Henry Geldzhaler wrote a great little book (and I mean little - it's smaller than an iPod) called Looking At Pictures, It's about viewing, understanding and - to some extent - creating - contemporary art. While the book is simple and direct, for such a small book it also has some interesting depth to it. A couple of extracts:
On the other side of the coin is what Clement Greenberg calls the narrative element in art - and the principle holds true for the most abstract painting as well as the most representational. The work of art must continue to reveal new messages and images on subsequent viewings, and not exhaust itself in what I call the Big Bang, revealing everything to you the first time you see it and then having a lessening impact each time subsequent. The narrative, or the story, reveals itself to you through time. The story is in you. It's an internals troy and only you can judge it...
The best summing up of what in the contemporary art of any period is so exciting is the Ezra Pound paraphrase of Confucius - Make it new. Make is to fashion. It is tradition, or the craft, the history. And new is... make it new, constantly, make it new. If the artist makes it new, then we're going to have to chase to catch up with it, or, it may be mere novelty. If the it, the craft, dominates to such an extent that it makes it difficult to see the contemporary content, the it might take a while longer to catch up. But make it new.
To make it new one must be in touch with a tradition while at the same time knowing exactly where you are and what your own time is about. Those are the beginnings and they’re not easy. They're the hard part...
There are two prerequisites for having any sense of what is of value and quality in your own time. The first is a firm grasp of the history of art. The firmer the grasp and the better you are grounded in every conceivable period, the less shocked or thrown off base you're going to be by something that appears new but isn't or that is meretricious in any of a dozen ways. A grounding in the best art that's ever been done, hitting your head against the concrete wall of achievement, there’s absolutely no substitute for it.
The other prerequisite you must have in order to come to terms with contemporary art is a thorough sense of who you are in your own time. And to combine those attributes in one person is not easy."
(pictures - David Hockney)