Art Every Wednesday (15)

“Why modern art?”

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot.

Like when I have to squint at a canvas made up of squares painted nine different shades of black.

Or when I’m staring at a hacked-up image of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung (see Brit artist Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” right)

And while wandering that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, maybe the most prestigious art museum in the country, and happening upon a gigantic tank with a dead shark floating in it.

Met curator Gary Tinterow defended the museum’s purchase of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-injected tiger shark, a work entitled “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” saying

“It’s a work of art that causes the viewer to think about the brevity of life.”

It would take too long to fully and fairly define modern art in one blog post, but there is something to what Tinterow said I think we can understand. It causes the viewer to think. That, in essence, is modern art.

It is not – oh, please don’t do it – a fair or appropriate critique of modern art if you walk into a gallery and say, “I could make that.” Sometimes that’s going to be true, yes, but it still doesn’t count as an insult. The point is, 1) You didn’t and 2) How difficult it would be to make is simply not the point. Before modernism, the answer to What is a painting? went something like, “a stretched canvas upon which a trained painter uses his materials to convey depth and the most impressively realistic, naturalistic features of humans and nature possible.” This definition certainly has a place in modern art – it hasn’t totally disappeared. But it is no longer the standard. We now live in a world where skill matters less than thought. Where execution matters less than concept. Take nine-black-squares guy, Ad Reinhardt. He said, “There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color; something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of my morality.” So Reinhardt, just by hanging up those indiscernible black squares, is saying something about what he thinks about art. He’s also saying something about himself and his own morality, about his desire for control, his desire for the calm that comes from something completely devoid of the chaos of color. So the fact that this artist stared into the face of hundreds of thousands of years of art history and chose to make this very thing becomes significant.

Modernism takes on a hundred different meanings and is constantly in flux (á la postmodernism), but this is an essence: Modern art is about engaging the viewer. It’s about stretching the definition of who an artist can be. It’s about seeing or experiencing something in a new, unconventional way. It’s about exploring the depths of the human soul and psychology visually (see Munch’s “The Scream”, above).

So yes. Sometimes it’s frustrating and weird and not-beautiful to stare at a frozen mask of some guy’s blood because he’s trying to say something about mortality. But let’s take the bad (yes, I’d even venture to say frozen blood counts as bad) because there is so much good that’s come out of modernism. I will always prefer art that stretches rather than conforms, art that speaks to me rather than depicts a famous face, art that challenges and evokes rather than succumbs. Modernism gave rise to the Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists, Pop Artists and more; to new media artists, performance artists and outsider artists (the reclusive and occasionally insane, more on this on a future Art Every Wednesday post). It meant Jackson Pollock could splash paint on a huge canvas just to express his angsty feelings, or that Kerry James Marshall could courageously evoke the Civil Rights struggle (you can find the fifth part of this incredibly thought-provoking “Memento” series at the Nelson-Atkins in KC).

A few resources.
Notable modern artists:
Eduoard Manet, considered one of the first modernists, whose 1863 “Luncheon on the Grass” shocked viewers when he painted his defiant nude, who gazes back out at us seeming to acknowledge our presence.

Claude Monet, who for as much as we see his posters on bedroom walls and call them pretty, was a radical artist taking part in a radical movement. He stopped trying to represent reality and instead conveyed a less naturalistic glimpse of a moment, an “impression.”

Pablo Picasso, who decided he wanted to see a woman from every single possible angle. At once.

Andy Warhol, who took a superficial, materialistic time in American culture and made art that reflected it. His art is characteristically empty and worships products and celebrities, which is what he saw in his post-1950s world.

Marcel Duchamp, made famous for his “found art” or readymades. Basically, the man said, “If I say it is art, then it is art.” So he put a urinal and a bicycle wheel into an art gallery, and presto! Duchamp proves that it is the artist’s thought that determines what can be considered art. A more extreme conceptual artist is the recently deceased Sol Lewitt, who didn’t even bother constructing anything he made but only drew up instructions because it was only the idea behind the artwork that mattered.


Clement Greenberg – an art critic and huge fan of Jackson Pollock and the rest of the Abstract Expressionists – says modern art is that which is only concerned with itself (read: Hey painters, stop trying to make things look real, that’s a sculptor’s job).

Here’s what Marcel Duchamp had to say about the role of artist.

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