I've been asked recently, "How relevant is contemporary art?" Well, if you have to ask, my question to you will be--Is the sky blue? Is the Pope Catholic? Whether we are aware of it or not, we are surrounded in our everyday life by images on billboards, on ever present flickering TV screens, on the pages of newspapers and on the covers of magazines. It used to be possible to discuss contemporary art and culture in terms of High and Low---how commercial advertising along with the street energy of graffiti art has infiltrated and influenced the world of high culture. Andy Warhol, along with his contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, challenged our understanding of what can be the subject of a work of art. A dollar bill and an electric chair. A stuffed goat with a rubber tire wrapped around her body. A splatter of paint on an upended, soiled mattress with even more soiled bed sheets. The coy image of a damsel in distress from a newspaper comic strip or the tragic image of Jackie during the Kennedy funeral.
Going to museums these days, even to such a bastion of high culture as the Metropolitan, we are bound to encounter unsettling and often provocative contemporary art among the Greek gods, Renaissance Madonnas and Claude Monet's shimmering landscapes. It's easy to forget that once upon a time the Greek art was contemporary and that the Greek artists themselves were pushing the envelope by creating images of their gods as sexy human beings with perfect, naked bodies. And when the austere Madonnas became flesh and blood Renaissance mommas with a chubby baby Christ in their laps, this new spin by contemporary Italian artists raised plenty of conservative eyebrows. It's difficult to imagine that the universally beloved Impressionist paintings were also once the subject of severe criticism, anger and ridicule.
Today's contemporary art continues to do what good art always does best by telling us who we are---warts and all---and by capturing the world around us with all the joy, atrocities and sacrifices that shape this moment in time. "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano, the photographic image of a white plastic crucifix submerged in golden yellow urine, created a storm of protests when it was shown for the first time in a museum exhibition in the late 80's. I see it as a beautiful and transcendent image of human vulnerability while many conservative Christians were only able to see it as blasphemy. But if God created man in his likeness shouldn't we accept our blood and sweat, even urine and feces as part of the deal? Or is it the devil that makes us go to the bathroom? When Chris Ofili presented his Black Madonna adorned with elephant dung, outraged conservatives with the help of Rudolph Giuliani initiated a crusade against the Brooklyn Museum where it was shown. Protestors didn't bother to learn that elephant dung traditionally has quite a different, life-affirming meaning in African art.
Say what you will about the audacity of Damien Hirst's slowly deteriorating 14-foot tiger shark suspended in a gigantic glass tank of once clear but now-murky formaldehyde. When news of its recent $12 million resale to a private collector hit the stands, it was a perfect moment of life colliding with art---a revealing comedy of a tongue-in-cheek artistic statement mixed with a collector's gullibility, all amplified to the level of absurdity with an insane infusion of cash. Don't tell me that contemporary art is not relevant.