What to Say When You Don’t Understand Contemporary Art? A New Short Film, “Masterpiece,” Has Helpful Suggestions

MasterpieceRunyararo Mapfumo’s short film above, will feel very familiar to anyone who has struggled for words to share with a friend after his or her underwhelming Off-Off-Broadway solo show, open mic performance, or art installation…

Equally familiar, from the reverse angle, to any artist who’s ever invited a trusted friend to view his or her passion project, hoping for approval or at the very least, interest… something more robust than the paltry crumbs the friend manages to eek out under pressure.




A British Film Institute London Film Festival selected short, Masterpiece focuses on a tight group of male friends… one of whom has reached beyond the communal comfort zone in the service of his art. His earnestness confounds his old pals, who clown around outside the gallery where they've gathered for an after hours preview of his work, one staunchly asserting that he only showed up because his mum made him, and also, he was told there’d be free food.

Once inside the friends are left alone to puzzle out his masterpiece. What to say? Maybe they should draw parallels to the current socio-political situation? Perhaps they could tell their friend his work  is reminiscent of German Expressionism?

Yoko Ono or Marcel Duchamp would have made a more apt comparison, as writer-director Mapfumo is surely aware. Masterpiece is notable for more than just its pitch-perfect take on artist vs. befuddled but still supportive friends. As Mapfumo told Directors Notes:

I’ve been told time and time again to “write what you want to see.” I started thinking about what that meant to me in a everyday context. These characters are black men that I recognize…I didn’t want the conflict to revolve around their identity but rather through their observations. 

Related Content:

How to Look at Art: A Short Visual Guide by Cartoonist Lynda Barry

An Online Guide to 350 International Art Styles & Movements: An Invaluable Resource for Students & Enthusiasts of Art History

Your Brain on Art: The Emerging Science of Neuroaesthetics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her most recent artistic endeavor is Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division's production of Animal Farm, opening next week in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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  • Claude Mon-ey says:

    When someone claims I “don’t understand” contemporary art, I usually say “The misunderstood-artist scam still works!”

  • emmett walz says:

    “The misunderstood artist scam” has been the entire substance of “Modern Art” since its inception. Or, at least, at the abandonment of representational art, in abstract art, in the early twentieth century. Being an artist has become an unending pursuit of an “original” idea, however repulsive, or unidentifiable, with which to distinguish oneself, rather than the mastery of a craft, in service of a worthy theme to expand the viewer’s capacity to perceive, and to appreciate what it is to be human. Modern art has never accepted this challenge, but rather, lacking a mastery of craft (with the exception of a few, such as Picasso, who discarded that craft after a short, early period of its demonstration) consumed with the religion of modern man, pursuit of Mammon, the artist seeks an elitist fame, fortune, and negation of humanist identification. Modern art demonstrates a contempt of man, and adoration of self, as the only worthy, or otherwise desirable, god.

    To gain a better understanding regarding the hoax of modern art, may I recommend Tom Wolfe’s fabulous book, “The Painted Word”. If western civilization should ever recover itself from the long sleep of the modern era (the twentieth century), it will forever be recognized as the period of stench and decay in fine art.

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