Has art just become another business or is it still something sublime and unique that enriches our souls? Pako Quijada reflects on his contradictory feelings about the art he sees at galleries and museums, and discusses the meaning of art with two young European artists.

Photo: Christian Sawalski
Miasma #1 - Christian Sawalski / acrylic on canvas - 120 x 85 cm

There’s no doubt art has a big impact in our lives. No matter how often you visit galleries and museums or how many artists' names you know. For me, the experience of going to an art gallery these days can be both inspiring and nerve wracking. The last time I had that feeling was during the open week at Sotheby's London. The artworks displayed there would later be auctioned for millions of euros and probably bought by people whose idea of art is measured in numbers and not in quality. Sitting next to masterpieces by Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and Tony Cragg you could find pieces by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. Seeing beautifully crafted artworks and obnoxious conceptual pieces in the same room together had me wondering about the purpose of contemporary art and, most importantly, where it is heading.

Becoming ever more prominent in the last twenty years, art collectors and auction houses have profited from an art market that doesn't value artworks for what they are anymore, but for what they mean to the art world. We have to wonder whether art has lost its way in a world led by strong capitalist values above beauty and meaning. It's not easy to tell why it is that contemporary artists keep doing their work. Is it because of money or is it to express themselves? Are they the representation of the society we are living in or are we just being fooled by them?

Two countries in Europe, the UK and Germany, have some of the best selling artists in the world: Damien Hirst, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter. In the case of Hirst, his works have seen a rise in interest (and market value) in the last twenty years. Often causing controversy, he deals with an arguable conceptuality that the public often finds hard to understand. A very well developed marketing campaign accompanied with the so-called "shock factor" (his most famous works include sharks, sheep and cows immersed in a chemical preservation fluid inside a glass case under pretentious names such as The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living) and a controversial personality have made Hirst one the most famous living artists in the world. He's no Picasso. Yet he still managed a coup for the Tate Modern in his retrospective in 2012, leading to the biggest grossing exhibition in the Tate's history. 

Are they the representation of the society we are living in or are we just being fooled by them?

In the case of Gerhard Richter, a man whose art remained unknown to big audiences until his early 50s, we find the opposite to Hirst - an introspective, quiet and shy artist who will take any chance to sneak out of his own exhibitions. Yet he still managed to became the best selling living artist as of 2012 with his Abstraktes Bild, painted back in 1994, sold by Sotheby’s for €26.4 million. But his art soars high above his introverted persona and his sales records. His versatility and approach to his artworks are impressive to say the least. From his large colourful and vivid abstracts to his blurry, desaturated portraits, Richter is one of the few recognised living artists who can easily converse with the masters of the past.

But the amazing and annoying part of it all is that these artists' celebrity status often overshadows their own work, which makes the art world for new artists even more difficult and, in some cases, leaves the door open for intrusion. (Mr. Brainwash put your hands up.) 

beauty and craftsmanship

London-based artist Christian Sawalski may not be widely recognised yet, but his approach to art stays true to a principle of beauty and craftsmanship. His works depict historical passages with a very personal component to them and the predominant use of grey tones makes for an energetic, raw and edgy piece of work. When asked about what art should be all about, he says: The artwork should always be the centre of attention. The artist is merely the creator, the force that brought it into reality. I‘m not an admirer of their [celebrity artists'] works and I do feel that the reason why they are so highly present in the art world has mainly to do with their ability to market themselves, their personality and I do have the feeling that the art comes second, right after their own persona."

Photo: Christian Sawalski
Xibalba #1.2 (schmerzensmann) / acrylic on canvas - Christian Sawalski - 210 x 135 cm

The main problem I have with this type of art is that I don't understand it. As an artist in training myself, I always aim to find the balance between expressing my thoughts and feelings freely and making the work accessible and somehow beautiful. Nowadays all seems too empty, pretentious and most importantly, tasteless. Or maybe it all comes down to the fact that beauty, as we know from the great masters of the past, might have left mainstream art forever. In Sawalski's words, "the perception of beauty, of what's aesthetic, is purely personal. I think beauty has almost left the art world for many years, at least in terms of the idea that a work should have a pleasing appearance. That doesn't mean that there haven't been any beautiful pieces at all. Some artists like Michaël Borremans or Anselm Kiefer still have a notion of beauty in their works." But not everyone shares this opinion. "Art hasn't lost its meaning or beauty, it's just difficult to find one artwork in the mass of works available that matches my idea of beauty or meaning. Every now and then I find an artwork thats incredibly inspiring and beautiful to me, although usually it's not a contemporary artwork," says Thiemo Kloss, an upcoming photographer from Berlin. His work pushes the boundaries of photography, which combined with graphic design creates compelling parallel realities where it's easy to get lost. Whether it's a carefully organised repetition of one person building an army reminiscent of WWII or a bunch of portraits filled with noise, his vision is certainly unique.

"beauty is in the eye of the beholder"

The main problem with most artists today is that, without beauty, it creates an anticlimax for the audience to connect with the artwork. Yet this is a highly subjective issue since, as they say, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But what about its meaning? For Sawalski, "that's a whole different story. I would say that mostly every piece has a meaning and a reason, at least for the creator. The main problem is that for the beholder it's a far more difficult job to understand it without reading some sort of "instruction manual" for the piece they're looking at." When it comes to understanding an artwork, it all gets even trickier and we often find ourselves fighting with the eternal question of "What is art?". Kloss might not have the answer, but he knows how to overcome this dilemma: "Usually I don't read the papers they hand out in galleries or museums. As a beholder I want to understand the works by myself. If I can't understand it but it still creates a feeling or an emotion in me, that's great. But when there is no understanding or feeling, then I don't think that's art. The public is probably quite confused as well if they have to read two pages of explanations while standing in front of an artwork."

"When there is no understanding or feeling, then I don't think that's art."

Undeniably, contemporary art has built some boundaries that are difficult to escape. Not only has it become more abstract (in the worst and trashiest sense of the word) and meaningless, but it has also managed to become something completely alienating for the audience. We often see ourselves dragged into art galleries where we are expected to think everything is art just because it is being displayed in that space. Once they are discovered, fame hungry celebrity artists get their name out there easily, but it's a big price to pay for new artists who want to get their work exhibited. Christian Sawalski's experience shows that "it is quite a trick to get exhibited, because the competition is quite high, probably higher than ever before, especially when you're living in one of the 'art capitals'. There is still a growing interest in art and the number of exhibition spaces and showrooms is growing as well. At any given moment there is a large number of exhibitions waiting for visitors, even though it seems to me that the main interest is in showing conceptual art." On the other hand, Thiemo Kloss sees the positive side of it: "I don't pay too much attention to the art scene or other artists, I focus on myself so it doesn't affect me at all. I think it has never been easy to become a successful artist, but nowadays we have to compete with artists from all over the world. On the other hand, we are also not bound to a certain place anymore. I can introduce my work to someone in Berlin, but also to someone in Dubai, Beijing or Sao Paulo."

Even with all its flaws, it's clear that we live in such a vivid and vibrant artistic climate that includes variety in its widest sense and leaves some hope for the future. Sawalski anticipates "a change towards a higher appreciation of quality and craftsmanship, intention and informative content. Art is a powerful medium to deal with history, politics and philosophy. It should be a barometer of the time and society we're living in, it should point out things that are going wrong and not allow people to forget." Kloss stays completely positive about it: he expects "a resurrection of skill and meaning, developing into worldwide and timeless acceptance and importance." Hopefully they are both right.

Photo: Thiemo Kloss
Part of the "Dark Blue" series - Thiemo Kloss - 180 x 90 cm


Cover photo: Part of the "white rooms" series - Thiemo Kloss - 150 x 65 cm

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