Listen to this story
I love art. Monet’s Water Lilies make my heart beat faster, my insides somersault, and my mind swirl with words and colors. Few experiences compare.
I don’t love the things that get exhibited in contemporary art galleries. If you prefer: I don’t love contemporary art. It makes me feel empty and bored, sometimes a little annoyed, at best slightly amused.
I’m far from alone in my preferences; among amateurs, they’re the rule rather than the exception. Like many people, I love color, beauty, representational illusion, emotional expression, painterly texture — and these are things contemporary art doesn’t typically give its viewers. Modern artists are just interested in very different things than I am.
By itself, this state of affairs would hardly be worth mentioning. I have my preferences; the art world has its. I would be happy to leave it at that — if it weren’t for two claims fans of the contemporary insist on repeating.
(1) A dislike of modern art is a symptom of insufficient education. Given enough art-historical and philosophical background, anyone should appreciate modern art. Furthermore, such background is worth acquiring.
(2) Modern art is preferable to representational painting in some objective sense: modern art is serious and cutting-edge; representational painting is shallow and outmoded. It’s fine to create and appreciate art which is merely beautiful, but in this day and age we ought to aim for something more.
These are the claims I’d like to question in this post. The first section tackles modern art directly; the second discusses the features of representational painting which allegedly make it inferior to modern art. The final section compares the two varieties of art.
My aims are relatively modest. I’ll argue that going to contemporary art galleries simply isn’t worth my effort. Acquiring the historical and philosophical background necessary to begin to appreciate contemporary art is a huge time investment — and even after this investment, I value the appreciative experiences I end up with much less than I value the experiences I have of, say, Monet. Furthermore, the claim that art has somehow “progressed” beyond representation, or that contemporary art is more relevant to our times than, say, representational painting, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
I’m not claiming that there’s nothing valuable in contemporary art for you. In fact, I know that there are artworks in contemporary galleries that even I like. I’m just arguing for a statistical claim: for me, the worthwhile artworks are so few and far between that going to a MoMA or a MoCA typically just isn’t worth my time.
I. “No, Thank You” to the Modern
Perhaps the most baffling variety of modern art is so-called conceptual art: art in which the artwork is, supposedly, an idea rather than a thing.¹ These days, this sort of art occupies a large chunk of museum space, and it will occupy a proportionally large chunk of this post. I won’t attempt a definition, but here are some common features of conceptual art:
- the use of found objects (“readymades”)
- only a minor (if any) use of traditional media like painting or sculpture
- features which make the question “what/where is the artwork?” hard to answer: including the gallery space as part of the work, performative aspects, audience participation, invisible elements, etc.
- reliance on a background aesthetic theory or references to art history/philosophy.
Many who reject conceptual art would also reject abstract expressionism, or even cubism; for the most part, I wouldn’t.²
Difficulties with Difficulty
I can’t shoot down a whole artistic practice without giving concrete examples; otherwise, you’ll rightly suspect me of strawmanning. But here I encounter a problem: when I visit a modern gallery, I find most of the exhibits so incomprehensible that (a) I have nothing to say about them and (b) I immediately forget about them. Among my reactions to modern art, mute bewilderment is the norm.
To criticize a work is already to grant that there’s something there to be talked about. The examples I’ll discuss are therefore only the interpretable tip of the bewildering iceberg. Here’s a piece of that iceberg; I can only point to it in frustration. The pointing is part of the argument; without it this post would paint a picture of modern art that is altogether too rosy.
With that in mind, here’s an example. Martin Creed’s Work № 227: The Lights Going On and Off is an empty gallery room in which the lights go on and off (every five seconds). It won the 2001 Turner Prize.
Here’s what the Tate’s communications curator had to say about the work.
Creed is a kind of very pure extreme kind of artist. The fact that many people find his work so baffling indicates that he’s working on the edge.
Bafflement is a sign of difficulty — right? And difficulty is a good thing — right?
Here’s a case where difficulty really is an admirable thing. We admire Einstein because he not only understood the theory of relativity, but came up with it himself. The latter is more difficult; Einstein had to put in more effort into coming up with his theory than he would have had to put into understanding it, if someone else had come up with it earlier. Furthermore, Einstein’s theory tells us how the physical world works. Learning it is not just difficulty for difficulty’s sake.
The case of modern art is different — often, the hard work lies entirely on the side of the viewer. We have to contort our mind into strange shapes to get anywhere near a state we might recognize as appreciation. The work is difficult in the sense of being difficult to appreciate — but it isn’t necessarily difficult to create. (It’s also often not difficult to understand, in the sense that there isn’t much there to be understood.) The artist gives us an instruction (“appreciate this!”), but he doesn’t need to know how to follow it. Just listen to what Creed has to say about his own work — does this sound like the sort of deep appreciation we expect from viewers?
If I can make something without adding any objects I feel more comfortable. It’s like, if I can’t decide whether to have the lights on or off then I have them both on and off and I feel better about it.
The art world makes a virtue of things that have no independent value. Its proponents treat mere difficulty as if it were a virtue — as if steeper mountains were better, independently of the views. As if standing on one leg were better than standing on two, simply because it’s harder. I suspect that modern art’s difficulty, rather than being a reason to call this art “good,” is caused by its badness. It’s extremely hard to learn to like unlikeable things — but that’s not to those things’ credit.
Modern art is only difficult in the sense in which a rebellious teenager is difficult.
A Good Insult Isn’t a Good Thing
I once heard an art historian say, in response to a student’s complaint that he didn’t like an artwork: “How do you know you’re supposed to like it? What if the artist wasn’t trying to please you? What if his aim was to annoy you?”
What if, indeed. The rhetorical question was posed as if it settled the matter — which it certainly doesn’t. If the artist’s aim was to annoy me, and he succeeds in that aim, I can rightly ask: “what’d you do that for?!” If I go to a massage therapist, and instead of giving me a massage, he kicks me, telling me that his intention was to hurt rather than massage me doesn’t help his case. You don’t get brownie points simply for achieving your aims.
Of course, annoying your audience — or just making it uncomfortable — is often done in the service of grander aims. We’re shown uncomfortable truths, often moral or political ones. This is a fine aim, except (1) modern art, with its tiny, highbrow audience, and amenability to multiple, inconsistent interpretations, is a highly ineffective tool for changing the world, (2) the aim comes with an ascetic suspicion of pleasure that I think is deeply misguided. I get the sentiment behind “no poetry after Auschwitz,” but was I really born too late for art that is beautiful… or simply kind to its audience? Is mourning till the end of time really the best response to tragedies? Of course we shouldn’t get complacent, but making art that brings joy to people is, other things equal, still a finer thing than art which merely scandalizes them.
This Is a Bad Artwork
A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp submitted a store-bought urinal, under a pseudonym, to the Society of Independent Artists (of which he was a board member!) The Society had agreed to exhibit any artwork by a fee-paying artist, but refused to exhibit “Fountain.” (It wasn’t an artwork, so they were within their rights.) I refer the reader to Wikipedia for details on how the story evolved from there (including a discussion of the intriguing possibility that “Fountain” was in fact thought up not by Duchamp, but by a female artist).
What was Duchamp’s intention in submitting “Fountain”? On one interpretation, he was criticizing the romantic idea of the artist as sovereign creator of transcendent value. The artist was just a chooser among things, and there was no difference in kind between a urinal and a painting. Art was bankrupt; we should all go home.
If this had been Duchamp’s aim, he failed to achieve it — spectacularly. In “Fountain’s” aftermath, the artist became a magician transforming everything he touched — even a urinal — into gold. Art galleries were given the power to — with the appropriate incantations about the death of art, in the appropriate jargon of the initiated — transmute bread into flesh and wine into blood.
To understand a little better how this could have happened, imagine a gallery room with a neon sign saying “THIS IS A BAD ARTWORK.” What would you make of such a work? Well, it’s just a freaking neon sign. It’s pretty bad, right?
Aha! But that’s precisely what the sign says. How witty! What a good artwork!
I hope this little neon sign illuminates the frustrating features of the works of Duchamp, Creed, and others like them. The artworks, among other things, draw attention to their unspectacular nature. They say something close to “this is bad art.” But then if you use those very words to criticize them, you’re just agreeing with them, adding fuel to their “greatness.”
Self-critical works immediately transmute criticism into praise. But they don’t stop there. “What a good work!” is an unstable conclusion too: if our neon sign is a good artwork, then its initial wittiness is undercut. Now we have a good artwork saying of itself that it’s bad—which means that it’s either lying, or mistaken.
The art world stops at “it’s a good work,” but this is an unstable conclusion which depends on the inferential cycle starting with “it’s a bad artwork.” Perhaps the difference between fans of the contemporary and me is that for them, oscillating between verdicts is itself a positive aesthetic experience — whereas for me, it’s a cheap self-referential trick.
Unmasking Is Impossible
Last year, as a prank, two teenagers placed a pair of glasses on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Almost immediately, people began photographing the glasses. The teenagers gleefully tweeted about their unmasking of modern art. In response, the SFMOMA welcomed them into the art world, tweeting “Do we have a Marcel Duchamp in our midst?”
The rules of the game are such that unmasking is impossible. The teenagers wanted to take something that clearly wasn’t art and show that museum-goers wouldn’t know the difference between this and “modern art.” But to succeed in this project means to turn a lowly item into something that makes a statement about the bankruptcy of art — which is to say, to change it from a lowly item into… modern art.
And this, of course, undermines the message. If the glasses are art, then gallery-goers weren’t mistaken at all, and the art world can go on just as it has before, applauding the brilliant self-criticism of a pair of glasses.
Duchamp said “we should all go home.” For a hundred years, the art world has been standing in the gallery, applauding this statement.
Concepts Don’t Live in Galleries
I once went to the Warsaw contemporary art gallery, only to find, in one of its rooms, a puddle in a glass container. The label informed me that this had been an ice sculpture, left to the unpredictable summer temperatures as a meditation on impermanence. There had been a heatwave, and the sculpture barely lasted a few hours.
The work achieved its aim, I guess — but looking at a puddle wasn’t worth the hour-long train ride into Warsaw. (To counter that since, after all these years, I still remember this annoying experience, the art must have been good, is to, once again, change the rules of the game so that badness becomes goodness.)
If the artwork really is the idea, then, reading gallery catalogs may be worthwhile, but going to the galleries themselves is not. Furthermore, when — as is often the case — the idea involves a commentary on art itself, it really isn’t worth the time of someone who isn’t a fan of the art world to begin with. If the idea embodied in Duchamp’s “Fountain” is that art is dead, then the ideal viewer is one so convinced of the message that she doesn’t bother coming to the gallery.
All Great Nonsense Was Misunderstood in Its Day
“Contemporary art is just too young to be fairly evaluated,” apologists sometimes explain. “It’s no wonder we don’t appreciate the greatness of contemporary art; all great art was misunderstood in its day.”
Everything about this argument is wrong.
The point that this is at most a reason to remain agnostic about the goodness of modern art, not a reason to call it great (since even if all great art is misunderstood, not all misunderstood art is great), is almost too obvious to be worth stating. But it’s worse than this — all the presuppositions of this argument are simply false. Much great art wasn’t misunderstood in its day — take Raphael or Rubens, for instance. And the great art that was misunderstood was misunderstood by institutions like the French Academy and by the rich people who bought art. Contemporary art isn’t even misunderstood in this sense. The scribbles that fetch exorbitant prices on the art market aren’t the work of starving geniuses. Modern art is over- rather than undervalued. Finally, contemporary art isn’t young — Duchamp’s “Fountain” is 100 years old, and we philistines still don’t get it. How much longer are we supposed to wait?
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
Let’s return to The Lights Going On and Off. I confess that while writing this post, my judgment of this work has flickered between “worthless” and “cool.” Here are some cool things the work does:
- draws your attention to features of galleries which are usually in the perceptual background: the color of the walls, the shape of the room, the lighting
- invites you to pay attention to similarly overlooked features of your everyday environment
- refers to other works which have done something similar, like Cage’s 4'33"
- flickers in an out of being really simple and really complicated, being just a room with lights and an artwork with complex meaning
- brings to mind antonym pairings — being and nothingness, good and bad (art), exuberance and depression, understanding and bewilderment, meaning and meaninglessness, simplicity and complexity — and abrupt shifts between one and the other
- asks about itself: which side of these boundaries do I lie on?
That’s a lot of cool features for a light switch in an empty room! But it’s not enough to rehabilitate conceptual art for me.
First, none of these features are reasons to go and see the work in person. I might try paying more attention to the way my environment shapes my perceptions, but I don’t have to travel to a gallery to do that. (And if I were seeing Creed’s work for the first time, I would probably be too angry to do what it asks of me and focus on the aesthetic features of the environment.)
Second, the work is still just a room with lights going on and off. The above “features” are just my interpretations — the coolness lies in the story I tell. You can write a great poem about lights going on and off in a room. But that doesn’t make the room great art—it makes you a poet.
As to self-reference, and reference to other works — they get tiresome. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the liar paradox, so I really get the appeal — but there’s only so many times you can go through a paradoxical loop in your head without wanting to look at some deliciously textured paint.
Let’s turn off the lights and softly close the door.
II. “Yes, Please” to the Old-fashioned
Nothing Mere About Flowers
I overheard the following conversation at a nondescript Oxford reception.
“Why do you have to do all that modern art stuff? What’s wrong with just painting flowers?” a student at the Ruskin School of Art was asked. She responded: “Maybe in Van Gogh’s time, it was fine to just paint sunflowers, but today’s art has to do something more, make itself relevant. What could a painting of mere sunflowers have to tell us about the pressing concerns of critical discourse, politics, philosophy, morality?”
I can still hear the tone of confident derision in which she said “sunflowers.” How arrogant to be this certain — at twenty — that you know better than Van Gogh!
This student apparently believed that Van Gogh lived in an innocent age in which the simple pleasures of sunflower painting were still permitted—but we have learned better. But consider this bit of (oversimplified) art history. The French Academy, which existed between the 17th and 19th centuries, was an institution controlling which French artworks got to be exhibited (and what artistic training looked like, which artists got prestigious awards, etc.). One of the dogmas upheld by the Academy was the “hierarchy of the genres:” “heroic” depictions of historical and religious scenes were deemed superior to representations of humble still lifes. In fact, still life painting occupied the very bottom of the hierarchy. It wasn’t until Impressionism’s rebellion against the Academy that the hierarchy was overturned and still-life paintings were (briefly) treated as full-fledged, serious artworks.
The art favored by the French Academy was heroic, pompous, political, and needed to be decoded with the aid of textbooks. Sound familiar? At the same time, still lifes flourished on its outskirts, and found an enthusiastic market of non-experts wishing to decorate their homes. In my humble opinion, these outskirts are where French art’s true masterpieces, like Chardin’s The Ray, were created — and, perhaps, where our times’ masterpieces reside too.
Van Gogh did live during a special time — the extremely short period of art history during which landscape and still-life painting were at the center of the art world’s attention. (Or, perhaps, the extremely short period of art history during which there were two alternative art worlds.) But it was not a time during which there were somehow fewer philosophical, political, or moral concerns for artists to grapple with. More often than not, though, the artists who grappled with these things were forgotten; the still lifes have stayed with us.
What could be more universal than sunflowers? Van Gogh’s mere sunflowers — made of color, texture, emotion, mortality — will stay relevant when all the world’s most sophisticated art fades into obscurity.
Nothing Mere About Beauty
The admirable Youtube show “The Art Assignment” would have converted me to modern art if anything could have; it certainly reversed some of my judgments. In one episode, its host, Sarah Urist Green, answers a viewer’s question. “Can something beautiful be considered art if it doesn’t provoke thought or reflection?” She responds:
Art can make you marvel at its beauty, art can make you uncomfortable, art can make you think. Some art’s function is to make you appreciate its beauty, [but] personally, I like art that does something more.
Urist Green is being slippery here. If beauty and provoking thought are both valuable, then, of course, beauty plus thought is better than just beauty. It’s tautologously true that “something more” is more than “something less.”
But if this is all Urist Green means by “something more,” I can use her argument to make my own point: “Some art’s function is to make you uncomfortable or make you think, but personally, I like art that does something more: art that is also beautiful.” (In fact, this is one of the main points I’m making in this post.)
I think Urist Green would be unhappy to grant me my symmetric argument. There’s more behind her “something more” than a tautology. She’s insinuating a value judgment: it’s not just that beauty plus thought is better than beauty, but thought by itself is better than beauty. Beauty without thought is mere beauty; thought without beauty is thought, period — or perhaps: bravely ascetic thought.
Modern art’s distrust of beauty has many sources, which I can’t hope to untangle here. Suffice it to say that, to me, none of these sources amount to a compelling reason for such distrust. (An art historian once told me that beauty is “irrelevant.” She didn’t care to specify — irrelevant to what?)
To me, there’s nothing “mere” about beauty. Monet’s “Water lilies” come as close as any paintings to aiming at being “merely” beautiful. There are subsidiary aims, of course: capturing a light effect, an instant, the interplay of flower and reflection; giving expression to something spiritual or transcendent; exploring color relationships and textures; teetering on the edge between surface and depth, between representation and abstraction. But none of these amount to “provoking thought and reflection” of the sort modern art prizes. Monet has nothing to tell us about politics or morality, and he’s certainly not “problematizing” the concept of art.
I spent an exquisite half hour with the “Water lilies” at the New York MoMA. At first, I was disappointed — the paintings were too familiar, too similar to their reproductions. But I stayed with them, and they grew richer and richer. They coalesced when seen from the far corner of the gallery, engulfed me when I came closer, offered something new and just barely comprehensible — or barely incomprehensible, I couldn’t really tell — with every glance. None of this was “thought;” all of it was supremely valuable.
While I gasped at Monet, other visitors came and went. Some said “Too much pastel; not sophisticated enough.” Others: “Ooh, look at the pastel colors! I’d like this in my living room.” They disagreed, but they were seeing — skating across — essentially the same surface. None of them plunged in.
When people call beauty “mere,” they’re seeing only the pastel surface. They think that pursuing “mere beauty” would lead artists to become Thomas Kinkade — rather than Claude Monet.
Modern art has simply never given me the depths that Monet has.
III. The Art Worlds Meet
For a long time, I was dissatisfied with my responses. If modern art grew out of my very favorite late nineteenth-century art, there had to be something to it, some family resemblance which I was missing between Duchamp’s “Fountain” and Monet’s “Water lilies.”
In this section, I bring the discussions of conceptual and representational art together, and conclude my long and fruitless search for resemblance.
Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” is a short story about an artist who specializes in professional fasting. He achieves great renown by fasting for forty days straight — but his agent advises him that after forty days, his audience’s attention would wane. This is a source of great discontent for the Hunger Artist, since it prevents him from achieving the heights of artistic perfection he dreams of. Eventually, professional fasting falls out of fashion, and to sustain himself, the artist joins a circus, where he is free to fast for as long as he likes. He has the artistic freedom he had craved — but he lacks fame and attention, and he withers.
In his brave and provocative article “Why Artists Starve,” the philosopher Kevin Melchionne argues that Kafka’s story explains why contemporary artists continue to create such (in Melchionne’s own words) awful art. Briefly put, artists are attention seekers, and the artworld is a machine for creating status and attention.
Last year, I attended the MoMA’s glorious exhibition of Degas’s monotypes. Nudes emerging from half-lit, textured spaces, the glow of lamplight and fireplaces, the curves of bathtubs and sofas combined to put me into a state of dizzy, tingling intoxication.
After I feasted on Degas to overfulness, I wandered through the MoMA’s 1960s gallery. Tingling subsided and turned to numbness. Only one work caught my attention: Dieter Roth’s “Literature Sausage,” a sausage-shaped object made according to time-worn recipes, with a sole replacement: ground books instead of ground meat. I chuckled at that.
At the end of Kafka’s story, the Hunger Artist starves to death. With his dying breath, he explains the true reason for his fasting: “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
Melchionne dismisses the importance of this revelation; he thinks the Hunger Artist is deceiving himself, and attention-seeking remains his true motivation. I’m not so sure. If Dieter Roth had really tasted what I tasted in Degas, could he have kept grinding out art which insists that all art is only ground-up words? Could he have confined himself to substituting juicy sensations for dry discourse, euphoria for a chuckle?
I find it hard to believe that someone could love Degas the way I do and then renounce beauty, sensuality, tastiness… for ground up books. I suspect that the conceptual artist — the hunger artist — is a monk devoted to a celibate lifestyle simply because he has never fallen in love.
Let Hunger Artists patiently chew their discourses; I prefer food.
But Is It Art?
Duchamp once called painting “olfactory masturbation.” (“Olfactory” is supposed to be a reference to the smell of turpentine.) This inane insult is based on three blatantly false (if venerable) assumptions: (1) that there’s something wrong with masturbation, (2) that smell and touch are primitive senses, unworthy of attention, (3) that the intellect can be separated from the senses and is superior to them.
The Platonist (3) — and the anxiety to distinguish art from “mere” craft — lurks behind much modern art. Well, I prefer craft to empty thought.
Is conceptual art “art”? You’d be a fool to say “no.” Modern art galleries are called “art galleries,” and furthermore the work they exhibit engages in conversation with art history in the traditional sense.
It’s a foregone conclusion, then, that conceptual art is art. But it’s still up for debate whether it’s the art — whether what gets exhibited in galleries really is modern art, in the sense of being the best, or the most representative, or the most interesting art of our times. Who’s to say that the really great art of our times isn’t hanging in a basement or on a cafe wall somewhere, too “old-fashioned” to be appreciated?
Conceptual art didn’t grow out of impressionism; it grew against it. Painting, even representational painting, didn’t die with Duchamp; Monet continued painting water lilies for 10 years after the “Fountain” fiasco, and there are representational painters all over the globe to this day.
In the 19th century, the French Academy controlled what art got to count as good. Impressionism was a revolution which briefly gave artists some degree of freedom. We’re taught that the bewildering array of styles — the “anything goes” attitude of postmodernism — which came after was an expression of this freedom. I think, instead, that it was an expression of imprisonment. Not anything goes — still lifes and landscapes are, once again, forbidden.
The art world has been dancing at art’s funeral pyre for 100 years. But this is its own funeral — not painting’s, and not beauty’s. Beauty has been problematized, interrogated, critiqued, and beaten over the head with every ugly, pretentious cousin of a perfectly ordinary word, and so it fled the art world.
But beauty isn’t dead. It’s safe and sound in its proper home: the world of the art lover.
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 For the purposes of this post, “modern” or “contemporary” art is just the sort of thing you’re likely to find in a MoMA or MoCA. While “modern” has a technical art-historical meaning, here I use it interchangeably with “contemporary.”
 I would group scribbles — like Cy Twombly’s — with conceptual art, especially since they often form parts of installations, but I can imagine a future in which I like Cy Twombly, but not one in which I like Duchamp.