I’ll never understand modern art.

I like to think I’m a fairly sophisticated fellow, but there are certain topics that make me feel like a Neanderthal. Fashion is one of those topics and the other is modern art. Take, for example, the following picture of an art “installation” that is up for the 2008 Turner Prize:

Click to embiggen!

Cathy Wilkes, 42, is a Glaswegian who gathered together a television, a sink with a single human hair and a pram and titled it She’s Pregnant Again when she represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

This time, she has placed a mannequin on a lavatory next to two supermarket check-out counters. Four horse-shoes and bits of discarded wood dangle from wires attached to the mannequin’s head. They appear to bear no relevance to the check-out counters on which the artist has arranged bowls and spoons, as well as empty jars with the remnants of food. Scattered across the floor are piles of tiles and broken pottery in a plastic bag.

I can appreciate the nude mannequins, but I have no clue what the artist is trying to say with that piece other than perhaps “look at what I can get away with calling art!” It’s interesting in a “uh… OK” sort of way to me, but I see no deeper meaning in it. Which probably explains why I’m not an art curator:

Sophie O’Brien, one of three Turner Prize curators, saw deep meaning in the installation, explaining that the artist was “searching out the language of objects – things we overlook in our daily life” – and making us look at them with “fresh eyes”. She claimed that the artist had placed each found object with extreme precision.

*Squinting at picture closely* Really? OK, if you say so.

When she says the artist placed each object with “extreme precision” I get this mental image of her standing there with a slide ruler, a protractor, and lots of string measuring out precisely where each object should go based on some obscure algorithm she pulled out of her ass. I can’t help but wonder if such levels of precision are really necessary for such an installation. It was all for naught in my case, though, as I’m not seeing anything new about the objects in question.

Her colleague, Judith Nesbitt, the Tate’s chief curator, added: “It’s as if the narrative has been stripped away. You’re left trying to make sense of the objects to each other and to ourselves.”

OK, I’ll agree with that much. I am left trying to make sense of the objects in relation to each other. I still don’t get it.

I mean I can see where a certain amount of skill is involved in something like this. It’s just that the skill in question has less to do with the art itself and more to do with her ability to smooth talk people into thinking it’s art. I can admire that skill, but I’m not convinced it’s art as a result. Perhaps that’s a side effect of my natural cynicism about people and the bullshit they tend to spread. On some level I’m envious because it seems like a good way to earn a living if you can pull it off.

The one part of the exhibit I think is neat is the nude mannequin sitting on the toilet. It’s just weird enough to appeal to me, though it would be better if it didn’t have the random bits and bobs dangling off its head. Just a nude mannequin, posed in the casual way that it is in the picture, with perhaps the nurse’s hat, sitting on a toilet, would be something I could appreciate a great deal. Not because it’s art, but because it’s funky and makes people wonder what kind of drugs you’ve been indulging in.

I actually own a male mannequin head and torso myself. I picked it up back in my early twenties the first time I worked for a Meijers store in Waterford Michigan. They were throwing it out as the trend at the time was away from semi-realistic mannequins to the trendy partial mannequins minus arms, legs, heads, etc. that are used in most stores today. It wears one of the last of the Les’s Place t-shirts I had made up in the mid-80’s in honor of the BBS system I used to run. It doesn’t have any arms or lower half of its body and no hair. I call him Ralph and he usually wears one of my hats when I’m not wearing it.

He’s currently sitting on the floor of the living room in front of the sliding glass door because I’ve not figured out where I want to put him yet, but I’m leaning towards having him stare up out of the basement window once we get a storage rack in place down there for him to sit on and to hold all my spare computer parts. He’d almost never be seen except for the occasional nosy person who happens to spot something odd in the basement window. When we lived in the apartment in Canton he sat on the half-wall that divided the stairway from the living room staring down at anyone who came in the apartment. The first few times you’d come in he’d scare the shit out of you, but after awhile you’d forget he was even there. I could always tell when the maintenance people were coming in because he always startled them.

I loved that. But that’s not art. That’s me just being funky. I can appreciate funky.

27 thoughts on “I’ll never understand modern art.

  1. The only thing that seemed to have any meaning to me was the comparison of pregnancy and a checkout; like the whole damn process has been framed well in advance, and has been deprived of meaning.

    *shrug* Art is about making random stuff that allows viewers to more easily find meanings in it. Good art, hopefully, has lots of real pieces of the artist in it that you can tangibly relate to.

    That’s null and void for the huge amount of – well, everything – that I just don’t get. Count this piece in.

  2. You are not alone. I never understood modern art and it seems to me that people put things together and call it art. Most of these are not aesthetically pleasing and most have such convoluted messages that the message portrays it as, “Look what I can get money for.” I think modern art is just a terrible inside joke.

  3. Yep.  A lot of modern art is just garbage.  Some friends of mine and I vandalized an installation once in Berkeley.  It consisted of sixteen identical steel squares arranged in a four by four square, with space in between, and we exchanged two of the plates, totally changing the meaning.  But no one got it.

  4. When she says the artist placed each object with “extreme precision” I get this mental image of her standing there with a slide ruler, a protractor, and lots of string measuring out precisely where each object should go based on some obscure algorithm she pulled out of her ass.

    I don’t think “placing objects precisely” in this context relates to their geometric coordinates, as much as what each object means in relation to the others and the greater context.

  5. …But don’t worry, that still leaves you free to believe she pulled that positioning out of her ass raspberry

  6. Ernst, I’m sure it’s as you suggest, but that doesn’t stop me from getting that mental image just the same.

    If someone asked me to “arrange objects in relation to the others and the greater context” I’d be at a total loss as to how the fuck to do that. But then I’m not an artist so I suppose that’s only to be expected. wink

  7. Placing objects “precisely” means nothing more than they’re exactly where she wanted them.  I do that when I get up from a table at a restaurant; I put the salt and pepper shakers, and the little box with sugar packets and so forth, in a “precisely” pleasing asymmetrical alignment.  Just a little compulsive, I guess.  But does it have any meaning beyond that?  Nyet!

  8. All you have to do is look at what art survives longer than a month or two, that people still go look at or talk about, to know that modern art is largely garbage.

    Modern art is there for the “What the hell??” factor and little else.  It makes people go “Wow!” either because they are convinced the artist is doing something original or because they don’t understand why anyone would associate a naked woman on a toilet with supermarket check-out isles.  Then it’s gone, and another piece of modern art comes by and replaces it.

    It’s like fashion shows.  Do you ever see people (even people with more money than sense) actually wearing that crap?  It takes more actual skill to wear it and still walk straight than it does to come up with it.  It’s done for the people inside the industry to say “Hey, that’s interesting.” and then they go buy other stuff that they can actually put in stores.

  9. I admit I’ve written a bunch of posts trashing modern art.  (/blogwhoring) But maybe someday understanding will suddenly hit me, and I will feel very silly for not “getting it” over the years.

    And then they’ll load my ass into an ambulance, and put an oxygen mask over my face, and someone will say; “Mr. Wiman, just hold on a bit.  You’ve had a stroke but we’re going to get you all better” and I’ll say; “But I just figured out modern art!”

  10. Modern art?

    I don’t think it can be called art if no one outside the art world ‘gets’ it.  Art survives because regular people think it is cool/pleasant/understandable or that it makes a moral/ethical/political statement.  Modern art does nothing even close.  People find it weird, or obscene, and very little else.  I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist, but I certainly won’t respect it.

  11. I have no problem calling it ‘art’ even if I don’t get it.  Opera is clearly music and I don’t get opera, either.  And yet, on an odd day, in a certain frame of mind, I might.

    “Art that I don’t like” – is an inarguable label, however.

  12. Why do you assume that there must always be some deep message or meaning there in modern art to “get”? Some modern art is better than others… and sure… some of it might just be pretentious tripe.

    However, I should say that I’ve found lots of modern art enjoyable due to the effect of there being “things to see” and “stuff to experience”. I don’t need to process it into any kind of ultimate “message” or “meaning” but rather just sorta’ feel the sensations that the juxtaposed elements bring to me (free from any definite end or purpose).

    Often it seems that in art it’s better to stay away from meaning. Sure some artists themselves might interject some meaning into their piece via a statement or whatever… but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way one can experience the work.

    For example… If one were to appreciate a roughly worn cliff at an oceanside… it might help for one to know the “meaning” of it’s form or rather the “process” by which it was formed… but do you need to know all that to appreciate the texture and appearance of the cliff? Does the emotion or thoughts it brings always have to be “water and wind eroding rock” and nothing else?

  13. To find a deep message is one way to ‘get’ something.  Another is just to resonate with it on some level.  As far as I know Christo doesn’t have a deep hidden message in his displays of flags or banners; it’s just kind of cool and fun, as you suggested. 

    Some art just doesn’t reach me on any level but my perception isn’t the story.  Scott McCloud defines art as ‘any human activity that doesn’t grow out of fulfilling the need for survival or reproduction’.  Thumbing your nose at the teacher, then, is ‘art’.  A work which was cynically assembled in full knowledge that pretentious snobs will pay big money for it, without any personal satisfaction of expression, less so.  Since the artist’s intentions are unknowable, we can only guess.  Sometimes, an educated guess though.

  14. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Maplethorpe made some pretty bold statements with his “art” and I look on Les as the Maplethorpe of Mary Images. Like DOF said,

    Scott McCloud defines art as ‘any human activity that doesn’t grow out of fulfilling the need for survival or reproduction’.

    That makes Les an artist, for sure.  tongue wink

  15. I actually quite like modern art pictures,photos and sculptures but these collections of stuff dont count in my opinion
    Anyone can do it! – I mean,given half a day,a hundred bucks and a truck and I reckon anyone can pull this off.Theres no bloody skill here what-so-ever.
    Its probably the bare minimum she has to produce to get her yearly grant.

  16. Its probably the bare minimum she has to produce to get her yearly grant.

    Absolutely.  We know a local artist who was commissioned by the county arts whatsis to do a series of paintings.  The commission was four grand or something like that.  Which became a giant bag of weed, shared by him and his roommate, paintings done at the last minute before the contracted term.

    Another local artist was commissioned by the university to design and build a commons area between two buildings – a big project.  Hideous, and the university had to bring in contractors to finish the job from his ‘designs’ over his protests and a flurry of finger-pointing.  He got to keep the grant money though for some reason. 

    And I work in a beautiful building marred by ‘public art’ – yeesh.  The artist got all bent out of shape when his sculptures were scooted around for window cleaning.  Our dean told him to bugger off, for which I am grateful.

  17. DOF, it could be worse. There was a time when electronic circuits sculpted into some shape or other were in fashion. I distinctly remember one of these which coupled a photo-sensitive cell with a speaker.

    What I’ll never forget, though, is the painter who worked on a Saturday in plain view of the monstrosity. The brush went up—plingplingdoink, brush down—wangplingsproink. When I passed by, I wasn’t sure if the poor guy would smash the sculpture or keel over with a coronary first.

  18. You know, I am an artist, in a variety of fields and media…and I consider stuff like this to be total crap.

    The problem is, it’s not “modern art,” per se, that is a load of pretentious tripe. It’s “modern art appreciation” that is a tremendous load of pretentious tripe. Wilkes put together some form of creation that hasn’t been seen before. Get into it, don’t get into it, get into certain elements but not others…whatever floats your boat. I’m in the same boat as Les, actually: I like some bits of this concept, and just roll my eyes at some other bits.

    But it’s not Wilkes (and other “modern artists” – a pretty silly label, really, since any art created now should, presumably, be modern) who I blame for all the silliness and pap. For that, I point a finger right at people like Sophie O’Brien and Judith Nesbitt. Wilkes is just taking advantage of a gullible paradigm that the art “experts” have invented in order to give themselves something to do.

    Art critics and such (and curators, if they take it upon themselves to fill that role) personify the most pointless and ludicrous thing someone can be in the arts. Art is about how it affects the audience. The audience being told how it should affect the audience defeats the purpose.

    When I talk about that effect, I’m not saying you have to get choked up, or remember your dead puppy, or find ecstatic joy, or whatever. It’s just: what do you think of it, what do you feel about it, what other things does it make you think and feel? The idea that someone like O’Brien has to explain that the artist is “searching out the language of objects” is, frankly, pretty stupid.

    And, no, don’t worry. I’m not bitter and “lashing out” – my art is pretty consistently well-received. I just think that critics, even when they’re praising me, are a superfluous group that could only exist in a society where too many basic niches are already filled. The fact that too many basic needs still aren’t filled throughout much of the world leads me to wonder why these simpering prats are wasting time inventing the language of their profession instead of admitting that it’s an utterly unnecessary profession, and they should go do something productive with their lives.

  19. Wow, that makes a lot of sense to me, geoph. I always get confused when some art critic tells me what I should be experiencing from a piece of art when I’m not experiencing it. I always thought that just meant I was too stupid to see it.

  20. I’ve been reading your site for a long, long time, Les, and (at the risk of seeming like a mindless sycophant) I’ll definitively state that you’re most certainly not stupid.

    I watched the Tom Hanks movie Philadelphia recently, and was astonishingly moved by the scene where Tom Hanks describes a bit of opera to Denzel Washington as it plays on the stereo. (I’m actually not big into opera myself, but that meshes with my point quite nicely.) See, Hanks doesn’t tell Washington what to feel; he tells him what’s going on during the operatic scene, and leaves Washington to listen to the music, understand the story, and observe Hanks’ own visceral response to it.

    Washington’s own response to it, though we aren’t privy to it, is clearly just as emotional and personal to him as Hanks’ is. We don’t need to be “told” how the opera affected him in order to understand that the opera affected him.

    Ignore the art critics, and just like what you like for the reasons you like it. I like Calvin & Hobbes as much as I like Starry Night. I like I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon as much as I like Night on Bald Mountain. And I may be incredibly moved by the wonderful performances and emotional story of Philadelphia, but most nights I’d rather watch a Futurama marathon or one of the first five Marx Brothers movies. I’m just some guy, one of those “human being” things, and I get to decide what each of these things means to me, regardless of what some snob decided they’re “supposed” to mean.

    Critics don’t even rate as high as middlemen like agents and publishers, in my opinion. They’re entirely outside of the stream of creation and appreciation. They may feel differently about the subject, but I’ll continue to happily ignore their opinions on this subject, and any others.

  21. Howdy!  I got directed here from ***Dave’s site, nice post and great discussion!

    Art’s tricky, especially defining what is and is NOT art.  But what IS art.  I prefer to think of it as a human creation intended to both express and evoke response.

    If you look at a person’s work, and it doesn’t evoke a response from you, then for YOU that isn’t art.  For someone else who has an entirely diffferent set of life experiences that same work may be incredibly evocative, and for them it IS art.  The very best art, the art that is appreciated throughout time is that art which evokes a response from almost anyone who views it.  Even a response of revulsion can make it ‘art.’

    There are a few caveats here.  A work can be evocative, and fantastic, but not be art if it’s copying another work.  (Doing an exact copy of the Mona Lisa is very hard nd takes extreme talant, but, in and of itslef, is not art).  Now changing that classic work CAN be art (Mona Lisa in Groucho Glasses, for example).

    Work that is obviously ‘bad,’ as in a beginning student whose technique is lacking may not truly be art.  But even they NIGHT strike gold an engage evocation of emotion.

    The previously mentioned ‘artists’ who rush out a piece of crap to keep a grant aren’t really making art, just like a coworker who rushes out a report to keep their job isn’t really doing their jobs.

    At the end of the day you have to decide what evokes a response for you and decide if thet response is of a sort that will draw you back tothat work.  Art critics are supposed to weed out the fakes and the fakirs, but they lost that function a long timae ago, and now react paracitically with the bad artists.

    While I hestitate to call things out as ‘not art,’ I do think the ‘art community’ is too quick to accept ANYTHING as art and have become far too uncritical of the works presented.

    Keep up the good work, Les!


  22. a human creation intended to both express and evoke response

    Agree with the first part but it is not necessary to give a damn what anyone else thinks.

    Work that is obviously ‘bad,’ as in a beginning student whose technique is lacking may not truly be art.

    No, and there’s a simple test.  When your friend sings out-of-tune, is it music?  (and music fits under the larger category of ‘arts’)

    Once again I think it’s a misunderstanding of ‘art’ to treat the noun as some kind of qualitative judgment. 

    Google the phrase “what is art”, though, and you are off on a lifelong quest.  I think I’ll stick with McCloud’s definition.  He draws comic books, which is one of the few art forms I can lay any claim to understanding.

  23. it’s simple, just Imagine a artist who can’t draw and is to lazy to get a real job-that’s modern artist in a nutshell.

    what I’ll never understand is how did “Art Critics” fall for this scam? 🙄

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