Friday, March 13, 2015

Some Observations on Modern Art

Modern art is baffling to many people, perhaps most people.  Most folks I know just consider it dumb and leave it at that.  In G.H. Gombrich's book, The Story of Art, modern art is explored in depth rather than passively dismissed.  I will borrow from some of his observations, which he makes in a much more thorough fashion, here.  Appreciate it or not, modern art, its preoccupations and its motivations are more complex than many realize.  Photography had all but conquered realism, and arguably the need for it in painting.  The classical style of art had seemingly peaked, leaving angst over the future.  Modern times had lead to relativism and individualism.  Modern art is often misunderstood, but it can have some positive qualities.

Photography reaches back to around the 1820s, although there were many precursor inventions that allowed for photography to exist.  Obviously, many, but not all, of the preoccupations of painters had to do with realism.  Photography blew this concern out of the water.  If realism was the only concern of painting, what was the point of it?

To a large extent, Western art had been on a certain trajectory for centuries.  This "evolution" peaked with the High Renaissance which ended nearly five hundred years ago.  When one looks upon the walls and ceiling of the Sistine chapel, one wonders if anything more beautiful could exist.  Arguably, some old cathedrals and some other spaces are quite majestic, but it is hard to top what is seen there.  Real artists are not craftsmen.  There's nothing wrong with being a craftsman, but it is not the same thing.  Craftsmen endlessly replicate with precision.  Artists build off a tradition to come up with new ideas.  Virtually all the world's most famous paintings and painters are famous for breaking ground, not for doing something technically impossible.  Centuries of amazing discoveries by some of histories greatest minds have been reduced to Art Class 101.  Once a solution to a problem is discovered, it eventually becomes common knowledge and "anyone" can do it.  Modern art is largely an awkward attempt to do something original.  Many modern artists might have made great classical artists had they just been born earlier.

What are the other characteristics of modern art?  Classical art is built around more technical, intellectual and objective challenges, such as creating a three dimensional perspective.  Modern art moved away from this.  Classical art also included broad themes, aesthetics and attempts to connect with a wider audience.  Modern art is more about individualism and even relativism, it would seem, than seeking after a universal ideal of beauty.  While classical art could often have some touches of an individual painter, it generally leans away from personal expression towards universal ideals.  This is part of the reason why viewers may immediately get it in a way that they don't get modern art.  This is why different modern art pieces may sporadically connect with different people.  Modern art, in many places is based on a naive desire to create a work in a vacuum, free of past influences, in a state of artistic innocence.  This innocence is, of course, unachievable once one has acquired any knowledge and arguably undesirable.  In my opinion, the worst impulse in modern art is to be anti-art.  The impulse here is to deny the very idea of art.  The notion of anti-art art is an oxymoron.  It is also either tremendously pretentious or depressingly nihilistic.  If you subscribe to the ultimate underlying precept of anti-art, you can't appreciate or enjoy anti-art, you can only never appreciate or enjoy any art.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

Modern art as a whole does have some positive qualities, though.  It may not always be good, but the idea of challenging conventions is good.  For art to grow, people have to move in new directions, even if they are awkwardly stumbling sometimes.  A lot of what we now consider great art, and by we, I even include regular folks, was first thought to be junk.  Famous Impressionist painters were originally scorned.  I find that some modern art, although quite different, still has a certain aesthetic quality about it.  When I look at the paint swirls of Jackson Pollock, sure they are just paint swirls, but they are more pleasing paint swirls than I could do.  One can still judge a difference between sets of paint swirls.  Some people complain about the abstraction in modern art, but there is no absolute rule saying that art must have "content."  Music is abstract.

Jackson Pollock's No. 5

In conclusion, modern art is a complex animal with some hidden pleasures for those willing to give it a chance.

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