Why Do We Need Contemporary Art?

June 29, 2022
A family portrait by Jaime Valtierra
Jaime Valtierra, It Was Real Many Times Over (Victoria Park) 2021

It’s easy to think that art is periphery, an unnecessary luxury, that it is unhelpful, it doesn’t do anything, and that it’s a downright waste of money. Consciously or subconsciously this seemingly logical conclusion is reached by many, but here’s what they miss:

Art is ‘useful’ on many levels. It unites, it mobilises, it inspires, it documents, it questions, it critiques. However, I would go further to say that art is necessary, and it is necessary precisely because it is unnecessary. Call me a dreamer, but is there not more to life than keeping warm, dry and fed? If that makes you suspicious of me sounding like an overly comfortable slug, unsympathetic to those who are only just holding on, then consider how the greatest art movements have been born out of the deepest struggles. Maybe this shows how much more important art is in times of dire need, and less meaningful to those who have it all. Art plugs us into what it is to be human and creates a space in which to share the full breadth of this experience. Aleph Contemporary’s homage to bell hooks at London Art Fair this year wondered at how the subjective realm of feeling is a universal language shared by all. Being human is so much more than survival and the accumulation of possessions. It is about experiences of joy, sorrow, peace, fear, love, anger and compassion.

Contemporary Art is an expression of this human experience in relation to the here and now. It breaks through utilitarian biases and connects us in an open and free-thinking way to the present, involving us in a dialogue in which we can partake. This makes it empowering and therefore dangerous to power structures. It is no wonder that authoritarian regimes have historically clamped down on ‘degenerate’ art. Art is a protest against this and proclaims freedom. As Paula Rego once said: ‘Art is the only place you can do what you like. That’s freedom.’

Contemporary Art is relevant, current, exciting, important and engages us in what it is to be human now. We make history, which is why we must participate in the present.


~ Ruth Helen Smith, June 2022.

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