What Makes Modern Art So Special?
Growing up in a small Texas town in the great plains, it was not uncommon to hear disparaging remarks towards art and artists. Non-blue-collar jobs, with the exception of doctors, lawyers, and teachers, are treated with a sort of distanced disgust; as if art was a used tissue they were reluctant to throw into the garbage. And no art has more of a negative connotation in this area than the dreaded Modern Art.
However, this mindset is far from limited to rural Texas. It is not only common, but almost cool to write off Modern Art as pretentious or simply not as art.
“Why should Klein be so famous for a shade of blue? Home Depot has solid shades of every color, and blue isn’t even that good of a color.”
Innovation in Simplicity
I would make the argument that the minimalist modern paintings are some of the most innovative, and most creative works in the art world. More creative than a vibrant, naturalistic Renaissance painting.
Why would I make such a claim?
The reason is because it’s simple. To paint a solid blue square or to spatter paint on a canvas is so obvious, that it isn’t obvious at all. It’s like when the solution to a problem is so convenient that you don’t even think to try it. This is why Klein, Pollock, and Rothko stand out to me so much.
Not Convinced? Try this thought exercise. Put yourself in the shoes of an artist growing up in the early 20th century. Up until this point, art has slowly progressed, becoming more illusionistic by the day. Shading is perfect, perspective is accurate, color is balanced. The smallest details are taken care of with immaculate precision. How are you supposed to make a unique piece of art stand out from the rest when paintings look twice as good as photographs? Would you have ever thought to totally spit in the face of hundreds of years of established art by breaking all the rules and creating something rebelliously… simple?
I didn’t think so.
“So many modern paintings are just flat-out bizarre. They make me feel uncomfortable. I thought art was supposed to be beautiful?”
The Emotion Evoked by Unnatural Images
One of the most, if not THE most, important qualities of art is the emotion it evokes. Many easily recognizable works of art are commonly associated with beauty. And beauty typically inspires positive emotion.
However, many artists of the modern era sought to conjure different emotions that weren’t as popular. Discomfort, fear, sadness. These emotions are often time more powerful than positive ones, and these emotions can also call attention to various issues.
For example, the Picasso painting in the article depicts five nude prostitutes in a Spanish brothel. The perspective is flat, and the figures barely resemble the human form with disjointed limbs and fragmented faces. If this is your first time seeing this massively important work of art, and you feel put-off or find it unpleasant, you are not alone. The painting was unveiled to massive controversy because of its content and style. However, you cannot say this painting failed to evoke some kind of strong emotion in you immediately. This painting laid the groundwork for the era of modern art, and inspired many other artists to explore similar unpleasant themes and styles.
“I’m not even sure what I’m looking at. Why would I want to look at a painting that makes no sense to me?”
This is a painting by Salvador Dali, and like many paintings by the famously eccentric, mustache bearing artist, it is hard to understand. Maybe you see cheese if you’re hungry, maybe it looks like the skull of a vulture, maybe it looks like a rock, or maybe you see something else entirely.
“But what is it actually supposed to be?”
Well in truth, Dali is the only person who could answer that question. He was a huge believer in the idea of the psychoanalytical and subconscious mind as described by Sigmund Freud (which we know today to be entirely false), and many of Dali’s paintings were designed with some test in mind. Dali thought that what people saw in this painting reflected something deeper about them. While this may not be a necessarily accurate or important, it does put forward something interesting.
As opposed to a renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, modern art does not tell you what to think. “Madonna with Child” has one solid message that it intends to impose on the viewer, while “The Enigma of My Desire” has infinite meanings and messages, and most of Modern Art follows this trend as well.
“This is all well and good and everything, but I’m not an artist nor do I have a degree of arts, how could I possibly see more to weird, modern art?”
The Big Picture
About a year ago, my Dad and I visited the Menil Collection in Houston, TX. My Dad isn’t usually the type to go to an art museum, but that is not to say he is anti-art or anything. I needed to go for an Art History project, and he was more than happy to come along for the ride. We passed through the Antiquities, the Renaissance, the Baroque, and finally arrived at the most interesting section of all, Modern Art. We came across this huge painting (that I cannot remember the name of or the artist unfortunately) and we both stopped to stare at it for a minute.
The painting was mostly unusually and seemingly random splotches of color. Most of it a dark red, with a few smaller splotches of yellow, blue, and black. After we both took a minute to digest the painting, we each had our own story that the painting presented to us. The color contrast of the smaller blobs made me think of a captured moment of action or drama, where the small paint splotches were figures engaged in some action, while the red of the background was a kind of engulfing hell-scape. My dad, however, saw less motion in the work of art. He saw it as an uneasy, still shot of a moment of sadness. As if the red was a sort of storm that was taking everything from the helpless small figures.
Why is any of this important?
In truth, maybe it’s not, and maybe these are not the reasons to enjoy modern art. However, it is important to give thought to all things and ideas in the world before you write them off as nonsense, and not just art either. Everyday, people ignore ideologies, cultures, and lifestyles they don’t understand simply because they cannot be bothered to even try to have some perspective or empathy. If we all took a little bit more time to understand each other, maybe the world might turn into a friendlier place.