Mastering contemporary art: If these were the answers, what were the questions?

Over the late summer/early autumn I went to exhibitions of work by students just completing their Masters degree courses in contemporary art. Their final submissions, assessed for successful completion of the course (ie a sign of some mastery of contemporary art ideas and practices?) were accompanied by notes describing the work, how it was made, the ideas behind it, and so on.

The works on display were of interest but what I was more fascinated by were the texts used to accompany the works. If texts used by successful students captured something of their ‘mastering’ of the process – if they were their final answers – what questions were they being asked: What was being demanded of them in their quest for mastery of contemporary art?

I noted around 60-80 statements that, although overlapping, were unique statements of outcome for the range of students involved. These could be clustered into linked ideas/themes. Other people may well come up with different configurations from the same basic text statements. The version below is mine, and is captured by an umbrella sense of moving on, being on a journey, progressing, becoming, transforming:

Individuality; notions of selfhood


Multiple identities; multiple opportunities

Acknowledging the unknown, unrecognised things inside each person

Part of diversity

Being part of networks

Language of relationships

Intercommunity relationships

Perspectives, cultures, traditions

Hopes and dreams


Unique life experiences

Memories and emotions

Repetitions leaving patterns

Traces of incidents

Transitional changes

Stresses and processes

Controlled change; anxiety of change


Moving into place

Frozen moments

Reliability/unreliability of memory


Authorship and ownership

Personal narratives


Marginal aspects/ main aspects

Cerebral/reality; conceptual/functional aspects

Role of text, language, speech

Glimpses of meanings

Translating meanings, questions and puzzles


New ways of working and thinking

Expressing notions as images

Mapping new territories; challenging preconceptions

Engagement with ideas

Engagement with materials – experimentation; renewal

Internal/external influences

Things as living entities

What may be missing: presence and absence


Mapping, planning, deciding

Designs and clarifications

Scale, pace, time

Technologies, sciences and handmades

Social contexts; environments

Social change

Choices and oppositions:

Simulated/real; conflicts/harmonies; patterns/ambiguities; shape/formlessness; deconstructed/recontextualised; literal/abstracted; learning/teaching; fixed/moving.


Working backwards, then, from this analysis of the explanatory texts used by emerging artists to explain their various ‘masteries’, we get the main themes of making contemporary art. These describe mastery as being a journey that can be charted as it moves along. The main constructs of this ‘becoming a master of contemporary art’ flow from a deep self-awareness by the artist – of who they are, and are not; the gaps, the linkages, the shapings. This allows the artist to draw on residual traces of life events and translate versions/interpretations of these into imagery – successfully, if the artist is reflexive, critical, willing to engage with new ideas and test out new materials – in well-thought-through ways that are aware of the choices being made, of what is being left out, and of how the work sits in context.

The above was derived from a consideration of masters level students. They were at the end of a course: It was understandable that they would have been expected to explain what they had learnt, show development, demonstrate progress. They were, after all, trainee artists .. potential artists .. people on a learning journey. What about established artists (those recognised as already having a degree of mastery) – are they still expected to explain themselves, to record their ongoing journey, to demonstrate progress?



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