Can Contemporary Art Become Too Popular?

Contemporary art, believe it or not, is hot. When comedian Stephen Colbert “begs” British graffiti artist Banksy not to make the walls of his studio’s building the next target in his Better Out Than In series (aka, “Banksy Takes Manhattan”) and instantly send property values skyrocketing, you know that contemporary art’s hit the mainstream. But is this popularity a good thing? In a preview of the London Frieze Art Fair, The Financial Times’ Peter Aspden weighs the pluses and minuses of contemporary art’s current status. Admittedly, the popularity of and financial investment in contemporary art beats the alternative, but, as Aspden points out, “it’s hard to deny that in its quest for instant accessibility, contemporary art has lost something of the sense of purpose that it enjoyed when it was genuinely pushing at the boundaries of moral and social consensus.” Aspen believes that the public more willingly swallows contemporary art because “it is so easily consumed and digested.” Should the contemporary art world be choking on its own success? Can contemporary art become too popular?


Aspden focuses mainly on the London art scene, but the phenomenon he recognizes goes global. Banksy’s traversing the Atlantic to stage the month-long Better Out Than In series speaks more about his desire to conquer new worlds and rake in more cash than any kind of cultural outreach. Works such as This Is My New York Accent ... Normally I Write Like This (shown above) raise an amused chuckle, perhaps, but fail to start any kind of cultural stir, as underground art forms such as graffiti once claimed to do. The piece itself jokes at what’s lost in translation when someone steps outside their customary cultural circle, but what’s really lost in translation might be the enlivening edginess of art that Aspden alludes to. Banksy even set up a web site for fans to visit to find his latest works—a stroke of shameless self-marketing that some might argue continues the long tradition of artists such as Gustave Courbet. But where Courbet could proclaim himself “the most arrogant man in France,” Banksy’s online proclamations contain less of the arrogance of cutting-edge art and more of the old school commercialism art once condemned.

Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst—the twin towers of commercialized contemporary art—make their requisite appearances in Aspden’s piece, of course. Aspden marvelously details all the lowlights of the past few decades of contemporary art and points fingers at the Tate museums and Guggenheims for their complicity in the simultaneous popularizing and dumbing down of contemporary art. Like so many art forms that challenge the status quo, contemporary art shifted from contempt to collaboration to complacency—an evolution accelerated by financial reward—and thus became part of the very status quo they once resisted. Aspden draws an interesting connection between contemporary popular music and contemporary art. “The ruinous decline of pop music over the past couple of decades is one of the reasons for the rising interest in visual art,” Aspden argues. “Art stars became the new rock stars.” But a renaissance in popular music paralleling contemporary art’s decline in edginess might “mark the beginning of a redressing of the balance.” The rise of the Beliebers may have created a generation of new believers in visual and performance art, but contemporary art’s betrayal of that belief by selling out may be tipping the scales back towards music.

Aspden sees some hope for contemporary art in his humorous “survival guide” for those braving the London Frieze Art Fair. Go forth, he advocates, and look at the work done by young artists who inhabit the world beyond the fairs and festivals. Go forth and look at the work of artists from the Middle East and China, where the status quo of oppression still compels artists to challenge rather than assimilate. Go forth and look at the work of the Old Masters, the contemporary art of the past, and revisit what art challenging us to be better and bolder looks like. Avoid, according to Aspden, today’s ubiquitous “Pop-ups–restaurants, shops, galleries,” which he calls “the most potent symbol of the Attention Deficit Disorder age.” It’s a great thing that people are paying attention to a contemporary art world where new Banksys can pop up overnight, but we must guard against that attention leading to a deficiency of the mind and the soul.

[Image: Banksy. This Is My New York Accent ... Normally I Write Like This, 2013. Part of the Better Out Than In series. Located at 508 West 25th Street, Westside, New York City, NY.]

[Follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob).]

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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

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If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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