Modern art: graffitti on wall "everything has beauty, bit everyone can see it"

Why modern art is rubbish

It’s not meme, it’s you.

All it takes is for your average newspaper to review a bit of modern art, and below the line everyone’s quoting Bowie1: “Oh God, I could do better than that!”. And yet, they don’t / haven’t / will never, because if producing even crap art was so easy2, we’d all be rolling in cash like it was Emin’s unmade bed.

Not an artist but hate modern art? Here’s what ails you – come join me in the preachy corner.

1. So much feelings

Dog wearing comedy glasses

I’m fairly confident I could announce I feel sad / elated / ravenous / itchy and I’d get some interest from passers-by; if nothing else, folk can be nosy, no? On the other hand, for men to show any kind of emotion other than for sport or sex ties consumerist society in all kinds of knots.

Most of us are allotted a narrow range of feelings, and an even thinner spectrum of conveying those feelings – and then there’s art, in which everything stands on its head. At one end you have Turner, say, who channelled his emotional response into stormy seas and blurry but recognisable vistas; on the other you have the modern artist’s world of the angry, brush-wielding toddler – and then the debate inevitably turns to talent vs hype, or good vs bad; as if those labels are capable of nuanced discussion.

When faced with art that just looks … well, awful, perhaps it’s that you don’t recognise the feeling or impetus for making art, and have little awareness of how society awards (or denies) the tools we use to make art – or maybe you’re stymied by your own limited range of responses. The sum of that ignorance frightens you, because it makes no sense to the rules by which your world is ordered. Or, perhaps it’s just rubbish art – but we’ll get to that.

2. The secret conversation

Two women whispering

There’s a Seinfeld episode3 in which Jerry has a guy come round to fix his fridge, and the guy can’t shut up about the wonders of appliance mechanics: “The gaskets that you have here are asymmetrical!”. This makes no sense to Seinfeld – and why should it? Fridge repair is a specialised field, as much as we like to think of labour as unskilled and untalented. This, in case you’ve been wondering, is why art is like a fridge. Anyone can use a fridge … heck, I could probably build one if I had the inclination …

There’s a lot to art that most of us are never taught. Maybe at best we hear about the artist’s sexual misdemeanours and a bit of drug abuse, or some other scandal on which to hang public interest, but on history, technique, symbolism, social pressures, norms and the artists’ politics, we remain ignorant. Something happens in art – a secret conversation – that we can’t always hear. What if Basquiat, with his seemingly basic gouging was responding to Turner, or even Caravaggio? I’m not saying he was, mind – but how would we know? We think looking is enough. Sometimes, it isn’t.

3. the first rule of modern art is …

Broken down rural cabin

At other times, reading a piece of art is like reading a story and, when the story makes no sense, it can be annoying – though we tend to use the word ‘pretentious’.

We like our entertainment to be understandable and, sometimes, mindless. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, but there’s no law that says everyone has to play by the rules. Modernist fiction (Forster, Woolf, Joyce and the rest) crossed this same boundary when it discarded the rules of story telling and waded thigh-deep into stream of consciousness and displaced narratives. The other side of this coin, of course, is that some people do get the story, in the same way that some folk always get the joke, and then we call ‘em mean words … in our heads.

Incidentally, if you want to see art that’s inclusive in its story telling, go catch Cathedral of the Pines (Gregory Crewdson at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 8/8/17). Crewdson works in epic narratives, but the story you read is of your own telling. Either way, it’s impressive and clever and visually familiar – and that makes it a fine starting point.

Anyway. Should modern art be consumable – like greeting cards are consumable, say? Greeting cards have easy mottos; we know what they’re about, and we can often find the one we need that says the thing we can’t say as well, so we buy ‘em and send them to loved ones. Modern art doesn’t have to do that; in fact, no art has to do that. And that just seems … arrogant, right?

4. Terms of endearment

Book page folded to look like a heart

Art is everywhere and we all talk about it (and Amen to both of those), but we take it for granted and reckon we could do better ourselves or – worse – would be better off without some of it. But, really, there’s a mystery to art: you just have to read the grace notes (“acrylic on board”) and then look at Ehretsmann’s Double Portrait to know it’s far more than throwing paint at a canvas.

Most of us have a limited range of vocabulary (and feelings) with which to engage with art – which is why art appreciation often descends to talk of whether something is good or not. And in that – the arena of value judgements – we’ve all had far more schooling. We know instinctively, or think we do, that Shakespeare is good literature, but this has as much to do with how criticism and curricula forged British national identity in the 30s than inherent knowledge. Is the Mona Lisa a work of indisputable beauty because we know it to be true, or because we’ve been told it is – and because looking at it takes little effort?

The everyday visual, in Instagram and memes and adverts and the weight of looking, constantly reinforces this narrow range of being and thinking and feeling and doing, and it’s always about a kind of familiarity or mythical perfectionism (or airbrushing). How equipped, really, can you be to face a world on canvas, board or sculpture, which is none of those things?

5. Everyone’s a critic

Burning book

I have a theory that it’s art if it’s created with intent and invokes a response. And that’s all art is: good or bad is a different matter entirely and, one which few people can actually call. I think this must be quite galling to those faced with supposedly bad art: that by feeling inherently aggravated by the insult of paint on canvas when even your kid could do better, well, that’s the artistic conversation. You’ve engaged, and that’s partly what makes it art.

I can look at traditional art, even the kind that we’re told is good, and I feel nothing for it; and that’s my response – but it doesn’t make the art bad because I’m not that powerful. Or not yet, at least. Sometimes I feel a terrible jealousy, too, that someone has made something that can touch the world and the people who live in it … and I suspect jealousy and wondering about the lives we never lived has some part in our responses to ‘bad’ art.

We’re schooled to have easily definable judgements (like picking and choosing responses from a catalogue) because it can be unnerving to be faced with opinions and feelings that are not like our own, or are harder to articulate – and that can be quite isolating. So talk eventually comes down to whether something is good but, I say, it’s more fruitful to be honest about whether you feel included (or feel anything) about an artist’s particular work. If you’re so inclined, educate yourself about history and technique and symbolism: none of those things can evoke feelings, of course, but who knows, you may find something else worthy of inspection along the way.

6. It’s not about the money

Man standing in front of sign reading "Oh stop it"

I can’t tell you if you’ve paid too much for your Banksy in the same way I can’t play the stock market, but I expect the sums exchanged for [some] modern art are part of the game. But, to think that money has anything to do with value is a misdirection, because whether its gold bullion or oil barrels, collection and wealth accumulation is another specialised field.

We spend a lot of time debating the money and hype, and far less time talking about what the money means: class and access to art, for instance; why some types of artists are exhibited when others don’t; how museums acquire their pieces, and who pays for or sponsors it; what happens to the art that belongs to the nation when it’s not on show.

Modern art works, because it raises many questions – even among those who deplore it. The troubling thing is that, often, the questions we ask are as scripted as all our other responses. Maybe bad art – the art we find it hard to face – is the question we need, not the question we want. Why, how very Zen.

Art is for everyone

Art is for everyone, or can be, or should be. There are gradations to this, of course; it’s easy to think art is a first-world problem, but even grub-eating cave dwellers made art (along with monkeys and gorillas and elephants, oh my!), so I like to think it’s something intrinsic to being alive – but that’s just me.

I’m not saying that you have to know about art to be touched by (or even reject) art – although I’m being honest when I say that value judgements can be short sighted when they come from a place of ignorance; but hey, that’s life. Meantime: go, find, look; make up your own mind.


Words: my own. All rights reserved: no copying, pasting or re-using without permission.

Graffitti photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Dog in glasses: Braydon Anderson on Unsplash

Whispering: Ben White on Unsplash

House: Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Book heart: Michał Grosicki on Unsplash

Burning book: Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

Oh stop it: Brock DuPont on Unsplash

1. David Bowie, Queen Bitch

2. The myth of easy money aside, I’m of the opinion that we should all make art, even the rubbish kind – but that’s an argument for another day.

3. Seinfeld, The Tape, Season 3, ep 8

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