Tania Dibbs

Contemporary Art Rules

Yes, there are contemporary art rules – codes to let one another know whether or not you are a contemporary art insider or poser.

Number one is that anyone who is anyone does not sign their works of art, with few exceptions. You might as well dot your i’s with hearts.  This was once a little tough for me to buy, having started my career in realism where there was a good chance that a painting hung with an unobtrusive signature on it led to more sales. You are aiming to be such a somebody that people know its your work without needing a signature, and if you are not there yet, pretend you are, because a signature yells that you are not even going to get there. Your signature is not part of the work. A frame is not part of the work. Your collector list is not part of the work. All of this is both true and not true.

Which brings me to the next rule, which is that you can be taken as a whore or a sellout if you are actually making money with your art, or that your art has the cultural integrity of bubble gum if it sells too easily. It is a sort of catch-22. I am happy that in my thirties I was paying off a house with my paintings instead of flipping burgers while being artsy fartsy, but I did not yet know that success was not sales. You cannot both make a living and be doing real art, unless you are one of the few who have gained acceptance into the art world equivalent of the NBA. “Who is your audience?” is the phrase here.

Beauty, realism and skill are all intertwined in this next point. In the world of contemporary art it seems that using beauty and skill might automatically lead experts to believe that you lack imagination. If you employ these crutches there is a chance that you might not be an intellectual and you run the risk of having your art immediately dismissed by the tastemakers. I think real experts are able to hold beauty, skill, content, intent, irony and many other things in their consideration all at once, and the pretenders are the ones who feel the knee-jerk reaction to ixnay beauty just because they know it’s loaded. I am glad to see that these qualities seem to be making a comeback.

Another rule is that you can’t be seen as trying too hard. Don’t use the word “professional.” My astute artist friend Kris Cox points out that one doesn’t say “professional doctor,” but a doctor definitely got an advanced degree. What if I danced the way Karen Kilimnik paints, and managed to make money at it? Would the word “professional” distinguish me from being a “dancer” in the YouTube oddity sense or not?


A “dancer”, a “professional dancer”, or a YouTube oddity?

Websites are another good example. Most of the really successful artists have websites that are crappy or non-existent, because they are too busy to deal with a website, do not need to self-promote and besides, Gavin Brown’s site is fine. If your font is too big, forget about it – your font should be microscopic even if no one can read it. (i.e. Petra CortrightDominique Gonzalez-Foerster). I think tiny font means you are neither O-L-D, which is a no no, nor trying too hard.  I had a curator tell me recently that if an artist’s site has a taupe background, she won’t even look at the work. She also has a list of other website prerequisites to check that inform her opinion of the art that she hasn’t seen yet. Photos of the work should be on a white wall, as if you have already arrived at a white box gallery, not cropped around the painting. Oh yea, and the work should stand on its own.

Which brings me to the thorny subject of contextualization, which is worthy of it’s own post. For now I will just say that it is de rigueur to disdain contextualization because, again, the work should stand on its own, though I have yet to tour a museum with a director, read an article about an artist’s work or go through a personal collection without someone contextualizing the work for the viewers the whole time. Maybe once an artist’s work is in museums and private collections it goes without saying that it stands on its own already, so the backstory runs no chance of supporting the work and everyone already knows what it is anyway, although I often come across art in these situations that doesn’t visually interest me in the least without a comment on the artist’s intent. (Maybe this point should be under the “trying too hard” section.)


So remember the rules:

Pretend you are not trying.

Don’t explain. Hope you get to the point where someone else will.

The work should stand on its own ( ha).

Paint like no one’s watching, but don’t dance that way.






  1. I always love hearing Tania’s ironic and thorny rants. Also, because she gets out into the serious art world, she can bring the conventions of that world back to her home valley and her cloistered painting buddies such as myself.
    So, I’m thinking of this blog as a kind of tutorial: How one can harmonize with art tastemakers (who Tom Wolfe lampooned so mercilessly in The Painted Word).
    Let’s see, I’m okay on the website thing; mine is just okay — no bells and whistles.
    But I’m in deep trouble with the rest:
    I’ve been signing and even dating my paintings for twenty years, like my dad before me.
    As to beauty, I’m on deep trouble. I aspire to the beauty that the natural world offers me, even when I bend it to abstraction.
    And trying? Dang, I’m hurtin’ there too. I confess that I try hard.
    Contextualization? Early on, I was okay. I hated explaining my paintings, even to the point of not naming them. But I found that buyers and viewers loved hearing the stories. And I talk pretty good story, so I’m stickin’ with that one too.

    Fortunately, my buyers don’t seem to care what the tastemakers think.
    And I do paint much better than I dance.

    1. Ha, Michael,…… we ALL try hard. I said PRETEND you are not trying 🙂
      This is all to be taken with a grain of salt. I can see the other side of the argument too. For example, where I grew up there was no cable for the longest time so I was one of the last kids to see music videos and when I did I hated it because they kept affecting my own experience of the song that had been something else to me before I saw the video.
      And should art be too easy? Probably Coca Cola has a broader fan base than a fine wine, which takes a little experience and education to appreciate. Easier to sell a Coke. I enjoy pointing out the contradictions though.
      I guess it is all a matter of degrees. Lots of people are afraid to form their own opinions so they rely on “rules” instead of judgement. Like when a guy takes a ski lesson fifteen years ago and the instructor said “bend your knees” and the person is skiing around all squatty fifteen years later because they ran with it and never looked back…..

      I have to read that book. Who doesn’t love merciless lampooning?

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