Thinking about Contemporary Art

Megan Jenkinson, 2009

Thinking about contemporary art

Robert Gardiner

“ You have the same facility as I do only you do not trust or cultivate it. You can see what I do if you choose. You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision and the thing is done.”

Poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827)


It would be good if the audience for contemporary art were bigger and more informed about art practice. Artists necessarily seek out and have access to education support to grow their knowledge, and public and private galleries provide access to their work for a general audience.

This is an audience which often has not had opportunity to learn about contemporary art but which is important to artists and the culture generally.

There does seem to be need to grow the general public audience through better understandings of contemporary art practice.

Contemporary art practices change so rapidly that the general audience can be simply left behind.

There could be a need to build bridges to better understandings by a wider audience by giving guidance to viewers suggesting ways to look and building confidence to appreciate enjoy and respond.

This could grow public and private gallery audiences and more educated viewers for contemporary art generally.

Is this possible?
How would it be done?
Let’s try out some ideas.

To the viewer of art


1. See the art object as a deliberate provocation to the imagining thinking mind. This will help the viewer to understand more about what the contemporary art event is about and may widen the viewer’s expectations of art that might have been shaped by past traditions.

2. The artwork is made up of the actual material objectivity of the artwork together with the meanings it provokes for you. Even the photographic and virtual image can be considered in this way. That gets the viewer into thinking about the material nature of the thing looked at and signals the way one can think about readings found in the work.

3. The visual sense develops after touch and incorporates a simulation of the tactile in its own function. The visual arts are those arts which primarily engage the visual, tactile and spatial senses within the object perceiving mind/body. Again this can be via photography or virtual imaging techniques. This helps to designate the space occupied by the visual arts and differentiates its nature from other arts practices.

4. Recent scientific understandings of the brain processes involved in the visual arts are now widely available—particularly the creative visual perception process. This allows the viewer the possibility of rational explanations. How it all works!! And could begin to grow confidence and interest to read on.

5. Art is creative thinking within an aesthetic context-

  • In the making of the artwork by the artist who thinks creatively with selected materials and prior knowledge.
  • In perception of the art object by the viewer who thinks creatively using the artwork and the viewer’s own prior knowledge.

This introduces the idea of shared creative thinking within a visual art making aesthetics system.

6. The aesthetic in art is a characteristic of the viewer’s perception process and arises out of ones sense based emotional intelligence system. It is intuitive (pre-conceptual) and selection-insistent at a primary level of sensual experience. Selection is from a continuum of potential aesthetic response (from ugliness to beauty). All of the numerous constituent parts of the artwork provide opportunity for the aesthetic response. This deals with the confusing possibility that the viewer is looking to recognise beauty as an objective fact and signals the need to search and respond to all the formal elements in the work.

7. Aesthetic values are personal choices, determined by the viewer, shaped by personal experience and by cultural influences. They vary as time and context change. That states it reasonably clearly and alerts the viewer to links to ones culture and to time.

8. Creative perception is the driver of the art experience. This reinforces the connection between creative thinking and art.

9. Every one thinks - but there are degrees of effort and achievement in creative visual thinking. This suggests that everyone can think creatively with a bit of effort.

10. Visual art making is particularly effective in up-skilling general creative thinking skills. This provides incentive to learn about visual art practice.

11. Amongst art practices, visual art making offers unusual accessibility for the artist to the complete creative package of—

  • Private creative idea generation
  • Realization of the artwork
  • First contemplation as viewer
  • In its capacity to provide this total experience to anyone choosing to participate, it is significantly efficient in its use of resources of time and material and effective in its outcomes of new understandings.

This explains a reason for the effectiveness of visual art practice.

12. Art is communication. There is a deliberate intention to stimulate creative perception by the viewer in the making and presentation of the work. This lets the viewer know that the work has a serious planned intent which is designed with the viewer in mind.

13. Meanings emerge out of the creative perceiving experience - via sense based imaginative pre conceptual memory linking. To have the viewer think about where meanings come from. Useful stuff!

14. Active viewing of art engages deep sensing energies and needs which drive the creative search for meanings. The process is more intense than commonplace practical looking. It involves both focussed and unfocussed methods of seeing. Both sides of the brain are activated and both the emotional and rational intelligence systems operate. This signals the need to understand the viewing of art as a specially intense and demanding process.

15. Many find the process seems to work like this -

  • A fast look with the rational mind trying to find answers to questions like “What does it mean? Should I know about this?” etc.
Then, when the reasoning mind gives up (or shows signs of frustration) a shift to slow contemplation and reverie. Here the senses are at work with the imagination and affective connections are made.
  • A rational slow focused examination of details. 
  • An open unfocused sensing submission to the whole work.
  • A search for rational meanings from memory recognition of content; images, signs and symbols. 
  • An imaginative creative personal interpretation.
  • A judgement based on both an intuitive and reasoned assessment of success in reconciling sensual and rational form.

This gives some guide to different ways to try viewing and reading the art work.

16. Sustained material engaged art-making process stimulate deep empathetic sensing systems and can induce personal feelings of closeness and unity with the material. The solitary meditative mind-state which can be experienced by artists during long or repetitive work periods. 

17. Ambiguity in the art object promotes multiple meanings and is an important component of the art object perceiving system. Helps to encourage understandings that there need be no one fixed meaning/experience.

18. The art object exists as a sign which can carry direct and/or indirect meaning(s). Both pre-conceptual and conceptual mind systems engage prior experience to recognise symbols of various kinds. This is to help the viewer to recognise the particular power of visual symbols.

19. The perceiving mind seeks repetition and is very well tuned to patterns of every kind. These include similarities of any type, sensed or conceptual. This is a primary skill essential to the creative thinking process. Asymmetry arises out of this process and creates a context for new ideas. At the pre-conceptual level this produces the Eureka (sudden insight) experience. Alerting the viewer to this basic enquiry system that underpins so much of creative visual thinking.

20. Art can produce a pleasure/pain experience in various degrees; from no-pleasure (pain) all the way up to intense pleasure. Pleasure in art arises via creative discovery of the work (intellectual and emotional) and primary sensual experience. Pain can come from boredom and frustration in lack of understanding, and dislike at the sensual experience level. This may alert the viewer to look beyond mere sensual pleasure and simple sentimental association.

21. Practical skills are pre-learned technical tools which are secondary to the creative outcomes in the art work. There are thinking skills as well. This helps to shift the viewer’s creative enquiry away from technical achievements.

22. Contemporary art is the ultimate destination for enquiry for anyone interested in innovative and creative thought. A claim which advocates the visual as the dominant sensing perception system.

23. Contemporary art is based on a rigorously tested philosophy of education, history practice and theory. It is distinctive for its enquiry into, and use of hand eye and body/mind interactions in the investigative activity involved. Thus, emphasising the importance of art education.

Notes by Robert Gardiner, 2007