Modern Art Isn't as Bad as You Might Think
Jesse Richards - February 12, 1999

It’s inevitable.

“Oh, you’re an artist? So, you know, just between you and me — what’s with ‘modern art’? You know, why does it suck?”

They always ask. Everyone — adults, teenagers, friends, relatives. In conversations at parties, restaurants, introductions, get-togethers, conversations.

Not that I mind answering. I love art, and the more people I can help appreciate art, the better. But I feel wary — do people expect a five-minute answer? Do they think that, as an artist, I am privy to the “secret” of modern art, something that eludes all non-artists, something beyond their understanding? Fountain by Duchamp

This isn’t true. The meaning behind any piece of art is there for anyone who searches for it. It’s just that every work of art is different, and some are easier to understand than others. It’s a shame that the public has become alienated from art in the past few decades. This is due in part to an elitist vibe coming from the art world. But this isn’t really intentional, and the meaning behind art is not a secret — it just takes some time to look at enough art in order to get a good sense of everything. There are a lot of myths about how to define contemporary art, what its purpose is, and how the current art world works. And after many attempts at answering the modern art question, I think I’ve developed a good response.

But be forewarned — I won’t try to explain why modern art sucks, but rather debunk some myths and explain why the question itself isn’t valid.

The first point I need to emphasize is that many people’s view of what they term “modern art” is strikingly narrow. When people ask why modern art sucks, they are not really referring to all of contemporary art but to a small aspect of it — invariably some abstract movements such as abstract expressionism or minimalism. This is like asking a musician why, since you dislike rap, all music sucks. The art world is filled with even more categories than your average music store. There are people creating what people consider “real,” traditional art — representational pictures of people, still lifes, or landscapes, often intricately detailed.

Once an art movement is developed, it goes in and out of style, but never really fades away. Just as there are musicians still playing classical music, there are artists today that paint impressionistically. There are artists that only sew, or create and display furniture, or create computer art or videos. And movements that started decades ago are still being followed by many artists, or are being combined with other styles to create new work.

In fact, this is really the first time in history when so many different styles are accepted in the current art world. In the past decade or so, lots of art that was considered out of style came back, and almost all movements of art, as well as stuff that defies categorization, can be found somewhere in the current New York art scene. So, while you may be justified in thinking that the certain “modern art” sucks, there is a lot more out there, and there is something for everyone. You could tour museums and galleries and only look at photography, or portraits, or landscapes, or abstract watercolors.

A lot of art out there is created for aesthetic reasons only. It’s made to look nice, and requires none of the “deeper understanding” that many people are afraid of lacking. Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie

That said, there is also a lot of art that you’re not going to understand. There’s a lot of art that I don’t get. There’s some art even my art professors don’t have a clue about. There are even times when an artist will create something they don’t understand themselves, and then it takes art critics to explain the piece’s “true nature”. I’ve taken in-depth courses on contemporary art theory, and there are still many times when I’m in a gallery and have no idea why the artist would create something so ugly or confusing. Luckily, exhibits often come with a pamphlet or book explaining the artist’s motivations and influences. Be assured that all art has an explanation, and if you can’t find one, maintaining an interpretation of your own is perfectly valid.

Throughout the history of art, artists have not been simply hands-on creators. They’ve usually developed an aesthetic or philosophical theory that they’re trying to explore or demonstrate through art. This is often the explanation for a lot of abstract work. This means that, unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to fully appreciate the work without studying that artist and his theories. Often, really good art speaks to the ongoing dialogue of the art world as well. An artist creates a certain work to disprove another artist who created an antithetical work, or to build on the work of another artist, or to advance a new theory of their own.

The best art, however, can be appreciated by both the layperson and the expert critic. It can evoke an immediate, aesthetic reaction as well as contribute to deep intellectual theories. A great example of this was the Chuck Close exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art last year. Close is a contemporary artist whose work can easily be understood by the viewer — they are huge portrait paintings, seven to eight feet tall. A stranger to modern art could walk into the exhibit and love it. But Close is also one of the most important artists currently working, and is appreciated by current critics for the aesthetic and intellectual contributions of his work. His pictures are photorealistic and made up of miniscule dots or globules of color. No “my-three-year-old-could-do-that” here.

Another reason why Close is a good example is the specificity of his work. Each piece is a huge portrait, similar to all of his other works. That’s the only art he does. And many contemporary artists do this — they become famous for one specific thing. This is something to keep in mind when seeing current shows — you will see many variations on themes. Just as a music group is easily identifiable by ear and does not usually stray from its musical niche, so too does the artist produce his or her trademark work.

If an artist deviates from his previously established theme, the work can often still be famous and expensive simply because of the artist’s pre-established fame — like paying more for a brand name. Sometimes, an established artist will use his fame to push the limits of what he can get away with, which can be another explanation for confusing, abstract, bizarre art (like Andy Warhol’s late work, which was pretty bad). A new artist can’t get away with that, but an established artist could get a show no matter what he produces. This also explains high prices — another aspect of modern art that most people find ridiculous and confusing. statue

When interpreting abstract work, there’s another possibility to keep in mind. If you see a painting and can’t tell what it is, it probably means it’s not supposed to be anything. There is a lot of art that is non-representational. It could be evoking a feeling, an idea, or a theory, and yet isn’t a picture of a physical object. This is hard for a lot of people to grasp; they instead cling to the belief that since the artist can’t paint anything identifiable, he isn’t very good. But in the past century, not only artists but also many art movements have focused on art becoming very specificly abstract.

Sometimes artists create paintings in the effort to create something that can only be thought of as a painting, and nothing else. The same with sculpture, etc. They want to get to the pure essence of what that specific kind of art is, and what it can be when taken to extremes. And often, with minimalist-type work, one of the main goals of the artist is for the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the work, so the aesthetic appreciation would take place in the mind of the viewer, not on the surface of the painting.

One last thing to remember is that there are many career or recreational artists who are not exhibiting work. Decorative artists, fashion designers, advertising people, graphic designers, architects, video game creators, engineers, book illustrators, comic book artists, chefs, floral arrangers — art is a part of our everyday life and everything you see and use has been designed by someone.

The most important thing to remember is to look at more art! Many times I ask the people who claim to not understand art when the last time was that they went to see an exhibit, and it’s never recently. Obviously, you can’t appreciate something if you don’t take the time to see it and think about it. So go to as many shows as you can! The Museum of Modern Art is a great place to start — the Mondrian and Boccioni on this page are two of my favorite works there. If you’re still daunted by cutting-edge stuff, start somewhere like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There you can see lots of great twentieth-century art but escape to fun Egyptian pyramids or medieval armor if the contemporary stuff becomes overwhelming. Or, if you don’t want to leave home, take a look on the Internet. Soon you too will be able to wow your bewildered friends when the unnecessarily daunting topic of “modern art” comes up.