This is a discussion about art from someone who is completely unqualified to lead one. Consider yourself warned.
It’s a classic story. Someone walks into a modern art museum. They laugh and point at the white canvas on the wall or the copper-colored cube on the floor in front of them.
“How is this art?” they ask. “This can’t have meaning, and it doesn’t elicit any sort of emotion from me.”
To them, I say “you’re right.” But you’re thinking about it the wrong way.
I think the distaste for Modern Art most Americans hold comes from the false impression that a piece needs to have a hidden meaning or deeper purpose to be considered art.
Minimalism, the art movement under which most of what we consider Modern Art falls, rejects this idea. (Before you ask, no; I’m not going talk about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Wrong kind of Minimalism.)
Minimalist art encourages viewers to separate the art from the artist. It contains no symbolism, metaphors or allusions, and it cannot be better understood by learning about when and where it was made.
I find this incredibly freeing. For once, art is simply art: a concept that makes Minimalist art uniquely egalitarian. I don’t need to be an Art History major to understand that black and white lines on a canvas are just black and white lines on a canvas, and that they look nice.
Most Minimalist artist is characterized by clean shapes, a small range of often neutral colors and simple designs. The Minimalist movement emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a protest against the then-popular Abstract Expressionist movement.
Perhaps the most famous Abstract Expressionist is Jackson Pollock, who created large webs of colored squiggles by laying his canvas on the floor and dripping paint on it from above.
Through seemingly random, Pollock’s drips were very much intentional, even if they weren’t strictly calculated. Pollock claimed to be painting directly from his subconscious, surpassing any sort of thought or reason, and that anything he produced was a unique insight into his mind.
Sound pretentious? Sorry, Pollock, but I think so.
Minimalism rebelled against everything Abstract Expressionism stood for: most importantly, the idea that art was intimately reflective of the artist, and that it was chaotic and objectively messy.
If you don’t appreciate the aesthetic of Modern Art, that’s fine; I’m not here to try to change your tastes. However, I think many of us can at least acknowledge the beauty in the simplicity that is Modern Art. It’s the same reason we look through home decor catalogs and stop at the spreads that depict beautifully open floor plans and a contemporary, sparsely decorated kitchen.
I find it strange that some people can enjoy modern architecture or modern interior design but not Modern Art. These spheres all use similar aesthetic tools. However, Modern Art goes as far as to say that elements we enjoy but also consider utilitarian in modern architecture and interior design are still art when considered alone.
If there is one thing I do know about art it’s that it is what you make of it. If you hate looking at Modern Art because it bores you out of your mind or you prefer your art as complex as possible, that’s fine. But please, don’t tell me you don’t like Modern Art because it’s pointless or because you don’t get it.
If you feel the slightest bit more calm when you walk into a Modern Art gallery, or you think that huge blue octagon on the wall is actually kind of cool, then you get it. You’ve appreciated Modern Art for what it is, and the fact that it isn’t anything more than it claims to be.
Finally, don’t tell me anyone can make Modern Art. If you think that’s true, consider this a dare; make a piece of Modern Art, and sell it to any established museum. Only then will I’ll reconsider your claim.
Photo by Mireille Leone