I Can’t Stand Modern “Art”

This is a bit of a rant I had recently, and one I’ve had over the years in various capacities… It’s probably the single issue I’m most close-minded about. I hate that I’m so close-minded about anything, but if there’s something to be close-minded about, I guess this is decently innocuous.

It starts with a rant about poetry. I cannot stand e. e. cummings. His total disregard for the standards of the English language itself denigrate the communicative purposes of the written word. But he isn’t even close to the worst offender in poetry, not in my mind.

Back when I was a freshman in college, I took a class called “Arts in Tuscaloosa.” It was an honors class that was supposed to cover my fine arts credit. We met twice a week, once in small groups of 10 or so, and once with the entire class of 50 to 100 kids. My roommate was in the large class with me. That class was very fond of modern art. We had to, as assignments, go and experience art, food, culture in different ways and turn in responses. Those responses could be written, but they had some really ridiculous requirement banning the use of adjectives, I believe, in those responses. They could also be creative. I went for creative and sketched. I’m not the best sketch artist, but I tried. I put effort into it, was clearly creative… still couldn’t get above a B- for my work. Meanwhile, my roommate decided to see how little effort he could put into a response. We saw a dance show together, “Dance! Alabama” in fall of 2006. He went to PowerPoint and created a slide with a light to dark blue gradient, the words “Dance! Alabama 2006” aligned right at the top, and three crappy ClipArt dancers at the bottom. He got an A+, and I refused to return to the class ever again.

Not so great for my grades, perhaps, but whatever. That class annoyed the crap out of me.

As you might guess, they were quite fond of modern art and modern poetry in there. In our large class lectures, we would listen to a guest speaker each week. The only one I remember was Hank Lazer. I remember because I hated his poetry. He told us in the class that, basically, poetry could be just random words you find on the street amalgamated together. As an example, he had a “poem” that had a random paragraph from the Alabama Code of Law every other stanza.

I hated that poetry and I hated the assertion that random words thrown haphazardly onto paper, words not even necessarily your own, could create poetry. That’s not poetry, that’s a word collage, and not even a well done one, not with his descriptions. He didn’t talk about why you used the random words, he talked like you just throw your hand into the hat and pull out something random.

Beyond poetry, modern art annoys me further still. Look at this thing about a piece called “Three Blank Canvases.” Just three canvases, painted white. Or three canvases with what looks like sections of a science textbook printed on them. If these things are defined as art, how does art have meaning and worth? Is this blog I’m writing art? Is a photograph I take of my cluttered work desk art? And what about performance art? If someone burns all their possessions on a street corner, is that art or someone that needs new stuff/therapy? Is it only art if we just call it art? Where’s the line drawn? If a guy rapes a woman in public, but calls it performance art, is it? What if it’s consensual sex, is it art then? Is self-immolation art if that’s what someone calls it?

Part of the problem is that art loses the artist’s meaning in the eyes of the viewer. The audience determines something’s artistic value and meaning. So, some people can find things beautiful and perhaps even “artistic” where I might rant and rail against it. But I think there needs to be a line, parameters drawn. You can find it beautiful or thought-provoking, but that doesn’t mean it’s art. Sitting at the piano doing nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds isn’t music, John Cage, it’s just silence and laziness. I swear, if anyone “performs” that piece near me, I’m jumping on stage to do my own song and dance, and they can’t stop me because I’m part of the “ambient noise” then.

It’s frustrating to me to think of the great artists like Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt… I think of writers like William Shakespeare and Robert Browning and Edgar Allen Poe and Sylvia Plath and William Wordsworth… Musicians like Beethoven and Mozart and Bach… Many of these people, these artists, had struggles. Van Gogh suffered from depression that led to his suicide. Plath had the same problem. Michelangelo nearly went blind painting the Sistine Chapel. Mozart had various problems, some of which likely stemmed from his being bandied about at such a young age. Beethoven was deaf.

I’m not saying personal struggle is necessary for artists, but these artists struggled in their own lives and in their works. It took effort, caused pain, took time. Their art had purpose and true devotion poured in, whether you enjoy the final product or not. And that’s something I just don’t see too often with modern art. I know I’m a bit of a heretic among my artistic and culture-loving friends for saying this, but there is so much in modern art that just doesn’t seem like art to me. Maybe Plato was right and there is an objective form for beauty or art. Or maybe I’m just narrow-minded. After all, many of the artists I named were branded heretical for pushing the bounds in their days, going largely unnoticed or deemed unworthy to be considered artists.

But that’s my thoughts.

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5 thoughts on “I Can’t Stand Modern “Art”

  1. List of X says:

    My main cut-off line between art and garbage labeled as “art” is whether a random person would be able to create the same work of art. If yes, it’s not art. If no, it’s still not necessarily art, and the criteria then become more vague and subjective, but much modern art (and many examples you are railing against) don’t even make past the first threshold.

  2. sylvanfox says:

    There are a few modern art pieces I sort of like, but only a very few. For the most part, that crap seems like somebody just wanted to throw a lot of junk together and challenge the audience to make it into something in their own minds. Fans of modern art are generally looking for the meaning in it or whatever they call it, and so of course they see it. I prefer art where I can get some idea of the artist’s message, or some kind of real passion(s) or thought(s) is discernible without me having to completely make up my explanation of it. Modern art fans tell me “You just don’t understand art,” or “You’re just close-minded” and maybe I am, but it also seems close-minded to me to think that anybody who doesn’t like the “art” you happen to like is uncultured or “just doesn’t understand”.

    I definitely agree with you that there should be some kind of rules about art, something to stop people from passing off laziness as good art.

  3. mharper says:

    I highly recommend the book _Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees_ by Lawrence Weschler, a book about the artist/sculptor Robert Irwin. Irwin talks at great length about his evolution as an artist; first, he was mostly working with paint, and painting what might be called more realistic scenes. As he continued his career, he realized that his work was, in his opinion, haphazard–he didn’t really know what he was doing, or why. So, he started over from scratch, asking himself questions about the most basic aspects of art: line, space, light/shadow, etc….and his work reflects that. Some of his installations are ridiculously simple to encounter–one is a sheet of scrim hung in the middle of a white room with windows that throws different shadows on the wall as the day progresses. It’s not like a painting that you look at for a minute or two and move on–it’s a piece that rewards those who sit and contemplate it with slowly changing shadows (perhaps the way that those who sit and watch sunsets are rewarded with changing colors). Is it art? Well, if we define art as something that makes us more thoughtful and able to see differently (figuratively speaking) then, yes.

    This is not to say that there aren’t bullshitters out there, and people who eat up said bullshit (again figuratively speaking). In defense of Mr. Lazer (and I speak as a teacher of creative writing here), trying to tailor a discussion about art or poetry to an audience means you’ll probably simplify things, and do so badly. Consider this from his perspective: he’s trying to talk about poetry to a group of freshmen who probably haven’t read a lot of poetry, and probably don’t write a great deal–and he’s got what? 50 minutes? an hour and a quarter to talk? He may or may not have had an idea of what the class had been discussing throughout the semester; he’s probably coming in cold. He may or may not be a particularly good or experienced teacher. Does he risk going over everyone’s head if he talks about the “why’ of his poems? Possibly. Is it safer to talk about the creation of these found poems, and offer some encouraging words in hopes that some students will be interested in reading and writing more poetry? Probably (the assumption being that people will respond to something that doesn’t seem out of their reach or capability–do you make your process sound so esoteric that no one cares? It’s a terrible calculus, and you can’t win.).

  4. mharper says:

    And another thing: on the heels of your post a couple months ago about federal funding for the arts, what do you think of this funding going to contemporary artists who make lazy art (as you put it)? Should the federal gov’t (or any gov’t, state or local) determine what artists are legitimate? How do you feel about tax dollars being spent on art that you deem worthless? (I think this is a legitimate question you should answer for yourself.)

  5. Milo says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I leaf through interior design magazines constantly to get me some ideas for my own home decor. But I can’t help to frown upon today’s trend in the art world. Luckily apparently I’m not alone with this.

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