What’s Wrong with Modern Art?

The following is an excerpt from an email I wrote this evening to my friend Quatorze (who is passionate about modern art). I thought I’d post this to see if anyone else has thoughts on the matter:

In a 202 class tonight, the instructor was lecturing on Malevich and Suprematism. Several people starting speaking up and saying, “That’s not art – I could do that!” and all of the other ridiculous comments that come along when 20th century art is discussed.

 The thing that made me most frustrated was that these students didn’t appear to listen as Angela tried to explain the meaning and purpose behind works like “Airplane Flying.” Their comments were rude and attitudes were obstinate. When Angela (the teacher) changed the slide to another Malevich work (are you familiar with “White on White?”), about 20 people in the class had the gall to laugh out loud (meaning that they thought it was comical that such a work could be considered art).

 I was livid. Sometimes I wonder if this close-minded attitude towards modern art is a product of Mormon culture – doesn’t it seem like the general LDS population favors a photorealist (e.g. Simon Dewey, Greg Olsen, etc.) or impressionistic aesthetic? I wonder if this aesthetic preference has been imposed by the art the Church endorses or if most people outside the Church maintain this same attitude towards modernism…

  • Jon says:

    It’s sad that modern art is so underappreciated, but I don’t think it’s fair to pin it on Mormon culture alone. Modern art is widely unpoopular across the American demographic, partly because it is so poorly understood, and partly because the aesthetic of the masses has never beeen cultivated to enjoy anything that does not immediately stimulate the senses in a way tht we’re used to. So it’s not that mormon culture imposes Simon Dewey etc. on its members, rather it is its members who belong to a larger audience which rejects things that it cannot immediately percieve.

    Those are my two cents. And I dislike Simon Dewey.

  • ixoj says:

    I don’t think it has anything to do with being a Mormon or not. Mormons are not the only ones who like the style of artists like Greg Olsen and what’s his face Kinkade- I think it has more to do with people who have a lack of exposure to really fantastic art. Olsen and Kinkade and Dewey are readily available, cheap, and are paintings of things that are familiar to them. And they’re easy to look at; you don’t have to think about them at all.

    As far as modern art goes, I think your students are right- they COULD do quite a bit of the art that modern artists have come up with. Much of it is not terribly complicated and doesn’t require amazing skill to be able to do it (at least in my opinion, that’s the case- correct me if you think I’m wrong). But the key is that those artists are the ones who came up with it. Your students who so haughtily laugh at modern art aren’t making millions off of their Jackson Pollock imitations now, are they? Of course not! One thing that makes a modern artist so unique is that they came up with the idea on their own, someone appreciated it and now they’re famous. But I also don’t think that just because you don’t like modern art that makes you closed minded. Yes, you should give it a chance, but what if you just simply don’t like modern art?

  • rachsticle says:

    I hate BYU students.

  • Jon says:

    I agree with ixoj that taste or distaste for modern art is quite a different matter from an appreciation for it. Whenever I think of modern art, I can’t help thinking of the scene from Star Trek: Generations when android Data, with a fresh emotion chip, goes into 10 forward lounge and tries one of Guinan’s new drinks. He immediately reacts by retching and making a disgusted face. Fascinated, he attempts to describe the feeling that produced the reaction and comes up blank. Geordi suggests that perhaps he hates it. Data’s eyes light up and and he says “Yes! That’s it.” He looks at the drink with a grin of supreme elation on his face and exclaims, joyfully, “I HATE this!” and immediately asks for more.

    I have a similar feeling toward modern art. I used to hate it until I theorized that perhaps it was not a good feeling the artist was trying to elicit from me but rather any feeling at all. From that point on, I craved modern art because, even if I didn’t understand it (or perhaps ESPECIALLY because I didn’t understand it), I loved how much I hated it! Nothing else could make me feel like that, and I developed a profound respect for modern artists who produced feelings of curiosity, bafflement, revulsion, and humor that no realist/impressionist ever did.

    Then again, my fiancee graduated in art history and she hates modern art. Go figure.

  • M says:

    I didn’t mean to suggest that a person who doesn’t like modern art is close-minded. I definitely am not trying to force anyone to LIKE modern art – to each his own, right? It’s really the unwillingness to try and understand modern art that bothers me.

  • M says:

    And I think you’re right, ixoj – many people like art that doesn’t make them think. Sigh…this is why art historians are needed in the world.

  • Zillah says:

    fundamentally, most people don’t understand the purpose of art, which is more than just a depiction of things exactly as they look. while i think that that there are some religious aspects to the dislike that byu students have for abstract art, overall i think that among the general population, there has been a higher valuation of realistic representation since the renaissance. abstraction, whether utilized for religious, philosophical, social, or other reasons, entails an entirely different paradigmatic approach to the world which most people simply are not willing to engage because they don’t see the immediate value.

    in other words: people tend to be dumb, and they don’t care that they are.

  • e says:

    I think a lot of people feel insecure about modern art. They worry that there is something they aren’t quite getting about it. Rather than learn about the history and theory behind specific movements and mull over what the artist is trying to convey to the viewer– which requires thought (as has been mentioned), most people summarily reject modern art as inane, lacking meaning, stupid, etc.

    The more I’ve learned about art history and the more chances I’ve had to view modern art, the more my appreciation and discernment for what is good and interesting has evolved. As is true with many things in life, you have to open your mind, think, and not be afraid of what’s different.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.