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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Comments (3)
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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.

  • steve smith says:

    I nev­er knew that artists in dif­fer­ent crafts and arts could share friend­ships because every­thing we do is art. My father men­tioned to us a cou­ple of days ago that he wants to buy Taos Inn oil paint­ings that he would add to his con­tem­po­rary real­ism col­lec­tion. He asked if I had any idea what would be the best paint­ing approach. Thanks to this instruc­tive paint­ing infor­ma­tion arti­cle, I’ll be sure to tell him that we can con­sult a fine art gallery as they can pro­vide infor­ma­tion about their paint­ings. https://www.daquangallery.com/collections/contemporary-paintings-manhattan-ny/

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