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It Shouldn’t be Scary: Tips for Approaching Contemporary Art

April 12, 2021 | 11:33pm EDT

Contemporary art has always been terrifying to me. I pictured abstract installations making social commentary that went right over my head, so I thought it was safer to stick with the popular classics that I knew and loved. Popular media shows the art world as super rich and super white, which is partly true, but there are also a massive number of contemporary artists today whose work is relevant to the lives of people who don’t go into galleries and casually purchase a painting for thousands of dollars.

My fear with contemporary art was getting it “wrong.” People can talk all day about their love for iconic artists like Frida Kahlo or Michaelangelo because there is validation for that love in every major museum. These artists have secured their place in the canon of art history, so people know their love for the work is justified or “correct.” Most artists working today don’t have that security because their work hasn’t yet, and probably never will, sell for millions of dollars at Christie’s or hang in the MoMA. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize getting it “wrong” doesn’t exist. I was letting the fear that people would think I had bad taste dictate what work I admired.

Once I decided that I didn’t need elitist critics telling me what to like and what to hate, I still had no idea how to find contemporary artists who I liked. It took some trial and error, but now I follow a wide range of living artists whose work I obsess over. If you’re really serious about contemporary art, look to the art sections of websites like Hyperallergic or ARTnews, but if you want a more casual approach to contemporary art but don’t know where to start, here are my tips.

  • Use Instagram! While the platform has turned into an online shopping platform as of late, Instagram is an amazing tool for connecting with contemporary art. Because it is likely already part of your routine to check the app, following curators, art lovers, or artists themselves puts a little taste of art into your daily life without being overwhelming. Some accounts that have been particularly helpful to me are @museummammy (Kimberly Drew) and @thegreatwomenartists (Katy Hessel). While they post about some historic artists as well, their content about contemporary art has led me to some amazing artists. Following contemporary art museums like the Hirshorn in DC or the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is also a great place to start, but also look for museums in your region to find local artists.

  • Start specific. There is a massive amount of art being created today, so go in with some intentions. If you like art about a certain social justice issue, start there. If you’re a fan of photography, start by finding one photographer whose work moves you. Get as niche as you want because I guarantee there is something out there. I started by looking into queer portraiture, and now I’m in love with the work of Jenna Gribbon and Clifford Prince King, two artists I will never shut up about.

  • Go to contemporary art museums. This might seem obvious, but I realized I’ve been to the National Gallery five times for every time I’ve visited the Hirshorn. Look for specific exhibitions that speak to your interests or scroll through the museum’s online catalogue to familiarize yourself if wandering around with no plan is too overwhelming.

  • Find a certain style of art you like. There is a misconception that all contemporary art is abstract, but this could not be farther from the truth. If you like abstract art, go for it, but if you also find it scary like I do, there is plenty out there for you too. If you like the colors and textures of Van Gogh, artists like Salman Toor are a great place to start. If you like textile art, Bisa Butler and Faig Ahmed are both artists whose work I could stare at for hours.

Contemporary art is exciting because it can reflect on the very conditions in which we’re living right now. There is nothing wrong with loving the classics, but throwing in some contemporary artists into the usual rotation of Monet, Van Gogh, or Picasso can let you expand your view of art and find art that resonates with how you see the world at this specific moment.

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