How to Defend Modern Art

I think I can safely surmise that you’ve been pushed into that familiar position before: defender of modern art, champion of the new, experimental, and avant-garde.  Modern and contemporary art is lobbed various attacks pretty often (Tilda Swinton’s recent nap at the MoMA didn’t exactly help).  A while back on another website, I published a series on defending modern art against its most common complaints – below you’ll find the tips republished as a single article.  Feel free to put them to use.  If they don’t work for you, you’ll find a dance-off to be the most sensible way of settling the matter.

“My kid could make that!”

“Yeah, well they didn’t.”

Woman V, Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning, Woman V, 1953

This is likely the lament the modern artist most often endures. If it’s your own parents making this remark about your work the argument should be short.

Really, at the root of the problem is that the complainer is using a set of ideals that values things while modern art values ideas. Paintings and sculptures are things after all. Also, it’s easy to judge a work of art by its “thingness” – how realistic it is, how painterly it’s not, which colors are used, how it pretty it looks. Perhaps, that’s why this way of measuring art’s worth has stuck so stubbornly.

I know this’ll sound simplistic but you can think of 20th century art history as a giant shift from things to ideas. This found its logical conclusion in Conceptualism in which many works of art were purely idea and only consisted of written or spoken descriptions. That isn’t to say you necessarily need to dig Conceptualism. However, it is unfair to judge Conceptualism with Baroque’s standards (and vice versa).

So could my kid paint a Pollock? Arguably, it’s a possibility if they had one to copy. That fact that Pollock was able to create his painting, though, isn’t as remarkable as the fact that he thought of painting it that way in the first place. Really then the question should be this: Could my kid be the first to anticipate the full realization of Abstract Expressionism in a single style of painting? Probably not.

“That’s not art!”

“Yeah…it is.”

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Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Though this protest has likely been flung by high-strung squares since the time of cave paintings, it’s never been as popular as it is today. This may all be Duchamp’s fault – since his submission of an inverted urinal as a work of art, the issue of what constitutes art has been a leading one. Finally our leading issue: What’s wrong with the “That’s not art!” complaint? People who generally make this protest missed out on a couple of art world memos.

The first is that art can be self-referential. For hundreds of years the one thing a painting should not look like is a painting. Techniques like foreshortening and perspective have been used to create the illusion of space and to disguise that the painting is just that, a painting. Thus, it’s easy to see why if you ask most people what art is “about” you’d likely get responses such as “love”, “death”, “beauty”. The fact is that much of art, perhaps most contemporary art, is about itself. The foremost issues of art today are questions like “what is art?” and what are art’s responsibilities?” With the knowledge that Duchamp’s urinal wasn’t necessarily about beauty or love, but rather was a comment on art itself, most anyone should begin to understand what Duchamp was getting at.

Artist's shit, Piero Manzoni

Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961

The second memo is that art became awfully rebellious in the 20th century. A great deal of the development of modern art is an attempt for art to establish itself as something independent of the institutions that have historically defined it. That is to say, a considerable amount of modern art is an attempt to be art independent of museums, galleries, and collectors. Many artists sought to shed the idea that they were the maker of commodities, items for sale and dictated by the market. Naturally, the most efficient way to do this is to make art that is difficult to sell, to hang, display, archive, and define. This corresponds with the rise of performance art, video art, conceptual art, and so on.

Inform your hater of these two memos. Let them know a lot of modern art is funny and is intended to be that way – chill out. An informed and easy-going hater is often a hater no more.

“That costs how much?!”

Prices that read like a GDP

Frankly, modern art can’t be defended against this complaint as much as merely explained. The gripe with art prices has been especially popular with the recent sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for nearly $120 million. So is there a good reason modern art costs so much when it appears to take such little work to produce? Not really. However, modern art shouldn’t be thought of as being like any other commodity. And despite what some collectors might say, it shouldn’t be thought of as like any other investment.

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

In the vast market of everything, fine art is a bit of an anomaly. Unlike most products on the market, fine art is generally one of a kind. This is where the bulk of the zeros on an art piece’s price tag come from. With this, the scales of supply and demand become absurdly lopsided. Further, in the case of iconic images such as The Scream it seems to stop using what little capitalist common sense there is. Other than uniqueness, there is one other factor that inflates an art object’s price.

Many might say that art collecting is like investing – buying a painting low and selling it high. This is generally true in terms of emerging artists or artists that haven’t fully matured career-wise. However, for the crazy-world prices that we’re referring to, these works of art are in no way investments. Art that is sold in the double and triple digit millions can’t be sold again at a profit – at least not this century. Rather, buying a painting like The Scream is a grand and intentional way of wasting money. A work of art expresses a person’s nauseating amount of wealth like no other purchase – it has no use-value, it can’t be resold at a profit, the costs of taking care of a masterpiece are enormous.  These prices are mostly affirmations of wealth, and the work of art a small symbol of that affirmation. This idea of art work as status symbol bloats the price further.  The economics of the high-end art world are clearly morally dubious. Naturally this explanation may not satisfy your complainer.  That’s alright – they should probably be a bit upset with the art world anyhow.

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