Painting by Richard Diebenkorn
Richard Diebenkorn
Untitled circa 1948
Oil on canvas

Modern Art: Is It Just Crap?

“Modern Art”

You know what I’m talking about – paint thrown randomly on a canvas, rubber novelty rats hung in trees, disjointed people made out of triangles and squares of colored paper, comic book characters with random thought bubbles – that sort of thing.

Is it all just a lot of bull crap being foisted on John Q by snot nosed punks that are trying to avoid getting real jobs or is it a valid but misunderstood form of artistic expression?

I know you. You’re yelling BULL CRAP! at your computer screen right now.

You think this way because your daughter came home from classes at McGurkville Community College the other day and was raving about this fantastic “artist” she is learning about in her Art Appreciation class. This guy’s art consists of filling balloons with paint and launching them from a giant slingshot over the fence of the local landfill. The result is what you would expect – brightly colored garbage. You sold your vintage Indian Chief motorcycle to pay her tuition (now you ride a used Vespa to work and get laughed at) and this is what she learns?

I’m going to have to agree with you the much of “modern art” is bull crap, but I’m also going to say that NOT ALL of it is crap. Some of it is real art.

It is just so hard for the average Joe to tell the difference these days. Back when things were painted to look like the things that they looked like, the people with no talent were easy to spot and given the bum’s rush. Now days when a painting of a person could look like something the cat coughed up, who can tell what’s good and what’s bad?

Probably not you or me. No matter how much I write or how many people we ask, we will never come to a simple solid definition of what is “art” and what is not art. It cannot be done. We are talking serious grey area here. So I’m going to leave that kind of hassle to the museum curators, that’s what they get paid to do.

Personally I just try to keep an open mind and I look for some sort of effort, skill, talent, ability, thought, inspiration, whatever you want to call it from the artist. I’m looking for some depth. We all know when athletes are playing with passion and we know when they are just dogging it for the day. If a piece really just looks like the artist phoned it in because they couldn’t think of anything better to do (think religious artifacts floating in bottles of urine), then forget it. On the other hand don’t write a piece off just because it isn’t what you think art should look like.

Notice that I have been putting “modern art” in quotes. What you and I think of as “modern art” could really be postmodern art or abstract expressionism or assemblage art, etc. See the difference? Me neither. It doesn’t matter. (If that last statement pisses you off, then you are reading the wrong blog, college boy, hit the bricks.)

Actually just about all the weird stuff that regular people like us classify as “modern art” really fits in one or another slot under the more general term contemporary art. In rough terms Contemporary art means anything done since WWII.

But like I said it doesn’t matter – to a museum director, yes – to you and me, no. We just want to go to a museum, make some sort of sense out of it, and get out without spending too much money at the gift shop.

It’s like american football. If you are an aspiring NFL coach (or a weenie sports geek) you know about all the different defensive formations and what coach introduced each one and what year that was. You care about that stuff. Personally, I can watch an entire season of ball without once taking note that the McGurkville Marauders are using a 3-4 Eagle defense this year instead of their traditional Over/Under 4-3. So what if Anthony “The Bull” Filliachi is lining up over there instead of back there, I just want to see him clothesline some skinny wide receiver catching a pass over the middle.

So when you go to a museum, don’t worry about all that egghead art jargon. We will not be having a pop quiz. You will not be ejected because you thought that painting of anger was a coffee stain. Just realize that there are different kinds of art and they all don’t have to look the same. Find something you like and don’t worry about the rest. There is plenty of really great work being done out there.

Now for some practical tips on viewing “modern art”:

1. No matter how badly you think a piece is done, do NOT yell across the gallery, “Hey, Bobby Sue, com’ere and look at this. If that don’t look like the time I was paintin’ the kitchen and I fell off the ladder with the paint bucket in my hand!” Remember what Shakespeare said: “A stone is silent and offendeth not”

2. Remember that “modern art” is often not about what a thing looks like, it is about what it “means” (or possibly what it doesn’t mean). Try to let go of the idea that things always need to look like what they look like.

3. When no one else is looking, read the placards on the walls. Many museums realize “modern art” can be confusing and they will try to help you out. Some pieces are just incomprehensible unless you know something about the artist that created it or the history behind it. Sort of like an inside joke for the artsy set.

4. After reading the cards, work some of what you learned into your conversation and amaze your daughter. She used to think of you as just a big gorilla that makes the bathroom smell bad, but now she can see what a hip cutting edge kind of a guy you really are. Think about growing a soul patch to complete the disguise, but lay off the beret unless you are French.

5. At least give it a try. Before you dismiss that pile of sticks in the corner as just garden refuse, think about it a little. Maybe it is just compost and the show curator is an idiot, but maybe not. Maybe there is something to it after all.

6. If this sort of stuff really chaps your hide and you just can’t get past the seeming pointlessness of it all, then move along. No one expects you to like everything. Just ease your way toward the door leading to the Renaissance art.That’s the place where the title of the painting is “Old Man” and I’ll be darned if it isn’t in fact an old man staring back at you from the canvas. Unless it’s something by Giuseppe Arcimboldo – not sure what he was drinking, but I want some.


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