The Three Kinds of Art Being Made Today

by Rainey Knudson May 4, 2019


Note: The best art being made today does not fit neatly into any of these categories, but it usually touches at least one of them.

1. Mere Decoration

I say “mere” facetiously, because good decoration — good aesthetics, good design — is deeply satisfying and essential, and something we should all try to surround ourselves with. Also there is a rich history of artists working in design: the Bauhaus; Donald Judd; today’s “Sloppy Craft” movement (to name a few). 

But while art can be decorative, the purpose of art and the purpose of decoration are not the same, and too much art being made today is just vacuous, competent decor. Abstraction falls heavily into this category. Nobody, seeing an abstract painting today — no matter how good it is — is going to recoil and say, “Oh my god, what is that?? That’s not art!” Abstraction long ago lost its ability to shock us. 

Granted, the point of art is not necessarily to shock. But shock means surprise, which means you are seeing something in a new way. Nearly a quarter into the 21st century, we “see” abstraction (inasmuch as we consider it at all beyond issues of price and brand-name recognition of the artist) mostly as a kind of visual muzak, distant and removed from the World War and postwar context that once made it meaningful. 

Of course, “mere decoration” doesn’t just include abstraction. It also applies to a lot of figurative painting and sculpture being made today, as is evident from visiting any art marketplace, from the most craftsy street festival to the most posh international fair. (“Mere decoration” is also true of most immersive or experiential art as well — the main difference being whether one owns the object itself, or owns a photographic record of having seen it.)

Merely decorative art is a prop we use to help create an idea of ourselves as tasteful, savvy, and (in the case of hard-to-get examples) good at competitive shopping.

Decorative art dominates the marketplace today, as it always has.


2. Desiccated Conceptualism

This is “pile of sawdust” art: you walk into a gallery and see a pile of sawdust, and across the room maybe something tacked to the wall and then another little doo-dad on the floor leaning against a corner. After reading a novella of text, you are made to understand that what this is really all about is the artist’s imagined childhood (or their grandfather’s actual childhood) when they visited the beach once and cut their foot on a shell, and how this all relates to global warming.

And just like abstraction, this half-baked rehash of the original conceptual art has mostly lost its ability to shock or surprise us. It’s a far cry from the rigor of the early conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, who said, “the world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” Huebler was not interested in communicating “meaning;” on the contrary. He and other early conceptual artists would probably stifle a yawn at all these dull, meaning-encrusted installations we gingerly step around in today’s art world. 

Desiccated conceptualism dominates kunsthalles, although it is starting to be replaced by #3.


3. Charitable-Outreach-as-Art 

People are becoming increasingly anxious about the state of the world today — not that the state of the world is any worse or better than it usually is, but that’s an essay for another day — and artists, along with everyone else, feel compelled to do something about it. This is reasonable and laudable: we should all be engaged citizens, fighting the good fight to make our world a better place. But in the context of art-making, this impulse results in a lot of art that is not art, but rather charitable outreach or art education. This kind of art tends to be feel-good, do-good, and preachy to the choir. The word “community” is invariably pasted onto its materials like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. 

Kurt Vonnegut said that during the Vietnam War, artist protests “proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.” Which sums up the effectiveness of this type of art: nobody with any real power is paying attention to it.

Charitable-outreach-as-art dominates government-funded art. It is blameless, facile, easily agreed upon by committees, and totally defensible to taxpayers.


[Bonus] 4. This list is not comprehensive.


The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize, not to understand, and it never has any fun.
– David Hammons, 1986



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Ben Woitena May 5, 2019 - 08:26

After the shock wears off the Avant Guard is absorbed into the Modern and finally Modernism.

Garry May 5, 2019 - 12:41

Art is always decorative, conceptual and reaching out. Decoration, concept and out-reach though, are not always art

Shane Tolbert May 5, 2019 - 17:29

In 2006, Tolbert Atelier founder Shane Tolbert befriended children in a village in Argentina and saw that they didn’t have adequate paintings to hang on their walls. Wanting to help, he created Tolbert Atelier, a company that would match every painting purchased with a new painting for a child in need. One for One®. In 2011, the One for One® model was expanded and Tolbert Atelier Eyewear was launched. With every pair purchased, Tolbert Atelier helps restore sight to a person in need. One for One®.

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Travis May 6, 2019 - 13:19

You have sold over 35 million paintings??

Cynthia Coldren May 5, 2019 - 17:55

Then why do in-the-know exhibition curators continue to select so much of this kind art? This was clearly evident at several Dallas Art Fair exhibitions as well as numerous urban contemporary galleries…

X,Y,Z May 6, 2019 - 13:01

Number 3 is lumping “political art” with other types of “relational aesthetics” and projects that resemble social work.

Here is why it is important to make a distinction: The generic application forms requesting funding from the City of Dallas state in the first paragraph that the artist should not make politically charged art–and/or anything that is seen as “divisive.” A few years ago, there was an act of censorship when a recipient created a project about gentrification and displacement happening in her neighborhood. Long story short: city funding is not going to pay for commentary on socially relevant issues, which leads to the real question: What kind of “art” do cities really fund? Why would an artist agree to make art that’s been defanged for a few hundred dollars?

A discussion of the political art category (make by adults for adults) could lead interesting places but it is different from the other categories, I think.

Rainey Knudson May 6, 2019 - 13:33

This is a good point. In fact, government funding often goes toward the first category — more anodyne, decorative stuff, particularly for permanent public art.

Travis May 6, 2019 - 13:28

Rainey, why did you feel the need to write this generalized, complaining piece about art you don’t even care about? Would you care to name any real artists or institutions you have encountered that inspired this writing? Is this one of those opinion pieces that supposed to make artists think twice about creating their next piece? If you really believe that you will see “real” art at an art fair, artist market, commercial gallery space, or conservative institution or public square, you have been duped. Participation in the marketplace requires serious compromise and editing and censorship.

Cynthia Coldren May 8, 2019 - 11:58

Thank you for the real-world comment.

S May 7, 2019 - 08:02

read that Judd book-

Pauline S. May 7, 2019 - 12:18

Rainey, there is an elephant in the room that you didn’t mention. Most of the “decorative paintings” that are shown in high end showrooms and all over the internet are “Giclee’s.” As a 1970’s trained print maker, I was appalled when I saw the first offset “print” being sold as an origial fine art print! My parents cruise ship acquisition was a limited edition (of 1000) offset print by a well known artist. They were thrilled and hung it next to their beautiful original Philip Powell and Paul Evans mid century modern hand made furniture. Although highly educated they didn’t understand when I suggested the piece they bought was a copy of an original print. No, no they said “we have a certificate of authentication.” Hey, who can argue with that… Getting back to your decorative paintings…
So, how does an unsuspecting buyer know the piece they’re buying is not a “Giclee?” I think the pieces you’ve shown of decorative artwork are probably Giclee’s, made in China , for the mass market. Most places show and sell these pieces without mentioning that the piece is a copy and that thousands of that particular “Giclee” exist. They often are large, framed and although significantly less expensive than an original painting that size, they were still selling in the $1000’s. Not one sales person in the various showrooms, when asked, knew if the pieces were original or a Giclee…Most people don’t realize that the great bargain painting they bought is basically a very expensive copy, that has minimal intrinsic value, other than purely decorative. So, my question is, are you sure the three “paintings” are original paintings or are they mass produced Giclee’s? To me, that is a more important issue facing artists today. Thank you.

Utopia Weiner May 7, 2019 - 13:48

Your parents have a piece of Paul Evans furniture!
Aching/Jonesing/Drooling to see a picture!

Pauline S. May 8, 2019 - 01:02

I’d be happy to send you a photo via email or text. Where do you want me to send it. FYI, my parents commissioned their custom bedroom suite directly from Powell and Evans at their New Hope, PA.Studio/Shop. My mom still has one of the three original pieces.

Philip C. May 8, 2019 - 15:30

Nice write-up, sort of an update on Greenberg’s critiques (everyone loves to hate on the curmudgeon, but he’s like that unavoidable footnote that all criticism refers back to). You’ve called attention to some of the most prevalent traps in contemporary art. At the same time it sometimes feels as if traps are almost unavoidable, but perhaps this is me commenting on myself. I find myself growing more critical as I get older and experience more art, less easily impressed by most works of art.

[Bonus] 4. This list is not comprehensive: I would add the common trap of sensationalist, scenic, or “image-istic” (for lack of better word) art to this list. Such works include: Chiharu Shiota’s surreal installations involving threads, Meow Wolf’s psychedelic amusement park installations and the “experience economy,” Signe Pierce’s selfie-reflections on representation in the image economy, Sleep No More’s experimental theatrical performances which feel like haunted house displays (or Odyssey Works’s more intimate versions of such life-theater integrations, with theatrical productions tailored to an audience of one), and pretty much any technologically-driven impressive work of art prefaced with the words “immersive” or “interactive” as a selling point. Many these works, while cool, tend to merely impress for the sake of wowing audiences without necessarily getting them to think critically about issues such as the capitalist market conditions that produced them (I’m kinda regurgitating Guy Debord here.)..but then you’re moving from merely entertaining and verging on political didactic so I guess damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

That David Hammons quote you conclude with raises the question of who an ideal audience of art is, and why preaching to the choir of a privileged niche can be bothersome. But at the same time there are issues with populist sentiments, and more questions about whether aesthetic pluralism can exist in an increasingly atomized and class-divided society. We art lovers are a self-critical, self-loving bunch, aren’t we? Bastards!

Fuzzy S. May 22, 2019 - 17:35

You make a valid point Philip; however, Id argue that ‘experiential,’ immersive, and/ or theatrical works that engage a viewer in their own sort of fantastic journey is work that shares a sense of authorship with its viewer. When people’s agency is becoming more and more restricted this kind of work reminds us that we live in a construct with all of it’s conventions- a construct that the mind is capable of breaching and going beyond. To engage a public by implicating the very degree of imagination that it takes to carve out a space for empathy is something that I feel does indeed need a place in our current socio-political paradigm. Critical thought is only one side of the coin which is dictated by language systems. The ‘wow’ is what we might refer to as magic, and represents what cannot be explained or categorized linguistically as it represents a very intimate and individualized experience. While ‘wow’ is not particularly poetic it does suggest a sort of stirring beneath the surface. Of course I am painfully biased because I make this theatrical kind of empathic work BUT I find this discussion very interesting!

Betsy Belcher May 21, 2019 - 09:41

That book on your table is merely decorative unless you take the time to read it and interact with it intellectually.
Any two-dimensional artwork is just there, on the wall, being a thing-on-the-wall, until you decide to look at it. “Realistic” and abstract paintings are are sometimes meant as decoration, and sometimes not. That woman standing there with a pearl earring is no less decorative than deKooning’s “Attic”, which I could wander into and look at for a long time. A picture of a person no more implicitly meaningful, except that some people like to project into those kind of pictures. Labels on the wall are irrelevant to an artworks meaning, unless the label is part of the artwork. Though labels can explicate the history of some objects. Some artworks say big things and some say small things. A short quatrain is no less a poem than an epic.
I guess that I like visual artifacts as ideas, and if you choose to just see the surface, that is your way of looking at stuff.


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