Skip to comments.Why it's OK not to like modern art
Posted on 05/10/2003 5:02:44 AM PDT by jalisco555
I HAVE NEVER met anyone who told me they loved modern art. No one ever came up to me, their eyes glowing with pleasure, telling me I just must see, say, the new wall drawings by Sol Lewitt in the 1970s, or the smashed-plate paintings by Julian Schnabel in the 1980s, or the life-size, glazed porcelain figures by Jeff Koons in the 1990s.
I have, however, met plenty of people who have told me that I ought to like modern art. There is some place for ought in life, but none at all in art; art is a gift, not a duty. The people who told me that it was my job as a curator to like modern art invariably had a vested interest in so doing: either they earned their living making, teaching, criticising or curating modern art, or they came from the worlds of the media and marketing, who genuinely admire anything that can attract so much attention.
To counter this cynical, commercial compromising of artistic craft, learning and judgment, it is vital to focus on what art is actually about on its meaning, not on its promotion, nor even its packaging. Content cannot exist without form and, obviously, marketing influences that form, as it influences everything to which we want to attract attention. The crucial question is: how good is the content? If we take our eye off that for a second, we are in danger of being distracted by the wrapping.
Unbelievable as it might seem to those unfamiliar with the world of modern art, the self-styled artist Piero Manzoni canned, labelled, exhibited and sold his own excrement (90 tins of it) in the early 1960s. The Tate has recently acquired No 68 of this canned edition for the sum of £22,300. They have coyly catalogued it as a tin can with paper wrapping with unidentified contents. None of those who collected Manzonis tins has, as far as I know, tested the veracity of their contents, but then, who would want to?
In another work, Manzoni drew a line on a strip of paper a single long line, in ink rolled it up, put it in a tube, sealed it and recorded the length of the line and the date of its making on a label pasted to the outside of the tube. The idea was that these tubes, containing lines of different lengths, should remain unopened.
This takes the triumph of wrapping over content to its logical, but sterile, conclusion. How can a line you cannot see be art? Nevertheless the Tate has two of these tubes in its collection.
It is all too obvious to anyone not in the art world (though always denied by those within it) that a rift has opened between the art being promoted in contemporary galleries and the art that people like to hang on their walls at home.
Samuel Kootz was perhaps the first of a new breed of art entrepreneurs, among whom Charles Saatchi is currently the best known. During the Second World War Kootz saw his big chance, not just to make New York the art capital of the world while Paris was occupied by the Nazis, but to maintain its supremacy after the war was over. This could only be achieved, Kootz realised, if the big spenders in America started to spend big money on American art.
In 1943 Kootz thought he had found the artist who could deliver the goods: Byron Browne. Brownes art at the time was described as individual, athletic and showing constant growth. This gives no idea of what Brownes paintings were actually like. In fact they now look like painfully sad imitations of Picasso. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as depicted in his triptych, could hardly look less alarming with their clippity-clop shoes, electric-whisk heads and B-movie Martian hairdos.
It is easy to make fun of Browne at this distance in time when the difference between Picassos innovations and the efforts of his followers has become so clear, but it is less easy to forgive Kootz. He was perhaps one of the first art dealers to apply the methods of saturation marketing to his trade. By 1951, Kootz realised that he had made a mistake and he sold all his Brownes in a deliberately demeaning sale in Gimbels department store. This led to panic selling by other collectors. Browne was the first artist I know of to be dumped, a practice that was to become common in the increasingly cynical world of art.
Browne never recovered, but who cared? By then, Jackson Pollock had come along. The English painter Bridget Riley was one of many who thought that Pollocks art, while exciting and liberating on the one hand, was at the same time a dead end, leaving nothing to be explored. No artist could pick up where Pollock left off; none did, nor did it occur to anyone to try. While Pollock was being promoted as the greatest artist in America, Edward Hopper, a painter much more deserving of such an accolade, was being totally marginalised.
The very concept of art has been so brutalised in recent years that it is difficult to see how it can survive, let alone revive. Without a widely accepted understanding of what we mean by art, what chance has it to regenerate? The task we face is to clarify what distinguishes a genuine work of art from the ersatz products of today. The quality that links the paintings of Vermeer and Matisse, Grünewald and Picasso, and that earns them the status of works of art a status few would deny them is, I would suggest, the aesthetic light that appears to shine out from them. It is worth trying to get closer to what we mean by aesthetic light, because it is this light that will re-emerge after the eclipse has passed.
Any work of art worthy of the name has an instantaneous effect on first viewing. An artist might bring all sorts of feelings and thoughts into play, but unless he or she manages to make them all contribute to one encompassing, illuminating whole, the work of art will have no heart, no life of its own.
Looking at a great work of art makes one feel more fully aware of ones thoughts yet no longer wearied by them, more exposed to ones emotions yet no longer drained by them, more integrated, more composed more, in a word, conscious. It is the light of consciousness that great works ignite in our minds. It is this quality of luminosity that unites the divine visions of Piero della Francesca with the nightmares of Goya. This is the light that will return to art after the eclipse has passed. A found object, whether it is a brick or a urinal, cannot by itself inspire you with a heightened level of consciousness, just because it is selected and placed in a gallery. The man who designed the urinal did not make it to inspire ideas about art, but for men to urinate into. We can admire, if we are so inclined, the achievement of his aim. Yet how can we ever really know what was in Duchamps mind when he put it in a gallery?
What imaginative light emanated from Rachel Whitereads House? It had, it is true, a mournful presence, but this effect was due to its context rather than anything inherent in its form. One could feel sorry for it, but this was essentially a sentimental response, which depended on the feelings one brought to this encounter. Artists try to make statements that transcend private associations: that is what art is an unconditional gift to others. The greater the art is, the more detached it becomes from private meanings, and the more freely it stands as its own interpreter, to speak to all of humankind. By this criteria House does not even begin to be a work of art.
The most exciting thing that will happen as the eclipse passes will be the emergence of new talent all around us. There are thousands of artists around the world who have gone on creating art because they have not been able to do anything else with their lives, but whose work has been totally obscured.
Glorious new art, much of it modest though still valid, some of it profound, will emerge from the gloom. Among these hidden delights will be the great art of our times. The tragedy is that we cannot yet see it. Public galleries around the world show the same diet of narrow conceptualism, often by the same few, heavily promoted artists.
Great artists of the past had an easier job attracting public attention. They enjoyed, for centuries, a virtual monopoly on visual imagery. Since the invention of films and TV, photographs and colour printing, computers and DVDs, the artists share of the visual market has diminished considerably. But one only has to see the queues forming for a show of works by Dalí or Matisse, both of whom operated in this context, to know that there is still a hunger for the created image. It is not the need for art that has diminished, but the quality of art that is being shown. This is not because it is no longer being made. It is because a benighted view of art has a stranglehold on the few who choose what little art we are aloud to see. And the public acquiesce, because what else can they compare it with?
It is one of the most pernicious myths of modern art that we have discovered the great art of our age when, in fact, we have hardly begun to look for it.
Francis Davison was a John Sell Cotman of our era, an Abstract artist of monastic rigour. It is difficult to describe the effect of looking at his large collages made out of torn and cut coloured papers. At times it is like going for a walk when the whole visual environment the sky, the trees, the earth and the fields collapses about one into an encompassing, luminous pattern. Always his feeling for space and tone is immaculate, and his images glow. He worked in almost total obscurity until I put on an exhibition of his work at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1983, the year before he died.
Unknown to me, a young aspiring artist called Damien Hirst was bowled over by the show and spent the next two years trying to emulate Davisons art, until he gave up.
Hirst wrote later: Before I went to art school I saw a show at the Hayward Gallery of collages by an artist called Francis Davison that blew me away. When I moved to London a few years later, I was surprised to find out that nobody had heard of him, even though hed had a big show in a major public gallery.
Hirst learnt his lesson, and made sure that that never happened to him. He decided he would be famous whatever he did. Julian Stallabrass quotes Hirst as saying as early as 1990, before he had made his big breakthrough: I cant wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say f off. But after a while you can get away with things.
The artists of the eclipse have been getting away with things too long.
Julian Spalding was a founder of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. His book The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today, is published by Prestel next Monday.
I hope that day comes soon.
Thanks, Tom Wolfe is great at laying bare the truth, although he was wrong in 1975 in hoping that the hoax would be completely exposed by 2000.
"Every art student will marvel over the fact that a whole generation of artists devoted their careers to getting the Word (and to internalizing it) and to the extraordinary task of divesting themselves of whatever there was in their imagination and technical ability that did not fit the Word. They will listen to art historians say, with the sort of smile now reserved for the study of Phrygian astrology: Thats how it was then!as they describe how, on the one hand, the scientists of the mid-twentieth century proceeded by building upon the discoveries of their predecessors and thereby lit up the sky . . . while the artists proceeded by averting their eyes from whatever their predecessors, from da Vinci on, had discovered, shrinking from it, terrified, or disintegrating it with the universal solvent of the Word. The more industrious scholars will derive considerable pleasure from describing how the art-history professors and journalists of the period 1945-75, along with so many students, intellectuals, and art tourists of every sort, actually struggled to see the paintings directly, in the old pre-World War II way, like Platos cave dwellers watching the shadows, without knowing what had projected them, which was the Word.
What happy hours await them all! With what sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement they will look back upon the era of the Painted Word!"
Jane - a MUST read!
And they wonder why donations to the art community have been declining. The utter presumptuousness of the art elite is either appalling or laughable, depending on whether you have money invested in them.
Agreed. Those and some of Thomas Hart Benton's musings were godsends to me at one point in time.
How true, although I think he's been revitalized over the last ten years.
I like some modern art, but the field is dominated by phoniness and by crappola that won't stand the test of time.
My daughter, as you know, has struggled to maintain a view of art separate from that of the current "modern" view while finishing art school (she graduates Sunday).
My sister, the art teacher, had this to say about modern art:
"It isn't about art. It is about how much BS you can spin to explain the 'meaning' of whatever piece of dreck you hang on the wall."
I think that sums it up in a nutshell.
appeared in our paper this morning. It is about a picture recently hung in our Milwaukee County Courthouse that depicts not only Martin Luther King, but has offensive Rodney King references, gang references and just plain stupid artistic work of a skull with a bullet hole in it, all in the name of ....yes...."Diversity" and the struggle blacks face.
Big problem is it hangs in a courthouse where justice is dispensed and nothing like tainting potential jurors with anit white, anti establishment, pro gang violence stuff on the wall in an 8' by 16' piece! Thankfully, our County Executive gets the joke, art for art's sake is sometimes very stupid. Any help with the HTML would be appreciated.
Not mentioned is that Mr. Manzoni won the "P. T. Barnum Award for Brilliance in Modern Art Marketing" several times, including a lifetime achievement award in 1967.
With art such a degraded commodity, illustrators would stand head and shoulders above most of those who "pose."
I'd classify even the good modern canvas-makers as decorators posing as artists. Their canvases are color charts for the parlors of the urbanites.
Thanks, Miss Marple, that is just perfect. Best wishes to your daughter, by the way. Hope she'll continue to ignore the lemmings.