Contemporary art is a puzzle to many people. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the winner of the Walters Prize, an installation called Explaining Things by Auckland artist Dan Arps, has created controversy.

A Weekend Herald report described it as "a jumbled collection of posters, a bashed old barbecue table and chairs, YouTube clips, lamps and a paranoid handwritten note". It also noted that this, the richest contemporary art prize in the country, was worth $50,000, including a New York residency.

On cue came the complaints, tinged with envy, which suggested that anyone, or their 2-year-old child, could have created Arps' work, or, indeed, have come up with something far superior.

This sentiment, however, sits oddly beside the view of the biennial prize's international judge, Vicente Todoli, a former Tate Modern director. He said Arps "has transformed these found materials through his own editing ... and has taken them into another higher realm ... turning Explaining Things into a revelatory multi-layered experience".

The critics' sentiment also betrays a fundamental unwillingness to buy into contemporary art, particularly its striving for innovation and creativity.

People who utter such views are probably far more comfortable with a painting by Canaletto or Constable. There is a gulf between them and artists who consider painting a largely exhausted medium.

Inevitably, such a debate leads to the question of whether what Arps and his ilk are creating is even art. Critics of installations see little of the talent and skill they associate with, say, the great painters or sculptors. But every artistic period is a window on the intellectual, moral, political and religious climate of the time.

Much contemporary art is notable for a strong desire to comment on and connect with societal concerns. Works such as that of Arps should be viewed in this context.

Installations such as his focus on the mundane world, but that is a world full of implications. Ordinary subject matter can provide a compelling commentary on society, including its complexity, its turbulence and, sometimes, even its beauty.

Those now criticising Arps' work doubtless felt much the same when, a few years ago, Creative New Zealand allotted $500,000 to an art collective called to create an exhibit for the Venice Biennale. Previous installations from that source had included a portable toilet that emitted the sounds of a donkey braying and explosions. If New Zealand needed something to stand out from the crowd at Venice, many doubted this was the way to go.

What is unquestionable is that this country boasts a thriving contemporary art scene. As Mr Todoli suggests, the best of it can hold its own on the world stage. For many of these artists, installations, which can only be fully realised in the setting of choice, are the preferred mode of expression.

In essence, they are no different from any other form of fine art in that, to succeed, they must stir the spirit, stimulate the mind and arrest the eye.

Within the arts community, there will be far less befuddlement about the awarding of the Walters Prize than in the wider world.

Any discussion will probably focus on the originality and uniqueness of Arps' installation. There will also be talk of what comes next for the artist and his contemporaries because the quest for innovation must be ongoing.

From time to time, there will be criticism from a wider community struggling to get to grips with what these artists are doing. Usually, the twain will never meet. Relatively few of the artists are feted in their own lifetimes.