John Waters: The Point of Contemporary Art

If contemporary art baffles you, if you’ve ever looked at contemporary art and wondered “what’s the point?,” then give sometimes controversial filmmaker John Waters four minutes of your time. He’ll break it down for you in simple, if not crude, terms: “Contemporary art’s job is to wreck whatever came before it. And from the very beginning after the Old Masters, from then on, each generation wrecked that. That something is pretty and beautiful is probably the worst thing that you could say today in contemporary art about something, unless it’s so pretty it’s nauseating.”

This segment is part of a longer Big Think interview (23 minutes) that you can watch in full here.



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  1. MariaPopova says . . . | September 28, 2010 / 1:31 pm

    Interesting. Reminds me of this Susan Sontag quote from this 1994 interview in The Paris Review: “I was assuming that a principal task of art was to strengthen the adversarial consciousness.”

  2. Evan Plaice says . . . | September 30, 2010 / 3:18 pm

    Lol, contemporary art is hilarious. I think it’s a bitter joke by the artists to express the irony of their world. If they create something beautiful and solid it’s criticized as not being as good as the works that came before it. If they create something cryptic (and possibly lacking in meaning altogether) it’ll be praised as a masterpiece. The fact that it doesn’t make sense is what makes it intriguing to the affluent audiences, mostly because it’s that same audience that devote exorbitant time and resources trying to convince the rest of the world (and their peers) that they know/understand more than they really do. The point is, it’s not supposed to make sense. By not making sense, it makes the observer create their own meaning making it their own. It only goes to show us the self nature of ourselves and how we fight to protect our own perceptions of the world. If that isn’t a tragic joke from the mind of an artist, I don’t know what is.

  3. Arasmus says . . . | September 30, 2010 / 6:18 pm

    Is this still new? Hasn’t this been the story of “contemporary art” now for what 40 years? Almost half-a-century and this is still the big idea? Really? There is nothing more contemporary than this?

  4. Green Key says . . . | October 13, 2010 / 8:29 am

    John, buy the mold painting and hang it on the outside of your house!

  5. Arjun Sen says . . . | December 14, 2011 / 3:38 am

    A lot of contemporary art seems to be about knocking things down : sentiments, love of beauty, social norms, ways of seeing things, whatever. So long as it is iconoclastic, strange, shocking, apparently (or actually) meaningless, it might make it as a contemporary art success. The more outrageous or disgusting, the better. If I were a Marxist I’d call it bourgeois. It has one of elegance and appeal and sense of real meaning under the surface as pre-WW2 modern art or even Pop Art.

    It’s time a sense of meaning and purpose was restored to art instead of this garbage getting the attention and the purses of the credulous middle classes.

    The main ingredient for success in a lot of contemporary artists seems to be not so much talent as audacity : the audacity to produce a pile of crap and then smoothly pronounce it as art. You first need to go to art school to pick up the jargon and the pose – not indispensable but it helps – and then start branding your work. And the fat-pursed idiots all line up ooh-ing and ah–ing.

    What a joke.

  6. Tura Satana says . . . | December 14, 2013 / 6:15 am

    Funny. I must be in the minority as I enjoy contemporary art, obviously not all, the same way as no-one presumable likes all action movies or all literary fiction. A lot of contemporary art is also humorous, besides shocking – hard to shock anyone these days, so kudos if you manage – thought provoking and entertaining.

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