Modern Art Part 2 – Your Opinion Matters

2 Apr

First of all, I’d like to give a brief explanation.  “Modern” and “Contemporary” are often used interchangeably in describing art, but there is a very subtle difference.  “Modern” normally applies to art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while contemporary art is normally art which dates from around the time of World War II until today.  The distinction follows roughly the shift in the 20th century to the philosophy of postmodernism, and indeed contemporary art is often referred to as postmodern art, but one must agree that even in art circles the term “postmodern art” sounds horribly pretentious and not at all appealing to the average visitor.  I’ll sometimes use both terms because “modern art” has a connotation of weird art that’s hard to understand while “contemporary art” isn’t as commonly used in the vernacular.

But the main question I’m going to try to answer today is, “How do I start to appreciate this stuff?”  Like I said in my previous post, a good percentage of it you can’t.  And no, I’m not making a derogatory comment about the intellectual capabilities of anyone who might be reading this.  The fact is that some of it is meant to be difficult to understand.  Contemporary artists love nothing more than pushing boundaries and being avant-garde, so there’s plenty of works out there that are just plain bizarre.

A good way to look at modern art is to think of it like music.  Music is by its very nature an abstract concept: a series of sounds that are put together and are normally pleasing for us to hear.  We love music and associate it with some of the most important moments and feelings in our lives, yet we all have our own taste in music.  Every single viewer brings their own unique perspective to a work of art, and rather than feeling like your perspective is somehow inferior because you don’t know anything about art, you have to embrace and enjoy your own perspective and how you see art.  We accept that people have different tastes in music but when it comes to art we get stuck on this idea that there are right and wrong answers and deeper meanings not accessible to the layperson, which simply isn’t true.

Just like music, some pieces we like, some we don’t.  Very often the ones that are our favorites we like because they invoke a certain emotion or memory.  My favorite painting in a local museum is a good example.  I don’t really care about the artistic merit of it.  I like it because it’s titled West Palm Beach and it reminds me of my childhood vacations. Sounds basic, I know, but you really don’t need any other reason to like a work of art.

There are a few other things that I like to do personally while looking at contemporary art.  One continues with the whole music idea.  As I wrote before, the twentieth century was a time of enormous upheaval which affected all branches of the arts as well as daily life.  I find that just by thinking about the music of the era I enjoy the art more; it’s even better if I actually have some of it on my iPod.  Since music is something I automatically associate more with certain time periods it helps me get the feel for an era better than looking at art alone.  Listening to 1920’s jazz or 60’s rock and knowing how revolutionary they were reminds me that the art was meant to be revolutionary, as well.

But what do you do when you absolutely hate a work of art?  It’s challenging, but it can be extremely interesting to ask yourself why you don’t like it.  Even if it’s a Dali and you feel like you should like it for that reason alone, think about what you don’t like rather than trying to make yourself appreciate it.  Often once you get over your initial shock and start figuring out what exactly is causing such a strong reaction you can learn a great deal.  Sometimes it might be personal, and other times it can help you discover how you feel about art.

I can only imagine that there would be some art historians, curators, critics, etc. who would be a bit upset with me for dismissing modern art as a matter of personal opinion.  They would be right in one important aspect – knowing a bit about art can make it seem much more interesting, but the best place to start isn’t with movement names or techniques, but the artists themselves.  The great names of the twentieth century were also larger-than-life personalities, and knowing their stories can often give their art a new dimension.  The works of Otto Dix reflect his experiences as a soldier during World War I, for example, and it’s impossible to look at Andy Warhol work without thinking about his obsession with fame and consumerism.

There’s one other sure-fire way to appreciate art more – experience it.  Previously I’ve presented the Five Reasons For Art.  Think about these when you can’t comprehend a work of art.  Is it an idea?  A story, perhaps?  Is it meant to be beautiful?  Is it religious?  Does it show social status?  You’re not looking for right answers, you’re just thinking about it for a moment.  Maybe you’ll hit on something that makes you understand it more, or at least like it more.  The thing is that rather than immediately dismissing all modern art as something that’s incomprehensible and at times bizarre you have to go see it a few times before you start to understand it and appreciate it.

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