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Modern Art Part 3 – So what?

4 Apr

After discussing the origins of modern art and some methods to help appreciate it more, even I’m left wondering what to make of it all.  I’m not a postmodernist philosopher, nor am I a great expert on the subject.  I can say this for modern art – it’s certainly never boring.  I might not particularly like a good percentage of what I see, but I don’t find myself lacking for something to think about.  That’s one of the fundamental aspects of modern art.  It’s often supposed to be challenging and make you think.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves with philosophy and “artist’s statements” and the like.  To do so would be to ignore one part of the art world that is often overlooked.  It’s a business.  It always has been to a certain degree, to be sure, but since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the merchant class it’s only gotten worse.  These days we have galleries looking for the next big thing, museums bending over backwards to get people (especially donors) through the door, and even cities and states looking to show their stature with public art displays by prominent artists.  All forms of art have always had an uneasy relation with commerce, and the visual arts are no exception.  Those in the art world often try to avoid acknowledging this, however.

They and the general public have long put art up on a pedestal, but doing so prevents us from developing any kind of connection to modern art.  When we stop to realize that the art world is just as concerned with making money, being a trendsetter, and gaining an audience as any other part of modern culture the veneer of elitism starts to vanish.  One doesn’t need any special training or knowledge about artists or movements.  There are good artists, there are bad artists, and it takes patience on the part of the viewer to start to see through all the screaming and discover what they really enjoy.

Lacking the passage of time and the ability to say which works were truly revolutionary and had an influence on the development of art, contemporary art is really just a matter of taste.  Like all subjective areas there are those who are considered the taste makers, those who follow the taste makers, and those who don’t have any idea what all the fuss is about.

Despite all this, however, art remains a vital part of the human experience.  There are those out there who are creating new and fascinating works that reflect our society and do so in a way that is interesting to the average viewer.  Art still belongs to the world, we just have to make an effort.  Going to a modern art museum might not be your idea of a thrilling Saturday afternoon, but doing to can be hugely rewarding.  If you stop making direct comparisons to the Old Masters and enjoy modern art for what it is, bear in mind the world in which it was created, and start to put stock in what you really think about each piece, it can become an incredibly interesting experience.  Just go see it.  Give it a chance.



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.

What is up with modern art?

29 Mar

Part 1 – Historical Background

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this question or variations thereof.  It’s even become a joke, modern art being something that only beret-wearing snobs can understand while the rest of us stand there confused at what look like scribbles.  From the moment I said I wanted to start blogging about art it was what people wanted to know the most – how does one make sense of modern art?

I’ll let you in on a secret.  You can’t.  Even most art historians have works they love and works they hate, and what one person thinks is a masterpiece another thinks is trash.  It’s a very subjective area, but I’ll try to shed a little light on it.  What started out as one post is now three, however, because it’s a rather difficult subject to tackle.

The thing you have to remember about art is that it had a completely different purpose from about 1850 onward.  The invention of photography had major impacts in all manner of fields, but the vogue for photography meant that many events and people who had traditionally been chronicled by painters were now drawn to the photographer’s studio.  Where previously an artist still had to be able to do a decent portrait or altarpiece to survive, photography set them free to experiment with more radical ways of painting.

I’m not suggesting that there was an exact correlation between the invention of photography and the movement in art away from realism, but it’s a convenient way to look at it.  For some time artists had been rebelling against industrialization and developed a more natural, if somewhat abstract, way of painting.  This was a time of “-isms” and the goal was no longer to express the strict artistic conventions popularized by the Academies in centuries past but to embrace emotion, human expression, and the scores of new philosophies that were appearing.  If the Renaissance had first elevated artists above common craftsmen, the nineteenth century fully created the modern idea of the artist, and they have been struggling to “express themselves” ever since.

Fast forward a bit to 1914.  It was at that point that World War I broke out and Europeans started to doubt just about everything they knew about their world, and art was certainly part of that.  I’ve already mentioned how the Dada movement expressed their feelings (Sharing an Idea), but it was by no means limited to one movement.  Looking at art from the time of World War I and immediately following can be a difficult experience given the amount of pessimism everyone was feeling at the time and how clearly that emotion is expressed in their artworks.

I’ll spare you a full history lesson, but suffice it to say the visual arts are just one area where thinkers tried to cope with the twentieth century.  With two world wars, economic depression, the threat of nuclear war, and an end to Imperialism and the dominance of European culture, everyone was struggling to adapt.  Traditions didn’t mean anything anymore, and anything that was considered old-fashioned was immediately looked down upon, especially in art.

The past 200 years of human history have been filled with unbelievable accomplishments and unthinkable tragedies, and our art has adapted to depict just that, striving to be as beautiful or as ugly as what we humans do every day.  Very little about our world views and daily lives resembles what it would have been like two centuries ago, and that includes our art.  And it’s still changing.  For example, in response to globalization one major trend in art today is an increased interest in works that combine Western ideas about contemporary art with local artistic traditions.

It’s not that putting modern art in its historical context will make it seem any less insane.  Unfortunately there’s no magic trick to do that, but you can start to understand that there’s reason for some of these truly bizarre images you see in front of you.  Artists are simply trying to express what they see in the world around them, and it’s up to us to try to figure out what exactly that is.  There’s hope, though.  Part 2 of this little series will cover some tricks and tips to help you enjoy contemporary art a bit more.