Modern Art versus the I Could Do That Mentality

I found the following video fascinating because... I love art. I have been to dozens of art museums all over the world, and I have often said the words, "I can do that." (See my blog post titled The Eye of the Beholder for more about that subject.)

To Those Who Have Looked At Art And Thought I Could Do That An Art Curator Explains Why You Couldn't

However, I vehemently disagree with this presenter's central supposition; pushing back on "unappreciative observers" by claiming that "it's their problem" if they cannot appreciate something which is obviously below the artistic standards of a two-year-old is a cop out. Much of what is called "art" in this generation will not survive to be admired by future generations because - to put it bluntly - most modern art is crap.

Don't get me wrong, there is something to be said for challenging artistic norms, breaking new ground, and using creative license to push any art form into new avenues. It doesn't matter if an artist is using oil on canvas, sculpture, photography, musical composition, etc.; the mark of a true artist is someone who takes their chosen field to new heights. However, within each artistic field are pretenders who are in a race for the bottom, while at the same time protesting that your lack of approval for their creations is due to some deficiency on your part. That - my friends - is a load of cow poop. (And as a quick case in point, a load of cow poop has been considered "art" by some people, which perfectly illustrates my premise. See Why is Modern Art so Bad? for more.)

The presenter in the original video asks her audience to consider asking why they didn't actually create the art which they are critiquing, and then posits the inane suggestion that her viewers are actually incapable of doing so. This assertion is also a bunch of hogwash; the reason why most people do not actually do the things they say that they can do when it comes to art is because: 1) most people realize that the unskilled smearing of paint on a canvas is a colossal waste of time and money, and 2) most of us are not con men.

It is a sad fact that in this day and age a lot of the peddlers of modern art make their living from convincing the rest of the world that anyone who cannot appreciate their art is simply "uncultured," so most everyone plays along in order to not seem like a unsophisticated simpleton. The presenter in that video is a perfect example; it's her job to make you think that you simply aren't as refined as she is. But the truth is - you're a much better person for standing back every once in a while and exclaiming, "That's a big pile-o-poppycock; I could do that." What's more, you're probably helping the art world. As more people begin point their fingers and laugh at the ever-growing number of incompetent charlatans who are passing themselves off as "artists," perhaps we'll finally be able send them back to art school where they can develop some sort of talent. Or even better, maybe these artists will get real jobs and quit milking the empty-headed stooges who continuously buy into their deceptions.

One parting thought, take a look at Can You Tell The Difference Between Modern Art And Paintings By Toddlers? and see if you can tell the difference between actual modern art paintings and creations by four-year-olds; I'll bet you'll find it nearly impossible to accurately separate the two sets of "art" into their correct categories, regardless of your appreciation for modern art.

Comments (8) -

Have to respectfully disagree with your argument that much of today's modern art will not stand the test of time. Artists like Kandinsky and Pollock may use techniques that "a child could do," but so much more goes into those paintings. Their expression, lighting, and color choices cause people to emote. Dr. Mungadze places a lot of emphasis on the deeper meaning of colors and what it speaks of the artist and the viewer. I feel that many are not con-men but individuals speaking of their inner selves in a way American consumerist culture often rejects.

Well, you can always feel free to disagree - that's the great thing about art: it is often subjective and up to the eyes of the beholder. That being said, I was speaking in general terms, and you called out a few exceptions to my blanket statement; I freely admit that in any generalization there will always be people who do not fall into the broader category. That being said, I never claimed that "all" art from this day and age will fail to pass the test of time, I simply asserted that much of the scatological drivel which is passed off as art will be forgotten in the future.

However, because you brought up Jackson Pollock, I will address my feelings about him specifically. There are moments where he borrows from the techniques of classical and impressionist masters, (see, and during those moments of brilliance you can clearly see that Pollock is a truly gifted artist. In that respect, Pollock is much like Picasso; both were gifted artists who simply chose to spend more of their time creating "artwork" where they showed little to no skill, and yet they were able to expertly craft their justifications for such pieces with enough double-speak so as to convince the gullible masses that piles of their worthless refuse were priceless works of art, while in reality these same pieces of rubbish would have condemned any other artist to a life of destitute poverty.

Let us carry this discussion over to music for a moment. When you make the claim that art is simply an expression of how you feel and you begin to accept anything as art, with no regard to form or composition or skill, then you wind up with crap (like this being passed off as a masterpiece, whereas pieces of true genius (like this and are admired for their brilliance several centuries later. My apologies to any Yoko fans out there, but future generations will laugh at what she managed to convince others was "music," in much the same way that future generations will laugh at the contemptible clowns who foolishly embrace much of today's "modern art."

With that in mind, let's return to the subject of painting. Here is a true story which perfectly illustrates my point: in my early twenties, one of my friends was one of the finest landscape painters you could have met; his paintings were so lifelike that many people were often convinced his paintings were photographs. (Think of someone like Thomas Cole, Peder Monsted, Norman Rockwell, Henri Biva, Ilya Repin, etc.) When he began to study art at college, he was mocked by his classmates as a "showoff" because of the realism which flowed easily from his canvas; whereas the truth is - none of his classmates could come anywhere near his level of skill; they would simply throw oil on a canvas and call it "self-expression." I should point out that no one bought any of the art from his classmates, while at the same time my friend was selling his landscape portraits for hundreds of dollars per piece. After a year or so of listening to the incessant whining from his peers that he should give up on "realism," my friend dove headlong into surrealism, and much of his work began to resemble the love child of Salvador Dali and Andrew Newell Wyeth. At this point, his classmates simply loathed him, because he had moved on from showing them up through realism and was now beating them at their own game in ways where they could never compete.

Having said that, let's return to our discussion of Jackson Pollock. I do not deny that the man could paint; his level of skill is undeniable. And yet - so much of what he did was little more than standing beside a large canvas and dribbling paint from a brush in never-ending circular patterns. Your argument that there may be deeper meaning between why he chose to use paint with an RGB color of #f74d20 versus #f28c2e has a plausible ring to it, but I'm willing to bet that Pollock did little more than to randomly dump one can of paint into another before incongruously slathering the resulting hues across a canvas. I 100% guarantee to you that I could drop by a local art shop today, pick up a large canvas and a dozen cans of paint, and haphazardly toss paint onto the canvas in such a way that no one - and I mean that sincerely - would be able to tell the difference between my experiment and a real Pollock creation.

Would my original work be considered "self-expression?" Of course. Might there be a reason why I dumped paint #3 can into paint can #7 and then into paint can #11? Sure - maybe the muse had caught me. Maybe I was in a mood for more green. Or maybe I wanted to mix the paint cans which I had labeled with prime numbers. Perhaps I used a Fibonacci sequence for the amount of paint that I used from each can as I mixed. Who knows? But my point is - for the most part - who cares? No amount of splattering paint on a canvas will never match up against artwork like, or, or, etc.

And yet - Pollock's work still sells for millions. There is an old adage about the infamous circus show charlatan, P. T. Barnum, which states that, "There's a sucker born every minute." This fact is as true today as it was in Barnum's day. Much of Pollock's work consists of ludicrous rubbish, and yet the public masses who frequent the modern art world do not care. The easily-swayed and dupable mob which accepts the work of contemporary art hucksters like Pollock have literally bought into the lie, and realizing their error would result in untold losses. And that is why I refer to these "artists" as "conmen."

I would imagine most ancient art was crap too. Also - predicting the future is hard - re: music - there are a lot of people that look down on electronically created music - because it's so "easy" to create - which is a garbage argument. Most people don't do great art because they'd rather do something that they can immediately know the value of, that won't soak their soul in constant self doubt, and won't be constantly criticized until one day, long after they're dead, if they're lucky, people finally appreciate as "real art".

Kyle - you bring some excellent new material into this thread, which I think adds real value to the debate. When we consider ancient art, let's say art from 3,000 years ago or more, some might think that it's crap when compared to works of the Classical Age or the Renaissance. However, what I would like to suggest is that artists of the day were working at the height of their skill level with the resources that were available to them, and that greatly differentiates them from what modern artists are attempting to do.

First of all, let me inform everyone of a personal method for measuring art which I have created, and this actually is the standard by which I judge most artists within each medium. What I came up with is what I call the "TOAD" scale, and I have mentioned this in other threads over the years:

Talent - And by this I mean skills or technical prowess within their chosen medium.
Originality - Artists who make a career out of copying some other artist aren't worth much in my book.
Affect on other artists - What influence does this artist have on other artists of their medium?
Durability within their medium - Even a one-hit wonder can still impact future generations, while other artists might have an entire catalog of utterly forgettable work.

For example, consider the cave drawings in Lascaux, France. While it is certainly true that these particular drawings were crude by nearly anyone's standards over the succeeding centuries, I think that the artists who created those wall paintings were the masters of their age. There were no rules or standards to follow, they were simply attempting to capture their world with what resources they had available. So we see both Talent and Originality in their art, and they undoubtedly inspired other artists so they have had a profound Affect as well. In addition, since their work has lasted for over 17,000 years, I'd call that Durability. With that in mind, the artists who gave the world the cave drawings of Lascaux pass the TOAD scale with flying colors.

Jumping ahead several centuries to the artwork of Ancient Egypt, we can see that the artists of that time were creating the best art they could with the best resources they had available to them. Their paintings, while still crude in their design by some people's standards, began to take on a more lifelike form over the centuries; this is especially true when you consider the evolution of Egyptian sculpture, architecture, and engineering. So once again, we see a civilization where each successive generation embraced every element of the TOAD scale, and their art reflects a desire to push on toward higher and better levels.

When we consider the art of the Classical Age, and by that I mean Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, art seems to take a remarkable leap in terms of realism. Paintings become even more detailed and disciplined, sculpture approaches levels of realism which were never thought possible before, and the fields of architecture and engineering bring forth amazing structural feats which are imitated to this day. The masters of that time period have all the TOAD elements, with plenty to spare.

However, after centuries of artistic evolution, every field of art seemed to take a nose dive in the Western Hemisphere after the sack of Rome in the 5th century AD. For the next thousand years or so, artisans of those eras had a wealth of artistic history from centuries of classical art to learn from, but they chose not to do so. We can be certain that they had the resources to create great works of art, and during this time new methods of creating art were discovered. (e.g. The evolution of new types of paint, pre-industrial reproduction techniques and printing, etc.) I believe that this is the first era where we see what you referred to as "people [who] don't do great art because they'd rather do something that they can immediately know the value of." In short, artists of the Dark Ages could undoubtedly have created much better works of art, yet they simply chose to take the easy route. For example, consider sculpture from the later centuries of Roman civilization to something like the Bayeux Tapestry; the first thing to notice is simply that artists chose a different mediums with which to reflect their world - e.g. sculpture versus embroidery. However, even with that in mind, the obvious goal of Roman art was perfection, whereas the obvious goal of a great deal Medieval art was simply to record their world as expeditiously as possible. In this respect, the goal of those artists was little different from the cave painters of Lascaux. With this in mind, few artists from the Dark Ages posses more than a couple elements of the TOAD scale, despite the physical longevity of their surviving works.

When we look at time periods of the Renaissance and its successors, e.g. the Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, etc., we see a return to the quest for excellence. Once again art seemed to flourish across all mediums, and history started to see names emerge within each medium as artists began to claim their works; e.g. Michelangelo,  da Vinci, Vermeer, Raphael, Monet, Waterhouse, Renoir, etc. It is inarguable that the most-sought-after artists of these ages were truly masters of their mediums, and in several cases they were masters of multiple mediums. So once again, we see artists with all of the elements of the TOAD scale; they had Talent and Originality, plus their Affect and Durability continues to inspire artists to this day.

However, in the wake of the Impressionist era near the turn of the 20th century, the quality of art seemed to take a nose dive again. This is largely due to the mindset of the Impressionists, who felt that capturing your impression of a scene was more important than recording the scene itself. I have no problem with that in theory, but once you have decoupled any medium from a standard by which it can be measured, then any "impression" of the artist - no matter how unskilled or untalented - is argued to be "art." This is where I start to have a problem with modern art, because I believe that this is what has led to "lazy artists" who are simply incapable of creating good art. This has also led to the afore-mentioned charlatans who masquerade as artists with self-aggrandizing proclamations of their genius, and a logical extension of the latter are the "conmen" who are out to make a quick buck off the easily-fooled masses.

I think I'd prefer to measure art directly - TOAD all seem like proxies for what is really what we are after -depth, sophistication, intensity and universality of emotional response triggered by the work. I think you're right about a lot of people trying to fake these things by using Jedi mind tricks on people - but just because there are conmen doesn't mean that there aren't authentic works that inspire deep emotion that are maybe weirder than we think things should be.

Christopher 9/1/2015 3:07:40 PM

Again, I have to disagree a bit with Bob on this: Art is about originality. Why would modern artists want to copy what had already been done? Again, the history of the movement is incredibly important, since we all create art that is a reflection of our time in history. The whole point of the Modern movement was a rejection of illusion, that the art was true to it's form: paintings are a 2-d surface, so they should be flat, etc. but to say that art took a nosedive with regard to execution is false. It's not that these guys couldn't do it--they chose not to. To ape a Classical painting would have no resonance for these guys--it had been done. But my challenge to anyone who thinks Modern Art is easy should try it. And if you have ever seen a Pollack in real life, they are masterpieces. There is a rhythm and life to them that is very hard to replicate; plus, anyone else trying it would look like an unoriginal idiot.

I agree with Christopher's point. Much of modern art must be experienced. I can look at classic or renaissance art and appreciate the complexity but modern art evokes emotions. Modern art is rarely just what is on the page and much is lost in translation while studying it in text books. But I fell in love with Kandinski at the Guggenheim in NY. His use of colors and shapes (while seemingly something a child could do) evoked inspiration and love. Even before I researched him to find out that music influenced much of his art and inspired him. I could hear the music as I first looked at his work. I could feel the emotion and passion rising out of the paintings and it was a beautiful experience. I was blessed to see a lot of art with you over the years (thank you again by the way) but nothing has inspired or moved me like modern art has.

Oh, believe me - I completely agree with the concept of originality; I made that point very early on in this debate. However, my primary point has always been that not everything which is "original" is necessarily "good." Some people are substituting originality in place of talent, and that is bad for the medium.

I think we can all agree that doing something which has never been done before takes some getting used to in any medium, and I freely admit that. For example, in music it took several decades for Jazz to earn its rightful place as a respected genre. Earlier generations simply could not understand the freedom of self-expression which rejected the earlier adherence to rigid standards. This parallels what is occurring in some modern art, as Christopher and Becka are suggesting.

As I have also pointed out, I love art. I have undoubtedly visited a greater number of art museums than most people I know, including several museums which were completely devoted to art for which I have no appreciation - and I do so with the intention of keeping an open mind. Which, by the way, is what I love about this thread - I really do like to hear what others have to say, because no one is wrong in their opinions; everyone simply has different tastes and varying levels of appreciation.

This also leads to another interesting thought, my appreciation for more of what might be considered classical form in painting and sculpture probably stems from my technical appreciation across all mediums. For example, I love math and logic, which is why I thrive in the world of technology. Along that same train of thought, in music I love progressive genres, with odd time signatures and musicians with prodigious technical prowess on their respective instruments. (This is why I like to hang out with people like Mark Alan Wade who started this thread; that guy is simply amazing on any instrument; I'd probably hate him if I didn't already love him. Wink )

So if I take my predisposition towards artists with superior technical skills into account, you can see why I fail to appreciate a musician who makes a career from playing three-chord songs. With that in mind, you can also see why I have no appreciation for several of the artists' works which I have seen throughout my lifetime, and by this I am referring to pieces which comprise little more than a straight line on an empty canvas. While I may not personally like Pollock's work, his artwork is worlds above many of the pieces that I have seen hanging in museums around the world. But still, I see most works by Pollock and think, "I don't like that, and I could do that." However, I see works by Kandinski and think, "I don't like that, but I couldn't do that, either." Both opinions are based on personal taste, yet I can respect one artist over the other because I can readily see the level of technical skill which was involved.

One parting thought, I once heard the following story about Picasso; it may not be true, but it seems apropos for this discussion. The story tells of a time when Picasso was dining with friends, when a woman stopped by his table to express her appreciation for his work. After he had thanked the woman, she asked if Picasso would draw something for her. Seemingly unbothered by this intrusion, Picasso obliged and hastily drew a small portrait on a napkin. When he handed it to the woman, he added, "That will be $25,000." She gasped and protested, "But it only took you a minute to draw!" Picasso replied, "No, it took me a lifetime to draw."

There is a great deal of truth in that story, even if the subject itself is apocryphal. There are any number of modern and classical artists who create works which I may not appreciate, and yet they are truly artists who spend lifetimes honing their respective crafts. And yet there are others who pass themselves off as artists who are little more than cheap charlatans riding the coattails of their betters into their chosen mediums. Unfortunately with most of modern art, it is impossible to tell the difference. (See my link from earlier as an example.)

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