Modern Art and Occam's Razor, by Scott Sumner

September 28, 2017
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Bryan Caplan has a new post, which suggests that modern art is greatly overrated, and perhaps even a big mistake. Before commenting, a few clarifications:

A. I’m not a huge fan of “modern art”, as the 20th century is probably only my 4th favorite century for painting, (after the sublime 17th, the 16th, and the 19th.)

B. It’s not clear what Bryan means by ‘modern art’. When art critics use the term it generally refers to art produced during the first 2/3rds of the 20th century (Matisse, Picasso, Pollack, etc.). When the term is used by non-experts it more often refers to either very recent art (termed ‘contemporary art’ by experts) or abstract art (modern or contemporary.) Because Bryan mentioned that his son didn’t think it was art at all, I’m going to assume he meant abstract art. But my comments would be roughly the same either way.

Bryan constructs a rather complex theory to explain why modern art is somewhat popular, despite not being very good. His theory of why it continues to be popular is based on the prestige imparted by museums, while another theory explains how it first became established. But in the tradition of Occam’s razor, I have a much simpler explanation; tastes differ.

I doubt that Bryan would deny that tastes differ, but for some reason he doesn’t see this as a very good explanation for modern art. Here are some reasons why my theory is more plausible than his:

1. The same thing occurred in earlier centuries. The late work of Turner, as well as Whistler’s nocturnes, were originally viewed as ugly splotches of color, even by experts like Ruskin. I vaguely recall reading that Mozart once explained one of his more difficult works to a friend by suggesting something to the effect that, “this is for future generations”. Of course I could cite many similar examples, such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, etc. If it happened before, why doesn’t Bryan think it will happen again?

(Late Turner)

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At the same time, it’s also true that lots of older art did not stand the test of time. And I have no doubt that lots of 20th century art will be forgotten by the 23rd century.

2. Bryan’s theory that people are sort of fooled into liking art displayed in museums doesn’t explain why lots of people also like modern art appearing in other (less prestigious) venues. Nor does it explain discriminating taste. When I go into an art museum, I like some examples of modern art, but not others. Why? Isn’t it possible that this reflects some enduring quality in the art itself, not just my taste being manipulated by framing techniques?

3. There is some abstract art that I can appreciate today, that would have gone right over my head when I was younger (such as Klee and Kandinsky). But that’s equally true of other art forms, such as film, poetry and music. Yet museums were just as intimidating to me at age 12 as they are today, indeed even more so.

4. There is a tendency for almost all art forms to become more “difficult” over time, as the easier to create expressive possibilities become exhausted. If modern painting is a bit of a scam, then is this also true of “boring art films”? How about difficult modern music? What about poetry that to the average person looks like a random collection of words?

So Bryan faces a dilemma. He needs to add other forms of modern art beyond painting and sculpture to his theory, or else explain why certain trends in one art form (greater abstraction) are occurring for totally different reasons that seemingly similar trends in another.

FWIW, I “get” the visual arts much better than other art forms like music (and poetry). But I don’t assume that the music that goes right over my head is bad, just that I don’t have a good ear for that art form. Isn’t it plausible that some brains are wired to better appreciate the visual arts, while others are wired to better appreciate other types of art?

5. Tyler Cowen likes modern art. Does he seem like the type of person to be swayed by pretensions of art museums? Or does he seem more like a contrarian, who often likes to tout “low brow” pop art like superhero films, and take highly pretentious art down a peg or two?

So I think Bryan is wrong about modern art. But contemporary art? Well, let’s just say that time will tell. 🙂

PS. When I was young I recall grown-ups saying that rock groups like the Beatles were merely producing ugly noise. I disagreed. Now boomers my age tell me that rap music is just ugly noise.

PPS. What made that otherwise law-abiding middle class Tucson couple steal a de Kooning and display it in a remote part of their house for 30 years (where visitors could not see it)? Did they think, “It’s in a museum so it must be good”, or “we passionately love this painting”.

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