What’s the difference between art and a can of soup? At face value the answer may seem obvious: one is mass-produced while the other is a product of the “human touch.” Yet, this same logic reaches a barrier when applied to modern art, which often blurs the lines between what most consider art, and non-art.
Modern art, specifically conceptual art, rejects our expectations as an audience because it isn’t trying to assert it’s existence as unique or individualistic. Take the works of Sol LeWitt; despite passing away in 2007, his artwork, often covering entire walls in colorful lines and shapes, can be recreated, or rather, mass-produced after his death. His artwork can also be painted over to make room for a new exhibit ⸺ an act that would be inexcusable in most other circumstances. When it comes to modern art, it isn’t the artist that defines the artwork but the audience. It commands us, or rather requires us to participate in the artwork itself. Modern art doesn’t cater to the usual sensibilities about art; instead of appealing to the audience through aesthetics, it presents us with an idea, sensation, or concept. In this way, it introduces a new sensibility, one that prioritizes an idea over media, aesthetics, and all else.
Look up “modern art” on the web and you’ll find a series of videos and articles angrily denouncing it. There are countless complaints, one being that modern art doesn’t require any technical skill. While that may be true in some cases, some works display signs of skill that aren’t so obvious to the untrained eye. Consider Pollock’s works, often called” scribbles” by critics, which in actuality, are vivid studies of movement and emotion that employ a revolutionary style of painting to create. Or Gerhard Richter, who with careful brushwork, creates abstract paintings that are reminiscent of blurred photographs.
Granted some critics are correct in saying modern art, or rather conceptual art, doesn’t show any technical skill, and that’s because it doesn’t need to. Instead, conceptual art bases “skill” almost entirely on the strength of the concept or idea.
Despite representing an idea, modern art can still be criticized beyond not having “technical skill.” Ideas and the way they are presented visually are not barred from criticism, but critics should make an effort to understand the idea behind a piece before they denounce it based on aesthetic standards. You wouldn’t judge an academic paper for not having flowery language or a science museum for presenting exhibits that you don’t understand. Modern art is transforming art from something that should please us to something that teaches us.
One of the most common labels critics attach to modern art is that it’s pretentious. And despite writing this article, I found myself in this same boat of critics not long ago. We are used to art being easily identifiable. The Mona Lisa is a painting of a woman. Monet’s Water Lilies, of well….water lilies. While you can search for deeper meaning or examine the context of the artwork, you aren’t required to. Conceptual art is different in that this is central to the artwork itself: an idea that must be reflected on within the onlooker. This is the heart of why contemporary artwork is viewed as offensive. It is elitist and pretentious because the artist dares to ask us, the audience, to try to understand the art as an active participant, rather than enjoying its aesthetics as a passive onlooker.
Before researching this topic, I had a firm opinion: modern art is a disgrace and I want nothing to do with it. Like many, I felt anger towards it and its perceived lack of value. But after taking the time to learn about the context and idea behind a variety of pieces, my opinion changed. I feel stupid. Now, the videos on Youtube of people yelling about modern art seem stupid too. We were all angry because modern art attacked our idea of what art should be. We didn’t make any effort to understand it, and thus missed the gift modern art provides.
Because when art museums close and the image of art fades from our minds, what we are left with is an idea. In this way, modern art is more permanent than traditional art will ever be.
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