear clearly has something to do with the contextual filters through which it reaches the viewer.
The position of contemporary art within our cultural landscape today has radically changed even from when we started doing art in the mid-nineties. Museums are visited in numbers never seen before, and visual arts appear as an integral part of our news and social media. Nevertheless, there still seem to be tendencies in parts of the art world to disown its non-trained audience. Reminiscent of an era of a smaller but also more elitist art scene, some art professionals – be they artists, curators or critics – seem to cling to the arrogant idea that the average art-goer is of no real significance when it comes to the reading of the work. With the expanding global interest in contemporary visual arts as well as the birth of new institutions worldwide, one might have imagined a celebratory mood throughout the art world; however, it seems like quite a few in our professional field suddenly feel uncertain about how to navigate, how to filter, how to position themselves as qualified tastemakers. In an atmosphere such as this, one should maybe just keep in mind the big difference between popular (and accessible) and populist (and pleasing).
Does it make any sense at all to use a term like “difficult” when speaking about art? It is important to remember that many artists express themselves in modes that are not grounded in the conventions of linear logic; therefore, the meaning of their works may be understood in ways in which a factual reading is less of a condition. The complexity of their output goes beyond the normal hierarchy of easy or difficult. As an artist, the interpretations by the audience of one’s work can be both surprising and enriching. And when a work of art starts to take on new and unintended meanings and assumes a life of its own, then it starts to be truly interesting.
Russell Storer, Deputy Director (Curatorial & Research) at National Gallery Singapore
As Michael and Ingar have identified, we have two extremely subjective terms here when it comes to art: “good” and “difficult”. In contemporary art, where the old elitist and conservative criteria for evaluating art have been blown apart, and the role of the viewer in contributing to meaning is pretty much a given, such essentialist terms are somewhat moot.
The statement also implies a top-down approach to art: that it is ‘good for you’, rather like a high-fiber diet – with the need to avoid the sweet stuff if you are going to benefit. Yet while art museums today retain a pedagogical function, the approach has shifted substantially towards participation and shared knowledge construction, with art works the starting point for a process of learning and discovery. The best works of art therefore hold the potential for complex, layered aesthetic experiences, remaining generously open to numerous interpretations that vary with the viewer, the context, and the moment in time.
The challenge is to help people become familiar with uncertainty, unknowing and even discomfort when looking at art, and build an appreciation for its ambiguous, ever-shifting nature, as something always slightly out of reach. This resistance against the prevailing desire for affirmation, consumability and utility is one of art’s great values.
Thukral & Tagra, Artists
Markers of value – markers of good art?
If we seek to critique the process through which value is formulated and established in the art context, we must discuss the markers of such a value. These markers are supposed to exist in
theory, but are not transparent or continuous in practice. The motivating forces that inspire people to collect or in some other way value a work are very often to do with perception, social standing and exchange value. If the establishment and articulation of value were a process that might be implemented by an objective set of parameters, the general sense of cynicism and apprehension that is experienced in the context of art might be assuaged. One of the common expressions of cynicism is towards an art work’s claim to a certain value. The common validators of this value are art history and the preference of collectors. In recent times, both of these have been known to be corrupted. Art historians have gotten distracted and seduced by the power and role of “engineering history,” and collectors have been more interested in becoming speculators. In this scenario, our approach is to go back to imagining the entire ecosystem through the minds of artists and educators.
Frédéric de Goldschmidt, Collector
Definitions and parameters of good and difficult must be established before answering the question. What is “good” for a sophisticated Beijing collector today is not the same as what was considered good previously, what is valued in another country, or in the future. There are nevertheless standards of quality on which experts can agree. This is why it is important for collectors of contemporary art to visit fine art institutions which show art from different periods and countries. With regard to difficulty, from the artist’s point of view the work requires vision, craftsmanship and substance to distinguish it from that of other artists from the past or the present, and allow it the possibility of standing out in the future.
Similarly, from the viewer’s perspective, art should not be painfully difficult to understand, but it must provide a different perspective on the world, beyond the immediate aesthetic or emotional experience that will trigger initial interest and curiosity. When you are a collector, there is the added complexity of having to live with the work every day. This is why some collectors (including myself) may shy away from works that deal with difficult subject matter or are painful to look at. However, when they look at the work, collectors will always want to be challenged and compelled, never unaffected.