Coming Out of the Pretentious Closet: I Don't "Get" Modern Art

Last week, my husband took me to see a touring exhibition from the New York Museum of Modern Art.  At first, I paused reflectively in front of the Matisses and the Picassos, ponderously reading the descriptions as if "oil paint on canvas" had a deeper meaning.  (I had my hand on my chin and everything.)  I tried to stop my brain from looking for identifiable figures in the work and just absorb the impression it had on me; I tried to "feel" the artist's intention in his (or her, but mostly his), brush strokes.  But then, as we passed through room after room and the Magrittes faded and the found objects began, I got over myself.  I didn't get it. I really didn't get it.

Cy Twombly: "The Italians"
I don't dislike abstract art. In fact, I would go so far as to say I like it. I enjoy looking at the paintings of Picasso, deKooning,  Pollock.  I adore museums; I love minimalist rooms in contemporary houses dominated by one wall-sized abstract canvas.  But do I appreciate abstract art?  World, I confess: I don't.  My true, deep down, ugly thought about most art -- even art I really like -- is: "Would this clash with the throw pillows in our living room?"

This may be a decision that many of you have reached years ago when your art class first studied Cy Twombly and you thought, "my parents have a dozen of these on their fridge from my kindergarten year."  But for me, as a wannabe intellectual, aesthete, gallery-opening type person who scoffs at those who ask "but what is it?," this is a true confession.  And judging by the angry comments on this Buzzfeed article that dared to mock modern art, I may be setting myself up for an upbraiding by the art-world aficionados.  But when I look at Marcel Duchamp's "sculptures" and Ashley Bickerton's teen-angsty "Self Portrait," I just wonder who in the art world decided to elevate those pieces out of the junkyard above all others.  I feel: if you like Bickerton's work so much, a) you should really be a NASCAR fan, because those guys are wearing this kind of art all the time, and b) I'll sell you a recreation of my teenage bedroom door: all that plus Mark McGrath photos! 

Ashley Bickerton, Tormented Self Portrait
I've tried, I promise I've tried.  I took a class on the great Howard Hodgkin in college when he had a retrospective at the Tate Modern in London and became extremely familiar with his work.  I even met the guy, and it was an honor and I was duly star-struck and impressed and I brag about it all the time. (i.e., right now.)  I love him and his art; I love the way it makes me feel, I love the bits of brush stuck in his heavy globs of paint.   I would buy ten of his works if I could and hang them all around my home and live with them and look at them every day.  But let me tell you: I'd only hang them in a room where they matched my furniture, y'all.  And apparently that's the worst thing ever.

In the play Red, about abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko, people who like art because of the color are maligned as the worst of the worst.  Rothko relates the anecdote of a woman who tried to return a darker work of his she had purchased for a brighter one because it "depressed" her.  The audience roared with disdainful laughter.  (And this was the audience at the show in Atlanta;  I can't imagine how the New York audience must've been rolling in the aisles, peeing their pants.)  But I kind of sympathized with this patron, she of the multi-thousand-dollar purchase that made her feel icky when she looked at it, and it didn't match her drapes, to boot.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain.
Duchamp, Roue de bicyclette
















I realize this makes me plebeian.  I realize the art should come first and the furniture second.  Unless the furniture is art?  Then the furniture and wall-hangings don't have to match because they are both art and the fact that it's art obviates the need for color schemes, is that right? What about paint colors?  I don't know, you guys,  I almost bought a painting at IKEA last week.  I'm totally helpless.  (Plus side: at least IKEA would've let me return it.)

And here's the thing: I'm totally willing to admit that I'm just not smart/intuitive/creative enough to "get" this art.  (Unlike, apparently, most of the readers of Buzzfeed, who understand and appreciate the value of a square of blue more than an insensitive imbecile like me.)  But I'm also kind of thinking that someone needs to tell the Emperor that he has no clothes on?

I'm not entirely alone here.  An author on Vice blog (who goes by the name Glen Coco, so I already adore him), says this:
Yves Klein, "IKB 191"
You know what? I'm sick of pretending. I went to art school, wrote a dissertation called "The Elevation of Art Through Commerce: An Analysis of Charles Saatchi's Approach to the Machinery of Art Production Using Pierre Bourdieu's Theories of Distinction", have attended art openings at least once a month for the last five years, even fucking purchased pieces of it, but...I'm finally ready to come out and say it: I just don't think I "get" art.  I'm like, 99% sure that nobody's ACTUALLY into art and it's just some exclusive club you can only join if you've got more money than interesting things to communicate to the rest of the human species.
And there have been multiple scientific studies that tested the hypothesis "Could a Child Really Do That?"  Two scientists had art students and non-art students compare paintings by professional abstract painters, children, and animals, to see if they could tell the difference.  The students picked the professional artists between 60 and 70% of the time (the art students, as you would expect, picked the professional paintings correctly more often).   This majority is more than mere chance, of course, but it is also not overwhelming.   In fact, another scientist took the results of this study and compared it to human ability to distinguish other non-art types of objects, and determined via margin of error (and I'm skipping to the conclusion here -- feel free to read more about the study yourself) that abstract artists are statistically only 4% better than children.

To me, more significant than the actual results is the fact that these studies were even conducted in the first place.  For professional scientists to seek funding, propose a hypothesis, and design an experiment to empirically gauge whether abstract art could be done by chimps and five year-olds gives a lot of creedence to that underlying question, doesn't it?  It means a lot of people are looking at Cy Twombly and saying, "my kid could do that."  So let me put it to you, my smarty-pants readers: which of these paintings was made by a kid, and which was made by a professional abstract expressionist?

The answer is at the bottom.  But, if you had to guess, it almost doesn't matter if you guessed correctly.  If you had to deliberate at all, if there was any question in your mind, the cynic's point is rather proved, isn't it?

Look, I'm not saying that abstract artists aren't talented; in fact, I think they're bursting with talent so all-consuming that have to explode with it on canvas.  But wasn't Michelangelo talented, too? And it doesn't take a scientific study to prove that a child or a chimp or a lawyer could never paint the Sistine Chapel. 

I get it -- I do -- I get the argument that art is not art if it's repetitive, unoriginal, unchanging, and that artists are constantly trying to change and explode the status quo.  But at the same time, I think this era of talented people doing things that are blatantly amateur-looking is part of this greater cultural syndrome of permeating irony.   I don't think I'm the only one whose getting a little sick of hipsterism and irony and wearing and liking things because they're stupid and bourgeois and antiquated. (And believe me, I've been guilty of my share of it.) But isn't intellectual irony just smart people fake-liking things that dumb people sincerely like?  And isn't that pretty mean-spirited and dumb in itself?  What's so bad about sincerity, anyway?

I'll leave you with this great New York Times article, "How to Live Without Irony," and return to writing my sarcastic blog titled after a B-list horror movie that's so bad it's funny.  Apparently, I've got a long way to go.  Maybe I'll take up painting?

Answer to the art quiz: the image on the left: 4 year old.  Image on the right: Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist.
Previous
Next Post »

11 comments

Write comments
January 8, 2013 at 12:05 PM delete

art is... period!

see I made art in three words!

happy in the new year!

jeremy

Reply
avatar
Brad
AUTHOR
January 9, 2013 at 7:33 PM delete

I have plenty of these pieces in my house, but that's just because Uncle Cy was too lazy to get us birthday presents we actually wanted.

Reply
avatar
January 11, 2013 at 4:33 PM delete

I'm with Jack:

"We know what art is! It's paintings of horses!"

Reply
avatar
Alison
AUTHOR
January 15, 2013 at 10:27 AM delete

These are awesome comments! Bieber (http://www.tmz.com/2012/06/22/david-letterman-rips-justin-bieber-for-ignorant-remark/), a real Twombly, and my hero Jack Donaghy. Fantastic, thanks guys!

Reply
avatar
Anonymous
AUTHOR
April 3, 2013 at 2:31 PM delete

I was pretty sure the painting on the right was done by a pro, but following paragraph says it all - if you had to think about it at all, it destroys the entire illusion.

Reply
avatar
Anonymous
AUTHOR
May 20, 2016 at 2:12 AM delete

This makes me really sad. I work with the kind of artists you are talking about all the time. Most people think that all contemporary artists get paid extortionate amounts of money - in fact they don't - the majority of the artists I work with don't get paid at all and in fact making work costs them money. They do it for the passion because they love what they do and care about it. I think if you imagine people like that reading this or constantly hearing these kind of comments (which, believe me, they do - you're really not being a maverick here) and imagine how it makes them feel then its hard to imagine how you have the right to call anyone mean spirited.

Reply
avatar
May 31, 2016 at 9:57 PM delete

Is the comment above saying that we have to like the work of these artists because if not they will feel bad? I'm really sorry for them, but if they have no talent, someone has to say it. Having to see art in everything just because the artist did it "for the passion" is exhausting and hypocrite. If I can't get it, I can't get it, and I won't elaborate a snobbish explanation just to justify their lack of talent. Coming out of the pretentious closet is very liberating indeed! :D

Reply
avatar
Anonymous
AUTHOR
June 28, 2016 at 4:59 PM delete

Ugh, finally...finding places where people admit this. You know, it really affects your concept of yourself as an artist when you see people making junk and making a ton of cash, while you try to master something and get what....nothing. I get age discrimination as I'm "young", but what does age matter in an era where crappy art sells anyway? why not take on a young artist willing to actually follow the older rules of anatomy and proportion?

oh, but everyone is an artist they say...LOL!. Most meetup.com art groups aren't even for professional artists or those honing their craft to become professional...so it is hard to find others like yourself, and if you do, the competition side from feeling like aren't given a chance will turn you a bit sour towards wanting to help each other.

Reply
avatar
Unknown
AUTHOR
October 13, 2017 at 9:48 PM delete

I got the art quiz right. I'm ready for my degree now.

Reply
avatar
love williams
AUTHOR
October 13, 2017 at 9:53 PM delete

I got the art quiz right. I'm ready for my degree now.

Reply
avatar

© 2015 by Alison

All of the writing on this site, unless otherwise indicated, is original and is exclusively the property of Alison. Most of the images on this site, however, are not owned by Alison. They are largely a product of a Google Image Search and intended to make viewing this site less boring. If any of the images used on this site belong to you and you would like a credit or removal, please contact me at alisonsboomstick@gmail.com.